2009 Furnace Creek 508
Last weekends ride was one of the most exciting events I've ever participated in... the FURNACE CREEK 508, organized by Chris Kostman of Adventure Corps, offers some of the most breathtaking scenery , and high adventure anywhere in the United States. The course connects Santa Clarita to Twenty Nine Palms via Furnace Creek in Death Valley. It is 508 miles long, has 35,000 feet of climbing, and eight stages. It can be ridden solo, by 2 person teams, 4 person teams, and by tandem teams. It is also a timed event, requiring solo participants to finish in 48 hours, and teams must finish in 46 hrs. I was part of a 4x tandem team, meaning there were eight of us on the team riding 4 tandem bikes. One of my friends , Andres Caicedo, who rode the 508 a few years ago, told me if I was gong to ride the 508 I needed a "ringer " on the team. Little did I know everyone on my team was a ringer, and I would be riding with endurance cycling legends. You should all know this all became a reality for me because I saw a Davis Bike Club e-mail in which a friend of a friend was looking for a "stoker" to ride the 508. I answered the e-mail and met Jerry Brown from Newport Beach, who would be my tandem captain. You should also know my experience on a tandem is limited to the few weeks I owned a MTB tandem. Jackie and I were going to ride together but I made her nervous, so we ended up selling it. Before the 508, I was never the stoker on a tandem...talk about leaving the frying pan for the fire...
About the team... I rode the 508 with members of Tim Skippers JDRF ( Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation ) RAAM team. . They are very accomplished, but you'd never know it by talking with them. There wasn't a lot of talking about who won what, or any bragging going on. They just spoke of riding in general , cool bikes, good roads, good food etc . They just have a love for riding the bike , and they are also just nice people to be around, with lot's of smiles and joking ... The 508 uses totems to identify racers instead of numbers, and our totem was "Twocan", and our team was "Twocan - JDRF" . The team consisted of riders Tim Skipper, Scott and Matt Skipper ( Tim's two 15 year old sons ) Joe Peterson , Barnie Barge, Brenda Barnell, Jerry Brown ( my tandem captain ), and myself. Our three person crew was Sean, John, and John. I wish I new their last names, but in any event the ride would not have been possible with out them. You can't imagine the things they did to see us through the race. Except for me, I think all of the racers on our team were RAAM finishes, most of them completing several RAAMs, most of them completing several 508's. Just Google the JDRF 2009 RAAM Eight Tandem Team, and you'll see why I felt like I won the 508 team lottery... So here's my story...
I know I'm repeating myself, but it all started when I answered an email of someone looking for a stoker to ride the 508 . I met Jerry Brown ( only by email, never in person ) who lived in Newport Beach, and told him I was very interested in riding the 508. I told him I was a slow but determined rider with the ability to keep a mostly upbeat attitude under tough situations, and let him know about some of my successful rides. A few days later he emailed me and said " you're on". We had the best of intentions about getting together so I could ride a tandem with him, but we both had a lot going on. He was busy riding RAAM and preparing for the Everest Challenge, while I must have been doing something, I just can't remember what. So the first weekend in October arrives, and I've never ridden a tandem as a stoker, and I'm on my way to Santa Clarita to ride the 508. Jackie and I left for Santa Barbra on Thursday to visit Allison, and on Friday Jackie took me to Tim Skippers house in Castaic to get ready for the pre-race inspection and meeting. I've still never meet Jerry, my tandem captain, who I would spend two days and a night riding around the desert with. In fact, I'd never meet anyone on my team... I was a little nervous about it all, but as soon as Jackie and I arrived at Tim's house he came out with a big smile and introduced himself and his family. Jerry and the rest of the team arrived soon after and they to were all very friendly and welcoming, I felt at ease right away.
