2001 Furnace Creek 508

Foreigners Dominate the Fabled Death Valley Speedfest

By Chris Kostman

The 27th edition of the world's toughest 500 mile bicycle race was held October 13-15, 2001, with 94 competitors from across the USA and Europe competing in the prestigious AdventureCORPS Furnace Creek 508 Bicycle Race. For the first time in history, both the male and female solo champions were from Europe. Rookie entrant Othmar Altmann, 41, of Villach, Austria, took first with a time of 31 hours, 58 minutes, and 56 seconds, while Catharina Berge, 35, of Sweden, won the women’s race, and placed second overall against the men, with a time of 31:58:56.

The 508 mile race course begins outside Los Angeles in Valencia, traverses the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, and then finishes in Twenty Nine Palms. It features 35,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and temperatures ranging from 40 at night to 103 during the day. The legendary route is nearly traffic-free, incredibly remote, and dramatically beautiful. Furnace Creek 508 is recognized world-wide as the premier weekend endurance bicycle race.

A major brush fire in the startline area almost caused a major re-routing of the route; up until and during the pre-race meeting and banquet on Friday evening, the race route out of Valencia was closed to all traffic. Race staff was up until 3am working on contingency plans, but though the fire was still burning strongly on race morning, the roads had been reopened. The race was underway, albeit with smoky skies. The solo racers beginning at 7am, the new two rider relay division beginning at 10am, and the four rider relay and eight rider tandem relay starting their full-throttle chase at 1pm.

Rookie entrant Richard Akita Ashabranner, a terror on the California double century scene was one of two to quickly get off the front of the solo field. Matching Ashabranner was two-time champion Justin Panda Peschka, who had gone off the front and never been challenged in his two previous victories. Just three minutes later, Altmann came through in hot pursuit, while Roehl Red Legged Frog Caragao, a many time Bakersfield relay team entrant, was fourth another ten minutes later. The top three women were in the top ten overall through California City, with Berge in the lead. Berge is an ultramarathon newbie who had learned how to ride by tandeming with Reed Flamingo Finfrock while working on a Ph.d. at the U.C. Davis veterinary program. She led Lisa Deerhound Dougherty and four time champion Seana Hoopoe Hogan by just a few minutes. This was Hogan’s come-back race, after a C-section delivery last December. The 50+ age group, with eight men and one woman, and the 60+ age group, with three men, were also super competitive, with five time finisher Peter Penguin Pop leading the charge.

Seven pairs, five male and two mixed, contested the new two rider division. Off the front immediately were solo veteran Gary Kudu Kliewer and his rookie teammate Randy Ballheim, known as Team Jackalope, as well as mixed duo Emmy Kangaroo Klassen and Bill Palmer, the Pelican Pair. The racers in this new category seemed to have the most fun of anyone in the race. Their smiles were biggest and enthusiasm most contagious at the finish line.

In the adrenalin department, the Davis Drills Mens Tandem Team was on a mission to take the tandem team course record away from Bakersfield, it’s arch-rival and fellow California Central Valley cycling mecca. In the four man division nobody could touch Team Armadillo of Texas, this year in a 50+ configuration headed up by multi-508 and Team RAAM superstar Michael Olstad. Olstad’s usual teammate Will Klein, too young to race this year, was saddled up as crewchief, behind the wheel of the largest truck ever to be used as a PSV, with a half dozen bikes on a rack on the front of the truck and four more in back. Don’t mess with Texas!

Four more four rider relay teams rounded out the field, including a 50+ women’s team, Black Widows, and Big Joe Petersen’s mixed team, Hammerhead, both of Bakersfield.

By Trona, mile 152, Altmann had just nudged ahead of Ashabranner, and they both had a thirty minute lead over Eric Ostrich Ostendorff. Berge led the women, with 11 minutes over Hogan and 26 minutes over Dougherty.

The usual ribbon of blinking lights ascending Townes Pass signaled that the 508 had returned once again to this pivotal portal to Death Valley. The ten mile, 5,000 foot climb always separates the endurance stars from the first day heroes. For their effort, racers are rewarded with a 17 mile high-speed descent into the valley, then a rolling cruise across the valley floor to the halfway mark at Furnace Creek. Here, Peschka led Altmann by eight minutes, but would surprisingly drop out of the race soon afterwards. Altmann, in second place but soon to be in first place, led Ashabranner by 48 minutes and Ostendorff by an hour, while Berge was just eight minutes ahead of Hogan.

After racing through the night and ascending two major passes, Jubilee and Salsberry, just to get out of Death Valley, Altmann led Ashabranner at Baker, mile 381, by 86 minutes, while venerable 508 and RAAM hero Mark Panther Patten had moved up to third, two hours behind the Austrian frontrunner. Berge held onto her lead, then solidified it completely when the usually indomitable Hogan dropped out on the way into Baker, citing lack of fitness after her pregnancy and delivery in 2000.

From Baker it’s a long grind through the Granite Mountains and the Mojave National Preserve to the remote hamlets of Kelso and Amboy. Time Station Seven, at mile 480 and just before the summit of the tenth and final major pass of the race, Sheephole, returned this year as the Hawaii Luau hosted by Greg Polecat Page and Dan Horse Dibb. Tossing leis around the necks of the passing racers and offering cold pineapple juice to support crews, this pair of 508 veterans provided good cheer and a final boost of energy to push onto the finish line.

By the finish at the Best Western Gardens Motel in Twenty Nine Palms, the Davis Drills Tandem Team had moved to the front of the whole field, breaking the Bakersfield tandem record by thirty-five minutes with a time of 22:45:22. The winning four man team, Armadillo, posted 23:09:55, beating second place Team Falcon by over three and a half hour hours, but just missed the 50+ team record by two minutes. A new record was also set by the 50+ women’s team, Black Widows, with a time of 30:21:55.

In the two rider division, Team Jackalope posted an inaugural course record of 29:24:24, while the 50+ pair, Bill Hanf and Davis Fischer of Team Chinook, did the same with a time of 33:53:40. The mixed pair, Pelican, notched 30:28:58 in the record books as well.

Solo race leaders Altmann and Berge sealed their wins decisively, posting impressive performances, especially as rookies. Berge placed 2nd overall, beating Hogan’s 1991 rookie time by over four hours in the process. She also won the Nancy Dankenbring Award, given to the fastest female rookie entrant each year. Peter Penguin Pop became the race’s first six time solo finisher, winning the 50+ age group with a time of 35:32:15, while Jim Pterodactyl Pitre eclipsed his own 60+ record with a time of 37:55:15. Anne Snail Darter Schneider became a two time 50+ finisher with a time of 45:18:00.

The 2001 Furnace Creek 508 was dedicated to a former 508 racer and a former 508 staffer, Norm Hoffman and Roger D'Errico, both of whom we tragically and sadly lost this year. Click here to read about Roger and Norm.

A live webcast of the race was produced by Keith Sasquatch Kostman and Nick Gnu Gerlich at www.the508.com, featuring over 600 images, time splits, stories, and results. It received over 75,000 page views and remains archived for ongoing viewing. Click here to access the webcast.

For complete race results, including all time station splits, click here.