When The Devil Went Down to Georgia

By Zoran Musicki, 1991 508 finisher

There is this country and western song. What happened was, the Devil was really hard up one year. He was really desperate. Hewas way behind on the soul count, "he was willing to make a deal/hewas looking for a soul to steal."

So he runs into Johnny, playing his fiddle on a tree stumpsomewhere in Georgia. "Give the Devil his due," he bellows at Johnny, "/ But I'm a fiddle player too/ An' I bet yer soul/ Against the fiddle of gold/ That I'm better than you". Unbeknownst to the Devil, however, Johnny just happened to be the hottest fiddle this side of the Rio Grande.

Well, back in 1991, I was in a similar quandary as the Devil. I was really hard up. I was desperate. I was way behind on the mileage count on my bicycle. I was willing to make a deal.

Here it was mid-September, and I had ridden only 1,100 miles (or was it 900?) that season. Previously I had read in Bicycling magazine, that the average reader of that mag rode about 3,500 miles per year. So that's what I was shooting for, but there was no way. And every year, no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to reach that goal, or I reach it just barely, damn it. It just sucks!

No you don't understand. I love to ride. I'm constantly dreaming about riding my bike. Just give me my bike, and show me the open road, and get the hell out of my way (unless you want to ride with me). It's very depressing to be stuck on this godforsaken island where everything sucks, and not to be able to ride, and read about people doing tens of thousands of miles per year in beautiful places where I want to be and where I want to ride. So every year I try to get out of here for a while and ride my bike elsewhere. And I always come back from such adventures with incredible memories (in vibrant, colorful, moving pictures), that just make me want to ride more; riding my bike is like being in a movie, where I'm the director, the producer, the writer, the lead character, but where the plot is not known until it unfolds during the ride.

Anyway, I had subscribed to Outside magazine (just what I needed to depress me even more), and, on this September day, feeling guilty I hadn't yet started to read the first issue, decided to read just one page, as I was getting ready for work. So, I randomly opened a page. And I looked at it. And there it was. A message. For me. From the Devil.

It said there was a 500 (and eight) mile bike ride (race?) coming up late October in California, and that it was done Saturday through Monday. And that I needed a support crew. And to contact Chris Kostman.

Here was a heaven sent (I thought) opportunity to rack up some mileage in a very short time, and to reduce the abominable mileage deficit I was facing for the year. I'll increase my total by 50% in one weekend!

And the best part is, I'd be riding through my favorite part of the country, and on top of it through the Death Valley! Now, ever since reading about the Death Valley (in a western novel) as a boy, I wanted to be in it. And after I took up biking, I dreamt about riding it, in the summer, to experience the intense beauty and the beautiful intensity. For about ten years I dreamt about it. Finally, that August (in 1991) I did it! I spent four days in the valley, riding self-supported during the day. One day, riding from Furnace Creek to Scotty's Castle, I got sick of water (it had attained a scalding temperature—I know because I then foolishly poured it over my head in a desperate attempt to cool off), in the middle of Death Valley, 40 miles from the nearest living thing (or shade). So, it was touch and go for a while. But it's a place of an incredible, primeval, raw, unforgiving beauty, and here was an opportunity to ride through it again, in just a couple of months!

But the statement about the crew bothered me (I didn't even know what it meant, all I knew is I didn't have a crew). It looked like you had three days to do it, maybe they'd let me do it without acrew (I can take care of my own repairs). If not, I would just ask Chris to send me the Q sheet, I'd do it on my own, those are public roads, they couldn't prohibit me from just tagging along. Or I'd do it some other weekend, I love riding in the desert and the mountains, the scenery would be awesome. But in the end, I would get my five hundred (and eight) miles, one way or another.

Poor Devil, first he loses to Johnny, now he's challenging me!

Of course, I realized it wasn't going to be a cakewalk, and I had trepidation. Previously, the longest I had ridden in a day unsupported was 170 miles, and I was pretty much wasted after that. And I would be riding with pros, who had done this thing a million times, who ride a million miles a year, who have CREWS (you can't get more pro than that), and they would leave me in the dust, which would be pretty damaging to my ego. And I would be forced to pack it in in the middle of the ride, because they couldn't keep the aid stations and the sag support running any longer. How embarrassing. Come to think of it, I would much rather do it on my own, someother weekend, maybe it will take much longer than a weekend. When Chris responds to my letter and tells me I can't do it crewless,I'll just ask him for the Q sheet and do it by myself. I can at least congratulate myself for having the guts to send him the letter and pretending like I was going to do it.

