By Jim Ryan, team finisher
circus n 1: a traveling company of entertainers; including trained animals; "he ran away from home to join the circus" 2: performance given by a traveling company of acrobats clowns and trained animals; "the children always love to go to the circus" 3: a frenetic disorganized (and often comic) disturbance suggestive of a circus or carnival; "it was so funny it was a circus"; "the whole occasion had a carnival atmosphere" [syn: : carnival]
The thing about the Furnace Creek 508 that makes it so damned fun is the sheer unpredictability of it all. The best-laid plans receive challenges at every turn (especially the turn onto Route 14 in Mojave) and the unpredictable nature of the course, competition, and everything in between makes this an event that tests the mettle of even the best teams.
This year’s rendition of Team Falcon included some veteran riders and crew, along with some new faces:
We were psyched once again to have Rob "PMF" Schaller on board for crew. He was unable to bring his park repair stand, satellite dish, TV monitor, and satellite receiver, so this year was a bit quieter as we were unable to watch the Beverly Hillbillies and the Brady Bunch in between pulls from the comfort of the rental vans. Despite that, Rob was able to bring his laptop (with 3500 MP3 files) his GPS, and his Spinal Tap, Blazing Saddles, Office Space, and his Fast Times at Ridgemont High DVDs, along with his always-entertaining appetite for doughnuts, fritters, Trona Burritos, and cuisine available in Baker.
Along with Rob, we had Colleen Conroy, of Pasadena. Colleen is surely a glutton for punishment, as she actually crewed with us last year, yet still volunteered to return. I've recommended therapy, but she's politely declined. If you want to meet a dedicated crew person, take Colleen as an example: She was scheduled to fly to Ireland Monday out of LA, yet still wanted to crew for us "as long as we would finish in time for her to get to the airport…" Colleen's ability to stay focused on the road for hours on end, and her ability to navigate the 15-passenger van like it was a Yamaha YZ-125 made her an invaluable team asset.
Tina Watson from Aurora Colorado agreed to crew in a moment of tired weakness. I knew I had to pick my spot carefully—I waited until her guard was down, and asked her to join us—as she was hemming and hawing over the idea, I was online with Orbitz buying her plane ticket. Sometimes those who go kicking and screaming make the best crewmembers. Although small in stature, she could bench press anyone of the riders on our team, and when whining picked up, she threatened everyone with bodily injury if they didn't "get in line." Her organizational skills are second to none, and her focus on the riders and the task at hand was unwavering. The only way I could get her to crew was to fictitiously describe the course as one of smooth lovely roads, crisp fall temperatures, and little bunny rabbits lining the roadside—needless to say, I hope she comes around and starts talking to me again before next year's event.
Rounding out the crew is Tammy DeRoche. In addition to her superlative organizational skills and attention to detail, she's a licensed Physical Therapist—so we had medical support on board if needed. Tammy did a terrific job navigating, driving, data collecting, and supporting riders. She's fairly new to crewing, but was very busy at the Michigan National 24-Hour Challenge crewing for Rob "PMF" Schaller and at the UMCA Iowa 24 crewing with Rob Schaller for my fat butt and the rather skinny butts of George Thomas and Terry Gooch. Tammy's sense of humor, entertaining antics when she got flustered, and DJ-like skills in selecting our climbing tunes made her invaluable to our success.
This year's four-person division was extremely competitive, which made it fun and at times nerve wracking. When racing started in San Franciscito Canyon, the pace was fast, with several teams packed closely together. Stuart Kroonenberg started the race with a terrific first pull, and Paul Kingsbury worked hard dueling with Duke Energy all the way up the canyon. During the first several hours, teams were swapping positions with some memorable "passing battles" taking place. Weather conditions were ideal, with good road conditions through to TS #1 keeping the pace on the high side.
