Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rocking Ride in the Valley of Death - 2010 REPORT

The plane landed in Las Vegas, a great jumping off point to other-worldly experiences.  It's just that I wasn't there for the video poker and craps tables.  After grabbing bags at the luggage carosel, I found the charter bus and a bunch of friends from Minnesota (Go Loons!).  There were capacious deserts to cross to reach Death Valley.  That was good, because my senses needed some time to adjust.  I had left Greenville, SC and its lushness only hours before. Now, I looked through the bus window at a rocky and dry world constructed of edgy shades of brown matched abruptly to the dithered blue sky.  The landscape was strangely beautiful.

We were accomodated at the comfortable Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, where ranching was business as usual until 1928 or so.  Each evening, our dinner was served up under the stars.  My bed was in one of a series of bunkhouses built for the working hands so many years ago.  With air conditioning and nice furninshings, these houses, nicely modernized, were very welcoming.  It seemed that every such house, and the newer buildings, too, were packed with JDRF cyclists.  There were some 350 of us.

We enjoyed a nice day and a half around the ranch.  And then it was time to ride.

6:45 AM, SATURDAY - Ride Day

Death Valley is a tough place to cycle.  There's just no getting around it.  Most folks probably think the heat would be the reason.  But, the forbidding temperatures are perhaps not the most serious complication for a long ride.  Instead, I think it is the vast nothingness of the valley.

NOTHING.  There is truly nothing.  Nothing for shade.  Nothing to drink.  Nothing for nourishment (apart from tarantulas, lizards, and several species of poisonous snakes).  There are no towns, convenience stations, or pay phones.  Your cell phone has "No Service."  Your ears feel strange because there is no sound.  The most incredible peculiarity to being in Death Valley is how squarely you are in the middle of nothing.

Of course, "nothing" is no problem when you have the entire JDRF staff working for you on ride day.  To combat the chronic shortage of everything, they coordinated water, food, and aid stations.  They provided SAG wagons, communication gear, and shelter.  We all really relied upon the ride staff.  I ate their myriad snack foods.  I drank more than 4 gallons (32 pounds!!!) of their water on the route.  Though in the desert, I couldn't sweat all that out.  Thank JDRF for even providing port-o-johns.

With all the great support in place, we cyclists only had to worry about moving the pedals.  We had 2800 feet of climbing ahead of us, but the first 40 or so miles were built for fast running.  I linked up with Jim, one of the Loons, for those first 40 miles.  We averaged about 17 mph while taking turns drafting.  This was a great way to conserve energy.  While we rode, the mostly clear skies brightened up quickly.  However, we were shaded by mountains for the first 25 miles.  Not what you expected?  Don't worry, the last 75 miles of searing solar broil made up for it. 

At times we had to shrug head winds; the dry whirling air turned the valley into a convection oven.  The wind seemed to stop when I reached the six-mile climb to Jubilee Pass.  The cyclists were strung out over a great distance by this time, so I slowly ground my way up the grade solo.  The hyperbaric silence was interrupted only when I met cyclists who were whirring downhill.  After close to an hour of climbing, I made it to the pass, which marked the half-way and turn-around point of the course.  It was mostly downhill or flat from here. 

Things were beginning to get a little fuzzy after I coasted about 20 minutes to reach the valley floor.  I remember becoming concerned about having seen several people suffering from heat exhaustion.  The Death Valley experience was just beginning.  Until now, it was a normal ride that you could have had anywhere.  Now I suddenly felt that I was treading near the edge of human endurance.  The sun seemed inches from my back.  My senses were blunted.  My legs made only about 50% power.  I felt a little like one of those cheap 70's import cars that could only struggle in their high gearing.

Around then, I linked up with Kevin and Mark from Indiana.  We talked as we rode, and I loosened up a bit.  Then, I noticed an odd thing.  I mentioned that there seemed to bulge on one of their rear tires.  Within seconds: ka-boom....

We needed something good to happen.


So, we're about 17 miles from the finish line and one tire short of a way to get there.  No worries, there were SAG wagons out there.  The first one stopped within a couple of minutes.  But it, like the next few, carried no spare tires.  That's when a 16 year old girl became a hero.  Ana Becker, a young lady who was catching a SAG ride back to the Ranch, offered my Indiana friends her rear wheel.  (How many of us would have done this when we were 16?)  Yay, Ana!  You are awesome.

This little triumph was a major turning point for me.  There were 17 miles left, and while they didn't breeze by, I had confidence.  I was lively.  And, I had fun.

The challenge of cycling 103 miles in the desert ended for me so quickly, really.  It took an absurdly short amount of time for me to feel normal again.  The desert's grip on me evaporated away the next morning in the air conditioned enclosures of first the bus, then the airport, and finally the plane.  But the memories of this experience will continue as a hot ember, not unlike that glowing hot spot in California called Death Valley.

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