By Robert F. James, crew person for Team Thrasher
Go ahead and read all the "Tall Tales." Check out the different descriptions of the friendly start. Immerse yourself in the attitudes of ultra-endurance athletes. Close your eyes and visualize the tail of lights snaking up and over Townes Pass. As the event nears, you can taste it. You've lived it and breathed it for the past year. The past three years. Maybe more. You've pictured yourself at every stage of the race. You've thought of the pain and anguish, and, it's okay to admit it, the triumph of finishing the 508. But it's just in your head. You haven't clipped in yet. When you do, it's your race, and your race only. All those stories and apocryphal tales are out the window. It's you, your bike and the open road. It's the years of training and dieting and more training and preparation and more training. It's all out there in front of you.
Well, that's not entirely true. Because there is a huge part of the race that is behind you, too. About 20 feet behind you, to be exact. That "huge part" would be your crew. They haven't slept. They're tired. Their legs hurt not from pedaling, but from sitting cramped up with your sweaty bib shorts you changed out of 100 miles ago. Their hands are sticky from Heed and Perpetuem and whatever other concoction you've ordered them to put in your water bottles. They're crabby from bickering and in-fighting with each other, then pretending that everything is fine when you roll back to ask where you are and what you are doing in the middle of Death Valley. You have learned to trust that hearty little group in the van. You just pedal. They'll take care of the rest.
Here's the reality. In 2005, I had just finished the Death Valley Double Century in the fall. It was my first double. And I had in mind that I would go out and work toward the California Triple Crown in 2006. Log enough miles to build my confidence and conditioning. Then shoot for the 2007 Furnace Creek 508. That was my goal. And I was well on my way until, on a training ride January 17, 2006, I was hit by a 16-year-old girl driving a Chevy Tahoe. I went through rehab and more rehab. Double century dates, for which I had registered, came and went, and I rehabbed some more. It dragged out until August 2006, when yet another doctor finally decided that "shoulder decompression" surgery was the only way I'd ever get better. "Shave off 5mm of my clavicle? Sure, if it gets me back on my bike. Take off part of the "ball" on the upper arm riding in the shoulder? Go right ahead. Start rehab all over again? Why not? But forget the 508. Forget the doubles for now. Sit this one out."
So what is a cyclist to do when he's been a hood ornament on an SUV and can't ride? If it's the 508 he really wants to ride, then volunteer to crew. And that's exactly what I did. I posted my name and contact information on the 508 bulletin board. And within an hour, I had received a couple of e-mails and phone calls. But one stood out. Eric Troili, aka Thrasher, had been the first and most enthusiastic. He made no bones about it. He knew the 508 inside and out, and I could tell he had done what I had done: read. Everything. We talked for an hour, and at the end of that time, he asked me to officially become a member of his crew.
It seems like such an easy thing, really. Find someone to crew, and then ask them. They say "yes" or "no," depending, and you go from there. That's all there is to it, right? Well, on a superficial level, yes. But there's much more to it than that, as Thrasher and I would come to find out almost immediately.
Aside from a series of e-mail exchanges and a few scattered phone calls, Thrasher and I knew nothing of each other. Leading up to race day, he had finalized his crew with his wife and best friend. I was the new guy, coming in as a jack-of-all-trades to help out with whatever needed doing. I think Thrasher saw me as a kind of security blanket. I was another pair of hands who could change a tire, fix a flat, swap out a chain, or some other small mechanical function. I was a licensed driver who could take a shift behind the wheel, which is vitally important in the 508. And Thrasher and I also clicked on an emotional level in those e-mails and phone calls. We had similar personalities.
"I'm going to finish," he had said in our first phone conversation. "I just need you to help get me there."
He wasn't out to win the race, which was fine by me. He was out there to prove something to himself. He was determined and his mind was set. I liked his attitude, and he was the kind of rider who would allow me to do what I wanted to do most, which was recon the course. I wanted to see the massive climbs. I wanted to see just how fast the descent really is into Death Valley. And I wanted to see first-hand what it was like to crew, so I could better decide which of my friends to ask when it was my turn to ride.
I live in San Jose, and Thrasher and his wife had driven down from Washington State prior to the race. We had arranged for me to drive down the day before and meet them at the hotel. He covered my expenses down, as well as paying for my hotel room at the start and finish lines. And on top of that, he gave me the one thing I requested, which was the AdventureCorps 508 t-shirt. That was my payment for crewing for him, and I was more than happy with it. I had brought down a bunch of extra supplies just in case. But when I pulled into the parking lot in Santa Clarita, it was obvious I wouldn't need to bring any of them along.
