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Death Valley Fall Double Century: A tandem stoker's view

By Adrienne Ruggles

I drove down to Death Valley with Lee Mitchell and did the Death Valley Double with Tom Milton on a tandem we nicknamed Chitty Chitty Bike Bike (more on that in a minute). On the way into Death Valley, Lee dropped me off at the top of Townes Pass so I could ride the hill I'm generally driving during Furnace Creek 508. Tom told Lee and me to bring nice clothes, that we were going to the Furnace Creek Inn for dinner. Those of you who know Lee know that he owns shorts, red socks, and sneakers. He fussed a bit, but rallied admirably and donned slacks and a button-down.

Because the sun is rising so late, we didn't shove off until 7am and, since we stayed 100 yards from the start line, I didn't have to roll out of bed until 6am. Beautiful. The weather was FABULOUS, staying overcast and under 80 degrees the whole way. I finally removed my knee warmers around 11am (more for good form than anything else. The first 40ish miles are flat along the valley floor- good for warm-up and good for tandems. At mile 40, the route begins a gradual 2500 foot climb to Scotty's Castle (mile 65ish). I was feeling a little medium as one often does on long, gradual, seemingly flat climbs, but Tom said we were doing fine as we were passing so many single bikes. Scotty's Castle (named for a spinner of yarns who got himself in the good graces of millionaires) was supposed to be a lunch stop in another 60 miles, but I dove right into the Subway sandwiches, V8, and anything else I could stuff in. A short climb out of the canyon had us in Nevada on a road with two gradual turns in 20 miles. It also had a gradual downhill so the tandem flew along at 23 mph most of the way out to the turn around at Hwy 90 (or some such number).

More calories consumed, bottles filled, bladders emptied, and we headed back for California. We counted riders making their return as we were headed out and figured we were around 60th. Standing to climb a small bump, we realized we needed a taller gear. No sooner did we state our sentiments than the bike shifted up for us. I did the only appropriate thing, which was to sing:

Oh you pretty Chitty Bike Bike
Chitty Chitty Bike Bike, we love you
And our pretty Chitty Bike Bike
Chitty Chitty Bike Bike loves us too
High, low, everywhere we go
on Chitty Chitty we depend
Bike Bike Chitty Chitty Bike Bike
Our fine two fendered friend

You're fast as a throughbred
Your saddles are featherbeds
You'll turn everybody's head today
We'll ride on the mothership
With pride in Tom's ownership
The envy of all we survey

Oh you pretty Chitty Bike Bike
Chitty Chitty Bike Bike, we love you
And on pretty Chitty Bike Bike
On pretty Chitty Bike Bike what we'll do
Near, far, better than a car
Oh what a happy time we'll spend
Bike Bike Chitty Chitty Bike Bike
Our fine two fendered friend
Bike Bike Chitty Chitty Bike Bike
Our fine two fendered friend

(Doubles aren't worth doing if one can't burst into song. They don't call me the chief morale officer for nothing.)

Back to Scotty's Castle for lunch. I was feeling far fresher than someone with 120 miles in her legs had any right to feel. Off (and up) to Ubehebe crater - very much worth seeing should you get the opportunity, then back down over some impressively heat cracked roads (a lovely thump every 10 feet or so for 5 miles). We spent the next 15 or 20 miles going back down the morning's gradual climb, putting good time into several single bikes. We hit darkness with 20+ miles to go. After riding with a guy named Bob, who was completing his first double century in fine style, a support van came by and asked if we needed anything. Tom yelled, "No, but you can show us your tits," so the driver (male, as was his navigator) did.

We pedaled on to the base of Hell's Gate (a 7 mile climb beginning at mile 175) and paused for a cup-o-noodles. Cup-o-noodles is the best food ever engineered at mile 175 of a bike ride. Back on the bike, Tom thought he'd take it easy on me and let us spin on up. After the first leisurely mile I rallied, we shifted up and off we went (couldn't see speedometer so probably went from 4mph to a whopping 6mph, but perception is everything). I managed to down half a coke at the top of the hill before being hustled back onto the bike by my militant captain, Tom. We blasted off down the hill for 10 miles to the valley floor. Tom wondered why the bike was shuddering as we rounded the turn at the bottom of the hill and I explained that my left leg had been shaking for the last 5 miles. It quit once we started to pedal again.

Several song bastardizations later (including The Ballad of John and Yoko, Me and Bobbie McGee, and who knows what else) we rolled back to Furnace Creek, smiling and happy. Tom made a run to the hotel room for beer and we drank and swapped tales with workers and riders until the sprinklers came on. Total time, 15ish hours. Time in rest stops, probably too much.
Total smiles, too many to count.