1996 > Death Valley Double > Lisa and KenS's Report
Team Bikeaholics, intent on repeating their early 1996 season racing success over Team TNT, entered the Death Valley Double with two major goals: (1) not dying of dehydration and (2) not whining or whimpering excessively. Happily, both goals were realized despite some setbacks to morale and a slight temporary decrease in collective IQ.
Participants included: Lisa Antonino, team captain; Marc Nix, security officer; Ken Straub, morale & training officer; Stella Hackell, racing/ sprint specialist and team strategist; Mike Harding, long distance advisor; and Richard Bone, last minute conscript.
The Bikeaholics received an early introduction to DVD on the day before the tour, when they entered Death Valley during what appeared to be a major forest fire. On closer inspection, the smoke and haze turned out to be a major sand storm in the Stovepipe Wells area. Visibility, normally 100 mi in the valley, was at times reduced to 1/2 mile, and winds were clocked at 30-40 mph. The winds died down by 7:00 PM, and we all assumed that such an unseasonable event would never happen on the actual day of a major bike tour that cost $60 per person.
At dinner that evening over plates piled high with spaghetti, a debate took place over what time to start the ride (the course opened at 3:30 AM and closed at 10:00 PM). Team captain Lisa and advisor Mike appeared to favor a real early start (i.e., before 8:00 AM), and were supported by security officer Marc. Morale officer Ken, after pouring an entire pitcher of ice onto the table, devised a plan in which the ride would be done under general anesthesia, but this was ultimately rejected by other team members who kept repeating slogans like: "No pain, no gain", "We can pay now or we can pay later", or "It's so pretty here!". Late arrival Richard added his vote for an early start, and a compromise time of "Up at 3:00, coffee at 3:30, start by 4:30" was agreed to. Stella, in a fit of rationality, elected to sleep in and do the 100 mi course.
The next day team members assembled at Furnace Creek, room 627, for freshly brewed Peet's coffee and a last rites ceremony. We then loaded up the cars, and began the 25 mi drive to Stovepipe Wells. We were somewhat surprised to see large numbers of riders at least 10 mi into the ride by 4:00 AM. We parked, registered, assembled for group photos, and were assigned a start time of 4:45. The group photos (see figure 1, Before Photo ), show a series of sleep-deprived individuals with somewhat inane grins on their faces (editors note: the expressions on these faces strongly resemble those of volunteer army recruits prior to their introduction to real combat). We left with an official start time of 4:46, about 1-2 min ahead of Team TNT.
The DVD ride starts with a brisk 25 mi, mostly level run into Furnace Creek and the first rest stop . Lights were used for about 45 min, until the sun began to make an appearance. Mike and Richard led an early breakaway, with an average speed approaching 22 mph. The more conservative Lisa, Marc, and Ken sub-team kept to 21 mph and arrived in good order at Furnace Creek by about 6:00. A 10 minute rest period was proclaimed, and team members got to try out strange & exotic foods with names like hydra-gel, hammer-gel, and stoker bar. Mike and Richard elected to leave their rather substantial lighting systems at Furnace Creek and retrieve them on the way back.
The next leg of the ride was a brisk 17 mi run down to Badwater (elevation -279 ft). The course follows the west side of the valley, with spectacular views of the snow-capped Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak (elev. 11,200 ft.). Several team members expressed concern that their Avocet altimeters would suffer irreversible damage or even explode when we dropped below sea level, but such fears proved unfounded. We stopped briefly at Badwater , where we refilled our camelbacks, breakfasted on jelly beans, and proceeded on to the base of the first climb. Our average speed at this point was almost 19 mph, and we experienced only modest cross winds as we were sheltered by the west side of the valley.
The next leg was 30 mi, with a modest climb back up to sea level plus a few hundred feet. We were somewhat surprised to see sand drifts covering sections of the road, and learned, almost the hard way, to avoid sand that was more than a half inch deep. The rest stop at the base of the first climb had spectacular views to the south and north, and were markedly free of even a hint of plant life . In fact, the scenery for most of this portion of the ride strongly resembled the first live pictures transmitted by the Viking lander from the surface of Mars. We once again topped off our camelbacks, chatted briefly with the support crew, and got back on our bikes. Our reverie and generally good spirits were interrupted by the arrival (about 10 min behind us) of Team TNT. Team captain Dick greeted us in a firm but friendly voice and reminded us that we were still due for a rematch next year of the Enduro-Pinnacles time trial, while TNT co-captain Roxanne exclaimed: "I'm soooo surprised to see you guys, since you left HOURS ahead of us!". Taking that as a warning, we headed up the climb to Salsberry & Jubilee Passes.