When I saw Thrasher standing outside, I knew I had picked a good cyclist to support. He was lean and fit. He had his bike on a stand and swapping out a chain on his new Madone. He smiled and shook my hand, gave me a room key to the hotel, and told me to go ahead and get settled in. I took my luggage upstairs, met his wife briefly, then headed back down to just shoot the breeze and talk about what, if anything, I could do. Being former military, I immediately appreciated his attention to detail. He had a race binder full of all his forms, course info, directions, and anything else he might need. He had a nutrition log and a recipe sheet for his fuels and bottles. He was prepared. When he referenced a particular article, I could almost finish his sentence, as I had read the same piece. We seemed cut from the same bolt of cloth.
His friend, Dave, came down next, and before long, we were all there. Dave had brought along a couple of beers for our pre-race meeting. The crew all had one, which didn't seem like that big of a deal, but Thrasher refrained, already thinking about the following morning. As we started going over the rules and regulations for race day, the mood was light. Dave made a couple of quips about the crew finding a sports bar to go catch the baseball games on Saturday, and then Thrasher could just give us a ring when he needed us. We all laughed. By the end of the meeting, we all seemed to be on the same page, and I think I am safe in saying Thrasher felt comfortable with me because of my knowledge of the rules and how the race was going to be run.
We ended the meeting with Thrasher saying something to the effect of "I'll let you all figure out how to organize the van and run things. If you want a crew chief or something, that's up to you." We all nodded and figured we'd just kind of sort things out as it went along. Then it was off for the pre-race meeting and dinner, then a good-night's rest before race day.
It was still dark when we set out for the start line. Everyone was giddy and nervous and excited. So many racers, and so many bikes. If bike lust is a problem in your life, avoid the start line at all costs! I was bouncing up and down the whole time. I saw all the totems I'd been reading about. It was the difference between reading about an event in a history book versus packing up and actually going to the site to witness it first hand. And nearly everyone was equally excited. Other crews shared notes. Everyone helped everyone. There wasn't much elitism there. It was a genuine spirit of camaraderie in that parking lot. I have often said that cycling (and endurance cycling at that) is one of the most socially accepting sports going. It doesn't matter race, gender, or economic status, if you throw a leg over a bike and pedal, you're part of the fraternity. If you don't believe me, head to the start line of the 508.
Unfortunately for our team, the start line was a kind of premonition. As Thrasher warmed up in the parking lot, just cruising some laps and cycling through his gears while eying his new chain, checking the pressure on his tires, the crew was setting about organizing the van for our convenience. Dave had brought an oversized thermos of O.J., which he stuffed between the seats, and then sat down to complain about the early start.
Within a minute or two, Thrasher's wife came over to me and asked if, at my earliest convenience, I could check out the thermos to make sure it was just O.J. in it. Dave, it turns out, has a drinking problem, and there was a genuine fear of him spiking the juice with vodka for the trip. I was shocked, to say the least. But when he looked up and patted a paper bag with the remaining beers, I told him they had to go. He was upset, saying no one would know, but Thrasher's wife and I held the line and made him toss the beers. The thermos turned out to contain only orange juice, but it demonstrated a bit of the problems to come. Thrasher's wife had to tell him about Dave's behavior. What Thrasher should have been doing at that time was going through his pre-race routine. He should have been visualizing that first climb. He should have been thinking about anything other than the behavior of one of his crewmembers.
Instead, Thrasher had to spend time pulling Dave aside to explain to him that the 508 constituted 3 years of training. This was the culminating event. I didn't hear the entire conversation, and I didn't want to. But I do know that at some point Thrasher told Dave he had "better not fuck this up." Dave was a little bent out of shape, but we managed to get in the van and go. Dave also was a little irritated that we were leaving when we did. He wanted to wait until everyone else had gone, including the riders. But we explained to him, again, how it was against the race rules to do so. We had to be in front of the pack, not behind them, when they rolled out. He huffed and pouted a bit, but he did climb into the passenger seat. At some point we had decided I'd drive us out.
That ended up being one of the best decisions we had made.
