By Bill Orr, Crew member Team Morro Eels
"Want to be a crew member and help us in a bike race??" That was the question. Bernie Barge and Jim Gerpheide were planning a bike race. I didn't have anything planned for the weekend, so why not. I sit in a car, maybe drive, look at the map and decide where we should stop. It doesn't sound hard...but maybe it is.
They call it the Furnace Creek 508. It's a bicycle race that starts in Valencia near Magic Mountain. It winds over the mountains out into the desert, through Mojave and then takes the long way into Death Valley. After this, you turn south and head down to Baker on Interstate 15. Then further south over the mountains to Interstate 40 and then over more hills and into Twentynine Palms. This is the finish line. Some people do this race solo, 508 miles. That sounds crazy. Some people race as a two man relay team, that sounds tiring. Jim and Bernie were planning a four-man relay team, that doesn't sound so bad. Now that I've been there and done that, four-man relay is just as bad. The solo people have 48 hours to finish and some do it in just over 30 hours. Bernie was planning on 24 to 28 hours. It sounded reasonable.
With a relay team, one guy rides a fast race for 20 minutes, while we drive ahead and drop off the next rider. When the first guy comes riding up, the second guy takes up. Then the first guy gets loaded into his van, they drive past the new rider and drop off the third guy. It keeps rotating like this...forever. If you are the crew you end up working about ten minutes out of 20 and sitting, driving or planning the other ten. You don't actually get any time to rest either. When the riders get in, you are getting them food, checking the bike, planning the next drop, changing the schedule or talking on the radio to the other van and riders.
Daylight comes and daylight goes. Nothing changes except its dark. You just keep working. Loading and unloading bikes. Being crew at night, you have to drive right behind the rider. This doesn't sound bad...at first. Usually the rider is going 20 mph on the flats or 15 mph uphill and you are plodding along behind, not just for safety, but to give the rider good light to ride in. One of those little lights doesn't do much at night when you're going fast. Then you get to a big downhill. hmmmmmm. It turns out that Bernie can pedal about 42 mph on his bike before he can't pedal fast enough. It also turns out that Bernie can ride down the pass into Death Valley at over 60 mph. 60 mph on a bike sounds fast. 60 mph on little skinny racing tires that could blow out at any moment is scary. 60 mph on a curvy mountain road is crazy. 60 mph on a bike—on little skinny racing tires that blow out—on a curvy mountain road—with a van 15 feet behind going 60 miles per hour—with its headlights trying to shine in front of you—on curves so tight that the stuff and people in the van are sliding around—is just LUDICROUS. To top things off, you go over bumps so fast you almost fly into the air and end up in pitch black because the van isn't over the bump yet. If that seems scary, then picture flying down the same road at 60, wondering if the van is going to run you over if you wreck and then scaring a bird by the side of the road and having it fly in front of your windshield. Except your on a bike, so the bird passes within 12 inches of your face. All I can say is I was just the crewman. I sat in a van and just hoped our driver John didn't run Bernie over. I just hoped I didn't have to scrape Bernie off the side of the mountain or out from under the van while praying the team behind us doesn't catch up.
No problems we made it. Somewhere around 5 am everybody is tired. When the sun finally comes up, the sleepiness passes and you're wide awake to go ten more hours and finish this race. And then it just keeps going, hour and hour, rider after rider. You pass more of the solo racers as you nearthe finish. More up hills, more down hills, at least its light out. Finally 27 hours and 34 minutes after we started, the team rode across the finish line. Second in the relay class. Not bad. The relay team in the 50+ year old class embarrassed us though; they beat us by almost four and a half hours.
That's OK, we get to sleep now...right...no. Now we are in Twentynine Palms, a long way from home. We stopped to see Jim's parents in a nearby town for dinner. Great food. Bernie wanted to crawl out of chair and sleep in the dining room though. So now we drive home. We have all been awake for 36 hours now and need to drive home. We all tried to sleep and trade off driving. Eventually we got home by 1:30 am on Monday morning. Guess what...almost time to go to work. Doesn't matter...I'm going to sleep. Rumor has it we qualified for the Race Across America*. Only 2,800 miles. The team should be able to do it in 6–8 days...non stop. Does anybody know where they can find a new crew member...I'm getting sleepy.
*Editor's Note: Unlike solo racers, teams do not have to qualify for the Race Across America.