Well, Chris didn't cooperate. He sent me a very encouraging letter, telling me I could do it, that you had to have a crew support in a van, but that wouldn't be a problem because he was going to help find me the crew. He also said there was a 48 hour limit.

So now the ball was in my court. The agonizing decision making. Weighing the pros and cons. On the one hand, the fear of the unknown. If I said yes, this would be mind boggling; something I had never attempted—a crewed ride, long distance riding through the night, having to finish such a long distance in such a short time; it's like standing on the cliff edge staring in the dark abyss below, while Chris is saying "Jump". What happens when my legs start cramping about mile 150? What about headwind, didn't they factor that in their time limits? Obviously they forgot to factor in any sleep time, how will I ride without sleep? What about hitting a pothole in the middle of the night and my axle breaking? And what about the crew? I will disrupt somebody's life for a weekend, and then I'll be the last rider and we'll have to quit in the middle when we run out of time. And what about Chris, going all out for me, spending time to find me the crew, and then, nothing! All that work for nothing. Plus the devious way I dealt with Chris, never telling him about my miserable mileage count (for sure he would disqualify me then, I thought). (And I dealt the same way with the crew, everybody was told only after the finish).

On the other hand, I will get those five hundred (and eight) miles. If we run out of time, I'll check into a nearby motel and finish on my own. There is no way I'm flying back to New York without those five hundred (and eight) miles on my odometer. I told you that already!

In case that I did finish within the time limit, I'd be on top ofthe world. It would be such an accomplishment, nothing even close to that had I attempted before. It would be even more of an accomplishment because of my low mileage base. And I'm sure it would be an incredible ride.

What do I do? If I chicken out, I'll never know for sure if Icould have done it. It would be like closing the door on a possibility. I'll be kicking myself for not even trying, and Iwant to try anything connected with biking.

What the heck, the ride is 2-3 weeks away yet. Let me call Chris and tell him I'm doing it, I don't have to do it tomorrow, maybe the time will never come, the earth might stop spinning in the meantime.

So I do that. In the meantime I go to Moab, Utah for a previously planned week with my mountain bike. Another 200 miles added to the total. Besides that, no other significant additions by the time D-day rolls around.

You know what Chris did? He and his friend, Dave Reese (of Suspension Eyewear, manning the time station #3, at Furnace Creek), got me the best crew anyone could possibly hope for! And on such short notice! Let's see, the rider least likely to succeed is given the cream of the crop by the unsuspecting organizers. Now I don't know how I'm going to look those people in the eye when things don't work out!

They are Hugh and Betty Freed, who, later on bring on board their friend Ken Cummins. They are all excellent. Both Betty and Hugh are very experienced, having crewed in this event and the RAAM several times. Betty runs a tight ship, she has everything organized, she knows what food I need and when and she tells me what I need to do at any given moment. For example, tucking it in on a downhill late in the event was a no-no; I had to keep the legs moving to prevent them from cramping, even though I really wanted to rest for a while. He's an excellent mechanic (both bicycle and car). I have never seen anybody fix problems with such lightning speed and precision as Hugh. Also, they tell me what kind ofliquid food I need to get before the event. They seem to know every inch of the route. They even give me things I didn't have,like leg warmers, to keep. Hugh also brought his mountain bike along, just in case my bike broke down.

I get the impression from Hugh and Betty that Ken is just learning,but I certainly can't tell that on the road. He's always very helpful, mixing the drinks, handing off, telling me what's coming up, always encouraging me. And in Badwater, where we took a sleep break, he sleeps outside, while I have a nice bed inside the van.In Valencia, he insists on sleeping on the floor, so I could have the bed to myself (I hadn't expected another person, so it was kind of crowded). Anyway, it was great to have another person (three may be the minimum, really), to help with the driving, and all the other chores. I've heard of the riders having to quit, because their crew was too tired.