I remember reading a lot about how impressive the line of support vehicles is when they're all congregated waiting for their riders. But until you see more than a hundred vans and trucks all lined up on the side of the road, the crews milling about smartly, all talking one thing or another, there really is no way to fully appreciate it. And I can only imagine what it must be like for the riders to cruise past all those people, who cheer and clap as you pass. The sportsmanship on that stretch of road is impressive, to say the least.
We were parked on the side of the road for about an hour before we started getting antsy, knowing the riders would be there any minute. And when they did come, it took us by surprise. But we used that time wisely, or so I thought. We did manage to finish our organization of the van, for the most part. But what is intuitively correct on the side of the road isn't necessarily correct for the long haul.
I also had brought along a digital camcorder. Back in San Jose after the race, I would plug that in and watch the few minutes of video I had managed to collect, and be disappointed. There just wasn't time to take video during the race. I was too busy. I snapped a few images and rolled a couple times, but things were just too hectic. I did watch a short clip from that waiting hour, though. It's the only time I have Thrasher's wife and Dave on camera. She is enthusiastic and cold, looking like a football fan huddled under a pile of quilts and blankets and a stocking cap pulled down low over her ears. She smiles and is excited. I pan over to Dave and ask him what he thinks. He doesn't smile. Doesn't, really, even answer me at all. I didn't notice it at the time, but afterward, the surliness of his personality really stood out. Hindsight.
But it's over quickly, and we are all trying to keep warm. Everyone watched the turn behind us, waiting for the riders to appear. And then the race is really on.
At the pre-race meeting, Chris Kostman will tell you lots of things about the course itself. He'll show you slides and films. It will be a good time. He'll also do a demonstration of how to properly hand off a water bottle to a moving cyclist. Everyone will laugh at him running across the stage in his cowboy boots. That's all well and good, just pay attention to it. It is the one and only way to successfully hand off a new bottle to your rider. I did it several times that first day, and leapfrogging really does take practice.
The trick to leapfrogging is to hang back. The temptation will be to jump in the van and take off as soon as your cyclist passes you. But let's put it this way. While you can drive ahead several miles and wait for your cyclist to catch up, it's often difficult to keep an eye on him if he's behind you. Better to let him pass you and get way ahead. No matter how far it seems he has gone, you'll still catch up to him in a minute or two.
You can't follow your rider on Saturday. You can't slow down and chat out the window. There's a lot of traffic on some of the stretches of road, so obey the rules. They're there to protect both you and your rider, and they honestly do work.
I was still amped up during these stages of the race. It was exciting, and the leapfrogging and bottle exchanges honestly do give the crewmembers a lot to do. It's the busiest time of the race for them, in fact. All the racers are still in close proximity, too, so there's always something to see or something to help out with.
Thrasher was doing great. In fact, his first 200 miles seems absolutely effortless from the crew vantage point. He was consistently in the middle of the pack or toward the tail end of the middle. His pace was a little slower than he might have anticipated, but watching him from behind, there was no doubt in my mind that he had the motor to keep spinning at the rate he was going. I figured we might have lost a little time at the outset, but we'd pick it up in the second half of the race. Every time I got out to hand him a bottle, we'd exchange a bit of information. He was never winded, and his spirits were good. He felt great. He looked strong. I knew the big climbs were ahead, but he seemed to have a natural penchant for the climbing, so I wasn't worried at all. The miles on the route sheet just kept melting away. I had every inclination to believe we'd continue that way.
The day had honestly been uneventful. Not long after lunch, I gave up my driving duties, largely because Thrasher had realized he would "need me at night." There wasn't much else to do, and his wife proved a good driver, though nervous. Sleeping in a van is a challenge, but I do think I managed to doze off for an hour or two. But I felt guilty about sleeping in the back of the van while Thrasher was out there churning away. It was difficult to not get up every stop and see what I could do to help. And there were times I did have to do it, because there was something needing to be done that Dave couldn't or wouldn't do for one reason or another.
By the time we rolled into Time Station #2, the first teams had caught up to us. Thrasher had miscalculated his estimated time, and he actually was well ahead of where he thought he would be at that time, which bolstered his confidence greatly. He was tired, to be sure. But it was the kind of fatigue one expects after riding 200 miles through the desert. He took the opportunity to change his kit before getting back on the bike. We also took the time to fill up with gas before falling in behind him. It wouldn't be long before we had to turn the lights on and start following Thrasher through the night, and the prospect was honestly exciting. We would at least be able to constantly monitor him, and we also could start pulling alongside him for bottle exchanges and whatnot. We were doing well. The crew felt confident. Thrasher felt confident. And everything seemed to be going well.
