Monday, October 15, 2007

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...

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