First, hats off to Duke Energy—they really laid down a terrific race, and although we close to them heading toward TS #1, they put a big gap on us between Furnace Creek and Shoshone. Speaking with them after the race it's clear they had two things in abundance this year: strong climbing and loads of 508 racing experience. Of the remaining teams there was terrific parity between the Falcons, Poodles, Ouack, and Polar Bear. Race splits at the time stations proved that this would be close throughout, making for some terrific riding. Yodeling Plankton, Emu, Bluebird, and Snaildarters rounded out the four person teams for this year's event.
So what's all this about a circus? Well, anytime you have two vehicles, four riders, four crewmembers, assorted sugar-filled snacks, caffeine-laden drinks, and unpredictable issues at every turn, the term circus starts to really shine as an appropriate term for this kind of event. Now it's important to point out that it takes a while for the circus vibe to get rolling. But once it does, it tends to hang in the air for the remainder of the event. For this year's event, it hit full force when we missed the turn onto 14 in Mojave. "Runaway CPA" Kroonenberg was riding—one of our vans had gone up ahead to buy more ice. After making the right turn onto Highway 58, "Runaway CPA" picked up a healthy tail wind and increased his speed to the low 30's … while "Stop at the Top" was reading the route sheet figuring out the next turn, we blew by it. Realizing our mistake, we quickly pulled up along side the rider and "Stop at the Top" screamed out the window "YOU MISSED A TURN—YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO TURN LEFT!"
The words "left turn" stuck in his head. After synchronized U-Turns by both bike and van, the van drove up and turned right towards Bishop, while "Runaway CPA" headed off towards Bakersfield. The van drove down the road and waited for the transition. Eventually, we decided that it might be appropriate to turn back and look for our lost rider. Thankfully the second van was onto the problem and "Runaway CPA" was also beginning to think he was heading in the wrong direction. The rider spotted a crew vehicle for Team Polar Bear heading towards Bishop, and he then realized he was off course. After about a 15-minute navigational free-for-all, we were back on track… we needed to work back up past both the Poodles and the Polar Bears, both of who had managed to slip by us while we were out sightseeing.
Between California City and Trona we were keeping a very slight lead over the Poodles—for little curly haired dogs they sure rode fast. We kept pulls to 15 minutes, with riders opting between alternating pulls or "double pulls" giving their van teammate a longer break. At Trona, we were up by two minutes on the Poodles and 11 minutes on the Polar Bears.
I think it was somewhere between TS #1 and TS #2 that Stuart Kroonenberg added the next circus element to our ride. He came to a "T" intersection (maybe highway 395?) where he was going to make a right turn followed by a transition. He made the stop, then tried to pedal off in a big gear. He somehow managed to jam his chain between his crank arm and outer chain ring…in an attempt to reload the chain, he managed to get the chain wrapped around the crank arm …three freakin' times. He said to me "if this wasn't so serious, we should take a picture of it—no one would believe it." It's sort of like the guy who shows up at the emergency room walking with a fence post sticking through his rib cage. I've fixed a lot of chains, but I've never seen anything like this. Stu skateboarded his bike up to the transition point then we put the bike in the van and went to work. We had to pop the chain apart just to begin working on it, and then ended up relying on bigger and more sinister tools to dislodge it from the wedge between the crank arm and the chain ring. Using that pry-bar sized screw driver on his Campy 10 and Litespeed frame is like using a framing hammer on Ferrari … After a good ten minutes of screwdriver and pliers, we got the chain free and reassembled everything just in time for our van's next pull. After a few additional adjustments for chain-skip, the bike was running on all cylinders. I know Stu must be disappointed, as I've heard that those Campy chains can cost millions. ;-)
The climb this year up Townes Pass was a blast. There were so many riders cranking up the hill that it provided great energy for all the racers. Our team hammered hard—Kingsbury, Reed, and Kroonenberg were flying. For those of you wondering about musical selection, we strongly recommend Nickelback, Puddle of Mud, and of course, Motley Crue. We took short, fast pulls and made it to the top with great efficiency. This year's descent was great—warm temperatures and virtually no head or cross winds. Our team's max speed was 60.1 through those freaky dips (did anyone else get a crazy feeling of vertigo while launching over the top of those things at 50 MPH with the van lights "not quite behind you yet"?).