At 6, we pulled over and outfitted his bike with his lights. He used a bar-mounted front light as well as a helmet-mounted light that was much brighter. It only took a couple of minutes to get him back on the road, then we were off again. For the first time, it really felt like a race now. We could see the racers in front of us, and Thrasher would start reeling them in, then pass them. He passed one, and when there was enough space, we followed in the crew van. Then he passed two at a time, and we continued following him. On a short climb before the Panamint Valley, we ended up at the same pace as a van in front of us that was playing John Mellencamp's "This is Our Country." It was like riding behind an extended Chevy commercial, and I couldn't wait for Thrasher to overtake and pass.
The opportunity came at the summit of that climb, when the cyclist pulled over for a rest. Thrasher, though, rocketed down the descent into Panamint Valley. Later, Thrasher would confess that the descent was his favorite part of the entire race. He looked great on that descent too. His form was solid, and he was fast. In the van, his wife was about to come unglued at the speeds, and Dave didn't like me following behind him on the descent. He wanted me to sit back, but that would have been a rules violation. But I never felt uncomfortable there. Thrasher was solid in the middle of our lane, and it was easy enough to sit slightly off to the side of his line for easy maneuvering if he had happened to go down. Watching him on that descent, though, his going down was never a thought for me. It didn't even seem possible.
At the end of the descent, he turned his head and looked at us over his shoulder. His fist pump was enough to tell us how he was feeling. Then we were riding along the flat stretch of road, giddy, that would lead us to the final turn before "The Climb." The sun had set by that point, but our spirits were high. Then, about 20 miles from the Pass, everything changed.
The road went from a smooth grade to a pot-holed choppiness that, for the first time, made Thrasher pull over and stop. I put the van in park and hopped out to hold his bike for him while he got off and stood to the side. This would be the norm for us for the rest of the race.
"Tough stretch here, huh?" I said.
"I hate this damn road." For the first time, he looked truly tired. He complained of a sore back and legs, and he said his stomach was upset, but he did manage to keep drinking his bottles. He took a Hammer Gel, and Chris Kostman rolled by with his camera. Thrasher smiled and gave a thumb's up. He told Kostman he was doing fine, but that stretch of road sucked. Then he threw his leg over the bike and started off again.
We had 14 miles to go before the climb. I told Thrasher about it as we made the penultimate turn, but he was looking rough. His pace had diminished, and he had started weaving a little bit. He hadn't stopped much at all for the first 200 miles, but now he had pulled over more than once in just a few miles. Each time, he kept getting back on the bike after catching his breath.
Each time, I would get out and head over to him, hold his bike, pep talk a little bit, then get him back on his way. After the third or fourth stop, I had barely climbed back into the van before Thrasher veered wildly and almost jumped off his bike. He was stumbling toward the side of the road, and I barely caught his bike before he doubled over and vomited several times. The first of many riders passed by us at that time, and Thrasher sat in the van for a few minutes to collect himself.
He had been complaining of an upset stomach since the rough patch of road. And he had heaved a few times, but not actually thrown up until that moment. The vomiting, though, made him feel much better, and it wasn't long before his spirits were up and he shouted a cheerful "Let's go!"
I was excited, too. He was back in his form, pedaling strong once again. And I told him that form is fast, let's go knock out that climb!
That was the last moment of exuberance until the end of the race, still 30 hours and more than 300 miles away.
I've bonked before, but it was nothing like this. What Thrasher did was a complete and total drop. His system just shut down. For a brief, shining moment after throwing up, he looked great. He had only about 10 miles to go before the turn up the Pass, and I had every confidence that he'd make the turn and then head on up.
But after he threw up, he didn't take in any fuel. He didn't want to drink his bottles, because he was afraid of upsetting his stomach again. He also was religiously devoted to the Hammer products, so the thought of trying anything else was anathema to him. I can understand it, to an extent, but I should have insisted he get some calories back into him before getting back on his bike. Instead, he got back on and burned through the calories already in his system and then promptly crashed.
