Death Valley Double

Rob Hawks
October 2003

I should say right off the bat, that I have tremendously mixed emotions about my experience on the Fall Death Valley Double. I learned a lesson after doing my first double century that within 24 hours of completing a hard bike ride, never say you won't do it again. Most of this was written just outside of that 24 hour self imposed gag rule, so keep that in mind while reading.

I looked forward to this trip to Death Valley (yes, I know it is technically a graben), a place I had never visited, with great anticipation. I had been told by others of it's beauty. Perhaps it was with increased expectations that the mixed emotions begin. My friends Phil Morton, David Lipsky and Emily Kenyon and I drove down to Death Valley in Phil's car. The drive down was long, 9.5 hours, but the conversation was great, and the scenery wonderful. We crossed the Sierra at Tioga Pass, stopping for lunch at Olmstead Point. Along the way in Owens valley we saw herds of elk grazing in the fields. The approach to Death Valley, at 5000' was dotted with Joshua Trees, and I was amused at thinking this is what a forest of Joshua Trees looks like, with the trees 50-100 yards apart, and more. Once the road dives into the first valley, the vistas inspire awe. Strangely, that first valley (can't recall the name of it but I believe Panamint is there) was far more beautiful to me than DV.

The drive down the valley from Stovepipe Wells where the temp was a mild 98F was the first and only glimpse of the last 46 miles of the DVD course I would see in daylight, until Sunday that is when we drove home. Later, when riding the course after dark I could not recall an inch of it so I had zero idea of where I was. We had a late dinner, checked in for the ride and then crashed for the evening.

Early Saturday, we all managed to get prepped and to the start line with plenty of time. I ignored the early signs of a cold that I woke up with. Those that know how my spring and summer have gone are probably groaning right now, thinking another ride was going to be ruined by my catching a cold at the wrong time. The Furnace Creek Ranch was just hopping with riders and others, and after some words by the ride organizer, we left spot on am. After one mile we made our first turn, and then didn't make another for 45 miles after that. However, in that first mile I did run into a former GPC member, Ron Lo(w?), who wanted to send along a hello to Bob Hallet, and a member of the iBob email list, Brian McElwain. It was a little crazy with the mass start for the first six or seven miles, until the riders spread out more. The pavement on this first stretch was pristine. Absolutely smooth and clean. Sadly that ended shortly after the first rest stop, and from there it was 10 miles of slowly deteriorating road surface followed by nearly 20 miles of pure %$!$^! for pavement.

The course along this portion hugs the eastern side of the valley and was shaded for most of the run south. Periodically the road extended out into the center of the valley as it circumvented the debris in the alluvial fans. Intermittently we would have head winds which while I was still fresh was fine. My belief was the headwinds would be tail winds when the course returned along that stretch of road going north. Naturally it seemed that the worse the road bed got, the stiffer the winds got. I could have missed this in the description of the course, but I recall no mention of just how bad this section of road would be. I know others found the road dangerous, the hard way. I happened on a crash about a mile or less after the road really degenerated seriously, and two women were down, one only moving to grab the hand of a friend lending comfort. We were to hear of this woman's travails for the rest of the day, and as luck would have it, we saw her upright, mobile and in a joking mood the next day, although heavily bandaged. The other woman that crashed finished the whole ride in just under 16 hours.

I mentioned earlier that we made our second turn after about 45 miles, but really there was no option. The paved road veered east, and the other option was to ride south on the 68 miles of dirt road to Baker. Once the road left the valley floor the surface improved considerably. While these climbs, Jubilee (1285') and Salsberry (3315'), were not stiff climbs, they were long, and the wind was blocked by the hills which increased the effects of the rising heat at that point. Because of my slower pace uphill, I was more aware of the deception of distances in Death Valley. I could see riders dotting the highway ahead of me and I neither closed the gap nor widened it, and yet all of us seemed to be making no progress toward the landmarks that loomed so large ahead. Distance was not the only thing I had trouble judging on this ride. I could seldom tell if I was going up hill and took it on faith that if I was slowing down I must be climbing.

The ride to the rest stop in Shoshone (1572') in spite of the long down hill at the end, simply took for ever, but a 20 minute break at that stop did wonders for my mental state. All along that preceding stretch I only talked briefly with Rick and Anna Stewart, a couple riding a tandem whom I had met on the Davis Double this spring. When I left Shoshone, I passed Emily Kenyon, Charlie Jonas and Clay Bolling, then David Lipsky, and finally Phil Morton. Some how Dave Clemes and Charlie and Clay's friend Dana slipped by at that point too, without me seeing them. I was roughly 20-30 minutes ahead of them at this point. I should note that before arriving at the rest stop, just after Salsberry pass, I spotted the lead double century rider heading back, and I estimate he was about 20 miles head of me. At that point I had barely gone 60 miles myself.

