By Reed Flamingo Finfrock, five time solo finisher and crew chief for 2001 women's champ Catherina Bumble Bee Berge (Followed by comments from the Bumble Bee herself)
Wow! Over the weekend of October 13-14, 2001, at a little race called the Furnace Creek 508, a Swedish bumblebee stung the field: Catharina Berge, a 5'5," 125-pound buzz saw on a bike, tough as nails with a big heart. I was part of her crew and privileged to watch a great performance.
Roughly, two years ago at our Saturday group ride out of Visalia, CA. (north of Bakersfield about 70 miles) one of our group showed up on his tandem with a new stoker. Chuck is a veterinary pathologist with UC Davis working and teaching with the dairy industry. We fondly refer to him as Dr. Death. When you ride in his pick-up you don't ask or explore what is rattling around under the seat! Catharina is a Swedish veterinarian Ph.D. student working and studying out of the same lab as Chuck. We just call her Cat. Now, Chuck isn't the fastest guy around, or the best climber, so the immediate thought was, "we'll be waiting at the top of each hill for these guys." That thought lasted but a few seconds. As we pulled out onto the road, the tandem took off like a rocket. "What's up with Chuck? He trying to impress this gal? He can't keep up at that pace." We forgot our usual 20-mile chat and warm-up to chase them down. It took awhile. Then we hit the first hills going into Sequoia National Park. I get dropped, as usual, but so do all but two of our best climbers. Cat is out of the saddle, pushing Chuck up the hill at an incredible pace. At that moment we knew we had a diamond in the rough. In no time at all the entire racing team had her equipped with a Colnago Dream, and all the right gear. In just a few races she became well known to the racing community. Before that first day on the tandem, Cat had only commuted by bike, never competing or racing.
For the past four years I have been trying to set a course record for my age group, 50+. Tom Winstrom and Tom Davies hold the 508, TNT, and RAAM records. I haven't even come close and now I feel too old to have a chance. So, last February I approached Cat about doing the 508 on a tandem, thinking of course that she could push me to a record.
She was immediately agreeable, so I started plotting out a training program. After that, nothing went right. Cat had reoccurring cold/flu bronchitis for several months. Then she injured a knee and was out for six weeks. All of my plans to do extended training rides were thwarted by problems at work. As a result, we really did not start training together on the tandem until a bare six weeks before the race. I felt that was enough, but a nasty crash and a nagging doubt about my fitness and desire started creeping in.
Two weeks before the 508 we drove to Santa Clarita to do a 24-hour training ride on the course. The weather was the worst I have seen on this course. Temperatures wee over 100 and a Santa Ana wind in our face all the way. We barely made the pass out of Trona by dark and at the top of Townes Pass it was 11:00. It took 16 hours to go 210 miles. I was fried; Cat pushed me up Townes Pass singing Swedish folk songs. That's when I came to the realization that my fat butt was in her way. I decided my mojo was still in Alabama from RAAM 2000 and it wasn't coming home soon. We stopped our ride at the top of Townes because I quit, not her.
On the way back home we stopped to eat and I told her I felt my fitness simply was not good enough and would she mind going solo? In about an eye blink, she said she had no problem with that. With only two weeks to prepare, not a moment could be wasted. So, I offered my car, equipment and experience to help out. Kenny, her fiancé and one of the two guys who can out ride her, took over getting bikes ready. Chuck, my favorite feeder, started working on the feeding program. We had a good team already working. Unfortunately, Cat had only three training rides on the aero bars and felt shaky at best. Cat is a pure rookie. Her longest ride was a double century and she only did two doubles before the 508, both on a tandem with me. Her longest race was the Everest Challenge, and if she hadn't run out of water on day two she could have beat the women's winner, who was a pro racer.
For me the 508 is a family reunion. I see most of my friends in one place at one time. Too bad the race gets in the way of visiting! Everyone needs to go to Hell Week so we can visit and ride! The pre-race meeting has it's sad note as we honor Roger, Norm and John Luc. I have lost four other friends from the cycling world since RAAM 2000. Rich, Walk, "Pops" and Edy, were all wonderful, interesting people killed by other people driving a vehicle. This barrage of death put a damper on my desire to train or race as well. On Saturday morning, in a cool, windless predawn, Cat seemed relaxed and ready. My last words were to do her best no matter how things turned out. If her best was 48 hours, no problem. I also warned her about getting carried away by the rabbits; those that blast off early then die out past Trona.
