2002 > Fall Death Valley Double > Sarah and Tom's Report
Prose: Sarah Beaver
Photography and peanut gallery: Tom Lawrence
By the time we left Furnace Creek at 6am, the sky was surprisingly light. We spent the morning riding up, down, up, down over little rollers in the valley. We rode through patches of cool air, then patches of warm air, then patches of cool air, then patches of warm air. Tom rode strong, and I helped by keeping a close watch on his rear wheel. I never knew when I might need to fend off evil back drafts sneaking up from behind to pull Tom backwards. Or something like that.
Tom and I made our first official stop at Ashford Mills. A fellow PAC Tour rider, Reed Finfrock, was supporting the stop. I guess he was taking a little break from riding after winning Furnace Creek 508 for his age division less than two weeks after PAC Tour ended.
I went around to the back side of the support table and said, "Reed! Photo op!" Reed was wearing a Halloween costume that covered his ears and didn't hear me. "What do you need?" he kept saying. I was trying to explain that I had a good reason for venturing back into the worker area and kept saying, "I want Tom to take our picture." Reed still didn't hear so after the third or fourth time I finally pointed at Tom's camera and Tom took our picture.
Back on the road, at some point we started climbing. The low point of the ride, Badwater, is the lowest point in North America, at minus 282 feet. The highest point of the ride is Salsberry Pass at 3315 feet. In between is Jubilee Pass at around 1300 feet, with a couple-hundred-foot drop before the road continues climbing to Salsberry. After Salsberry, riders descend for about twelve miles, turn around at Shoshone, double back on the course -- going back over both Salsberry and Jubilee -- past Furnace Creek to Stove Pipe Wells, then turn around at Stove Pipe and double back for a second time to finish at Furnace Creek. The double route has about 8000 feet of climbing all together, and the majority of it is completed by the second Salsberry summit, at about mile 90.
For some reason the climb to Salsberry didn't seem that bad to me this year. Tom and I had completed the ride on the tandem in 1998 and that time the climb to the pass seemed to go on forever. This time, I noticed that the grade was so shallow most of the way that the road almost appeared flat. PG: The grade didn't seem flat to anyone else... Sarah was her usual apologetic self about being strong as she rode past me and off into the distance. I believe her words were something like "sorry, you're not going too slowly, it's just that the road just got flatter". Yeah right.
Tom had suffered horrible bonking incidents on each of his previous Salsberry summits, and this year was determined to ride slowly and avoid any power outages. I'm happy to report that he was successful and yet still managed to reach each summit before me.
After Salsberry, we had a strong head wind descending into Shoshone and Tom commented how much we'd appreciate the wind on the return ascent. I was half excepting lunch at Shoshone since that's where it had been in 1998, although the course was slightly different then. At Shoshone, however, not only was lunch not there, but Tom announced that we were going to be in and out of the stop as quickly as possible. I complained a little about needing to fuel up a bit before the return ascent but we still managed to get back on the road fairly quickly.
We enjoyed the tailwind climbing back up to Salsberry. Once we hit the Salsberry summit for the second time, I knew we had already completed the most difficult part of the ride, even though we were still less than half way done in terms of miles. The descent from Salsberry back into the valley seemed to go on forever and I couldn't believe we had climbed that much.
Back at Ashford Mills, where Reed was still faithfully manning the rest stop, I again expected lunch since we were now at about the half-way point mile-wise, but lunch was still up ahead at the next stop, at Badwater, at mile 130. We picked up our lights at Ashford Mills, however, at mile 103, which is good since we had a mere three and a half hours of daylight left and I'd hate to cut that too close.
At Ashford Mills, I began to get a little worried about Tom. When Tom rides strong, he's unstoppable, but when he starts to fade he can sink pretty low. I have several dark memories from our tandem days of Tom sitting at rest stops on brevets and doubles responding incomprehensibly with grunts and groans to queries about what kind of food he needed.
At Ashford Mills the situation wasn't quite that bleak. Tom said he needed time to eat the third of four tuna fish sandwiches he'd brought for himself for the day. I was concerned about lingering at the rest stop too long, though, so I attempted to speed things up by wrenching Tom's salt-encrusted CamelBak off of his shoulders so I could fill it up and replenishing his water bottle with Sustained Energy. Tom said he felt like he had his own personal valet. My effort paid off because by the time I was done at the water cooler, Tom was finished with his sandwich and ready to get back on the road.
Back on the road, Tom's riding speed seemed to have flagged a little from his pre-Salsberry-summit speed, however, and I was worried about our progress for the rest of the day. I had only two hours of lights with me, which meant I would have to finish the double in about fourteen hours. Tom had lights to go all night, but, considering that I had spent the morning resting up behind him, it seemed to more efficient to stick together and work with each other for the day.