When we got to the turn up Townes Pass, Thrasher unclipped and just dropped his bike in front of the van. By the time I had gotten up to the bike and righted it against the headlights, Thrasher had made it back to the van and had crawled into the passenger seat under a mountain of blankets. He was cold and shivering and was barely coherent. Dave helpfully and cheerfully suggested we DNF at that point, then crawled into the back of the van to take a nap, complaining, even, of Thrasher's "hogging all the blankets."
Thrasher said to give him just 15 minutes to warm up. So I did. Then 15 more minutes. Then 15 more. Then 15 more. We sat there at the corner and watched nearly every racer go by us, until the long line of headlights behind us became a long line of taillights ahead of us, winding their way up the mountain.
I walked back to the van and checked on Thrasher, who could barely speak. He didn't open his eyes. He was getting irritated with me coming back and trying to motivate him, but I know if I didn't get him up and out of the van soon, then the race would be over right then and there.
"How long have you been training for this race?" I asked.
"Shut up," he said.
"Seriously. How long?"
"Okay, well, you're at a crossroads now, my friend. You have to decide if you want to get out of this van and start riding, or if you want to DNF right here."
"I can't ride yet."
"If you don't, this is going to be the world's most expensive double century."
Thrasher did crack open an eye at that point. He might have muttered something about how little he liked me at that moment, but I did manage to convince him that he should at least see if he could make it. He should at least try to start climbing. If he couldn't make it, then he couldn't make it. It would be okay.
He still wouldn't eat or drink anything, because he was sure he'd just throw it back up. But slowly, he did unwrap himself from the blankets, wobble to the front of the van, manage to clip in and, miraculously, turn his cranks up Townes Pass. Much to my surprise, he kept up a slow but steady rhythm, and despite the low speed, managed to put 4+ miles behind him before he unclipped again. When he unclipped this time, I was genuinely worried.
Thrasher still hadn't eaten. It had taken us more than 2 hours, if you include the earlier downtime in the van, to make it barely halfway up the toughest climb of the race. When I took the bike from him, Thrasher looked broken. He sat down on the side of the road while I was leaning the bike against the front of the van, and by the time I turned back around, he was lying down completely. He said it was comfortable, but I knew his wet kit on the cold rocks was a recipe for disaster. I got him up from the ground, and we ushered him back into the van so he could warm up. I told him he had 15 minutes. I didn't want him getting too comfortable. His wife sat behind him, rubbing shoulders and helping anyway she could. That, my friends, is why you bring your significant other on the race, provided she can handle seeing you in such a miserable state. Dave snored in the back of the van, waking up long enough to ask if Thrasher had quit yet.
When the 15 minutes was up, I told Thrasher it was time to get started again. But he said he couldn't ride any more. He was done. I remember reading all those articles about the 508 during the year of the heavy winds. And I remember reading how cyclists had put on sneakers to walk their bikes rather than lose more time. So I asked Thrasher if he could handle putting on his sneakers and walking his bike. He said he could, and he slowly pulled himself back to the front of the van, where his wife propped him up and I took off his cycling shoes and set his tennis shoes in front of him.
Damned if I could get them to fit, though. Something was wrong, and I couldn't figure it out until Thrasher, delirious as he was, bent over and said, "That's the wrong foot." Later, he told me that it was "genius" on my part to test his comprehension by offering him a right shoe for his left foot. It broke my heart to confess that I wasn't that smart; that it was just a mistake on my part.
But it was enough to bring his mind to clarity, and he started walking his bike. His wife drove, and I walked alongside him. But I did manage to go and get a small bag of halved strawberries we had been snacking on in the van. Thrasher still refused to take his bottle or gels, but I convinced him somehow to just eat one strawberry. He still stumbled along with his bike, but he at another strawberry. For nearly 30 minutes he slogged uphill with his bike. At first it was just a strawberry. Then it was two. Another hour into it, and he was living dangerously with a couple strawberries and a bite of a banana.
Then Thrasher turned a corner. I don't know what it was that caused it, but the stupor he had been operating under —slurred speech, eyes closed, a wobbling gait— suddenly lifted, and Thrasher told me he wanted his cycling shoes. That was honestly the moment I had been waiting for. I didn't mind suggesting he put on his sneakers, but I wasn't about to suggest he put his cycling shoes back on. I wanted that to be his decision alone. He went back to the van and sat in the seat while I got his shoes back on. He had another couple of strawberries and banana, and managed some water before getting back on and RIDING up Townes Pass.