For most of the day Saturday we tried to keep Cat fed and slowed down. It became quite a challenge to come up with new ways to say the same thing—slow down, go easy, and stay comfortable. Every time someone was in front of her she looked like a predator stalking prey. By TS#1 Cat is first woman, 10th overall. The field around us keeps bouncing around for the next 300 miles. At Townes Pass she climbs with ease, occasionally dipping into her lowest gear, 39-26, but mostly dancing up in bigger gears.
Every 15 minutes we come alongside to feed. By the way, she ate a lot! Close to what I would eat, and I weight 90 pounds more! At the top a clothes change, arm warmers and vest. There are three others at the top, we leave right behind them. Cat has very little night riding experience and has never descended at high speed with a pace car. After the turns, she's on her aero bars, hitting 55 MPH. Amazing! Scientists still cannot explain why bumblebees can fly. The surface area of their wings is not great enough to support their mass. Somehow they defy a couple laws of physics. How she could descend that fast being so small, I cannot explain. I've hit 65 MPH, but with a disc wheel, a twelve spoke Shamal and a 58-11 gear.
Stove Pipe to Furnace Creek the only rider we see is Ostrich. After Furnace Creek, Seana blasts past closely followed by Panther Patten. For the next hour I keep asking Cat to stay back. I wanted her to pace off Hogan and Patten; get fed up and hydrated for the climb out of Death Valley. Just before the climb, Cat hits a nasty pothole (if you've never ridden this road, paved parts are getting rare) and her headlight flys off into the bushes. Her cat eye Halogen was purchased in Europe, mine in USA. To our dismay the mounting bracket is different. As Chuck stomps the bushes looking for the light, Kenny and I are preparing to duct tape a light to her aero bar. But Chuck finds it and it still works if slapped. So, for the rest of the night we have to keep reminding her to slap the light.
Back on the bike we reach the turn and find Panther stopped. Starting the climb she seems to float right up to and past Hoopoe Hogan with no effort. This is what I was hoping for. By this time she has ridden 100 miles further than ever before, so every foot is a new adventure. At the top of the first pass we find Akita having a picnic with his crew. Shortly afterward we pass Panda stopped by the roadside also. These two were tied at TS#1 for first place; things were getting very interesting. Panda caught us and exchanged a few words of greeting. (We had a nice ride at Hell Week and his dad and I crewed for Peter Pop, RAAM 97, part of the family) and spun off up the hill. Cat kept contact and well before the top she repassed Panda and by the top had dropped him to the point we could no longer see his pace car lights. At the top, a quick pee break for the boys in the van, arm warmers and vest and we are off again.
Into Shoshone we slow to make sure the officials know we are there. Someone yells out "You're second!" We go, "huh?!?!" There had been so many changes, passes and repasses; we had lost count of where in the race we were. We kept expecting the relay racers to start going by, so when lights came up fast behind us, that was who we thought it was. Much to my surprise, Ostrich flapped by. We had flip-flopped with him all race long. He beat us up Ibex and I figured he would pull away on the descent, but I am wrong again. Cat passes, pulls away and it's off to Baker.
Our main concern now is "will Seana and that big gear of hers catch us again"? The 8-man tandem team blows by, followed by a four-man team. Official Rick Amoeba Anderson shows up in a BMW with the brightest lights I have ever seen in a car. Race Director Kostman goes by for photos and an interview. We hit Baker well before daylight. We need gas but can't stop. We go up the road until it is light then blast back to Baker for gas, leaving Cat with plenty of food and drink for the estimated 30 minutes we will be gone. It turns out to be only 19 minutes and we see only one rider, Ostrich, plus Chuck has time to get information from the time station. We learn that "yes," we are in second place and that Seana has dropped. We decide the news about Seana would be kept from our rider. No sense in giving her a reason to slow down! As day two starts, the roads become worse and we can tell Cat is beginning to fatigue. A pre-race work related injury to her right shoulder begins to pain her, as well as 400 miles and 24 hours on the bike. All we can offer is Advil and ice cold water to help relieve some of the discomfort. I must say, I have never crewed for a rider that followed instruction as well as Cat did. No questions asked, just eat, drink and keep going.
