Tuesday, October 16, 2007


the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live...
- jack kerouac

what a long, strange trip it's been.
- the grateful dead

Monday, October 15, 2007

what's the 508?

trust me, the furnace creek 508 is a lunatic bicycling adventure, a 508-mile race through the mojave desert and death valley. i can't even do it justice. just check out http://www.the508.com. for sure, we're barking mad doing it as a four-person relay team. i don't even know how to diagnose the ones who ride it solo...

why the capybara?

the 508 doesn't assign numbers to racers. each team is identified by an animal totem. we chose the capybara, the world's largest rodent, the most athletic of the fat-ass water rats, a natural choice to represent a cycling team on a 500-mile race through the desert...

stage one – santa clarita to california city

82.3 miles, 6176' vertical

we watched the solo riders start at 7 am from the comfort of the coffee shop, then began our own final preparations. sunny morning for the 9 am team sendoff, very cool breeze but warm in the sun. mindy shed her jacket for the start, and the rest of us took off for the first support point.

since she doesn't carry any y-chromosome baggage, mindy knows better than to start out hammering at 25 mph like the rest of us goons. (of course, some of those guys took off at 25 mph and didn't look back.) she just warmed up before the long climb up san francisquito canyon, then caught a bunch of the fast starters on the climb, a phenomenon we witnessed often this year. we call it 'being chicked.' mindy's far too nice to rub it in, though. she just spins past at high cadence, smiling, probably even chatting. you can't hate that girl, no matter how many times she beats you to jelly on a climb.

san francisquito canyon is narrow and crowded with bicycles, so support vehicles would absolutely clog it. crew support is not permitted until mile 25, where there's a wide and long shoulder for crews to park and wait. at the single bush taller than twelve inches, fifty guys peeing. on some unspoken signal, it became the women's room. civilized, these 508 crews... we repacked the van and chatted with rocky mountain goat and some other teams – lots of bike talk, stories of past rides, mostly lies, i'm sure – while mindy carried her own tubes and other support gear up the canyon. at the turn, chad practiced the bottle hand-off like we were briefed. it worked – mindy barely had to slow down. we cheered – the rocky mountain goat crew called her by name, so she knows we were talking about her with them – and she was off again.

over the crest of the hill and after a long descent, we started playing leapfrog support, spending most of our time behind our rider. mindy would breeze past, we'd hang in the car for ten or fifteen minutes, then we'd go find her again, see what she needed, 'vitamin I and sunscreen,' and get it ready for the next stop.

the day was almost perfect, clear skies, hot sun but cool air, temps in the 80s – a little warm for cycling, but come on, this is the mojave desert – and a cooling but drying breeze. hydrate. you can see approximately forever in the spare landscape, so the windmills climb (imagine an uphill section of road through an extended windfarm...what else would you call it?) loomed many miles before the grade ramped up. distances deceive: since you can see it, you think it's close. not so... dusty red mountains fading up into grey, brush cover near the top at elevations high enough to coax the little water out of the wind...

chad was quiet in the back of the van, still an hour or so left in mindy's shift. wait for it...

a few more leapfrogs brought us down from the windmills and into time station 1 in california city around 2:30pm. mindy kicked butt.

stage two – california city to trona

70.3 miles, 4212' vertical

chad was off in no time, riding into no-fence land. mindy asked the race officials at the time station about our position in the 4x relay team standings. 'seven minutes behind smoking loons.' accurate as far as it went, but we heard that to mean we were riding in second place. easy to latch onto mistakes you want to believe... we decided not to tell chad right away, we knew he'd ride plenty hard anyway, no sense having him blow a gasket chasing somebody down, him with two little kids and all.

until he began the climb to randsburg at mile 25, there wasn't much place to pass the boy a water bottle. there was plenty of shoulder, but that part of the course is faast. i did manage one high-speed handoff with my best thirty-yard dash, but understand, running is not my gift. better to look for a slightly uphill stretch...

on the climb to johannesburg, chad began catching the solo riders. then we spotted smoking loon just ahead and finally broke our news: that rider was leading. over the next few miles, our boy caught him and opened a time gap before the long descent to the trona turn. at the turn, we fitted his lights at a quick stop and he asked, 'leading what?' we told him what we believed, 'leading the 4x relay teams.' so holy shit, we thought, we're freakin' winning the furnace creek 508. chad echoed our team motto: if ya got it, leave it on the road. don't bring anything back...

