So Much for "Furnace Creek Folklore"

By '97 Panda crew members Ann and Bill Peschka

Someone tells us at the finish that no rider has ever stopped at Furnace Creek and then gone on to win. It's a good thing we don't know that when we pull in to Time Station #3. Breaking tradition for a crew mandated potty break, Justin Panda Peschka does continue on to win the 508 mile time trial through Death Valley. But first things first...

The strategy as of race morning is a closely guarded secret, known only to the rider. At 6:45 am, while other riders are checking in and checking each other out at the start line, Panda wisely uses the time mentally preparing for the ordeal by watching old black and white cartoons on TV. This is a tried and true technique that has served him well in his USCF racing career. When Justin finally arrives at the start line he rudely shuns his Panda backpack, graciously provided by the crew. Evidently Justin hasn't fully bonded with his totem yet. He is equally impressed with the Panda ears his crew wears all day.

Meantime, the crew, Bill "Puma" Peschka, Ann Peschka and JJ (Jennifer Jensen), do some networking in the parking lot. There are lots of friends from past Furnace Creek 508's and RAAM to visit with. Jaime is here with her new toy (van) supporting Hornet. Flamingo is fluttering around warming up on his bike. Peter Pop is here and almost all of the Penguin's RAAM 97 crew are either riding or crewing today. What a weird collection of people and vehicles in the parking lot ... a horse on top of a car, flamingo-like creatures, and the ubiquitous Horny Man lurking on Penguin's crew. Kostman in his familiar role is trying to get this mob on the road at the appointed 7 am start time. We (Panda's crew) leave before the start, hoping to get to San Francisquito canyon before the riders.

We get to the canyon in plenty of time. Over the next 15 minutes more crew vehicles arrive and we all wait. The first riders come up the hill; it is Toad (or Brittlestar?) followed by Panda with the others close behind. We leap-frog up the hills, trading bottles with Panda occasionally and waiting to check time splits. Justin has taken the lead somewhere, the gap becomes a minute, then two and at CP #15 (9:05) Justin has four minutes on the next rider (Toad or Brittlestar). This is about the last time we see much of other riders or crew.

Somewhere on these climbs, Penguin warns us as he rides by: "Justin is going out way too fast. This race doesn't start until after Townes Pass. Don't let him burn up early". He is truly concerned on Panda's behalf. We, the crew, are hoping and trusting that Panda has a good handle on his abilities. He doesn't seem to be straining himself badly so we'll see.

The basic understanding we have of an initial "strategy" is to surf at the front for the morning and see what happens. The strategy that develops seems to be "go out front and stay there as long as a Panda Bear can." Justin's style is to get down and work steadily, and it seems to be effective today. After the first time station , we see only officials and have to rely on their belated time station reports. Other than that we don't have a clue what's going on behind us.

From here on, the ride is pretty uneventful. Just a long dream, with lots of steady work by the Panda. It is hot, not windy, the dogs leave us alone. No mishaps or catastrophes. It seems to be eat and ride, eat and ride. Up to Furnace Creek, we see quite a bit of Hugh Murphy as he checks on us. During the rest of the night Premananda Childs monitors us. After daylight it is a mixture of officials and photographers. Thanks for keeping us company!

At Time Station #2 (Trona), Panda stops for about 3 minutes, then heads out while we do the usual gas, ice, and coffee. When we tell the clerk to expect 40+ more vehicles, she soon realizes that she should get the coffee perking. Panda's calorie intake is good, his pace is steady, he doesn't look tired. About three miles from the start of the Townes Pass climb, we change bikes from the Bohemian to the Trek. Panda motors up the grade, we enjoy the scenery, and arrive at the top at 5:44 pm. He strips, showers using the weed sprayer, puts on clean clothes and is back the Bohemian and gone in seven minutes. It's still light so we don't have to follow down the mountain. Wow, we see Death Valley in the receding daylight! That's a first for this crew. We start to follow around 6:15 near Stovepipe Wells.

We arrive at Furnace Creek (Time Station #3) just after 7:30. This is the half way point, only about 250 miles to go. The "crew directed" potty stop slows Justin down by five minutes, and from what the officials tell us later, we think Justin is 45 minutes ahead of the next rider. About this time, we finally put a tape in the walkman and give Panda some music while he settles down for the ride across Death Valley to Jubilee Pass. There are the beginnings of leg cramps on the way up to Jubilee. A little instant chicken soup tastes good about now. At the top of Salisberry Pass, we stop for a massage and some dry clothes to replace the sweat-soaked stuff he has on. It was warm all the way across Death Valley, but now it's cooling off.

Then on to Shoshone and up to Ibex Pass. Somewhere around the pass, Panda stops for a quick pee break, some udder budder, and a little leg rub. By the time we do all that, he decides it is time for a 15 minute power nap. We bundle him up in the truck to stay warm, walk up the road so that we don't disturb him, and talk to Premananda for a while. After 8 or 10 minutes, Panda jumps up, disoriented, thinking we all went to sleep and forgot about the race. Back on the bike and down the road to Baker, arriving around 3:54 am. It's time for another one of those pesky pee breaks for the crew.

We get some ice, coffee, relief at the mini-mart. Panda insists on laying on the sidewalk instead of going inside where it's warm. Mysteriously, he gets cold after a few minutes. We're back on the road again in 13 minutes. Then, it's climb, climb, climb for the next 21 miles. We put on a can of Progresso chicken noodle soup to heat as a post-sunrise breakfast treat. Panda perks up in anticipation. The sun is rising as the climb tops out and we begin the descent into Kelso. No trains to delay him today, unlike last year.

Time to pull over and eat breakfast. It's amazing how fast a Panda can inhale a whole can of soup. It's also amazing how fast a Panda can throw it back up. The moral ... For the crew: only give him a half a can, for the rider: slow down and chew. Panda reports it tasted best the first time. Elapsed time: 10 minutes. Total calories: 0 or less.

Back on the bike, begin the climb past Kelso Dunes to Granite Pass. Then down the long descent under I-40 to Amboy. No wind to help this year. Arrive Amboy at 8:51 am. He's down to 51 miles to go. Yeah! But, first the climb up to Sheephole.

On the way up the climb we see Chris Kostman. He thinks Hoopoe was 35 minutes or so behind at Amboy. We look back down the climb and beyond, but don't see anyone yet. We won't tell Panda until we get to the pass.

It wouldn't do to get passed on the home stretch, and Hoopoe has the potential to do it.

Panda covers the 23 miles to the summit in one and a half hours. It's getting hot now, still no breeze to cool or provide a tail wind. One last big descent into Wonder Valley, aptly named. Then the last 20 miles, the worst for many. Justin seems to be handing off empty bottles constantly. Ann is in the back of the pickup, alternating between mixing bottles and checking behind us with the binoculars. Paranoia abounds for the crew!

Finally, we're in 29 Palms. Walrus, who finished 4th last year, meets Justin and escorts him for a little while. Onto the main drag, up the hill and the Best Western is in sight. We abandon the rider and try to get to the finish line in time to get a photo of the finish. Not fast enough. By the time we park, etc. it's over, the toilet paper is broken, Panda is off the bike, and the clock says 11:42 am.

Final numbers: 508 miles, 28 hrs 42 minutes, 55 minutes off the bike, 13,500 calories, 1st place.

Justin rides for White Mountain Road Club, a USCF racing club in the Phoenix area. Our major sponsors are Landis Cyclery, Scott Toyota, Toyota Parts & Service, and Trek.