I rode with two riders from San Diego, Wayne Caldwell and Dale Cole, and I was so happy for the company, as it made the climb back up to Salsberry, at 3315' much nicer and seemingly shorter. Wayne and Dale told stories of other double centuries that were hotter and harder than our ride that day, perhaps trying to lend perspective, perhaps trying to deny the heat and effort needed that day. We split up on the decent which was wonderfully long, and regrouped at the rest stop in the valley, staffed by men in drag. I must say that it was quite unnerving to see these men in that place dressed as they were. I suspect it was one guy's idea and the others went along perhaps under small protest, as that one guy seemed to be having a ball, while the other two seemed a little surly. At that rest stop, a little boom box cd player was playing 70s disco sounding tunes and one rider was sitting asleep in a chair that left his head about 6 inches from the speakers. Some people can sleep anywhere.

Just after leaving this rest stop, I came upon another accident, this time quite serious. A rider was racing back to the rest stop to alert the ride organizers and a southbound car had crossed the road and stopped to lend aid. I don't know if the cause was the same as the earlier crash I saw (touched wheels in a pace line), but today (Monday) I heard word that the downed rider suffered facial injuries. I had waited up the road before passing and once it appeared that all the riders and tourists that had stopped had sorted out aid, I passed the group. The road on this stretch is simply awful.

It could have been the experience of having happened upon the aftermath of a second crash, or it could have been facing yet more headwind where I had expected a tailwind, but this stretch, from the Ashford Mills rest stop to Badwater were tough and draining. I had to resort to using my granny gear more than once, and on rises that just couldn't be called hills. I hadn't used my granny once on the climbs up Jubilee and Salsberry. The riders had benefited from a smear of cloud cover for the section of ride that ran from the first Ashford Mills stop to the second, but about 10 miles north of Ashford Mills the cloud cover was gone and the effect was distinct. I started to get hot foot in a bad way (as if there is a good way) and on one section on the north side of a fan I came across Dale and Wayne who had earlier tailed a tandem (the Susanville couple) in the wind. I had been spooked by the crashes so had little taste for pace lining on the crappy pavement so had been dropped by that group, but here were Dale and Wayne again and looking fairly spent, stopped by the side of the road. I stopped as well and took my shoes off and tried to sit in the shadow cast by Dale. There is nothing for cover in this area and the road side is not much more than rocks, so the only place to sit really is with your butt on the road. I didn't know it then but the reason for their stopping was Wayne's cramps. We spent about 10 minutes resting, then rode for 10 more before we found a Ranger's truck stopped on the other side of the road. We filled up with water, smiled politely while the Ranger suggested we were insane, and then Wayne made the decision to abandon.

I have more than a measure of respect for riders that know their limits, and therefore know when to stop. And actually do so. The Fall Death Valley Double Century is a ride where a great many participants are trying to achieve their 3rd or 5th double of the year, both milestones in the California Triple Crown series. Wayne was working on number 5 for 2003, and while he is a stronger rider than I am, some days it's down to luck after the conditions strip away your preparation. Phil Morton met a woman that this year had finished the Terrible Two, I ride on which I only barely made it to the lunch stop. She bagged it at mile 120 on the DVD and felt the TT was much easier. I don't agree, but really this illustrates the factor luck plays.

After Wayne left in the Ranger's truck, Dale and I plodded on and later caught up with another woman riding solo. It turned out to be one of the two women that crashed early in the ride. She had her scrapes cleaned and bandaged and she then pressed on. I later found out it was her first double century ever. Our spirits picked up when the road surface changed to brand new pavement, a sign we were within shouting distance of the rest stop. Well, again distances deceive and the tents I spotted across the way were twice as far as I estimated. This, at mile 130+ was the lunch stop and it was 5:30pm. I took my sandwich across the road as there was no hope of shade or a chair to be had, and I sat in the shadow of a big truck, and watched as they filled it up with bikes and riders who were ending their day. The sun dropped behind the mountains on the west side of the park and it seemed like the force of oppression was lifted.

I finally got rolling again, minutes before 6pm, and the sense of plodding was gone with the setting sun. I had the road to myself for long, long stretches, and about halfway between Badwater and Furnace Creek I had to turn on the lights I had picked up in Badwater. I was so happy I had erred on the side of caution and had them delivered to Badwater instead of Furnace Creek. It was after the sun set that I felt I could look up (or even wanted to), and this surely helped my energy level. Before Badwater, I only wanted to glance ahead briefly, but now I could look west at the sunset, above at the sky.

