Fall 2005 Death Valley Century

by Participant Grant King

Despite the fact that I grew up in Australia, the driest continent on the planet, where I gained a great respect for the desert, Death Valley 9,000 miles away was a place of such legend it has always been a place I had to visit.  For one year I have been living in San Diego, a mere 260NM away without fulfilling that dream.  Until the last weekend of October, 2005.

My weekend began on Friday at about 1:00pm at Montgomery Field disassembling the road bike I travel with and squeezing it into Cessna N1692R, a 172RG. Co-pilot for the journey was significant other and perennial sparring partner, Marilea.

The weather cleared to the point where I ditched my instrument flight plan that was to take us through cloud in LAX airspace and we opted for the inland route over Palm Springs under visual flight rules resulting in a spectacular and uneventful flight to Furnace Creek.

But that’s when the wheels fell off the entire excursion. After landing and securing the aircraft Marilea walked over to the house phone for the hotels, The Furnace Creek Ranch and The Furnace Creek Inn to call for a ride while I unpacked the plane, leaving the bike in the aircraft to be retrieved later.

The van arrived in less than two minutes and the driver posed a question I had not anticipated: "are you staying at The Inn or The Ranch?" Marilea’s research in the prior weeks included perusing The Inn's web site and upon seeing the plush suites with spectacular views commented "Oh yeah, I hate the desert but this looks like something I can deal with." So by her insistence and wishful thinking and my state of confusion we headed off to The Inn.

I checked at the desk to find Occam’s Razor once again predicting the answer: the most obvious solution is usually the correct one. We were at the ranch and Princess Marilea pouted for the next two hours having been dragged along on false pretences and damn lies facing the inevitability of spending two nights in a “30 year old Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere in the hottest desert in the continent, surrounded by the worst kind of eccentrics: bicycle geeks who’s idea of a fun weekend is to ride 200 miles through said desert.” Incidentally, I freely acknowledge that this is not a verbatim quote. Many expletives have been deleted.

I am now wise enough to realise that this was a situation that would have only been exacerbated by rational explanations.

To be fair to The Furnace Creek Ranch: the facilities were well used for sure but comfortable and in my humble opinion quite adequate unless of course you were expecting to stay at Buckingham Palace.

The room had two queen beds, both of which were required under the circumstances. Marilea drew the shades on the outside world, claimed a bed and the remote control, deftly locked on to an all weekend Law and Order marathon (a relative quantity as consider 5 minutes of Law and Order beyond my endurance) and instantly became as unresponsive to external stimuli as a four year old ensconced in front of a big screen with an endless tape of The Wiggles playing.

So at this point, about 4:00pm I took my leave to retrieve my bike from the plane. Now you would think if I can successfully negotiate myself around the maze of restricted airspace under the control of China Lake Weapons Range and Edwards Air Force Base that are nothing other than lines on the chart that represent invisible walls from the surface to 60,000’ without encountering a single FA18 beckoning me to follow or be shot down, you would think I could find my way back to the airfield, less than a mile away on foot. This was not the case. I took a wrong turn and wound up in an RV park and stumbled upon a van with a bike on the rack with its huge head tube visible around the side and knew there are not too many cyclists that would fit a frame I estimated to be larger than my 62cm rig. Sure enough it belonged to Russ, a fellow roadie and colleague who kindly walked with me in search of the airfield which we found easily after getting a map and directions.

After assembling the bike and pumping air into the tyres which I had deflated back in San Diego fearing they would burst in the un-pressurised cabin, I rode back to the Ranch, stashed the bike in the room and proceeded to prepare for an arduous day on the road by eating and drinking too much and staying up way too late. During the stagger from the restaurant to the saloon we spotted none other than Bill Walton of NBA Hall of Fame fame. He lives close to us and we bump into him in the Hillcrest restaurants, many of which are decorated with his signed memorabilia. The obvious conclusion is that we are being stalked. I could not avoid stating the bleeding obvious at this juncture which was: if it was OK for Bill to be slumming at The Ranch rather than The Inn what made Princess Marilea think she was so special?

The author's buddy Russ Grant on the way to Scotty's Castle

The 6:30 alarm came about five minutes after I went to bed or so it seemed but I was at the start in time to see the 200 mile riders sent off at 7:00am with details about he route which had them detour off ours for ten miles down to Stovepipe Wells and back and then into Nevada after our turn around point at Scotty’s Castle. They were also instructed to make sure their lights were working for the return which could be as late at midnight. A bizarre concept while standing there straddling cold titanium in the pre dawn chill. That's a long day in the saddle.

Then a quick trip back to the plane to get my GPS receiver. I added that to the tools in my pack, enough to open a bike shop out in the boonies, which were to become a liability in three hours.

Russ was waiting at the start on my return and I assumed the position of an interloper next to him in the “fast” group of century riders to be released at 7:30.

Bleary eyed, I lamented the fact that the restaurant was closed and I was unfairly being denied my pint of espresso with which, like a dedicated cyclist I start every morning. Russ, the eager drug dealer (me being the strung out junkie in this analogy), reached into a jersey pocket and handed me some caffeinated goo which I had never tried before and probably never will again. The caffeine was good but what they wrapped around it was indescribable. I think I’ll take a pound of Peet’s Espresso Forte beans with me next time to munch on. I could get through those a lot easier.

We made the usual casual start for this type of event following several Minnesotans from whom we ware warned to not take directions. Around twenty of us maintained a well organised pace line for the first mile.