I tried to get in front and pull Tom to let him conserve energy but I had trouble getting the speed right. First I'd go too fast and would lose Tom, then would ride too slowly, forcing Tom to pass me. He seemed so worn, though, that finally I convinced him to let me know what was the right speed to ride.
After that, I took a long turn pulling and Tom warmed up to the idea pretty quickly. "Sitting back here resting is pretty good," he'd say. "No more free rides for you. From now on we're splitting the work fifty-fifty." I thought that sounded a little extreme, however, and talked him down to a sixty-forty draft-pull ratio. PG: That's 60/40 in my favor!
Between Ashford Mills and Badwater, we passed several riders and a couple of them jumped on behind Tom. So, in what is probably the height of my cycling career, for several miles I pulled a small train of riders through the Death Valley floor. I was going a little faster than I could sustain, however, and I eventually pulled around so a now-refreshed Tom could take over. That was a mistake, however. Full of energy, Tom steamed ahead and dropped the extra riders who had jumped on behind us. The effort to keep up with him made my stomach lurch. By the time we finally reached lunch at mile 130, my stomach was too upset to eat and I opted for a diet Coke instead. Still perky, Tom pestered me just as I was about to sit down and enjoy my soda to stand in front of the sea-level sign so he could take a picture.
After Badwater, the final seventy miles went smoothly. I kept telling myself that the last fifty miles after Furnace Creek in the dark would go quickly, since that's what I'd remembered from 1998, and they did. At Furnace Creek we stopped at our campsite for supplies and that was the best rest stop I've ever had on a double. I drank and entire quart of chocolate soy milk that I had in the car, replenished my supply of ginger candies that helped soothe my stomach, and dropped off extra clothes and water bottle that I no longer wanted since I needed the space on my bike for my light battery. I had though that stopping back at the car at mile 150 might tempt me to end the ride early, but instead I felt strong and was looking forward to the final stretch to Stove Pipe Wells and back.
Once on the road again, I kept looking for TandemCraigKen to be just finishing up. We had seen them earlier when we were descending Salsberry into Shoshone, as they were returning from Shoshone climbing back up to Salsberry. They had been among the five or so earliest riders, and I had expected to see them again pulling into Furnace Creek. After twenty or so riders passed, however, I realized that they had probably passed that way earlier and we had missed them. As Tom and I were returning from Shoshone heading back up Salsberry, we had also seen Tim riding steadily toward Shoshone, giving us a big grin and wave.
In the last fifty miles, Tom and I took about equal turns pulling, with me spending more time in front the more the ride progressed. Tom is much stronger than I am, and on a ride less than 100 miles long, I would do no good by pulling. I've had much more endurance training than Tom has lately, however: this was my fifth double of the year and I rode my bike across the country for nearly an entire month, whereas this was Tom's first Triple Crown double in four years. At mile 140, Tom said that that was the longest bike ride he'd done all year. I thought back to my many 130- and 160-mile days on PAC Tour grinding into morale-breaking twenty-mile-per-hour head winds and said, "I wish I could say that!" With our disparate preparations, the longer we stayed on the road the more I could help out and pay Tom back for all of the drafting I'd taken advantage of in the morning.
At Stove Pipe Wells, we were laughing and goofing around while we filled up our water bottles and snacked on Luna Bars. Tom had built his own custom light holder on his bike, which holds five Cateye LED lights, and everyone was impressed and checking out his lighting system.
It gets very, very dark in Death Valley, and it was fun riding in the pitch black. I couldn't see whether the road went up or down or for how long. I couldn't tell how fast we were going or how long we'd been riding. I just rode. Occasionally I'd take my eyes off of the road for a moment to look up at the wide open sky filled with stars. The next morning we drove through the same stretch of road and Tom took pictures of the miles of scruffy plants stretching across the valley.
We pulled into Furnace Creek about fourteen hours after we had left in the morning. Normally on a double century I spend various amounts of time wondering why I'm out there and how much longer I have until the finish. This is the first double where I actually felt like I could have kept going at the end. At first I attributed my storehouse of energy to my training at PAC Tour, but in retrospect I think I was more likely boosted psychologically by taking more turns pulling than I ever have on a ride before. Plus, having Tom's company all day made the ride much more enjoyable.
The scenery in Death Valley was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and the course couldn't have been easier to navigate. All in all, it was a great day and an excellent way to fnish off my most-cyclingest year ever, with 1000 miles of double centuries and 3000 miles riding across the country. I'm definitely glad I went.