At the beginning of the final major climb, an asthma attack hits and Cat can hardly breathe. Half way up Sheep Hole we stop to try and alleviate the problem. Nothing seems to help, but the boys in the van get a pee break. We ice down legs, arms and face. At least we can make other parts feel better. Back on the road and the insane Sunday afternoon traffic, Cat gets "lei'd" at the final time station then begins the tortures of the last 25 miles into a headwind. We start the mile countdown. "Only 25 to do!" 16! 14! 6! "Oh, I can't do six more miles!" she says. That's the first whine of the race – 502 miles, one whine. We don't know if she is joking or not, but can't help but laugh then spray her with ice water. She smiles sheepishly and presses on. Cat finishes in what has to be the best pure rookie time ever for a woman. Muffy Ritz was probably faster in '93, but she had raced ultras before. At any rate, I don't know of too many people who would turn down or be unhappy with a sub-32 hour 508. Second only to one person, and if we had known how badly the Old Fox was slowing down that last 100 miles, who knows? Going from a bike commuter to work-class ultra marathon cyclist in two years is simply AMAZING!
Bike – Colnago Dream, Campy 10-speed, Rolf Comp wheels and Continental 3000 700X20 tires
Food - Sustained Energy, Cytomax, Endurolytes, Hammergel, MLO, Balance Bars, potato and Mustard, PB&J, bananas
Sponsors - Sespe Creek Insectary (Reed and Jan), Southern Sierra Cycling Team, Action Sports
Special thanks to Dawn Camareno who donated her only bike for a backup for the weekend!
Comments by Bumble Bee
This was really an experience of a lifetime. I want to write a bit about my thoughts as a rookie entering this race, to maybe make other rookies realize they are not the only ones thinking like this. Little did I know, when Reed "Flamingo" Finfrock asked me in March if I wanted to ride the 508 with him on the tandem? I guess that my cheerful "why not? Sounds fun" just showed my complete ignorance.
I slowly started realizing that this was a very challenging race, which only serious ultra-cyclists attempt. I guess that my two years of road biking and my one double century (Davis Double) did not put me in that category. Well, I thought that I had a half a year to train. That was before my knee started bothering me and took me off the bike until June. Tandem biking is a hassle because either Reed or I had hinders, so we did not get to train together until six weeks prior to the race. Then Reed had a biking accident and hit his head on the road, and that put us out of training some more. Many a night I was thinking about the big challenge, and wondering if I could do it. I felt some confidence in the fact that I was going to be a stoker to a very knowledgeable veteran; but still worried about how my body would hold together physically and mentally. My nerves played with me and there was always the knee or some other part complaining while riding.
Two weeks prior to the race, Reed and I were going to do a 24-hour ride on the course. After 16 hours we stopped, Reed was still not feeling quiet well. That night Reed asked if I would want to do it solo, with him crewing? By that time, I felt that I had spent so much time worrying about this race that I would have to carry it through. So, my bike was for the first time equipped with aero bars and the logistics were set for Bumble Bee to enter the 508. By then, I was hearing to the left and the right that I was crazy. My parents kept contacting me from Sweden saying that it was insanity and not good for my health. They were seriously worried about the effects this ride would have on my body. I remembered reading about Nancy Dankenbring passing away very young, and wondered if my mom was right.
Reed had told me to stay off caffeine for the month prior to the race. I did. But the Friday before the race started, I had visitors from Sweden and I brewed them good, Swedish coffee. I had a cup too, and realized that the caffeine really was affecting me; I was jittery the rest of that day going down to the race.
On Saturday morning, the point of no return, I was standing there with the rest of the group. I decided to keep my own comfort pace and not worry about anything else. As Reed said, "your job is just to pedal, we take care of the rest." He also told me, "we will do everything for you, except let you get off the bike to rest and to pedal for you."
So, the rest of the story is easy to tell. I just pedaled. I was amazed at how awake I was at night and that after that first climb out of Baker I still felt good. The lat 50 miles were hard when asthma set in and the road conditions started to get to me. But, I just did what I was told to do. Pedal…
I had the most amazing best crew I could dream of. With the experience of the team captain, and all the crew knowing me really well, we made an excellent team. I want to thank my crew a million times for what they did for me. I also want to thank all the race organizers, officials and Chris Kostman for their excellent efforts in putting on a super race.