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Old 10-31-09, 04:43 PM
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Biker395 
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Bikes: 2008 Scott CR1 Pro; 2006 Schwinn Fastback Pro and 1996 Colnago Decor Super C96; 2003 Univega Alpina 700; 2000 Schwinn Super Sport

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Thanks, cuattop! Here is the next installment:

Stage IV - Furnace Creek to Shoshone



The reader will recall that mere hours before, I had dreams of making it to Shoshone … perhaps even Baker before stopping for some sleep. The winds approaching Furnace Creek put a stop to that folly. I would be lucky to get to Ashford Mills in one piece.

I pushed off. It was a little after 11PM.

As I expected, as soon as I left the shelter of the structures and trees of Furnace Creek, the winds returned. I got low on the handlebars and pushed.



Not that I would have noticed in all the wind, but the road to the Badwater cutoff is slightly uphill. Just south of the turnoff, the road heads downhill. Enough of a downhill so that without wind, you easily toot along at 25 MPH or so. What was it like on that moonlit night? After making that right turn, I had to downshift to keep going. Just for yuks, I stopped pedaling and immediately came to a halt.



I was now heading directly into the wind again, and incredibly, the wind had … again … intensified.

Headwinds are every cyclists worst enemy, and in my 20+ years of serious cycling, I have had my share of windy sufferfests. But none of them … none … could prepare me for the next several hours pedaling into that gusty desert gale to Badwater and beyond.

How strong were they? I was sorely tempted to stand up and pedal. I even tried it once. That experiment proved futile … a gust of wind struck me so hard, it lifted my front wheel right up off the asphalt and moved it over 6 inches. So much for that.

“I saw that.” Bill would say later. “That was intense.”

Not only was the wind strong, but it was gusty. And those gusts would come from either direction, plus or minus thirty degrees or so. It made it virtually impossible to keep the bicycle going straight. I weaved all over the road like a drunken sailor. It may have been 17 miles to Badwater, but with all the weaving around, I’m sure I pedaled a longer distance than that.

My front wheel was now an airfoil. I tried to keep the wheel pointed straight into the wind, but the wheel would be blown off center with every gust. And once it got blown off center, it would catch the wind even more. It took muscle to bring the bike around and back into the wind. Worse yet, there was no point in steeling myself for the gusts … they came in random directions. I would just have to correct them as best as I could when they came.

Thinking about it now, I realize that part of the problem was also the pitiful speed I was making. At slower speeds, the gyroscopic stability of the wheel was almost nil. And believe me ... I was going slow. It was like being on a trapeze ... a very windy, dark trapeze.

I stopped. My support crew pulled along side of me.

“WHAT’S WRONG?” Bill yelled to be heard over the hurricane.

Kind of an absurd question … EVERYTHING was wrong at this point. But since we were all endurance cyclists, the context was clear … why are you stopping?

“NOTHING!”

Yes, I lied. But I did have reason for stopping.

“I NEED TO TAKE A DRINK, AND I DON’T DARE TAKE MY HANDS OFF THE HANDLEBARS!”

I grabbed a bottle and drank. The residue splashed my chest. Another gust came, and nearly blew me over. Bicycle cleats are hard and offer no traction whatever.

Between gusts, Bill snapped a picture.



I wear a small crucifix. You’ll note it is blown all the way to the side. It would occasionally slap my ear. Note that the wind is blowing my helmet to one side, my jersey open, and flat against my chest. And you can get an inkling that I am leaning forward so I’m not blown backwards. Why am I smiling? I have no effing idea.

My drink taken, I cleated in, pushed off, and began the sufferfest anew.

The wind continued to buffet me around like a child going the wrong way in a subway, randomly knocking me back and forth. I tried as best I could to keep my bike in my lane, and failed often.

At this point, us 508ers were the only ones on the road. That was a good thing, as I got blown across the road into what would have been oncoming traffic countless times. Bill later told me that he worried about what he would do if someone approached us from the rear. They might hit me as I got blown over to the left of the van.

“Oh *****!”

This time, I was blown all the way over near the shoulder on the other side of the road. I muscled the handlebar over back to the center of the southbound lane. I didn’t dare attempt riding near the shoulder.

Instead of heading directly south, the road follows the general outline of the alluvial fans that extend from the Funeral Mountains. The most intense winds were to be had when we rounded a curve where the road poked into Death Valley itself, creating a venturi effect.

