By Brian Ecker
Per the Furnace Creek 508 race web site, the 508 bicycle race is revered the world over for its epic mountain climbs, stark desert scenery, desolate roads, and its reputation as one of the toughest but most gratifying endurance challenges available, bar none. The course has a total elevation gain of over 35,000′, crosses ten mountain passes, and stretches from Santa Clarita (just north of Los Angeles), across the Mojave Desert, through Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, to the finish line at the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, CA.
The details behind the scenes are that many of the roads you race across are exceptionally rough, wind is always a factor (see my 2009 race report), and the route is exceptionally remote. These factors make the route a lot harder than it looks like on paper. I’ve done plenty of hard races and hard rides, often with way more climbing, but The 508 remains a more than worthy challenge.
The 508 uses “totems” instead of racer names and once a totem is chosen you have it for life. This meant we would fly the colors of the American Kestrel for the 2nd year.
Since none of us have unlimited time off or an unlimited budget, logistics for these events are always complex and complicated. Wednesday David Dean and I drove down to the infamous Farm in Eugene. We received a warm welcome, as always, by the Minniti/Shipley clan. (This was the 3rd such trip of the year where they graciously allowed us to crash en route to an event.)
Up early for a short ride then on the road to Sacramento where we needed to pick up Bish and Paul. Fresh snow on the Siskiyou Peaks meant great vistas and an amazing approach to Mt. Shasta. We pulled into Sacramento airport for the van pick up and gear swap with less than an hour before Bish and Paul would fly in. All flowed smooth and soon the Dodge Caravan was loaded and ready. It is the perfect vehicle for these events. (Probably 75% of the crew vehicles at the 508 were the same model). We continued south and ended up in Santa Clarita quite late.
Plain and simple – without a solid crew these events are pretty much a no go. Simply gathering 2 to 4 folks to volunteer hours of their time (with limited sleep) is hard enough but to actually get a crew that is highly motivated and highly skilled is really something special. I’m a very lucky to have just that – a crew that seems to enjoy these events as much or more than I do. They have unparallel skills and unparallel commitment.
Paul (crew chief) and Bish are veterans of both these types of events and the 508. David Dean is familiar with endurance racing but his background is form doing them as a rider on the unsupported side. A nurse by training, David was brought on specifically for his clinical assessment abilities and his cool head. Both, of course, proved to be critical to our success.
The race start is a gentle 4 mi neutral section with a bit of moderate climbing. It is enough to help get the legs warm in the cold morning air. Upon exiting the neutral section I hit full throttle for the last ¼ mi of the climb with the hope of getting out of the mayhem of 90+ riders. (Last year I wanted to start mellow and found myself frustrated with trying to follow the rules and keep a good pace. Rider would surge ahead only to then slow down and force me to accelerate to pass.)
My strategy worked – I was instantly free and clear. I settled into a strong rhythm about 10% harder than what I anticipated my long term race pace to be. About ½ way up the 9 mi 2,500 ft climb I could see Rock Rabbit coming up to me. I kept the pace steady, expecting the catch. To my surprise, the catch came but by a different rider, Turkey Vulture. Turkey Vulture is a guy about 6’ 3” and 135lb. Oddly enough, he was riding Power Cranks unlocked with the crank length set to about 110mm. (Very very odd but to each their own). TV could climb well but I was able to up my pace and stay with him without issue. We topped out on the climb and began a short decent to the uphill roller where all the crews wait. I radioed up….”riders up boys”. A quick return “roger that”.
I passed the many crews to find mine eagerly awaiting my arrival.
I passed off my extra gear (vest, arm warmers, cell phone, pump, and spare tire) and took on a high calorie Perpeteum bottle and settled in for the catch of TV. I easily brought TV back and it became apparent that while TV might be a climbing maniac he didn’t go so good on the descents or flats. I found myself having to slow down in order to not over take him. Out on the flats we made easy work with a nice pace of 22-23mph. The calm (wind) conditions and open roads made for a quick pace. It’s here my fishing expedition began; sit up on the hoods and let a little line out, drop down in the aero bars and gently real it back in. TV was keeping a close watch, checking my position constantly. At this point, time check on RR is about 2 min. On the way to the Windmills climb (6 mi 1,000 ft) I continue to follow TV at a safe distance and begin to wonder if this is the right strategy – I have way more throttle available and in fact have about 30 watts, on the flats, left before we would be up to my race pace. I consider the question of why push it when we are easily covering the lead. This strategy is cemented when a second time check comes back that has RR (3rd place) further behind.
