The 1998 Furnace Creek 508: Tandems Take Charge

By Scott Garrison, Team Centipede, 1998 tandem team finisher
Originally published in Tandem and Family Cycling

I was a member of an eight-man tandem team that was the Fastest Team Overall at the West Coast's oldest and most recognizable RAAM qualifier, the Furnace Creek 508. We defeated a four man team which included two veterans from this years winning RAAM team, a nationally ranked masters cyclist, and a CAT l/Pro rider. The average age of our riders was (at least) 40. We were the fastest team because we rode tandems.

Our town, Bakersfield, California has a BUNCH of endurance cycling experience, including 75 double centuries completed, several team RAAM victories, winners of this years Badwater Stage Race (a one-thousand-mile race consisting of five double centuries over 15 weeks; the fastest bike overall, on a tandem); and we have won pretty much all of the categories of the Furnace Creek 508 (including the tandem division and now the team tandem division). Our town has what you might want to refer to as Positive Peer Pressure.

When the topic of this year's "508" came up, we just had to see if we could field a team. And field one we did, but we concentrated on friends who wanted to spend time having fun together (i.e. no "ringers"). We also wanted all of the crew to be personal friends.

For some of our eight team tandem riders the "508" was the end of a very long season, for others it was the focal point. Only one of our riders races consistently, but all of them regularly participate in the Tuesday Night "World Championships of Bakersfield." Also, many of our riders regularly do centuries and doubles, and all of us wanted to see what's up with the notion that tandems have eight times the kinetic energy of a single bike.

When you think about riding for 500 plus miles, for 23–24 hours straight, in the middle of the desert, climbing over 35,000 feet, ON TANDEMS, you have to ask yourself the most elegant question: Why?

Well, it might be testosterone, it might be "because it's there," it might be because a woman's team had done it in 1996, or it might be to see what a new type of racing is all about. But the main reason, honestly, was: To Have Fun. So why is this race not huge? It could be because it's at the end of a very long season (October 10–11), or because it's so long (over 500 miles) or even because the race has a great amount of climbing. But anyone who has done a century and has friends and access to minivans has to do this race. We all need new stories to tell our children and friends, and the thrill of the desert is unparalleled.

The course for this race does indeed have 35,000 feet of climbing, including ten major ascents. The highest elevation is 5,000 feet, and the climbs are scattered throughout the entire race. But the scenery is unbelievable. Death Valley, Furnace Creek, Scotty's Castle, the list is quite large. And you haven't lived until you have seen the stars above the desert. And the relative lack of traffic is fantastic. And on and on...

This year's race had over thirty people from Bakersfield in vans supporting a four-man single-bike team and an eight-man tandem team. I had been accused of ''talking smack" (i.e. being inordinately confident) before the race when I flatly predicted that our tandems would win the event. After all, theirs was a team of tested endurance-race veterans and as anyone knows, "tandems don't climb all that well." Still, I remained confident. Tandems, in my experience, typically go 1 to 2 miles per hour faster on the flats (and this race has about 250 miles of flats), and even if we gave-up 70 minutes on the climbs (i.e. two minutes for each thousand feet of climbing), we still had 35,000 feet of descending on which we would go, in technical terms, "way fast." The climbing thing was open to thought, I felt, since one of our local tandems had been the fastest bike at a recent double century which included over 8,000 feet of climbing. And another one of our tandems had two guys who together, with the bike, weighed less than 300 pounds. Further, another of our tandems included a guy who won the Cat 3 Death Valley to Mt. Whitney Stage Race (a genuine climber's delight). Also, I had a lot of personal experience at how fast tandems can roll downhill, watching guys get blown off the wheel of a tandem with a 56 x 11. And not all of that 35,000 feet, I knew from experience, was straight up; lots of it was part of the ubiquitous rollers tandem riders love.

And so we got our team and minivans together. And we set in place a series of strategies (in fact, we "scripted" the entire race, much like the S.F. Forty-Niners script their first several offensive series; this was, of course, followed for about two minutes during the actual race, but at least it got several of us to examine the course in great detail and discuss our thoughts and analyses). Many of our discussions included what to eat (of course!) [e.g. white bread is better because it's easier to chew, careful with too much Gu and Cytomax, they foster significant flatulence, etc.]. Other thoughts included making sure you have good maps, fantastic radios are obligatory, setting the vans up with flashers, and so forth.

When the race began, it became clear that we would compete with our friends for the duration of the entire event. The first "pull" was about ten miles, through a narrow canyon with fairly significant wind and lots of out-of-the-saddle rollers (i.e. NOT a good tandem road). Well we gave up the pace to the single bike, partly because I assured my captain Hank that "it's best not to 'wear the jersey' at the beginning of the tour." Anyway, we passed-off the baton, so to speak, to Scott and Ron (who were California State Tandem Time Trial Champions a few years back) and they promptly caught and overtook the single bike.

The race went back and forth a bit, but we got well in from of the single bikes long before we got to any significant downhills. We took pulls of 15–18 minutes and began to get in the groove of how to do transitions. Careful planning needs to be given to tandem transitions because the closure rate is so fast. And downhill transitions are really not an option. This meant that some of our riders were out for longer than they expected, but this was typically only the case on descents, which is okay. Besides, people don't get grumpy in a 508 mile race until 3 A.M. anyway.