He would stop a couple more times, but it was so much better than earlier. He would unclip but not get off his bike, ask for another strawberry or banana, then get back on. He was still worried about the fruit mucking up his Hammer program, but I reminded him that everything was out the window now. It was calories and umph from here on out, and I didn't care where he got either. He did manage to take a bite of his Hammer Bar, though. Then another. He confessed to me, later, that they were small bites, but I didn't care. I wanted him eating. And I teased him that he was the only cyclist to ever climb Townes Pass while being handfed fresh fruit and berries. Hail Caesar!
It was freezing cold by the time we reached the top. But we did reach the top. And I did actually manage to grab my video camera for that one moment. It only lasts about 10 seconds. There is Thrasher walking over to the sign at the summit and flipping it off. Then he turns around and sees me. It's one of the most honest moments of my life. I'm cheering, and he's cheering. Then he hugs me and he tells me that I got him up that hill. I insist that he did it, but we both concede that it was a team effort.
It's a seminal moment in both our lives. The only thing I would have enjoyed more would have been riding up that Pass myself. But his wife and I get to share in that moment right along with him. The three of us made it to the top that night. And the three of us recall it to this day. Dave slept through it all.
What I learned most about the 508 is that each race is individual. Some people will breeze through one spot, then suffer in another. No matter how bad a rider might think he or she is doing, there's someone who's having a harder time. I guarantee you no one on the DNF list thought his or her name would end up there after the race. And after Townes Pass, there is a long bit of unremarkable racing left for Team Thrasher.
The descent into Death Valley was, indeed, fast. But it never felt dangerous. There certainly are more technical descents on this course. Thrasher blew through Death Valley, at one point even scaring the bejesus out of a couple of cyclists when he passed them at over 35 mph on a relatively flat stretch of road.
He pedaled through the night, and took a 30-minute nap on the road to Shoshone just as the sun was coming up. A race official pulled along side us to see how we were doing, and I relayed the night's trials while Thrasher slept cuddled up with his wife in the back of the van (yet another reason to bring along a spouse!). The advice the officials gave us was true: spirits will go up with the sunrise and warmth.
By the time we got back on the road, it was my turn to take a snooze in back. It had been a long night of driving and haranguing, and I fell asleep almost instantly. But I didn't get to sleep long, as Dave was driving, and his decision-making was apparently less-than-stellar, and I kept having to wake up to take sides against something or other he was trying to do that was patently against the rules. By mid-day, I was back to driving again, with a sulking Dave sitting in the passenger seat, refusing to talk to either of us. He ended up reading a book, instead, and contemplating out loud his chances of "hitch-hiking out of here." I did tell him there was one sure way to find out, and I'd be happy to oblige if he wanted. He didn't, and that was that last we talked for the duration of the race, which still had 15 hours left for us.
We chose to follow our rider on Sunday, because of heavy traffic. There are ample warnings on the 508 site about traffic through this stretch, especially from RVs, but that doesn't prepare you for how heavy or fast it will be, especially when an RV thinks it a funny joke to empty their gray water on your cyclist. And on some stretches, cars will be irritated at your slow going, because they have to go around you to pass. There were plenty of times for us to pull over to allow faster traffic to pass, and I took to waving to them in a friendly way, which garnered a lot of positive response from people.
By the time we got to Baker, it was mid-afternoon, and we felt back on track despite the amount of time lost on Townes Pass. We had diverted the difficulties of that horrible bonk, and Thrasher had been steadily gaining strength throughout the day. He was back to being able to take his bottles once again, though he was also eating more solid foods like Hammer Bars, Turkey Sandwiches, and fresh fruit. We stopped in Baker for dinner, and decided to outfit the lights for the night ahead. I had told Thrasher that we wanted to get through as much of the miles as possible during daylight, because we didn't want to spend another night like the one previous. We seemed to be on track for that, until the lights didn't work.
The climbs at the end of the race are brutal in that they are exceedingly long (20 miles), come after dark (which makes them seem to go on forever), and appear when your rider is at his most fatigued (stopping was an issue on all the climbs).
When we left Baker, we were among the last handful of teams still on the course, and we had spent precious hours watching the daylight tick away while working on the amber lights on the rear of the van. By the time we hit the last major climbs, it was dark again, and Thrasher was slowing. Compounding matters, the road conditions are even worse than described in the pre-race material. Cattle guards appear out of nowhere and threaten to topple your rider. The road surface turns into a moonscape far worse than the one that nearly DNFd Thrasher the night before. And the climbs just…keep … going.
