Monday, October 26, 2009

Death Valley - again and again

Death Valley Fall Double, October 24, 2009

As indicated here, my family has some sort of history with Death Valley, and this does not even take into account the notorious European (be it French or German) fascination with this place. For example, after having ridden three other Double-Centuries with me in 2005, my elder son Sebastian brought his girlfriend out from Manhattan to Furnace Creek in October, arriving one day early for the Death Valley Fall Double - so he had time to propose in discretion. He and I then rode the Double together (and I remember vividly how I clandestinely hoped he would suggest that we cut it short and bypass that last climb up to Hell's Gate - but he didn't, and so I had to finish the entire ride myself as well) and got a new extended family picture taken at the finish:


I also remember that I didn't like the northern route very much. The road surface overall is even more unpleasant than on the southern Spring route to Shoshone; the 50 mile long (total) flat and often quite windy stretch out into Nevada and back is lacking attractions if you disregard the odd rattler on the road, and the out-and-back to the Ubehebe crater feels more like an attempt to destroy bicycles than a bike ride. But I came back to it every year since then, and it grew on me. I got used to rough roads on all the other Californian double-centuries and brevets; I cultivated my predilection for long distances even under mental stress (like 25 miles into headwind one way, then turning around and realizing after a mile or two that the wind had now turned and that I would have to battle headwind on the way back as well - this actually happened to me last year); and I got stronger over the years and didn't fear the 6.5-mile climb up to Hell's Gate after 170-miles any more either.

The finishing times don't tell the whole story; too much depends on the weather conditions, how much one is riding alone into the wind vs. drafting a group of stronger riders, and how much time is spent chatting on rest stops or with repairs (last year I had two flats, and another one this year). But I was happy gaining 40 minutes against our 16:20 time from 2005 in 2006 and another 15 minutes in 2007. Last year, the two flats and some other mishap threw me back to a 16-hour time; but this year I certainly wanted to make up for it. By the way, for reference: the fastest riders typically finish in under 11 hours, and Sebastian finished 2006 in under 14 hours after I reassured him early on that I was now able to complete the ride by myself and challenged him to show me how much faster he could be without waiting for me. No matter what, I always try to predict my finishing time because Ghislaine likes to be present when I arrive. Being too optimistic about it punishes her with anguish when I don't show up on time; being too conservative often gives me the opportunity to fine-tune my effort during the last couple of hours to the effect of arriving at the precisely predicted minute. And so, while sitting around the Wrangler Steakhouse table on our Friday evening dinner with friends Kathy, Jack and Bart and talking about our expectations for the next day, I offered the 10:30 p.m. time (given a 7:10 a.m. start) as being optimistic enough for me, this time.

The temperatures were perfect on Saturday morning, and I thoroughly enjoyed a swift and mostly low-effort ride to Stove Pipe Wells, before coming back to the turn-off where the sign says "Scotty's Castle." This attractive place was still about 38 miles away at this point, but more importantly, over 3000 feet higher up. The climbing during the second half of the distance is never steep (with one short exception towards the end), but I know by experience that it is harder than it appears. More than once in the past, I have been delayed there by cramps; and when I finally arrived at the shady rest stop at Scotty's Castle, I had trouble denying that I felt dizzy and that I needed a much longer time for rest and recovery than I had planned. The reason for the difficulty is of course a combination of increasing heat, nearly unavoidable dehydration and - as an accessory - the fact of riding the bicycle uphill for several hours. That's why, this time, I insisted on slowing down and taking it really easy at least on the last three miles; I wanted to arrive without any risk of fainting. Just when I had finished explaining this to my companions Ken, Nicole and Becky and sent them their way ahead, I got my picture taken so I can prove that I was still smiling and feeling good:


Even better, I arrived at Scotty's Castle (mile 68) sooner than ever before and could now pursue the goal of maybe finishing the ride in under 15 hours! Although I immediately compromised that goal when I started chatting it up with two charming ladies at the lunch table, who (as single-century riders) clearly admired how I talked with cool understatement about the double-century route.

I found the temperatures rather pleasant when I continued climbing through the Grapevine Canyon up to the Bonnie Claire Flat. At altitude 4000 ft, there was quite a refreshing wind - too bad it was entirely in my face, and probably stronger than in the last years. I rode most of this infamous lonely stretch to Scotty's Junction (mile 95) with Jack, trying to find the right balance between pursuing my goal and saving my legs (the hamstrings threatened to cramp when I stayed for too long in the deepest aerodynamic position to slip underneath the wind). The stories told by some of my heroes from this year's 508 where the winds were at least twice as strong helped me stay motivated. While Jack and Bart (and several others) enjoyed sitting in chairs at the Scotty's Junction checkpoint, I felt nervous and wanted to get back on the bike; the memory of last year's wind turning around into a headwind again was still present in my mind. My discipline was rewarded with a well-deserved tailwind for a good portion of the way back - until the wind finally turned anyway. Soon after that, Phil caught up with me and helped me cover the last miles before the downhill to Scotty's Castle. I didn't stay much longer than necessary to have my bottles refilled (thank you to the volunteers for being so attentive and generous!) and rode on to the Ubehebe crater where Jim Swarzman from PCHRandos lore checked the bib number as proof of passage:


I was still on track for finishing in 15 hours but didn't feel pressured; instead, I just enjoyed the new experience of starting the long descent still in daylight and being able to maintain a good average without pushing too hard and without any particular problems. Just when I removed the eyes for a tiny little moment from the patch of light ahead of my front wheel to look at the silhouette of the mountains (it was nearly dark by now with a nice glow above the horizon), I ran into what probably was the only nasty pothole between Scotty's Castle and Furnace Creek. Earlier in the day, I was tempted several times to stop and relieve some pressure from the tires to diminish the discomfort on the rough roads; now I was happy I didn't. Maybe the tire pressure was enough to avoid a pinch flat? -- No. Forget about the 15 hour finishing time ...

The remaining goal ("Plan B") was to arrive at least at 10:30 p.m., as announced on the evening before. When I started the Hell's Gate climb around mile 170, I immediately noticed with major satisfaction that I really have become stronger over the years. I could easily have pushed harder and gained a couple of minutes, but feeling comfortable during the climb (and yet being faster than in each of the preceding years) was rewarding enough for me at that point. I could afford to stop and walk for a while with Becky who had a really bad day (or at least her stomach did); I could afford to let several other riders bomb past me on the ten mile long downhill without attempting to follow them, and I could afford to "hold the horses" on the last eleven slightly rolling miles into the finish to arrive relaxed and smiling - to the minute at 10:30 p.m.

"I had a good day," I said. "If I continue to improve like that, I will be competing with the best in about 20 to 25 years!"

Our Death Valley history continues.
Next installment: Death Valley Spring Century, March 6, 2010 ...

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