By Bernie Barge of Team Basenji
It's easier than you think! That's what it says on the front page of the web site that describes one of the toughest but most gratifying endurance bicycling challenges available, bar none. As the name implies, the race is 508 miles long and travels through stark desert scenery, desolate roads, and over epic mountain vistas. Make no mistake about it though, this is no simple bicycle tour, the 508 is a race. From the minute that you walk into the pre-race banquet it's easy to be intimidated by the caliber of racers that are assembled. From multi-time Race Across America finishers to former 508 winners, the room was full of some of the most accomplished ultra-distance racers from around the world.
There are several categories that can be entered. Solo entrants both men and women, recumbent (those are those funny looking bikes with the pedals where the handlebars are on a regular bike), tandem (two people on one bike) and teams. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to form a team instead of trying to race solo the first time. Asking around, I found three other willing participants. Shawn, who owns the local bike shop and is very fast. John from Templeton is an accomplished double century (200-mile rides) rider and is faster than he admits to. Finally there is David from Fallbrook. David rides everything. If there is a bike ride going on, there is a good chance you'll see David's smiling face. Anybody who doesn't bother with a speedometer on their bike has to be fast.
One interesting note about this race, each racer or team is given a sacred animal totem instead of a race number. Our totem is the Basenji. A Basenji is a hard working dog that cannot bark but whines a lot. It seemed to fit us to a tee. Forty-seven solo and tandem riders assembled at 6:30 for a 7:00am start in Valencia near Magic Mountain. We weren't there. We tried to sleep in to be ready for our 1:00pm start. The solo riders get a six-hour head start. Before the race even started, we knew we had some very serious competition. The Armadillos from Texas had come in 2nd once and 3rd twice in previous years and the Screaming Eagles from Bakersfield are perennial contenders. The Gastropods are a team averaging over 50 years of age and have some very good riders. The last simi-know quantity was the Red Rockettes. This is an all woman team with three very experienced 508 soloists. Could our fragile male egos handle losing to an all woman team? Yes, they are that good! Three other teams were entered, the Chinooks, the Whippets, and the Mongooses, all unknown quantities to the Basenjis.
Before the race we hatched out a well conceived, highly thought out plan that had Shawn ride the first 25 miles then we would settle down to pulls of 10-14 miles eac,h with me doing all of the steep down hill and switching on and off in the flat sections. We would relay each section just like you would see at an Olympic track meet.
1:00pm, the start of the race, our team was very nervous but confident, we had a well-conceived, highly-thought-out plan! It only took 17.84 miles for us to toss our well-conceived, highly-thought-out plan right out the window! Over the first 1,300-foot climb the Armadillos were in the lead with the Eagles close behind. Shawn was staying with them but they had already made rider changes! We decided to switch riders. We slowly lost ground to the leading two teams and made time on what was looking like a good battle between the Gastropods, the Red Rockettes, and the Chinooks. Randsburg CA. We had gone 115 miles in five hours looking and were feeling good. A long night was ahead. We were surprised when we passed the first solo riders on Trona Road, only 130 miles from the start. I felt bad for them. We returned to follow our well-conceived, highly-thought-out plan.
As I waited for Shawn at the summit heading into the Panamint Valley, mile 168, I gazed ahead up the valley. With the nearly full moon and the twinkling lights of the chase vehicles strung up the valley, it was a beautiful site. Reality struck when I went to turn on my lights and found out they were already on. I had forgotten to turn them off after my last turn and the battery had died. Bummer. I got the lights changed just as he rode up. Off I went, with lights but no water bottle. Oh well I thought; only seven or eight miles down the road the next rider will be waiting for me. Unfortunately, they missed the change point. Seventeen miles later, over the worst, bone jarring, teeth rattling, pavement I've ever ridden on I finally made it. This is where I learned just how deceiving distances are in the desert. I could see the lights on their car the whole way. It was like the carrot on the end of the stick. The lights never seemed to get closer. We're really starting to pass lots of solo riders now.
Townes pass, mile 210, is everything they say it is. Ten miles of 6-13% grade that we went up in three mile sections followed by a long, fast 50 mph downhill. Death Valley under a full moon was kind of surreal. We saw more animals here that anywhere else. One coyote meandered across the road sat down and watched David ride by, less than three feet away. I wonder what he was thinking as David rode by? Maybe he knew we were the Basenjis, one of his kindred spirits. It was nice to have a cheering section anyway. Our well conceived, highly thought out plan was starting to tatter. Shawn disappeared for an hour and a half, the victim of an Ensure and GU overdose. I was starting to suffer the effects of over-hydration. That's right, over-hydration. I've never had to stop and pee so much in my entire life. The long pulls on the bike were taking their toll. We were all getting tired. Our well conceived, highly thought out plan was thrown out again. We shortened our pulls, considerably.
As we neared Salsberry Pass, mile 313, the sun was starting to come up and there was the outline of a solo rider standing at the top with the rising sun behind him. He was either wearing very fuzzy leg warmers or he had leg hair about an inch long that was glowing in the early morning light. I was fascinated. As I rode past I was enlightened. Ah, of course, it was the Wooly Monkey! I've heard that after time you start resembling your totem.
Riding into Baker, mile 381, we had a big scare. The Gastropod van passed me up as I rode the last leg into Baker. That had to mean that they had caught us! I panicked and really picked up the pace. In Baker, John took over and I asked the crew how close they were. It turns out that they were about an hour behind. They had just driven up to get some supplies! I was relieved and exhausted. Out of Baker we had 21 miles of constant up hill. Our newly revised, well conceived, highly thought out plan was starting to work. The shorter pulls were not nearly as tiring. At the top we came across Tanzilla, the tandem team of Mike Moseley and Cindi Staiger. All I can say is "I'm impressed."
Mile 430. Granite Pass, staring at 20 miles of downhill. With the 4th, 5th, and 6th, place leaving at least five minutes ahead of me I was looking at a long lonely descent. This is what I live for though. Of course with the huge gearing on my bike I'm still pedaling at over 40 mph! Not much coasting here, this was work. Eight miles down was the first obstacle, two cattle guards with rebar welded to their tops. What do you do at more than 40 mph? You jump them of course! Six more miles and I can see the solo riders chase vehicles! Head down and pedaling I finally caught them less than a half mile from the bottom.
Mile 478 and 82 degrees, two guys are standing on the side of the rode wearing grass skirts and getting ready to start a camp fire. Turns out that we weren't hallucinating, this was time station #7 where the riders get lei'd as they ride by. It's also where you have to serve any time penalties that you may have incurred. The guys in skirts informed us that the next rider in front of us came through about a half an hour ahead of us. With only 28 miles to go we didn't have much hope of catching him but we were close to the finish and our spirits where up. As we drove up to the last rider change we passed Istva "Mackska" Makk. As we readied for the rider change you could see that he had a sudden sense of urgency. He did not wont to be passed, even by a team. Unfortunately, he got a flat rear tire just as he passed us. His support crew would make an Indy pit crew envious. In a split second, three guys piled out of their van. One held the bike the other removed the rear wheel and a third pulled a new wheel out of the van. The whole tire change was done in a flash. They probably wouldn't have rushed so much if they realized that our rider was still a mile back.
27 hours, 51 minutes, 38 seconds is what it took us to ride 508.4 miles with 36,000 feet of climbing. We came in seventh place overall and the third team. Words cannot describe the adventure. All I can say is that I can't wait to do it again next year! With a well-conceived, highly-thought-out plan of course!