The climb is a steady 5-6% grade up to 3500 ft, preceded by a small 300 ft drop after Jubilee Pass. We were somewhat surprised by the sharp drop in temperature that occurred as soon as we left the valley, accompanied by a cold, gusty wind. The climb to the top is 17 mi and seemed to take about 1.5 hr; it was very cold at the top where the organizers had placed a water-only rest stop. We then headed down to Shoshone, anticipating a fast, relaxing 12 mi descent. We were immediately surprised by the appearance of a howling wind blasting up from Shoshone, accompanied by omni-directional, gusting cross winds of indeterminate speed. At one point I was going DOWN a 6% grade, pedaling briskly in a 39 x 23 gear, and managing a speed of 8-10 mph. The road flattened out after 6 mi, and our pace slowed to 5-6 mph. Our misery was interrupted briefly by the appearance of graduate Bikeaholic Bill Halleck on his way back from Shoshone, shouting out things like "Hey Dude!" and singing various themes from 1960's network television sitcoms. After 10 miles of headwinds, we turned the corner into Shoshone, the wind died down, and we arrived at the 100 mile mark at about 11:30. Team members Marc and Mike showed up within 10-15 min, and Richard arrived about 30 min later. Team TNT appeared in about 15 min also, and we were approached by team co-captain Roxanne who greeted us and said something like: "I'm soooo surprised to see you guys, since you left HOURS ahead of us!".
Our time at this point looked quite respectable (about 6.5 hrs for 100 mi), and we decided to hang out for as long as possible (the DVD rules give you 1 hour at lunch, after which they begin to count it against your finishing time). Shoshone sits in a sheltered valley at about 1500 ft, and while pleasant in the sun, was much cooler than we had anticipated. After a lunch of turkey, jelly beans, and hydra-gel, we set out on an expedition to locate a source of Rolaids for Lisa's gastric reflux malady. We ultimately found a supply in the local mini-mart, and started on the ride back at about 12:20.
The climb back up to Salsberry Pass started out with a slight assist from a tailwind, but after 5 mi or so the wind shifted direction and we once again had to struggle against gusty, omnidirectional cross winds. After the pass, the road descends some 300 ft and then climbs back up to Jubilee Pass. This minor drop required a major physical effort to get over because of the cross-winds. We arrived back at the rest stop, feeling somewhat tired, at about 3:00. At this point we were about 46 mi from Furnace Creek, and 71 mi from Stovepipe Wells. Doing the math, we still thought we could average 16 mph and finish by 7:00, requiring less than an hour of riding in the dark. We rested about 10 min, revived ourselves with jelly beans and red licorice sticks, and started out. We were somewhat disturbed to see, in the distance, what looked like a forest fire in the valley, much like what we had seen when we drove in the day before.
As soon as we turned north in the general direction of Badwater, we were hit with very strong headwinds accompanied by blowing sand and gusting cross-winds. We were forced to breathe through Death Ride kerchiefs to screen out the sand, and we got to experience what a bike frame feels like when it is being sand-blasted. Our speed dropped to about 8 mph, which could only be maintained by maximum physical effort. We encountered a few other riders, but any attempt at forming a pace line or switching leads just wouldn't work because of the changing cross winds. At one point we caught up to a tandem and attempted to draft, but they immediately moved over and dropped behind us, trying to suck our wheels! Apparently there is no sense of fair play or justice in the DVD. The absolute low point of the ride was achieved when we had TWO tandems behind us.
We continued this pace for over 2 hours, averaging about 8 mph with maximum physical effort. At about 5:00 we happened upon an unscheduled emergency water stop, 8 miles from Badwater. We stopped, rested, and traded I-feel-miserable stories with a few other riders. I struck up a conversation with a tandem captain, and commented that perhaps we were having bad luck with the wind direction this year. He replied "Oh, I did the ride two years ago and it was much worse than this!". I then asked him why he was repeating this particular ride, and he responded "Because I'm stupid!". His significant other/ stoker partner, a pleasant young woman, then began to tell me in great detail just how stupid he was. Sensing a potentially violent domestic quarrel, Team Bikeaholics got on their bikes and started up again. Every once in a while the road would change direction and follow a ridgeline that offered some protection from the wind, and our speed would jump to 14 mph. After a few minutes, the road would clear the ridge, the wind would hit us again, and our speed would drop back to 8 mph. We crawled into Badwater about 5:45 and stopped for another rest.