Prepping the support vehicles on Friday for the 508 was organized chaos. Brenda had the list of what needed to be done and the rest of us just fell into line doing the things we could do. Someone hooked up the amber lights, others put the required signs on the vans, or worked on the bikes. There was even time for me to have my one and only training ride as a stoker with Jerry. It lasted all of 15 minutes... We made it to the host hotel with about 30 minutes to spare. The vans passed inspection, all of our team checked in, then we went to Marie Calenders ( next door to the check in ) for our pre-ride dinner. After dinner Jerry and I went to Ralph's Grocery to buy supplies for the ride while everyone else took care of their last minute changes. Brenda had reserved four rooms at the Roadway Inn near Tim's house, and we were all checked in by 9:00 pm trying to rest before the big day. I'm sure I was the only one feeling anxious about the ride.
Saturday... let the ride begin... Solo riders were allowed to start at 7:am while teams started at 9:am. Our team was at at host hotel about 8:15 am so we could attend the last minute instructions to be given at 8:30. The instructions were given, a live web cam was going, and The "Star Spangled Banner" was played just before the start. At exactly 9:00am we were off. Several police cars sped ahead to stop traffic and control the traffic lights for the racers. Imagine... I was a racer... In fact the team leaders were very clear the night before that we were all in a race, and we could have a better result by simply doing things right, like not accumulating time penalties, or having a fast baton pass. Jerry and I were to ride stage 1 and 5. Neither stage was particularly tough, although there was a good climb called the "Windmill Climb" in stage one . Stage one had about 5k of climbing in 83 miles. I'm sure you could guess why it's called the "Windmill Climb", but I'll bet you didn't know there were a bazillion of them. The high light of stage one was the long roll out after you crested the hill. It must have lasted 25miles with prolonged speeds of over 40 mph... maybe even a top speed of over 50mph. Jerry's bike had never been ridden before. It was a brand spanking new carbon Calfee Dragonfly tandem. He picked it up on Thursday and never had a chance to put a computer on it, so we didn't recorded the usual info like avg speed, max speed, etc. Jerry and I rolled into Mohave 83 miles and 5 hrs later to complete stage one. We and passed the baton to Bernie and Matt who were clipped in and ready to roll when pulled up to the check point. I'm very proud to say the race official told us we made the smoothest baton pass he'd seen all morning. With Bernie and Matt off on stage 2 it was time for some recovery food, so we went to the pizza parlor and Tim bought a chicken bbq pizza.
Stage two covered the road between Mohave and Trona. Bernie and Matt made it look easy, they really steamed along. There were a lot of small rollers and one long moderate grade along the way. By the time they hit the climb to Randsburg the wind started to pick up. This is when the team would start pay the wind penalty, although the you would have never known it at the time. While we waited for Bernie and Matt to arrive at checkpoint 2 in Trona, we filled the van with fuel, and ordered home made chicken and steak burritos made by the owners of the Chevron Station in Trona. Jerry and I wouldn't have to ride again until early Sunday morning, so now was the time to eat up. Tim and his son Matt would be riding stage three, so they were busy preparing for their stage and the passing of the baton. Bernie and Matt arrived in Trona about 5:30pm. We had another smooth baton pass, then Tim and Scott were off on stage three.
Stage three is where we would have a couple of small problems and begin to realize just how much trouble the wind would be. Stage three started off great. Tim and Scott were firmly in control. It was now after 6:00pm and our amber lights were running on the back of the van. The racers were also now required to have their headlights and taillight on. Things were looking good, we had a tail wind, the team was riding fast, and we all felt good. Tonight would be the night Tim's son Scott would ride his first true century. Stage three was over 90 miles with more than 7000 ft of climbing. Most of the climbing would be over Towne Pass, and the only rest stop was when the headlight fell off the bike and they had to stop for three minutes to put on the spare headlight. Towne Pass is a twelve mile climb with 4000 ft of climbing. The road sports a view if the valley that can be seen for miles in each direction.
