Why Not?

A Rookie Rider's Thoughts on the 1997 Furnace Creek 508

By Terry Hutt, Team Camel

When I told my friends I intended racing my bike in a four rider team across 508 miles of desert, they asked "Why?" I didn't really have a answer. I'm not a particularly strong rider, so when I told my buddies in my bike club, I'm sure they thought "Why you?" I didn't have an answer to that either. In fact, when I offered the opportunity to join the team to other members of the Redlands bike club, and they accepted, I wanted to ask them why too.

So, almost by accident, four average riders from an average bike club decided to participate in one of the more difficult endurance events inflicted upon cyclists. We thought we understood what we were in for, and it scared us. The reality was far worse.

Maureen Bowman and Bob Lugo were the mainstays of the team. They were allocated 50% more climbing than the other two riders—myself and Virginia Lugo—but they had slightly fewer miles. Maureen is an accomplished endurance cyclist having completed five double centuries in 1997 and one triple! Bob has little experience in racing, but he's an amazing climber. I don't even think Townes Pass troubled him. I have some experience in endurance riding (I completed the triple crown in 1996) but at 200 lb. I'm too big to race. Virginia's a strong rider too, leading the pack in this year's Redland's Women's Century. All in all though, we didn't have so much as a cat. five racer among us. Our club could have fielded a much stronger team if it had wanted to.

As those who have competed know, a team is only as good as its crew. Our chief was Rex Reese, ably assisted by Sherry Hutt (my better half), and Eleanor Lippman. Despite months of careful planning, everything fell apart just before the race. We were supposed to have two vans and five support crew, but one van broke down on the way to the pre-race meeting. Half our crew was eating in Valencia while the other half was nursing a crippled van back to Redlands. At the last moment, we decided we had to make the best of things and chose to use a light pickup truck instead of the sick van. This forced us to drop two crew members and lots of supplies and equipment. This decision was made in the best tradition of endurance cycling ... Never, never, never give up!

The morning of the race we all gathered in the parking lot of the Ranch House Inn and watched the other teams prepare their superbly equipped vans. Most of them spent more on their van rentals than we did on our entire budget. These guys had chiropractors and beds! Their bikes cost more than our support vehicles. Their support vehicles cost more than my house! Bob made the comment that it's not the bikes that count—it's the engines. And then we saw the engines! We were totally outclassed. We knew right then that we would never see the other teams again. We weren't racing these guys, we were just cycling down the same stretches of road at roughly the same time as them.

Maureen started the race for us because it was mainly her idea. We were last at the first rider swap and that's the way it stayed. Being last is the best place to be—there's no pressure except for the 41 hour time limit and we figured even we could beat that. Bob and Maureen took turns for the next two hours and we soon realized that our rider swaps were too far apart. This came to haunt us near the end of the race. We should have set them 20 minutes apart instead of 30 and also limited all climbs to 500' or less.

Virginia and I took over for four hours somewhere on the plain between Johnson Summit and Mojave. We managed not to get lost in Mojave and even remembered to check in at the first time station. I got a severe cramp just at Neutralia Road and belatedly realized how much salt I was loosing. I got a quart of Gatorade down me in the nick of time. Rex and Sherry were doing a great job of driving the support vehicles and making sure we knew where all the turns were. Eleanor was moving into 'mother hen' mode and we were her precious chicks.

Bob and Maureen took the baton back on Redrock Road. At this point we were an hour ahead of schedule and just ahead of a pace that would break the current mixed team record. However we knew team Hammerhead was quite a way up the road and that they were set to shatter the existing record, so we didn't get too excited. One big mistake we made was to give Bob a 1000' climb up Johannesburg Road at this point. No-one should have to climb 1000' in 90+ temperatures when there are three other riders available. The amazing thing is that he completed it in only 21 minutes—an average speed of 14 mph on a 4% grade! Bob and Maureen took us through Trona which is probably the closest I've ever come to Hell. The bleakness and the stench of sulfur make me wonder how anyone could tolerate living here. Maybe you get used to it—fortunately we weren't there long enough to find out.

Virginia and I got back into the saddle 30 miles after Trona and I had my first really good ride of the race holding 25 to 30 mph along a flat stretch of Panamint Valley Road. It was almost midnight and starting to cool down. Being English, I don't tolerate the heat well so this was a welcome change for me. All this was to end all too soon as we turned right onto Highway 190 and saw Townes Pass.