Over the Windmills Climb (almost no wind) and down the other side. We quickly make our way into TS1 – California City (83.6 mi IN and 426.11 mi to GO) at 4hr 15 min. A bit off the pace of my 2009 ride but the lack of tailwind and race strategy make the actual split a bit irrelevant.
Coming out of the TS I take a quick pit stop which gives TV 30 sec breathing room. He seems to want to take advantage of it and begins to up his pace. Quickly back on the road I drop into the aero bars and set the throttle at a clean 300w (about 20-30w more than my race pace). TV comes back to me easily and again we settle into the routine of me modulating the gap and TV checking my position. We roll at a pretty good pace on the flat roads 23-24mph and have little to no wind. Temperatures are mild, 60’s, and the skies are crystal clear. My body is feeling good and it is taking a fair amount of energy to resist the temptation to surge on ahead and get settled into “my” race pace. Patience – RR has continued to looe ground and there are many many miles to go.
We start the long Randsburg climb (7 mi 1,500 ft) which, as is true for much of the course, doesn’t look too hard, but in reality the climb is a solid challenge. Very gradual initially – the wide open vista and increasing temperatures make this climb mentally tough. TV seems to up the pace a bit and I find my watts running higher than I would like. I am committed to staying close to TV and continuing to apply the pressure to keep him in close. The climb drags on and I slip back to approximately 2-3 telephone pole lengths behind. The grade is steady, the road is rough, and the riding is starting to become hard. Towards the last third of the climb it steepens and we approach the small town of Johanasburg. I find my pace consistent yet I begin bringing TV back. Now just 1 pole behind I find that I have to ease up in order to not get closer. We continue on this for a bit and eventually make it over the top. Out briefly onto a major highway and approaching the crest of a roller, it is apparent TV is struggling. My racing instincts take over and I accelerate hard and pass TV, immediately putting 10 seconds into him. Left turn down a decent and it’s clear the mental tactics have worked and TV looks to have cracked. Crew radio’s across: “excellent work, TV isn’t able to respond but RR is coming hard”. Running only a few minutes out front at race pace I find that my legs feel way more fatigued than I am expecting. Up until now we’ve done the climbs a bit harder than I wanted but all else has been pretty easy. RR continues to close the gap so I take advantage and pull off for another quick pit stop. He passes and I casually remount back into follow mode. RR is on his full TT set up including aero helmet. He’s going good but it’s well within the “plan” to keep a close follow. The gap wavers between 15 and 30 seconds.
The open and desolate roads typical of the 508
Trona TS2 comes up and a bit of chaos ensues. Normally, a very quiet town of very few folks, a rock and gem show has the town packed with 100s of cars creating a significant traffic jam. I see RR’s crew driving on the shoulder of the opposite side of the road urgently trying to get to the gas station. As I pass the station a Time Station official runs out and confirms my identity. (TS#2 2:48pm, 7:48 in, 3:34 split, 154.8 mi IN and 354.91 to GO) I continue to roll down the road to only see a flagger ahead stopping our lane of traffic. My crew is stopped alongside RR. I ask how it was getting gas but the crew says the TS (gas station) is further up. I lose my composer a bit and let them know that the TS is back in town right at the traffic jam. Flagger turns the sign and I let RR regain the gap he had established.
An American Kestrel?
Sooner than expected my crew returns. They bring some solemn news – no gas at Trona, the station was dry. RR and I retain our positions and begin the climb of Trona Bump (5 mi 1,000 ft). A relatively easy and short climb, we continue our soldier. The nagging headwind we have had since the start of the Randsburg climb continues and our going is slow. Over the top we quickly descend the twisty fun road and drop into the wide expanse of what is known as Panamint Valley. Immense vistas help distract from the punishingly rough roads and stiff headwind. In 2009, with huge tailwind support, we rocketed through this section continuously turning the 53X11. Today, it becomes a race of the desert tortoise. Rolling a tempo pace across rough chipseal and a very non impressive 14-15 mph. We continue on. The wind is forcing a slow pace and thus some important decisions need to be made. It’s approaching 5pm and night rules take effect in an hour. With no gas at Trona the team decides that once we reach the end of Pananmint Valley they will leave me and go of course about 4 mi up to the town that is confirmed to have gas. I’m not a fan of having the crew leave and heated discussion ensues. In 2009 we were already up and over Townes Pass which meant the crew could stop, before night rules were in effect, at Stovepipe wells. The nagging headwind has us way behind schedule and the crew mitigates this well.