I rolled into Furnace Creek a few minutes to 7pm and checked in. It was with a small amount of amusement that I noted the question 'are you going on?', amusement I might not have mustered earlier. This rest stop is really the parking lot for the Ranch complex, the start of the ride, and the end of the ride if you chose to end at mile 200 (196.4 actually) or mile 150. It is a temptation much like Turtle Rock is on the Tour of the California Alps, where riders can probably spot their cars, tents or motel rooms and yet have 50 miles to go. I only stayed long enough to fill my bottle.

As I rolled out into the full darkness and away from what few lights there are in this park, I could honestly assess my condition and say I had no reason to worry. My hot foot was gone at that point, while it was still warm it was not so oppressive and blasting. I'd been able to eat recently, and eat voluntarily. Sometimes, a point on hard rides is reached where food has no allure. My legs felt fine then, I was confident I had the energy, and I was cheered to see the stars come out in such numbers that it was difficult to find the constellations. The Milky Way looked like it had been flung in the sky with a dripping paint brush. It's rare that one can have nearly 180 degrees of the sky with no obstructions with which to stargaze.

In the dark however, I could not see my odometer, and had no reference points to gauge my speed. I was sure I was making huge progress, hoping to maybe make the 23 miles stretch in an hour and a half. I could tell I was slowing so I figured I must be climbing again, and I wanted to ask one of the riders passing the other way if I was getting close. How silly that would have been. The turn off to Beatty, NV came up followed by the mileage sign for Stovepipe Wells, the turnaround and next rest stop. I was crushed to see that I had 14 more miles to go, when I thought I was so close. It didn't help that the climb went on, that I was alone, or that I could begin to see the lights of Stovepipe Wells and yet they never got closer. Again the desert deceived as what must have been 20 minutes later the lights appeared farther away. Finally, a long down hill gave me time to rest, and some passing riders on the homeward leg yelled encouragement across the road.

The Ranger station in Stovepipe Wells served as the rest stop, where the most memorable item on the 'menu' was instant cup-o-noodles, which under most circumstances I would loathe. I had made the leg in an hour and 45 minutes, which was slower than I had thought when setting out, but faster than I assumed it would be midway along. I found the Susanville tandem couple there, just finishing their soup, encouraging me to have some. As it was it got easier to eat as I neared the bottom of the cup, and even though it was hot out still, probably mid 80s F, the hot soup helped. I had to stand most of the time as all three chairs provided for the stop were in use. Dale arrived and got one of the chairs.

I had a few chips, and filled my water bottle then set to changing the batteries on my second head lamp. As I stood there, I heard my name called, with a question mark at the end. It was Emily, a welcome familiar face, but I was ready to leave having been at the stop for 20 minutes or more. I wish I had had her company along that stretch from Furnace Creek. I later found out that she was about 5 minutes behind the whole way, going at about my pace. After a frustrating time trying to load new batteries in, I rode over to the porch light at the front of the station to use better light. That worked and I had a second fresh light to use. I set out with a group of two others that quickly picked up four other riders, then one more to make eight. The eight was Dale, and we hung off the back chatting, both trying to keep distance from the wheels ahead of us. Even though we had been cautioned to not ride two abreast in the park we did here, trying to use more of the road away from the edge. Cars coming in either direction could be seen for a long, long way off so we could spread into a single line in plenty of time.

At one point, Dale and I just dropped off the group and went at a slower pace. Dale's focus was finishing rides, and not finishing with a completely empty tank. The return leg, with all the company we had, was far more enjoyable and seemingly so much shorter. Unlike the Davis Double, there were no crowds of friends and family of other riders cheering everyone including strangers as they finished in the dark. Unlike the Knoxville Double there were no crowds of other riders gathered for the post ride meal. A woman with a computer printout taking numbers, two or three tired riders, a couple of nearly empty coolers with drinks which were everyone's 3rd choice, and a tipped over garbage bag were all that it looked like there was to greet me. Except the fresh and booming voice of Phil, calling out my name and congratulating me on finishing. Fifteen hours and fifty seven minutes after starting, I finished my third double century of the year. Five minutes later Emily pulled in, and our group was done. Done for the day, and done for the year.

I heard that over 100 double century riders didn't finish, out of the 180 that had started. Too many of them crashed out of the ride. This ride was put on by a for-profit organization, and I was reminded of cost cutting at many points. While I may remember the really bad 20 miles (times two) of road north of Ashford Mills, and the slim food selection, and the concept of lunch at 5:30pm where I also picked up lights, and the 100F temps, and the am start time, what I will remember most is the company I shared on the drive down and back, and on the ride itself. I'll remember the chance to see the Milky Way just dominate the sky. I'll remember seeing friends at a place so distant from home. I won't say I'll never be back to do it again, but I won't say I will either.

Oh, and that cold? It's still waiting in the wings but so far hasn't blossomed.

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