I looked at road marker.

“6.”

I’ve gone only six miles since the turn off!? Gawd, don’t tell me that! I have another 11 miles to go?!

At this point, I was pedaling hard in my lowest gear … a gear usually only use to climb steep grades. I had no idea what my speed was, but it was abyssmal … perhaps 4-5 MPH. On top of that, because I was getting blown all over the road, my actual speed in the direction I wanted to go was probably lower. This was going to take a long time, and it would feel even longer than that.

I stopped for another drink. The van pulled beside me. My statement was in the form of a command, not a suggestion.

“WE ARE STOPPING IN BADWATER. I NEED TO REST THERE.”

They didn’t argue. I was in no mood to negotiate.

In training for the 508, I learned to never count the miles until a rest stop or until the end of the ride. Just turn the pedals until you get there. Otherwise, you enter the “watched pot never boils” syndrome. But I violated that rule here … I couldn’t help it.

Another road marker.

“8.”

A recumbent cyclist passed me, screaming:

“THIS IS INSANE!”

More screaming wind. More near miss encounters with the shoulder. More pushing.

“11.”

The sky was clear and the moon was full. A lone lenticular cloud could be seen over the Panamint Mountains. You don’t often see lenticular clouds at night. But then again, you don’t often get winds like this, either.

The sandy sheets of wind at Stovepipe Wells now seemed like an innocen memory. I found myself wishing that there as a little debris in the wind … at least, perhaps I could see the gusts coming and brace myself. But whatever debris there was to be blown was long gone, and the 60 MPH gusts would strike me with no warning whatsoever.

I have no idea how long I battled out there. It’s all a blur of wind. It seemed an eternity between mile markers. Some weren’t there at all, leaving me to wonder whether they were missing or whether I had slowed even more than I thought.

But finally. Mercifully. Badwater came.

Lucky for us, the alluvial fans north and south of Badwater form a little cove … shelter from the wind. I could stand up without getting blown over, and my crew and I could be heard if we screamed loud enough.

Saralie had gone to use the restroom. She returned, announcing that it was "truly disgusting." Knowing full well that males are less picky about such things, I walked confidently over to the restrooms to do my business.

Saralie was right. This was "disgusting" in the highest (or lowest) sense of the word. The smell was awful. I had a light on my helmet, but I didn't dare look into the abyss. Some things are better left unknown.

Or so, I thought.

Ignorance is not always bliss. As it turns out, the smell was only the beginning.

KERPLUNK!

Backsplash, and lots of it. It soaked every part of my arse that wasn't shielded from the seat. Distressing when using *any* toilet, but especially so when using a glorified hole in the ground.

OMGing as that was, it paled to the nightmarish ride I had endured just to get to Badwater. My consciousness still clouded by the single-minded determination to keep going, I just wiped my arse off the best I could and exited. I don't remember if I even told my crew about my little baptism at 242 feet below sea level.

And no, I didn't pause to look into the abyss before I left. Some things are truly best left alone.

*Sigh* ... just one more adventure, I guess. This was grim. I was not looking forward to getting back on that bike.

Once I did, I began to notice another curious thing. Support vehicles, passing me, then disappearing on the horizon. Since the rules require them to follow their rider after dark, there was only one explanation … they were giving up. It had been happening for a while now. But I was so focused on staying on the road and keeping moving, I failed to give it much thought.

I wondered aloud if that would be my fate.

I passed a support vehicle on the shoulder. They had given up and were packing it in. I have no idea how they proposed to get their bikes on the roof of their car in that tempest. I would not have attempted it.

The support crew looked at me as I approached, stood there and applauded, shaking their heads. It was a much appreciated demonstration of respect.

It seemed impossible, but the winds continued to intensify. I wondered whether I could possibly reach Ashford Mills.

In retrospect, there was another factor. I didn’t get a lot of sleep after 1:30 AM the night before, and I was starting to feel it. The howling wind. The ground slowly, rolling by. At times, it felt like I was watching this whole spectacle from a distance. Like someone else was doing it. About the only thing keeping me awake was the terrifying crosswinds. I had to pay attention.

“OH ****!”

A gust of wind, the strongest and longest lasting yet, struck me on my port side. I had been pedaling on the center line, hoping to be somewhere in the middle so I had plenty of room to steer out the gusts. This gust caught my wheel and pushed me in front of my support crew, clear across the road and onto the shoulder. My front tire skidded in the sand and rocks and gave out.

