Team Titanium Tibia: Comebacks at the 1999 Furnace Creek 508

By Chuck Bramwell, 1999 team finisher and also the director of the California Triple Crown.

At the end of the ABC Coverage of the 1989 Tour de France, Greg Le Mond lifts his 5 year old son up to the Winner's Block as the announcer says:

Comebacks are always a part of the fascination with sports
From so far down, to so high up
How does it happen?

Like so many things, it begins with the most simple belief
The one you must have in yourself
That must be translated into results by dedication
The knowledge that dedication which feeds on belief can make it so

It's near midnight on Saturday night. I look up and see more stars in the sky that I can ever remember seeing before—you could just see forever. I look to the right and see a huge mountain pass looming before us with a string of flashing red, orange, and yellow lights slowing weaving up the winding road. The climb is the legendary Townes Pass which consists of ten miles of 6-13% grades. The climb goes from 1,500 feet to the summit at 5,000 feet. Death Valley is on the other side.

It's so beautiful, I start getting choked up.

I ask myself, "How did I get here?" I'm in the middle of the Furnace Creek 508 Bike Race. Two-hundred miles down, 308 miles to go.

What a beautiful night this is. After a brutally hot afternoon with temperatures up above 95 degrees, the night weather is perfect for a bike ride with a very nice 78 Degrees. No need for arm Wwarmers, leg warmers, windbreakers or any of that other cold weather stuff. I think to myself, "This is it. This is why we came. This is what we had trained for. This is fun. But this is not going to be easy. After 200 miles, this ride is about to heat up big time. This is where the rubber meets the road."

Lee Mitchell, the chief guru of crewing for cyclists on this course, is just in front of us. Lee is helping his cyclist get ready for the climb. I ask Lee if there are places on the Townes Pass climb where we can pull our vehicles off the side of the road for a rider switch. Lee has crewed on this bike race many, many times. He reassures me that there are a few places for us to switch riders. Lee is so great…he gives each of us a lot of confidence.

I'm pumped—really fired up. I mention to my teammate, Tom Miller, "This is worth the price of admission right here." I hop on the bike to get warmed up for the start of the climb that looms before me. Hugh Murphy drives up and asks, "Hey Bramwell, where's your helmet?" Obviously, I'm really pumped…I'm about to take off without my helmet!!?? How embarassing this is…I head back to the van for my helmet. Now I'm ready. I hope I'm ready at least. I may not be ready. This has already been a mind boggling adventure for sure!!

I am one cyclist on a four-cyclist Relay Team called Team Titanium Tibia…the only one without a titanium rod in their tibia (lower leg)! However, my bike of over ten years is made of titanium. In addition, to make me feel at home, the team lets me carry a titanium rod that came out of Tom Miller's leg last year in an operation. The reality of how long the rod is begins to sink in. This is a very serious 15-inch long rod.

My team mate, Mark Newsome approaches at full throttle. "Yo da Man," Mark says as I start taking off. I yell out, "No, Mark, Yo Da Main Man." I truly mean it. You see, it's a modern miracle that Mark is still alive…let alone able to walk…let alone able to ride a bike again. Mark comes at me at full tilt for sure—his wheels are on fire!

On April 25, 1998, Mark was on a record-setting attempt across the state of Mississippi. Suddenly, a 1998 Buick passed his support vehicle, that was following him, and crashed right into Mark's left leg, breaking every bone between his knee and ankle. He only had 15 miles remaining to set a record across the state!! After many surgeries, Mark ended up with a titanium rod in his tibia (lower leg).

Mark's recovery was long and painful. A year ago, he was just beginning to start physical therapy and be able to walk again. He writes, "I almost can't believe I'd go from not walking to FC508 relay in nine months. I've had a lot of wonderful people help me…" Mark's comeback is so inspirational to me. You can check out Mark Newsome's Cycling Adventures and his accident at:

So I'm off climbing Townes Pass at midnight on Saturday night. It's my turn on the team to ride at red line for about 20 minutes on this climb. Don't forget about taking deep breaths. Give it full throttle. Think about how great it will be to see the support vehicle up the road with the next guy ready to go. This is getting steep now. Steeper yet. Just as I was about ready to blow up, there's Mark Patten ready to take over. Boy am I glad to see him!!