Topping out @ Trona Bump and looking into Panamint Valley
About this time a flurry of activity is taking place with RR. His crew is leapfrogging more frequently and looking to be getting ready for something. Soon enough they all pull off and a bike swap ensues. Surprised, I find myself in the lead and in the vast wide open. We are approaching the 200 mi mark and my legs are surprisingly fatigued given the perceived effort thus far. I tempo on and RR competes the swap and he is now 1:30 down. I maintain tempo expecting him to return to the lead but instead the next time check is 2:30. It’s here we reach the end of the valley and make the right turn for the approach to the behemoth known as Towne’s Pass. Crew puts on my lights, full bottles and new rear wheel (27 tooth cassette). It’s 5:35 and the crew departs for gas. They have exactly 25 min to drive 4-5 mi one way, gas up, and then return to me. If they do not return by 6pm (night rules) I will be forced to pull over and wait. (When in night rules, the car and rider are one unit and can never separate.)
I approach Towne’s as the beautiful long evening shadows begin to settle in. Our right turn should mean a cross wind but as is the case for the majority of the race, logic defies and our headwind continues. Towne’s is a big climb, 13 miles 3,800ft, with grades of 12-15%. In 2009 I found, with headwind, that we were able to tempo the climb pretty well and I was able to sustain an excellent pace without burning any matches. For whatever reason, today I find myself struggling a bit and the pace is slow. RR is not in view so the struggle becomes just personal. It’s about this time that Race Staff come up and begin taking many pictures. The evening light and geography make for some great shots. The climb is long and the work is hard. The headwind is constant and it’s a bit of trouble to spin the gear. The evening light begins to fade quickly. Last year we were up and over and down onto the valley floor before the sun said good-bye. That’s not the case today but again, we are in the lead, putting time into everyone else so any comparison has little relative value.
Photo courtesy of AdventureCorps
After much too long, we reach the lesser slopes near the crest. Once at the summit we stop to put on a light coat, aero, helmet, and disc wheel. Fully dark now, I will get to experience the stuff of legends; descending Towne’s at night. We are quickly up to speed, 50+mph, with the van following within inches behind. David Dean, new to this, is sitting in the front passenger seat and his anxiety is rising. Full white knuckle grip on the “oh shit” handle, erect posture, and leaning forward, David takes the new experience in quietly. Paul, continues to follow close and we hit the “dip” at top speed. My memory has the dip being enormous but tonight we are through so quickly that I dismiss it as it not being the “one”. Our descent continues and the temp rises quickly. Back up to the mid 80s we soldier onto the halfway point TS3 Furance Creek. It is about this time that we expect to begin to cash in on the ever present headwind of the earlier sections. Instead we are greeted by a gusting head cross wind that is tossing my front tri spoke around. We patiently wait for the road to “turn the corner” and pick up the sweat spot but the road turns and the unfavorable wind continues. We make a quick stop to swap out the front tri spoke with a normal spoked wheel to help reduce the handling issue. It’s a bit of a risk as the tri spoke is an exceptionally fast front wheel but the decision pays off as we continue to run the valley and the winds remain from the front/side.
We roll into TS3 Furnace Creek at 8:51pm, 13:51 total ride time, split of 6:03, 252.99 mi IN and 256.72 to GO. We are a full 1hr 30min behind 2009 pace. We have retained the lead and are unable to see any riders behind us. We keep the gas on through the time station and continue to try to gobble up the miles. My mind returns to the horrors of 2009 where the hurricane force winds and blowing sands, broke my spirit to race and my 2009 ride turned from a race to a ride. Tonight is different, the moon is up and bright, the wind continues to not do us any favors but we commit to soldiering on. The miles to the low point of the route, Badwater -249 ft elev, pass soon enough and we silently slide through. The road continues along the valley floor undulating up and down, around corner after corner. The night and unfavorable winds continue. We soldier on. We limit our stops with feeds from the car and occasionally pick up a straight tailwind.