by that time, chad was cramping pretty bad, asking us to mix extra electrolytes into his fuel bottles. but now that he 'knew' he was in first place, it was going to take une force majeure to get by him. we pulled into trona about twenty past six, a minute ahead of smoking loons, which put us in the division lead, if only in our own small minds. we didn't bother to look any farther up the standings. we'd never heard of, let alone seen, team sphinx or team prairie falcon, forget the millipedes (right name for a four-tandem team, ya think?). but we also had never considered that we'd do any more than finish, possibly even last. contending was a rush.

stage three – trona to furnace creek

99.2 miles, 7538' vertical

tom was ready to go pretty quick, but we promptly blew our 'lead' when team smoking loon showed their experience with a quick rider change and a crew that was ready to travel. they hit the road as we shuffled bikes on the roof, fueled up the car, bought supplies, and stood in line for the restrooms.

chad tried to recover from his balls-out run to trona, but instead started feeling carsick in the back of the van. we stopped tom on his way up the trona bump to switch drivers. mindy drove as darkness fell, and chad rode shotgun long enough to find his barfaerobic threshold. apologies to basenji, the 2x tandem team keeping their distance behind us... but chad felt a lot better.

after the descent from the trona bump, tom rolled through the panamint valley in the early darkness and set up for the monster climb of the race: 3800' vertical in thirteen miles up townes pass, with grades up to 13% in places. that's a grind, i don't care who you are. i can't even imagine doing it after riding a double century like those solo riders. we are SO not in their league. over the steepest stretch, tom spent, in his words, two hours doing three to five miles per hour... he just kept it turning strong. amazing to watch from the van. mindy complained that she couldn't sleep with the two of us up front muttering, 'wow, look at him go' every now and then. a race is exciting, even in slow motion.

as tom climbed, we caught glimpses of the long line of blinking lights behind and below us. a long, long guardrail bending left suggested a huge panorama, but not for us. riding at night, tom said it's all about the blinking lights. just find the next set in front of you and catch them if you can...

the grade moderates near the top, but there's still a substantial climb ahead. finally, finally, we reached the summit sign and pulled off on the left side to get tom some more layers for the descent. i stepped outside the car into the wind and immediately flirted with hypothermia. it gets damn cold at altitude in the desert. gave tom all his clothes, and he put them all on...

the 17-mile descent from townes pass is an exercise in trust. chad tried to keep the car close enough to illuminate the road in front of tom while preserving an error margin. tough balancing act at 40 mph. and the road didn't help. it dips often, so that as tom reached the edge of a dip, the car behind wouldn't be pointed down enough to light the road, so tom had to drop into the blackness for a second. after a few times, you get used to it, rationalizing that we're not the first bicycle down this road this evening, it must be clear, right?

from the bottom of townes pass, tom still had a 25-mile pull to furnace creek, now into a huge headwind. good thing we had our most experienced double-century rider out there. he pounded it out at high cadence, clawing through stovepipe wells and on around to furnace creek just before 2 am. check the standings: 53 minutes behind smoking loons. even with our long rest stop at trona, they must have put a monster on the road for stage three. tom told me, 'you may feel some wind...' he got that right.

stage four – furnace creek to shoshone

73.6 miles, 6744' vertical

my turn. got on the bike just after 2 am in furnace creek, finally getting to stretch it out after seventeen hours in the car supporting the other riders. sleep? fugeddaboudit. relied on my alert crew to help me find the right turn out of furnace creek to head south toward badwater, warmed up a bit, then put up the spinnaker, baby, we're sailin'! rode the tailwind tom earned for us with his upwind run through stovepipe wells. then like tom said, 'it's all about the blinking lights.' i could see from a few to several sets of blinking lights ahead (some miles ahead) in the darkness.

i want to go back to death valley in the daylight. all we could see were stars (and stars and stars!) and mountain profiles (absence of stars). and of course a small bit of road. often in the turns, the headlights would pick out whiteness (alkali flats?) off the road, a spooky effect, especially when a pair of green eyes flashed me and a dim canine form instantly disappeared. coyote. we're not the only high-level predators out here...