There's no way to describe Townes Pass adequately. To say it is seven miles of very steep road just isn't enough. It's a triple-ring salesman's dream. The middle four miles are the worst. The last mile is even nastier and the first two miles are definitely steeper than the other bits. On my stretch, I think I was passed by a tarantula. It needed all eight legs to get a decent grip. I don't know which burned the worst—my legs or my truck's clutch behind me. Do you get the picture?

Virginia got the first taste of it. Her stretch ended with a mile of 10% grade. As she pulled up alongside me she said "It's damn steep" You don't often hear Virginia talk like that. One point three miles later I had to agree with her. By the end of my stretch it had 'eased up' to a 7% grade and the climbers took it to the top. Bob passed our first solo rider just short of the summit where I waited. I had to feel sorry for the guy, climbing Townes Pass all on his own. But I had my own problems, like a 50mph descent in the dark. I'd already gone down Townes Pass on my bike during an earlier drive of the course and reached 58 mph, but I wasn't going to let that happen at night. I'd already heard about team Bison's crash on the descent into Panamint Valley!

Virginia and I continued on through Death Valley while Bob and Maureen slept. At least, that was the theory. Reality was a cramped vehicle and a short support crew so no-one got more than two hours sleep, and the crew all got less than a hour. Not only that, but Maureen, Sherry and I had less than five hours sleep the night before race.

Riding through Death Valley at night is fun. If you haven't done the Death Valley by Moonlight or Death Valley Double, you don't know what you're missing. This ride was particularly enjoyable as there was not a breath of wind in the valley and by 3:00am the temperature was down to 82F. We cruised through there at about 20 mph but started to lose time due to slow rider swaps. The sleep deprivation was starting to have an effect on us. In Badwater we were still ahead of our target time, but starting to lose ground. Another problem we had was that you can see the van's lights where the next rider is waiting for you while you're still about three miles away and they never seem to get any closer as you ride towards them. In fact, you'd swear they're moving down the road just as fast as you are. This effect is very depressing.

Bob and Maureen climbed up Jubilee and Salisbury passes and despite being tired, did it in just over two hours which is way better than the three hours it took me during the 1996 Death Valley Double. Death Valley at dawn is an awesome sight and we timed it perfectly, looking back over it from 2,000' up as the Sun's red rays etched every detail in this bizarre landscape.

We blew through Shoshone, stopping only to gas the big van. We caught a gusty headwind as we turned south which slowed me down considerably. I had a flat nine mile stretch that should have taken 33 minutes but actually took me 47. Even Virginia, who is a much stronger rider than me, was slowed noticeably. This is where I made another big mistake. Don't destroy yourself fighting a headwind—just put your head down, drop a few gears, and spin into it. By the time we got to Baker, I was completely depleted. What's worse, I'd stayed in my big chainring too much and my knees were hurting.

Baker is a wonderful town. It's the first town for over 300 miles that doesn't stink. It has a Bun Boy restaurant that serves great food. I was tired, I was hungry, and I wanted my Burger! The rest of the team wanted to keep riding, but the thought of that burger is all that had kept me going since Shoshone, so I stopped. This did not sit well with the rest of the team. After I had recovered for 30 minutes, I caught up with them just at the railroad tracks at the Kelso-Cima Road.

There was a train stuck on the tracks with about 30 vehicles queued up on our side alone. Apparently, a train had broken down on the next section of track and this train couldn't move until the other was fixed. We had to wait 25 minutes after I got there before we could continue. The interesting thing is that if we had all rested at Bun Boy, we would have avoided the delay at the tracks and only lost five minutes of racing time.

Only a hundred miles to go and we are tired! When will this race end? It's really hot now—much hotter than yesterday and the section between Baker and 29 Palms seems to be a series of valleys separated by ridges of hills. It seems that half the climbing is in the last 150 miles of the race. Actually it seems as if half is also in the first 150 miles and another half in the middle 200 miles. Thanks to the headwind and the train, we are no longer ahead of schedule. In fact, due to exhaustion and sleep deprivation we're now falling behind. Also, we have some long rider stretches at a time when we want short ones. A ten mile bike ride may be trivial on most Sunday mornings, but on this one it's painful. This was yet another mistake in planning.

Finally you turn right onto 29 Palms Highway. There's only four miles to go. Civilization. A KFC—Oh the smell of it! There's the finish line ahead on the left. Make the turn and try to smile for the camera. We came in last which is exactly what we planned to do. We were 30 minutes behind our estimated time which we blame on the train. Considering that we had almost given up on Friday night, we were very pleased with the result.

Few can hope to win—but all can hope to finish.