Patten is off like a flash. An amazing cyclist, Mark also has a titanium rod in his tibia. Long ago, Mark was involved in a jet ski accident that left him with a shattered leg. Mark is now fully recovered and proceeds to smoke up Townes Pass. Mark is a strong spark plug on our team…having ridden exceedingly well in the 1998 and 1999 Race Across America. We are lucky to have recruited him on our team.

I'm in the van and we crank up some Rock and Roll. Oh this is great: U2's "Rattle and Hum" never sounded so good. We head up the road about three miles then I'm out of the van and ready to roll again. I ask Ben Miller, our Crew Chief, "This doesn't seem so bad. When does this get steep?" Ben says, "You'll see." Hmm.

We use the CB Radio to try and get a reading from the other vehicle of where Mark is. A couple of other riders come into view…and then Mark approaches. I take over for another pull—and just like me 20 minutes earlier, Mark was about to blow up. Quickly I learn some respect for the steepness of this climb. It wasn't so bad for the first few minutes but then began to get really steep. I shift to my 39x21…up out of the saddle. Then another shift to my 39x24. Still out of the saddle. I really wish I wouldn't have asked Ben that stupid question about five minutes ago.

It's a beautiful night. A beautiful climb. Cool winding roads…you never know what's around the next bend. After just about ten minutes, I approach Mark Patten again. My pull was too short…I was just getting into a groove. Oh well, whatever is best for the team: I crank it up and make pass the imaginary baton off to Mark. Mark climbs very, very well. He takes our team to the top of Townes Pass.

Back in our vehicle, my other team-mate, Tom Miller, gets ready to take the last piece of the climb that will be followed by the white knuckler descent down the other side. It's getting a little cold outside: in the low 60's. Tom goes for the Windbreaker and gets himself pumped up for the downhill. This is not going to be easy: there are steep dips in the road where the cyclist at 50+ mph can go into what are known as "Black Holes."

It was on Valentine's Day in 1998 when tragedy struck Tom. On a rain slicked road a couple of miles from his house in Oceanside, Tom was completing a training ride. Tom was travelling at 30 mph when a car skidded out of control and hit him at about 45 mph in a near head-on collision. Later, the paramedics told his wife: "The good news is that your husband is alive. The bad news is that it looks like he'll lose his leg." Great news on Valentine's Day!

Tom later wrote, "In fact the guy's left front bumper impacted just above my left ankle with my foot in the six o'clock position at a relative speed of approximately 50-60 mph. This shattered the bone in my leg, nearly tearing my foot off, and nearly tearing the bottom bracket from the seat tube of my Trek 5200 bike." If Tom's accident would have occurred five years ago, even the best doctors would have had to amputate his leg. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, it wasn't necessary. He had a triple compound fracture. The photos of Tom's bike shattered in a dozen pieces have to be seen to be believed.

If anyone thinks about not wearing a helmet while riding, think again. In June of 1998, Tom wrote, "As it is, it will take months for my leg to heal, but my head was protected. The concussion knocked me unconscious, there is a large gash in the front of my helmet, and I sustained major road-rash on the left side of my face, but I'm alive and recovering." It goes without saying that Tom is a big believer in helmets!

Talk about a comeback: Tom has been on the long road to recovery ever since his accident…and in fact, completed four double Centuries in February to May of 1999. He then topped it off with a 350-mile ride in the Iowa 24 Hour World Championships held in September with a titanium rod in his tibia! We're talking a major comeback here.