The Badwater rest stop at this point was staffed by amazingly cheerful, helpful high school-age girls, but their charm wasn't enough stop the wind or to raise morale by more than a few points. My lasting memory of Badwater will always be as a desiccated body curled up in a fetal position by the side of the road, staring at a pile of vanilla wafers that Lisa is pushing towards me, saying "Have a cookie, you'll feel better!". After a Classic Coke (rather than my normal Diet Coke) and about 20 min, Marc, Mike, and the dreaded Team TNT arrived. As predicted, co-captain Roxanne came over and said something like "I'm soooo surprised to see you guys, since you left HOURS ahead of us!". Team TNT manager/captain Dick attempted to engage us in light banter, but his efforts were rewarded with monosyllabic grunts rather than meaningful dialogue. Once again we climbed on the bikes and began the 17 mi leg to Furnace Creek.
Some time after 6:00 the sun began to drop behind the Panamints, and we realized we weren't going to finish, much less reach Furnace Creek, before dark. Having ridden in the Menlo Park/ Palo Alto area after sunset, I assumed we would have useable light until about 7:00 or so. Much to my surprise, as soon as the sun dropped behind Telescope Peak, the lights went out instantly. It was as if someone had turned off a wall switch, plunging the valley into darkness. I thought about it for a while, and realized that (1) we were in a narrow, deep valley surrounded by 11,000 ft mountains, and (2) unlike Palo Alto, Death Valley has no street lights. This chain of reasoning took several minutes to complete, and I became fixated on and somewhat annoyed about the lack of decent street lights. I informed Lisa of my analysis, which came out as something like "Lisa--- I just figured out that there aren't any streetlights here!". The only response I got was a shaking head indicating that she thought that I had completely lost my mind.
We continued on into the headwind at 7 mph. I finally turned on my headlight, and was rather disappointed when nothing (i.e., no light) happened. I banged on it, cursed, talked nicely to it, etc., but no light appeared. I resigned myself to riding in the dark. After what seemed like a very long time (the medical term is sensory deprivation), another rider with a decent lighting system passed me. I sprinted after him (meaning I increased my speed from 6 mph to 8 mph) and tagged along for about 40 min. Lisa's light began to fail at about this point. [editors note: It wasn't Lisa's light that failed, but rather that Ken and the mystery rider with the light had managed to drop her and leave her to a solo battle with the howling headwinds, burning sand and blinding darkness. At one point after Ken's red flickering taillight disappeared into the darkness, she nearly stopped by the side of the road to cry, but the wind had sucked her eyes dry. In the spirit of the early pioneer women, she strut her chin high and bravely forged her way alone through the desert.] [editors counter-note: I didn't drop anyone--- I was merely checking out the guy's lights]. [counter editors counter-note: Yes, you did!] We finally began to see the lights at Furnace Creek and its airport beacon, but they never seemed to get any closer. We finally pulled into Furnace Creek at 7:30, after 15.5 hours on the bikes.
We rested at the Furnace Creek rest stop, and re-did the math several times. It looked like 3-4 hours to go the 24 mi to the finish, in the dark (no lights!), with a scheduled course closing of 10:00 PM. At this point we decided to seek out Stella for advice.
While looking for Stella, I became alarmed that, rather than consoling us, she might actually encourage us to continue. On our own, then, we decided it was time to quit. Marc and Team TNT rolled in about 20 min later and called it quits at the same point. Mike and Richard elected to continue. Stella [editors note: I'm sure I saw a halo above her head!] gave us a ride back up to Stovepipe Wells, where we watched the fun at the finish line. Mike finished the ride at 10:15 (17.5 hr), and in a true test of endurance Richard rolled across the line at 11:30 (almost 19 hr). A photo session (see figure 2, After Photo), was held to provide documentation for any future insurance claims or lawsuits, and Team Bikeaholics returned by car/truck/ambulance to Furnace Creek.
I slept surprisingly well that night, except for a disturbing, recurring dream in which a woman rider, wearing a camelback, comes over to me and says something like: "I'm soooo surprised to see you guys, since you left HOURS ahead of us!".
K.S. (author) /L.A. (kibitzer)