The hardest part, however, was the math that crews near the back of the pack have to start doing. "He's going x miles an hour, and we've still got y miles left in this race. Time's going to be an issue." It's problematic, because the 508, if nothing else, is a test of wills. The cyclist is battling himself as well as the road, and the crew is trying to give the cyclist an edge in that battle. Having to get out at one of many stops to tell the rider "Time is starting to be a factor" doesn't help.
We had gotten into a bad routine of Thrasher riding an hour, then stopping for 10 or 15 minutes. It was around 11 p.m. Sunday night that I was starting to worry about our time, and told him if he kept it up, we'd have a problem. Time had never entered Thrasher's mind, and the look on his face echoed the sentiment he voiced: "You're kidding." He had been going so well since Townes Pass, and his spirits were up. But the reality was that he had spent in excess of 10 hours off the bike, and he still had one final climb to go.
He was mad, and I knew it. But he had come so far, he would have been angrier if he had dawdled any longer and ended up not finishing in time.
I honestly think the last 20 miles were the hardest. When Thrasher crested the summit on the final climb, he bombed the descent and start celebrating. Everyone in the van was asleep, which had been a problem for me the night before, too. And Thrasher was starting to taste it. He would wave the van up to his side, then shout out how proud he was, and how much he appreciated our help. But it was going on 3 a.m., and we still had 15 or more miles to go. Thrasher was averaging 5 miles per hour. He didn't want to hear it.
"You aren't done yet." I had pulled alongside Thrasher and was talking out the window to him.
"The hard part is over," he said.
"Eric, at this pace, you've got three more hours to go still."
I might as well have gotten out and punched him. He was mad and deflated at that point. Dave had woken up and offered him a gel. The response was "less than enthusiastic" from Thrasher, and also involved a couple of hand gestures and expletive-laced comments. His wife offered another turkey sandwich. We got a similar response. I asked if there was anything we could do. "Not unless you can figure out a way to make my legs go 15 miles an hour!"
It wasn't a joke. He yelled it at me. The tone told me back off. So I dropped back behind Thrasher once more, and let him work it out. Before long, he was working hard again. The distant lights grew nearer. And then, in one miraculous turn, we were on the downtown boulevard through 29 Palms. We could see a final hill, 100 yards of the meanest incline in the whole race, and then it was over.
There was Thrasher grinning as he turned into the parking lot.
There was the toilet paper finish line.
There was the line of officials and volunteers clapping.
Thrasher finished, and fell over trying to unclip, but it didn't matter. It was the most amazing effort on a bicycle I had ever seen. We all felt proud of him, and everyone hugged. He had finished in 45 hours and change. We all were exhausted, but happy to be done. I can look back and describe the physical details, but I can't come close to describing the emotions of that early morning.
I was the last one to wake up the next morning. Indeed, Thrasher and his wife had already been up, cleaned out and reorganized the van, and gone for breakfast before I even rolled out of bed. I was amazed. Dave had gone off on his own, but the other three of us went back to the restaurant so I could have breakfast and coffee. We started telling our war stories almost immediately.
Thrasher was too amped up to just sit, so he drove the van back to Santa Clarita where I could pick up my Jeep and head back up to San Jose. Did our crew work out? Sure it did, but how we said goodbye says a lot, I think. We got back to the hotel where Dave was parked. He had gotten his stuff out of the crew van and transferred it to his rental. While the rest of us were rummaging in the van, getting things in order, Dave just got in his own car and left. There were no goodbyes, no hand shakes, nothing. And in all honesty, that was fine by me.
Thrasher and his wife took me over to my Jeep, which was at another hotel, and we all hugged. Thrasher told me he couldn't have done it without me, but I assured him that wasn't the case. But in the months since, we have talked several times on the phone and via e-mail. We were a team, and when he crossed that finish line, he did it for all of us. I did have a hand in it. So did his wife. At times, so did Dave. In the end, the only thing that matters are those 508 miles of road that he pedaled. And along the way, during a few of those most important miles, we got to help.
Robert F. James still hopes to ride the 508, though not in 2008. He may opt to crew for another team, unless Thrasher, who says he "might not have gotten the 508 taste out of his mouth just yet," decides to try for a two-man team entry with "this guy I know from San Jose."