I was down.

That’s a first for me. I’ve never been blown off the road. Never. Not even close.

My support crew pulled over, and Rick immediately got out and helped me up. I looked down and saw that my left leg had taken the brunt of the fall. It was bloody and scraped up pretty good, with a nice red bleeding cherry more than an inch in diameter on my knee.

On my right, I noticed a sign.

“Mormon Point”

Rick and I picked up the bike, and stood there to the right of the van … leeward of the direction of the gusts. All the same, the wind slapped us and made it difficult to stand. My bike was between us, and we both had our hands on it. With each gust, the rear end of the bike would flap like a beach towel in the wind.

All this time, the crew could only guess how severe the winds were. They were somewhat calmer in the shelter of Badwater cove where they exited the van. Not so at Mormon Point … the place where the Funeral Mountains poke deepest into Death Valley. This was a venturi … and the winds would be the strongest.

“HOW FAR TO ASHFORD MILLS!?” I asked, again screaming to be heard.

“ABOUT 8 MILES!”

Eight miles is a very short distance on a bike. But tonight? In these winds? It was an hour and a half or two hours away! Screw that.

“THERE’S NOTHING THERE THAT ISN’T HERE. LET’S SLEEP HERE.”

Rick paused. One thing about endurance cycling is that you have to keep going until you can’t. I guess it appeared to him like I could keep going. Maybe I lost my nerve, I dunno. All I knew is that continuing to ride in those winds would have been absurd to the point of being dangerous. Enough was enough. Rick agreed.

Rick and Saralie scrambled to ready the van for my sleep stop. Saralie had endured hurricane force winds in the 2008 Death Valley Double, so she is quite familiar with riding in the desert in terrible winds. Now walking around outside to prepare the van, she fully appreciated just how strong the winds were.

“I think this is even worse. I couldn’t ride in this.”

Not surprising … I outweigh her by at least 50 pounds, and neither could I. It was time to stop, and the more I thought about it, the better my decision to stop sounded.

Finally, we laid the bike down in the rocks, hopped in the van and slammed the door shut. The gusts rocked the van back and forth.

I was so busy, grimly focusing on keeping the bike upright and going forward, I didn’t have time to really think about what I was actually doing. That burden removed, the absurdity of trying to ride a bike into a near hurricane was obvious … even to me. I began to laugh hysterically.

I wasn’t sure whether the crew thought I lost it or what. Saralie later confessed that she was surprised at how good my spirits were through this ordeal. Good spirits, hell. I had no choice but to laugh. How could I do anything else?

For the first time since the bottom of Townes Pass, I checked the time: 5:30! I had been riding for 6 1/2 hours and gone perhaps 32 miles!

Oh no! Not only was I exhausted and in the middle of a hurricane … I was way behind schedule. By this time, I had hoped I’d already have slept and been well on my way up the Salsbury Grade.

I became aware of a dawning reality. Until now, I had not seriously considered the possibility that I would DNF. Yea, objectively there is always that possibility … there is on any ride. But this was different. I began to see that DNFing was more than just a possibility … it was a certainty if the winds did not subside. And there was no reason to believe they would. They should instensify as the sun rose … and that would happen perhaps an hour from now. I was screwed.

At this point, I had resigned myself to my fate. There was no way I could pedal another 200 miles or so into this wind. No way in the world.

The 508’s last time station is at a lonely crossroads called “Almost Amboy.” In 2007, some creative souls working that time station took it upon themselves to create “Amboy Memorial Gardens and Lemonade Stand” … a mock graveyard, with little headstones for riders who had failed to finish the 508 within the allotted 48 hours.



“DNF. OSTRICH. 2004”

“2002 RED ROOSTER. DNF”

“JACKRABBIT. 1994 DNF”



I wanted like anything NOT to have my totem on one of those little tombstones. But I could see that tombstone clearly now.

“SKINK 2009. DNF.”

Egad … another spring and summer training to do this all over again.

I comforted myself with the fact that if there was ever a 508 where DNFing was to be excusable, this was it. It makes no sense to continue when you can’t keep your bike on the road. I didn’t like it, but I could make peace with it. At least, I would have plenty of company in DNFland.

Since we were in DNFing anyway, there was no point in setting an alarm. I laid down and instantly fell asleep ...
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