As for the van, I don't need to worry about anything. I know, you're supposed to rent one, but Hugh insists we take their Volkswagen minibus, which is already wired, has all the lights,loudspeakers, signs, bed, etc. They used it as their home at the time, with occasional motel stops, and their dog, named Bear, comes along. (I don't think that Bear trusted me for a while, but eventually he got used to me).

Everybody's very encouraging, with Hugh and Betty telling me they were going to qualify me for the RAAM, and Chris telling me not to worry about cramps as long as I paced myself, and used energy drinks.

So, the fateful Friday comes. I don't want to remember how it took three hours to reach the LaGuardia airport (starting at 4 am),instead of the one it should have taken. I made the mistake of hiring a door-to-door service instead of driving. Imagine being lost on some godforsaken road, with a name like "Goose Swamp Road",in pitch darkness, and dense, soup-like fog. No sign of civilization, just an inkling of some overgrown bloody swamp, where nobody in his right mind would want to live, but the driver is looking and looking for the next pickup, and desperately trying to find the damn address, when it's obvious that we're hopelessly lost, and there's nobody to help us either because we are in this depressing swamp, at an ungodly hour, and we can't see three feet in front of the bloody van, and the driver can't read the map nor the road signs, and I'm going to miss my flight to LA which leaves at 7 am sharp, and that will be the end of this trip, they won'twait for me to start the race, and I'm sure the airline was not going to listen to my hard luck stories, it was a very special fare. And then, when he finally finds the ^&(&*& address, he's gonna make it up to us, so he goes for a shortcut, and then we get even more hopelessly lost. And then, when we finally extricate ourselves from that (with the help of the passengers), there are more pickups and more shortcuts; and again we get desperately lost in some hellish quagmire from some apocalypse movie. In the meantime, the clock is relentlessly ticking, and the expressways which we'll eventually use to get to the airport, are getting more and more hopelessly clogged with more and more rush hour commuters.And he's finding more and more ways to get us there "faster"."We'll take this parkway (which will take us a million miles out of the way) because it's better." "Better!" .... echoes the chorus inmy brain...."be'er"....."be-ee-ee, be-heee-eee", the reverberating cacophony of sheep bleating goes into crescendo, and my head isgoing to burst! And there was nothing I could do to make us get there faster. I'll never forget this ride from hell. Somebody else would have had a heart attack, I'm sure. Finally, we pull up in front of the terminal at five minutes to seven. "Well, Itried", he says, gamely. Luckily, my flight was canceled due tothe fog, and I was rebooked on another.

The above confirmed my fears that the Devil wasn't going to play bythe rules. He wasn't even going to wait for the race to start to play his dirty tricks on me.

At the pre-race meeting in Valencia, there's no sign of my crew.I also notice that my (only) bike needed some work (maybe a lot ofwork), and I gamely ask at the meeting if anybody had some spare parts for my front wheel. I feel out of place what with all these professionals who were there, and now I was acting like a real amateur asking for parts for my bike (nobody had any). I didn't feel bad since my crew hadn't shown, looks like they forgot, just as well, I wasn't ready anyway (the Devil wins). I'll just get my bike fixed tomorrow, I'll start late, but I'll do the ride on my own, I'll strap provisions to my rack (the Devil loses).

But then they show up in my hotel room later on, and Hugh immediately goes to work on my bike, he has all the tools and parts, and like magic, my bike is in working order again. At thesame time, Betty organizes my stuff (food, clothing, etc.) so that it's ready when needed during the race.

The next day is cool and it's raining at the start. My crew is waiting for me often on the side of the road as the race progresses, handing me off stuff, giving me Power Bars, encouraging me, telling me to pace myself. Then I realize that we are in this together, and if I finish, we finished together, and they deserve as much credit, if not more than I do.

They also give me updates on other riders and my respective position, and for the first day, things are looking up. For a major portion of the day we have a strong tail wind, and I do 200 miles in ten hours. Then on the road leading up to the Townes Pass turnoff, the wind was sideways from the right, I remember sheets of sand blowing across the road, in a kind of a surreal setting, as if my bike was floating on sand.