We rolled down a short hill where a tandem barrelled past the head of the line. I identified this as common tandem momentum which was about to become their disadvantage on the upslope. But something like “Bike... Fast... Attack! Must cover,” goes through Russ’s pea brain and within a second he extracted himself from my vast wake and took off in hot pursuit. The sight of a tandem cruising past the line did not seem to faze anybody else. But Russ, a cyclist who appears to know what he’s doing, out of the saddle and rapidly gaining velocity, was another story and the line disintegrated and a timid sprint at mile 1, with 108 to go in a ride that is not supposed to be a race was on. I knew it would be a long time before I saw Russ again. (See Russ below.)

Lacking the desire or the energy to participate in this nonsense I listened to the familiar whir and buzz of a pack of cyclists recede into the distance and found myself happily alone and very much at home in the absolute silence of a perfectly still morning in the vast expanse of the valley and became the consummate tourist. The morning sun was brilliant giving stark relief to the terrain and I stopped three times in the first half hour to take pictures.

We climbed above sea level within 10 miles and rolled along between sea level and 200’ for about another 25. It was very easy going but I noticed that I was getting through my meagre water reserves at an alarming rate.

Here’s a red flag for a cyclist in the desert: when that water from an underground bore in your bottle that tastes so disgusting you had no intention of drinking it starts to taste pretty good: you’re not drinking enough and possibly in trouble.

Apart from the 11,000’ high Panamint Range on the west side of Death Valley and the lessor Armagosa Range to the east, the most dominant features are the alluvial fans. More so from the air than on the ground, but they line the valley on both sides and consist of huge and spectacular slopes of debris deposited by erosion at very uniform angles.

At about the 35 mile mark the workload became decidedly more difficult but it was not apparent that we were climbing at all until we passed the 1,000’ elevation sign. Then a glance over the shoulder revealed a valley below. The road traverses a massive alluvial fan that intrudes into the valley at least three miles from its source, The Grapevine Mountains to the east, and appears to be flat. At least it did to me in the trance I was in by this stage.

The air was not that hot but the sun was relentless. The only shade was manmade and that was scarce. I could not consume enough water at this point and had to rest several times. Riders passing by all asked if I was OK as seems to be the custom out there. Even motorists who had no part in the event would stop to help which amazed me because I15, only 100 miles to the south is every bit as inhospitable but I doubt anybody on that interstate highway would give a cyclist in trouble a second glance.

The legend of The Valley at work. Or maybe I just looked particularly forlorn.

A little further up the road and another rest, taking a few more pictures as my cover story, then and I hear “Are you OK there big guy?” It’s Bill Walton who had obviously done what I should have and slept in and started a little late. All 6’ 11” of him on a bike that looks as improbable as he does. Almost a tandem extended vertically with a huge head tube and almost vertical seat tube as is characteristic of such large frames. Only the addition of the big man riding it can bring it into perspective.

Bill pedals past; wobbly, screwed up knees all over the place like a new born foal trying to stand for the first time. After assuring him I was OK he says “it’s good to see you out here.” I bet he says that to all the cyclists. I consider riding with him for a while but nah… I didn’t want to embarrass myself further. And I had a few more pictures to take.

Soon after this the first cyclist passed, returning from Scotty’s Castle. Down in the drops with back parallel to the road and straight as a rail was a guy I guessed to be a Cat 3 or higher cyclist tearing down towards the valley.

Five minutes later Russ appears, flying around a corner a little more casually at about 35 to 40MPH, sporting the grin of a Cheshire cat. There are at least another ten minutes to the third cyclist, then the riders start flowing with more regularity on their return to Furnace Creek, coasting for the first fifteen minutes as they convert 3,000’ of potential energy into kinetic energy and heat.

By the time I struggle to the top he’ll be home and hosed. Bastard!

Russ later reported that in the final climb to Scotty’s Castle his lead group of two were caught by a group of six from the double century mob and could not imagine that they were going to ride 200 miles at their current pace. But with their detour, they were already one third of the way there. Quite amazing.

The return was interminable. I was getting through a litre of fluids every half an hour when the workload was high and arrived at the finish completely drained of energy. I answered the question I went out there to be answered at the 80 mile mark: “Can I do a double century?” The answer: no way in hell.

At Furnace Creek I had some rehydrating to do in the form of a pitcher of iced water, two Coronas and a margarita on the rocks with the salt, if you don’t mind. It never tasted so good.

I was worried about having the strength in my legs to operate the aircraft the next day. After having to play farrier and remove my shoes while I was slumped in a broken pile of sweat, grime and pungent odours on the floor immediately after the ride, Marilea had foreseen this potential problem as well. After many hours of flying with me she’s learnt enough to be able to confidently crash land an aircraft with minimal damage to herself in the unlikely situation that she found herself behind the yoke and throttle with a disabled pilot, and was now plotting to hijack one third of the directional controls (the rudder) rather than spend an unscheduled day in Death Valley. But the next day I felt surprisingly good. Yeah, I think I can to a double after all. Maybe after a bit of hill training. Loosing some weight wouldn’t hurt either. Maybe in my dreams.

After preparing diligently for a month for a possible return to San Diego in instrument conditions we commenced a decent from 10,500' to get under the San Diego class B airspace around Warner Springs, way out past Mt. Palomar. Despite the fact that we were looking in the direction of the setting sun through an uncharacteristically thin haze, we could see clear across San Diego to San Clemente Island and the rest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Oceanside and Los Angeles to the north and out into the shimmering Pacific Ocean beyond. At least 75NM from our position. That was quite a sight. We were on the ground within fifteen minutes of that point. It's the only way to go.

Back in San Diego on Monday morning I completed my twenty mile commute to the office amongst the fury of the morning traffic feeling a little sore but also a little stronger. While constantly scanning around me for potential assailants using cars and trucks as their weapons my mind wanders in a weird paradox of meditation and being on guard. Today I’m dreaming of the next ride through The Valley and how the hell I am ever going to get fit enough to complete a double century.

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