So we're now at the top of Townes Pass. It's totally dark all around. No moonlight tonight. Mark Patten approaches and passes the imaginary baton off to Tom Miller. I'm in the back seat of the vehicle. Ben says: "Time to buckle your seat belt." Boy, is that an understatement!! Tom's brother, Ben Miller, is driving as we follow Tom down Townes Pass. The descent is amazingly fast. The cyclist drops 5,000 feet in 17 miles. I didn't see Tom apply his brakes once…he was in a full tuck the whole way down. With speeds of 45 then 50 then 53 then 55 then 56 then 57…it was amazing. There was total silence in the vehicle as Ben concentrated on keeping right behind his brother Tom blasting down the mountain. Full throttle. When coming over a dip, Tom's light and the van's light shone up into the night, leaving him with about ten feet of forward visibility. Tom just kept the faith that the road remained straight!!

At the next rider rotation at Stovepipe Wells, Tom passes the imaginary baton to Mark Newsome. As Tom gets back into the van with me, he has a grin from cheek to cheek. He loved it…as he loved the entire 508-mile adventure that weekend. We all did.

Later that night, Tom Miller and Mark Newsome took us through Death Valley at a steady 20-21 mph! As I sat in the back seat of the van, I was so impressed. I was witnessing two comebacks that I had heard about but didn't fully understand until now.

In the world of cycling, accidents can and do happen. Each of us are so lucky when we come back from a ride safe and sound. What I got to see on Team Tibia was guys celebrating their comebacks from horrible accidents.

I now realize even more fully how lucky I am. Deep down inside. I was honored to be asked to join this Team.

When we pulled into the finish line at Twentynine Palms at 4:30 P.M. on Sunday afternoon, we were mighty glad to see the finish. The heat on Sunday was brutal. We saw at least 104 degrees coming into Amboy and the famous Roy's Café on Route 66.

How hot was it? It was so hot you could fry eggs on the pavement. It was so hot, my Look cleats melted as I waited for the next pull at the top of Sheep Hole Summit. It was so hot, I drank over 25 bottles of Gatorade and sweated 90% of it. It was so hot, that of the 45 solo riders who started the event, sadly only 19 finished. I thought to myself that if I was attempting this as a solo rider, I doubt if I would have been able to finish. It was so hot, our team was just melting down.

Team Titanium Tibia wasn't the first team into the finish in Twentynine Palms. Of the nine relay teams, we arrived in 7th Place.

Our goal was 28 hours. For a long time, it appeared that our goal was just beyond our reach. We had to dig really deep in the heat of the day to make it. We did make our goal of 28 hours and that was a major challenge for us long distance guys. We averaged 17.8 mph with brutally hot conditions and 35,000 feet of climbing. We could have done much better if we would have had time to train for this time trialing sort of event…each of us are long distance cyclists and the team event is much different from what we are used to.

Each of us did the very best we could the whole way and each of us was very proud of our riding about a fourth of the 508 miles. The team feeling we had at the finish line was fantastic and we just felt great Sunday night!!

We did have fun. We made memories to last a lifetime. One of Tom's least memorable moments was when he was waiting for his next rotation and the previous rider came in before he was expected. Tom jumped on the bike and started to pedal away for a fast decent down to Trona when he realized he had forgotten to put on his cycling shoes and took off in his tennis shoes!!

We had to have the best Crew on the road. Tom's brother Ben, was just phenomenal and assisted by his lab partner, Toste Tanhua…they just made a great team. In the other vehicle was John Rowe, who came to our rescue with his huge Dodge RAAM van and was assisted by 508 veteran Bob Harting who helped with a wealth of experience. These guys were just the best and were the reason we did so well. They kept their cool in the hardest and hottest of conditions. Thanks to each of them for an incredible experience.

Later Tom wrote, "It's been great working with you guys and I want to thank you one and all. You've all helped me achieve a dream come true, a dream that started with a nightmare 20 months ago. I swore in the hospital then that I'd do this and with all your help, I've done it!"

Comebacks are always a part of the fascination with sports
From so far down, to so high up
How does it happen?

Like so many things, it begins with the most simple belief
The one you must have in yourself
That must be translated into results by dedication
The knowledge that dedication which feeds on belief can make it so

I was honored to witness the comebacks of Tom Miller and Mark Newsome in the 1999 Furnace Creek 508. I stand amazed at their determination and dedication