The "508" is a relay race, which means that each bike has a van following it at night and shadowing is when the sun is up. The bike begins its pull when a team bike approaching from behind crosses their front wheel with the rear wheel of the bike. The pull lasts as long as suggested by the Director Sportif (always an estimate) and everyone has to work together to determine how to use energy, recovery times, stop signs as logical transitions, who should begin and end thc climbs, who deserves the next big descent, and so forth. Its much more art than science, but this stuff is fun in it's own right. Our crew was exemplary; otherwise we could not have ridden well at all, let alone placed first.

Once we approached the first major climb (Townes Pass, 5,000 feet) we were able to ride tempo up the face and still maintain our lead. I heard that the single bikes had riders out every 5–7 minutes (i.e. very fast transitions) in any effort to get us back in sight. Well, we got to the top first and that was that. The descent was mighty, to say the least, and Mike and Bob put their big gear to good use. After this climb and descent we were ready for tile rollers and kept our speed up. Downhills that are wide open are great for tandems, but any technical stuff can often be traversed by single bikes faster, partly because they have total control (no freaked-out stokers) and partly because what our Captain Mike refers to as "half-bikes" simply handle better.

About 300 miles into the race we were told by officials that we had a 41 minute lead. This sounds like a lot, but with over 200 miles to go they could ride 1 mph faster and make it a race. And this didn't allow for any navigational errors or mechanicals.

In a race like the 508 you typically take 23–25 pulls. I had done the race before on a solo team, and I told my captain Hank that if you ride 23 times you will have three "bionic, awesome pulls," three pulls where you wonder if you will ever feel good again for three weeks, and 17 or so "decent, solid pulls." Also, I told him that they can come in any order without any rhyme or reason. In my opinion, we had two miserable pulls in the middle of the race followed by, for absolutely no reason, a very, very strong pull. It couldn't be accounted for by caloric assimilation (endurance-race talk for digestion), rest, change of clothes, massage—this phenomenon simply defies logic or understanding. After the race Hank told me I was exactly right in my analysis, and then he tried to put his tennis pro mind to work figuring-out this phenomenon (good luck, Hank).

All-night racing is fun, very fun, in that it gives one experiences that they can't get anywhere else. It's not too expensive (no lodging!) and you have to eat anyway, and so it's a new and worthwhile experience. For me, one of the most interesting dynamics is watching who gets frustrated when. I love to ride the tandem because it's highly unlikely that both riders will fade at exactly the same time, and so you always have your partner to pull you through. Also, you have to keep going so you don't disappoint your friend (this stuff is why doubles are probably best attempted on a tandem).

But this "who gets grumpy when" dynamic is interesting to watch. Now, I certainly don't want to say or even imply that I don't get grumpy. The road to finishing is long and hard -that's part of the fun of doing it. After all, overcoming adversity is part of why we are in the sport. It's just that it's interesting to see what gets people going. For some, it's being out on the bike for 22 instead of 20 minutes, for others it's not having a transition at a stop sign, for some it's riding on rough road, for others it's not getting that particular descent that they really wanted. In my case, I was never upset or challenged, I rode a strong, hard race, I always took my pulls and never complained about what the team captain wanted me to do, and so forth. My riding was excellent; I was extremely consistent. Further, whenever I got on the radio my suggestions were not in fact interruptions, they were always exceptionally clear, logical and coherent. At least that's how I remember the race (did I mention that for some people, apparently, the "508" leaves one with an extremely weak and dysfunctional memory of the event specifically as it relates to their efforts and abilities?).

After you race all night long the sunrise is a spiritual thing. It invigorates you in a way I can't express well with words. You have been going at things for a long, long time, and you call see the light at the end of the tunnel (or, you can smell the hay in the barn, whichever you prefer). Anyway, you know the end is (somewhat) near (if you can call 100 or so miles "near."). One also knows from experience that the coldest time of the day is about 30 minutes after the sun conies up (it takes that long for the sun to begin to heat the core of the earth), and so you are beginning to get tired of the cold, and you know- that it's only going to get colder, but when you take off the lights and the van shuts off the flashers—and you can see!!—you feel great all over again (it doesn't hurt to have a big lead, either, which wasn't the case for my team in 1996, and so I know that this sunrise thing is marvelous any way you look at it). But I digress.

Well, we managed to put another 15 minutes or so into our competitors between sunrise and the end of the race. There is a climb out of Baker. California that is a steady rise for 21 miles, middle chain-ring kind o' stuff We got through this section quite smugly and the next 25–30 miles was pretty much the optimal proving ground for a tandem with 56 X 11 gearing. We accelerated the thing up to 46 mph a few different times and let nature take over (I would like to see how fast we could ride that particular section if we had been awake for, say, five hours instead of twenty-five hours).

We finished about one hour in front of our main competition and (some say obnoxiously) were able to shave and take a shower at thc hotel before they pulled-in (honest. Morn, it's just that we were so grimy after all of that time racing; we didn't mean to "make a statement" or anything of the sort).

And so there you have it: Tandems Rule. If you don't believe me, ask frequent century or double riders. And tandems are good because you can ride with anyone, and they are good because your partner doesn't fade at the same time you do, and they are good because you always have someone to talk to and... (now' I'm beginning to sound like a monk chanting).

So it was nice to do the race, and it was (of course) nice to win. But in the end, we had A LOT of fun. We had many, many people to interact with during the ride, and we certainly have a lot of people to share the memories with. And by the way, TANDEMS RULE.