but i mostly had my mind on the blinking lights, chasing them down one after another, passing with some speed differentials i've never experienced. i really can't take too much credit for it, i mean, my legs were fresh, and those solo riders had 253 miles in theirs. no way i could do what they do. it doesn't even seem fair that relay teams get the same finishers' jersey as the solo riders. they're in a completely different league, and i am in awe of them.

near the south end of the valley, a rider passed me: black panther, a 2x relay team. where the hell did he come from? i didn't know if he was one i had recently passed or if he had followed me all the way down the valley. but i could tell it was time to get serious: the climbs to jubilee pass (five miles, 1000' vertical) and salsberry pass (nine miles, 2300') were just ahead. i couldn't see my mileage so far, but the blinking lights began to appear above and to the left, up toward the turkish flag in the eastern sky: the late crescent moon next to venus morningstar.

(now that i think of it, i probably got that visual right with the wrong astronomy. i'll bet those flag symbols represent the new crescent moon at the end of ramadan, which could only be paired with venus eveningstar. just a guess...)

the blinking lights don't move fast on the climbs, but then neither do i. went by a few on the way up jubilee (including black panther near the top), but then the crew called a stop, which i welcomed, to fuel up. two or three teams went by at the summit, and i followed them down to the base of salsberry.

i had this climb in mind all summer. i understand distance and altitude, but this time the wind added a demoralizer. a headwind on a long climb just makes me grumpy, and this wind was naasty. it took a long uncomfortable time before my last fuel-up kicked in, so i started rewinding the tapes in my head: 'it's all about the blinking lights.' 'if ya got it, leave it on the road...'

the carbs started working their magic, and i started to chase the lights. at one point, i counted eight sets of them ahead somewhere in the darkness. when one came into steady view, i'd go deep to get by and open a gap for the van to follow. recover. repeat. i'd never ridden like that. this was my first race, the first time there'd ever been an official clock on my efforts. 'if ya got it...'

the conversations started in my head: can you catch that next one? maybe, but it'll hurt. a lot? yeah, a lot. ever hurt this much before? no. can you stand it? i guess so. so? ok, let's go.

and so on. i rode the climb of my life. caught five of the eight sets of lights. after about the thirteenth false summit, with calves and quads screaming, tom motioned me to stop at the sign for the pass. crunched to a stop in the gravel, he gave me a windbreaker for the descent. time to set sail.

caught the first hint of day on the horizon, nautical twilight outlined the mountains slightly better than the stars. my headlight was not made for high-speed descents, so i had to rely on the car headlights. but at speed, the van needed to keep a bit of distance, too much for me to see the black road well enough against the lightening sky, so i eased up. my left foot started pulling out of the pedal, and i understood the crunch i heard at the summit: broken cleat, front anchor. lost power from ten o'clock to one o'clock on my pedal stroke: the last bit of pull-up and the kick over the top. probably 15% of my power, since i'm nowhere near coordinated enough to have different pedal strokes on each foot: i matched my right foot as well to the broken left cleat.

missed the juice right away, because the road turned up for the last little incline, straight into a blistering wind. i couldn't crouch deep enough. it was relentless, the kind of wind that pulls the skin on your face tight, cheeks toward ears. i told tom later he was right about the wind.

the last of the descent was an exercise in core stability. flat aero spokes are not made for speed in strong crosswinds. just hold on, steady, nothing stupid...

at the turn onto CA 127, the wind became my friend again for the last mile and a half. blew past the speed limit 35 sign at the shoshone town line with a sly grin. my chp source tells me it's possible to get a speeding ticket on a bicycle. how cool would that be? pulled into time station #4 at 6:41 am, 4:45 for the stage (incuding stops). my computer read 4:21 ride time, putting my average speed on the bike just under 17 mph. with over 6700' of climbing, that was by far the best ride of my life. 'if ya got it, leave it on the road. don't bring anything back.' i had it, and i left it all on the road. i brought nothing, and i mean nothing, back. all i could do was wobble over to the car and sit as chad and tom got mindy ready to roll. check the time sheet...took 23 minutes out of smoking loons (later found i'd put nine into black panther). but then noticed team sphinx and team prairie falcon almost two hours ahead, and i think the millipedes rolled through sometime yesterday... ok, so we were never anywhere near the lead. best to let that delusion go...