At the south end of the valley, we make an equipment stop and take on as many calories as possible. I pop a no doze tablet hoping to proactive ward off any sleepiness. We quickly make the left turn and expect our headwind to turn into crosswind. Wrong again, we begin the climb up Jubilee Pass, 5 miles 1,000ft and our headwind continues. Luckily, my legs respond and we make quick work up Jubilee. A quick decent and onto Salsberry Pass, 9.5 mi 2,300 ft. Now at mile 305 and about 1:30 am this climb will require a bit more work. My tempo soon begins to fade and I begin to struggle. We stay focused but soon see that we have a racer approaching. The crew quickly informs me that it’s a team coming up and they ask me to use them as motivation. The team rider passes quickly and I keep them in my sites as we go over the top and onto the fast decent into TS4 Shoshone – 2:24 am, split of 5:33, 326.5 mi IN and 183.2 mi to GO. We roll into Shoshone and roll through quickly. The team has stopped to transition riders and we regain the “lead”. The next 12 miles pass quickly with smooth roads and wonderful tailwind. I rejuvenate a bit as I am able to, for the first time, spin my legs out and maintain a good clip. We use the pursuing team as fuel to keep the pace up. We are soon on the 4mi climb of Ibex Pass. The gradual slopes and smooth roads help us maintain a steady tempo. The team re-catches us about ½ way up. Over the top we take the gradual descent and take aim on Baker. It’s now 4am, still very dark and quite cold. I have taken on leg warmers, aero helmet, gloves, and thermal coat. In the dark, cold and over 20 hrs of riding it’s hard to know how well we are or are not going. While it seems like we are rolling well the Baker TS is not coming soon enough. We soldier on.
Rolling thru the cold night (photo courtesy of AdventureCorps)
Finally we roll into Baker, TS#5, 5:32am, 22:32 total time, 3:08 split, 382.7 mi IN and 127 mi to GO. We make a longer than usual stop. We have to gas up and try to take on calories. I take in a coffee and about 300 calories only to have it all instantly come back up. Luckily that is all that comes up and we are back on the bike and rolling up the 20 mi KellBaker climb. This climb looks mellow on paper but our headwind is back and the road is rough. Going is tough and slow. I making forward progress but I can’t tick the gear over. The climb takes forever and soon we discover my 41 minute lead over RR has evaporated. RR has returned in a hurry. He quickly passes me and puts additional time into me. I attempt to lift my tempo but my legs refuse. They have one speed and it is unfortunately slow at this point. We continue to struggle and road surface only gets worse. We started in the dark and cold however it is now fully light and warming up. We stop to take some clothes off and come calories on. The crew works hard to keep me focused and motivated. We top out and quickly drop into Kelso TS#6 8:20am, 25:20 total time, 2:48 split, 417.6mi IN and 92 mi to GO.
RR now has 8 min. Wow, that is quick work.
Trying to turn the gear over in the cold early morning
Immediately out of Kelso the climb of Granite Mountain starts, 2,000ft in 14mi. The day is heating up now and calories are hard to come by. My once vast menu of food options has dwindled down to a select few items I am willing to tolerate: applesauce, grapes, gel/water mix, and coke/water. The importance of the crew becomes even more apparent. They keep the food coming in small manageable amounts and keep me focused on the race. Luckily, this climb goes moderately well and we top out in full sunshine and begin the long fast 16 mi decent into the last time station, Almost Amboy.
We arrive in Almost Amboy, TS#7 9:55am, 2:07 split, 451 mi IN and 58 mi to GO. We are now 18 minutes down. We make a quick stop and discuss our menu options. We agree the crew will come alongside every 10 minutes and provide me with a small amount of some type of food. We ride down old Route 66 and make the left hand turn onto Amboy Rd which marks the real start of the last big section. A 4-5 mi run in along some crazy salt flats / lava fields and then onto the last climb, Sheephole Pass, 1,500ft over 10mi. Gradual grades initially the climb gets steeper toward the top. The temperature has risen dramatically and now is hovering somewhere in the 80s. In the rising heat, I begin to wilt and am not looking forward to trying to get over this last climb. Upon request, the crew creates an ice sock and I stop to put it under my collar. It makes a huge difference and surprisingly, melts by halfway up the climb. We stop to refill and on I continue. Finally, after a steep pitch or two we crest the summit and begin the 6 mile descent that brings you to the long, straight and slightly uphill run in to the finish.
This last section, is in fact, the part I was dreading the most. From the base of the decent to the next turn is about a 20mi run in that is dead straight, typical headwind, and 1-2% up hill. Again, on paper it looks like a piece of cake but at this time of the race it is hard to not feel utterly defeated. The crew keeps me updated on mileage and we make the necessary progress. Finally, I get the update I have been wanting, “1 mi to the LEFT turn on Utah Trail Rd”.
Recovering post finish
We make decent work of the next few sections and roll into the finish line 31 hr and 19 min after we started. A full 59 min behind RR and into 2ndplace solo. There is satisfaction for myself and the crew for a race well raced but more than a tinge of disappointment for knowing what could have been. We raced the entire race but simply didn’t have the legs to finish it off.
Relief of a job well done (Photo courtesy of AdventureCoprs)