Turning Up the Heat

Rugged Terrain, Difficult Climbs Make Furnace Creek 508 a Test for Cyclists

By Martin Beck, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It's not only sheer distance that makes the Furnace Creek 508 a challenging bicycle race.

It's not merely the 508 miles of pedaling, the 35,000 feet of cumulative climbing, the rough roads or the potential for harsh weather in Death Valley.

It's all of the above and more.

Yet Saturday, 90 hardy riders will set out from suburban Valencia, across the freeway from Six Flags Magic Mountain, and head in a roundabout way for the finish in Twentynine Palms.

It's a high-desert route many people would try to avoid in a car.

But race director Chris Kostman says it doesn't have to be an "insane gruelathon" for bicyclists. Solo riders have 48 hours to finish, which equates to a less-than-blazing pace of 10.6 mph. There is also the team competition, a four-person relay race that can cut an individual's mileage to a more manageable 125.

Four Orange County riders are doing just that. However, they aren't planning on a relaxing weekend.

"Our goal is to break the course record," said Scott Martinmaas, leader of the team. "I think we have a good chance with our experience."

Actually, Martinmaas is the only member of Team Rat Pack with Furnace Creek experience. He was a solo rider in the 1994 race, finishing in about 39 hours. Martinmaas, 36, is also the only ultra-distance rider on the team. The others are 22-year-old Cameron Brenneman, the 1999 champion in the California professional mountain biking series; Bob Mack, a 33-year-old road racing time trial specialist, and Don Miller, a 39-year-old triathlete, marathon runner and cyclist.

An enthusiastic group that met during rides organized at a Mission Viejo bike shop, the team is going after a tough record. In 1995, a team from Bakersfield won the race in 21 hours 47 minutes 12 seconds, but there were powerful tail winds for long stretches that year. Kostman said the record is somewhat "wind-aided."

Significant head winds—or crosswinds or other inclement weather—could doom the record attempt, but the Orange County team would then adjust its goal to merely a victory. After all, to break the record a team would have to average about 23 mph, only 2 mph slower than Lance Armstrong's winning pace at the Tour de France. And unlike Armstrong, Furnace Creek teams don't have the advantage of full-night rests or drafting behind teammates.

"We have some high expectations," Martinmaas said. "I guess we'll find out what we are made of."

Team Rat Pack believes it has a powerful weapon in Brenneman, who will handle the majority of the climbing. "I think we can pretty much say that Cameron will be the strongest climber out there," Mack said.

You have to be solid on the hills to win professional cross-country mountain bike races. Brenneman has done that, but his teammates also rave about his results on the road. He won the Glendora Mountain Hill Climb, an eight-mile, 2,200-foot grind, in just over a half hour.

Then later in the day, Brenneman returned home to Mission Viejo and pounded to the top of Santiago Peak on a training ride.

"He rode up Harding Truck Trail in 57 minutes," Miller said, "which is faster than anyone I've ever heard of."

Martinmaas, a former bodybuilder and 1987 Mr. Nebraska, will be the downhill specialist, promising screaming descents of 60 mph. Miller, who has finished nine marathons and one Ironman-distance triathlon, and Mack will concentrate on the rolling and flat terrain.

Irvine's Chuck Bramwell, who finished the 780-mile Paris-Brest-Paris in August, is also entered in the Furnace Creek team race. He will ride for Team Tibia with Thomas Miller of Oceanside, Mark Newsome of Corvallis, Ore., and Mark Patten of San Jose.

Costa Mesa's Perry Smith, who has started every race since 1996, finishing for the first time last year, is one of two solo riders from Orange County. David Warady, 43, of Santa Ana is the other.

Long Riders: The Furnace Creek 508 is a non-stop bicycle race across some of the most desolate landscape in Southern California. Riders start in Valencia, heading east through the Antelope Valley and over 5,000-foot Townes Pass into Death Valley. The fastest solo riders will reach the finish, 508 miles later in Twentynine Palms, in less than 30 hours.