Before that there was a very scary section somewhere in some hills,I think it may have been on top of the pass after Trona. There were these gusts of incredibly powerful wind, from the left. On a couple occasions, I thought I was getting blown off the road for sure, and the chasm was very close off the right edge of the road. Miraculously, I managed to hang on, but then the wind stopped for a moment or two. Caught unprepared, I went clear across the road. Then as I straightened out, it blew again with full force, forcing me almost off the road, again. All I can say is, don't mess withthe Devil!

Eventually, I made the turn to the Townes Pass. The sidewind became a horrendous headwind (Hugh later found sand inside his spare tire mounting). We were told 50 mph wind speed. I looked at my speedometer: 4 mph, and I wasn't even climbing. I thought it was going to stay this way for the remainder of the race, and started to calculate how long it would take to reach the finish line at 4 mph. When I first started climbing, I was a little wobbly, but then I picked up speed, and passed a few riders (we were shielded from the wind by then). The crew were really happy with me, telling me I was looking strong. Then, near the top, it started snowing. I even remember seeing snow plows going the other way. Then, the snow turned into rain, hard rain (I'm not sure if I put my jacket on). Apparently, the Devil knew I like riding in hot, sunny weather, so he arranged for the day to be cool and for rain and snow in the desert (where it hadn't rained for a million years,I thought in exasperation). At that point I was going downhill, I was told 45 mph through pitch darkness and the rain. The van had trouble keeping up. When the rain stopped a little later, I was riding at 55 mph, through pitch darkness, and the van lights could not always illuminate me or the roadway because of the dips and crests in the road.

My crew was very happy when we made it to Stovepipe Wells beforethe gas station closing time; when I started the climb, it looked like there was no way, and they were making contingency plans for gas. Another Devil's plot foiled!

I changed into dry clothing and started toward Furnace Creek, along now familiar roads. However, I was going somewhat slower than I thought I should, based on my summer experience, as if I was pedaling through molasses. There was a headwind. After we passedt he Furnace Creek time station (and said hi to Dave Reese), and turned onto the Badwater road, the headwind became howling. My theory was that it was coming from deeper in the valley and would subside as we went along.

I would like to add that on this section of the route we passed the areas designated as the "Devil's Cornfield" and the "Devil's Golfcourse". And on another approach to Death Valley, you had to pass through "Hell's Gate" to get in. Be on the lookout for trouble now!

At Badwater turnoff, I felt very sleepy, and the decision was made to stop at Badwater for sleep. When we reached Badwater, I wasn't so tired. I didn't tell anybody, so we went to sleep anyway, which I think was a mistake. I should have waited until dawn or early morning, because that's when extreme drowsiness hit me. I think we slept for a couple of hours, which apparently wasn't enough for me.I don't think I'd slept well that Friday night, in anticipation of the race, plus I hadn't gotten all that much sleep on Thursday night, having to get up so early for my airport ride.

Jubilee and Salisbury passes were climbed agonizingly slowly. The terrain looked almost flat in the darkness. Yet I felt again as if pedaling through molasses. I was crawling, and I didn't know that Jubilee was just a false summit (didn't do that part of the valleyin the summer). So it was pretty devastating when it started going up again, seemingly without end.

In Shoshone (where we arrived around 8 am), I made the mistake of wanting a hot dog. Correction: the Devil made me want a hot dog.I had an incredible craving, yet Hugh and Betty had told me, nothing but Ultra and Power Bars, and maybe some fruit. But I really wanted a hot dog, and there was none to be found in Shoshone. Instead, I was given some greasy pork sausage, which killed me (at least that's my theory) and a cup of coffee, which I promptly spilled. I think the sausage caused too much blood flow to my stomach. I couldn't keep my eyes open (plus it was that time of the day which is the worst for a sleep deprived person). All Ican say is, that was a very nice piece of work, Devil!

The next stretch of the road went by very slowly. After that, and for the remainder of the ride, we had to stop often, so I would get a ten-minute nap. That killed a lot of time. It was a sunny day, which should have helped my disposition, but I was incredibly sleepy. I remember Hugh telling me to ride ahead while they were getting provisions in Baker. Instead, I started looking for a spot to crash, I figured half an hour would not hurt anybody. (They forgot to warn me that we were next to "Devil's Playground"!). I was not physically tired (until the last 20 miles). I just couldn't keep my eyes open. But I also remember riding very well certain sections, especially uphill, and observing some magnificent scenery. My placement, too, was still respectable (up until that morning we were even within the qualifying time window). Some ofthe other crews were even spying on us.