Our climb up the pass put a little gap on the poodles, giving us a nine-minute lead by Furnace Creek. We used a similar climbing strategy on Jubilee and Salisbury, and the climbs were quick and uneventful. Kingsbury hammered the descent off of Salisbury, and we were rocking toward Shoshone. This was a great section of the course—tailwinds and good roads made for some awesome riding—it's one of those moments where you find yourself riding in the dark with a big shit-eating grin on your face.
There has been a bit of a tradition with Team Falcon at the 508 that dates back to the 2000 508 when several of us crewed for Gary "Bear" Baierl. Gary is a classical music aficionado, and during his successful solo ride that year brought classical CDs to be played over the PA system. Rob "PMF" Schaller had other ideas—we started to play Sammy Davis Junior's hit single "Candy Man"; first for Gary (who hated it) then for other solo riders (who also hated it). Last year Rob snuck it into the music mix for Team Falcon 2002 (who all laughed uncontrollably about it). This year, the word about Candy Man got out to a novice crew at the Race Across Oregon who crewed for Kroonenberg and Ryan and it got plenty of airplay in the Pacific Northwest. So needless to say, it was a given that it would be heard at FC. I heard it the first time when I was starting my first pull of the race and Rob "PMF" drove by—Sammy was blasting.
So now the tradition expands: At the pre-race meeting, George Thomas and Terri Gooch (crewing for Tree Frog) requested that we fire up a little Candy Man when we passed their rider on the course (as a secret surprise). To solo riders, this song is like finger nails on a chalkboard—we were only happy to oblige. When we finally reached them on the course (on the way to Baker) we were having technical difficulties with our MP3 library, so we needed to think quickly. How could we torture Tree Frog—what music could we play for this rock-n-roll kind of guy that would make him want to finish the race that much sooner? Thankfully, we had the "Frank Sinatra Reprise" CD. We queued up "Luck be a Lady Tonight" and drove slowly past with Frankie singing "A lady doesn't wander all over the room, blowing on some other guy's dice"…Sammy couldn't be there, but we had the king of the Rat Pack, cranking out a classic Vegas tune. Although George and Terri were bopping their heads to the music, Tree Frog did not appear to be too amused—I'd like to think Team Falcon had a little something to do with his increased motivation as he neared the end of this grueling event, hmmm?
I took the final pull into Baker and switched up with One Speed Reed. He rode unsupported for nearly 30 minutes out of baker at a hammer-pace while the vans gassed up and sought out food. When we got him he was still hammering, but when he got off his bike you could see he was tanked. The amazing thing about this guy is that in between pulls late in the race he was toast, but when he got on his bike, he carried the same speed that he did early on—he's got tree-trunk legs, and he managed to generate huge power non-stop.
Everyone knows that the section of the course from TS #6 to TS #7 is just plain freak-a-delic. The roads, wind, and deceptive up-hills completely suck. I think the roads would be smoother if we were riding jackhammers. In spite of all that, we had a workman-like demeanor, and after some heavy radio contact between the vans regarding optimum pull times, we shortened up the pulls, keeping fresh legs on the course at all times. The crew cranked out nothing but smooth transitions, quickly dropping bikes back in the van and getting the rider inside for their rest. Kingsbury made a memorable descent down toward Amboy, and Kroonenberg was a lunatic climbing towards TS #7.
After Sheep Hole and our trick or treat goodies at TS #7, we maintained a good consistent effort through to Twentynine Palms.
We knew we had a clear shot to the finish (with no one in sight behind us) so we all jumped out at the base of the hill on 29 Palms Highway and climbed the short rise to the finish line together.
I've told my teammates and crew many times: the great thing about events like this is when you sit back after it's over and ponder all of the different things that happened before, during, and after the event. It's hard to believe that all these things take place over the period of a weekend. Like a great movie, the "508" has a twisting plot, phenomenal scenery, a great sound track, amazing characters, and a surprise ending—not bad for a circus in the desert.
See you in 2003.