I don't remember getting passed very much (maybe while I was sleeping). I think I passed a couple of people, especially that second night.

That hill out of Amboy killed me. I thought it was only three miles long, and my odometer said I was only about 10 miles from the end, so I flew up it, with my crew's encouragement. But then the hill refused to end at three miles (it was ten miles long); I thought maybe around next curve, or the next, etc. This was very demoralizing, as I was getting tired. I should have just stopped and ascertainede xactly how long it was. If I'd known the reality, I could have dealt with it, but this was a black box. Again, the crew saw that I was getting very tired, and they did not seem to be volunteering information about this hill. But it's really my fault, since they didn't know me very well, for not telling them ahead of time that it's best to give me accurate information, no matter how much I may dislike it. Especially since I fancy myself better than average at hill climbing.

Then I was told, how many miles were truly remaining. The discrepancy was apparently due to a certain amount of wobble in my travel, which added about 15 miles to my total, as my odometer is fairly accurate. I guess it pays to travel in a perfectly straightline, but maybe this amount of "side travel" is inevitable oversuch a long distance, and considering you have to dodge obstaclesin the roadway. But then when I do a century, there is never more than a fraction of a mile discrepancy, whereas according to this, there should be three miles added. I guess I can't really explain the discrepancy, unless I was really, really wobbling badly when I was feeling sleepy that second day.

A more logical explanation is that we have proof here of Devil's involvement in this enterprise.

This discrepancy was very demoralizing also, especially combined with that ferocious (cold) headwind on the road section leading into 29 Palms (last ditch efforts by the Devil). We stopped several times for me to get a nap. I remember through the haze the van refusing to start on a couple of those occasions. But I wasn't worried. The Devil was no match for my crew. The last time I took a nap, we got passed by a competitor, Kevin Walsh. I got really upset at myself, and charged ahead, full speed. We passed him at top speed, while my crew was giving their approval. Later, Kevin inquired where I'd gotten the strength to ride like that that latein the game (he came in about eight minutes after me). I feel bad about not talking to him, but I was out of it in the van when he rolled in. I could hardly walk, but we did it, in 42 hours flat,I couldn't believe it. Chris Kostman was there, congratulating me. That's when I told him and my crew the dirty little secret about my preparation. So he made sure to give me honorable mention at the next morning's breakfast.

Also, along the route, the riders and their crews, and the race officials were always nice to me, shouting encouragement. I really appreciated that. I feel bad about not saying anything to the riders that I passed, but I was unsure about myself, did not want to waste energy and thought it was prohibited to linger in that position.

The ride to LA was fun, especially since we reached our (realistic) goal. We stopped at some dinosaur place, and took pictures. Then, in LA, Hugh showed me around while Betty was getting our stuff organized; we went to Dave Reese's shop. Dave showed me a picture of what he looked like after he wiped out riding the Townes Pass downhill at 45 mph. I was glad I hadn't seen it before the race. Then we went to some bike shops and Hugh told everybody about my great accomplishment (but it was his accomplishment too, and Betty's and Ken's).

Later on, the four of us went out for dinner, and had a really good time. I don't know how to thank them, it must be very physically and mentally taxing to be in a van for almost 48 hours, not being able to stretch your legs, always thinking of what needs to be done next, fixing problems as they develop even if you can't see straight, trying to motivate the rider when you're feeling out of it, wrestling with the Devil at 2 am, etc.

The next day I flew back to New York, the five hundred (and eight) miles securely under my belt. (Actually it was more like 520+, as per my odometer). The flight back was uneventful, except for the fact that the Northwest Airlines stole 3,000 miles from my frequent flyer account. (That was pretty spiteful, Devil. Why can't you graciously accept your defeat? After all, it was four against one, almost unfair I'd say, except that you had the home court advantage. Wait, it was actually five against one. That Bear done got sharp teeth, now don't he, Devil?)