This is where I want to encourage anyone with an interest in cycling to at least crew for someone riding the 508. As far as you can see in the darkness are cars with their lights on slowly following their racer over the mountain, It's magical. Tim and Scott rode strong under the full moon. They passed one racer after another on their way to the top. They were riding a tandem and picked off several riders on singles. It's not that often you get to see a tandem pass a single on a long climb. Once they neared the top we took a very brief break to make a small adjustment, then it was down the mountain to Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Most of the descent was fast... VERY FAST... Tim and Scott were 50 feet of so in front of us traveling as fast as 65 MPH... That right, 65 MPH... I've never seen anything like it. Kevin would have been in downhill heaven. Near the bottom of the hill things changed... a lot. As we neared Stovepipe Wells the wind changed directions, and instead of having a tailwind the racers now faced a headwind. The ride to Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek now had a 30 mph headwind. Instead of riding downhill at 65 mph they were riding in the flats at 3 mph. It took longer to travel the next 17 miles in the flats than it did to climb Towne Pass.
At 12:30 pm we finally reached Furnace Creek. Joe and Brenda were standing in the wind and darkness waiting for us to arrive. It was another quick baton pass then Joe and Brenda were off. We put Tim and Scott's bike on the rack and got them into the shelter of the van, then drove ahead to Shoshone to wait for their arrival. Everyone considered Joe to be our "ringer", and predicted they would finish stage 4 around 5 am. That would give Jerry and I a chance to have a couple of hours sleep before we rode our next stage. Some of us slept, some of us didn't. Stage four is 72 miles and covers Furnace Creek to Shoshone past the killing fields of Badwater and over Jubilee Pass. Now Joe and Brenda were riding it facing 40mph headwinds and 60 mph gusts. Depending on who you talk to, that's a conservative statement. The wind storm was incredible. We heard later 30 % of the 508's racers decided to give it up this year while trying to ride from Furnace Creek to Shoshone. Since Jerry and I were expecting Joe and Brenda to come in about 5:00 am, we would take our bike out to the highway and get ready for the baton pass every time we saw a rider coming in. The trouble was it was never our rider. In fact, most of the riders checking into Shoshone were reporting as a DNF...5:30, no riders....6:00, no riders, we new it was bad bad out there ... 6:30, no riders... 7:00, no riders, and I was worried something had gone wrong. Joe and Brenda were taking 7 hours to cover 70 miles...None of the riders checking in reported seeing Joe and Brenda. Finally at 7:30am we saw them coming. Jerry and I had made many false starts each time a rider came in. This time it was our rider, and we were ready. When they arrived I was shocked to see how they looked. Joe looked like he had been riding a 48 hr cyclocross race, but there was no time to talk. We took the baton and Brenda yelled for us to go.
Stage 5 was supposed to be a piece of cake. 54 miles with only one 700 ft climb. I thought we had a pretty fair start even though it was still windy, it seemed to finally be letting up a bit. We rode toward Baker, and in an hour or so we topped the hill. The roll out was long and fast, and at the moment there was no wind. I remember feeling like we were going to be the lucky ones because the wind gods decided to take a nap. However the highway to Baker turned to the west after a 20 miles or so and the wind returned. The final 30 miles of our stage to Baker we tough. I can't imagine how it was for Jerry riding captain. The highway was smooth and flat. We should have been able to ride at 25-30 mph or so, instead we were struggling to move 6-8 mph. My only complaint about the entire ride is I should have found time to fit myself well on the bike. I didn't do a good job with the fit and was cramped between the seat and handlebars. This caused me to ride with the nose of the saddle in a "bad spot" resulting in a very sore "bum" The extra time it took to reach Baker was "a bummer" to say the least. In any event we reached Baker at 11:30 am, and I was able to sit comfortably the rest of the day. Even better, the wind was becoming lighter. We passed the baton off to Bernie and Matt and stage 6 was in the works.
Stage 6 covered the distance between Baker and Kelso. After we passed off the baton to Bernie and Matt we stopped at some fast food taco place and grabbed some heath food. I didn't think we dawdled around very long , but when we hit the road again it took quite a while for us to catch up t them. The wind died off a little and the skies were clear. The road between Baker and Kelso is "out there", and it's very nice country. The final few miles into Kelso offers a nice long descent. Somewhere along the descent Bernie had a front tire blowout. When I mentioned it to him he said it wasn't that bad, "we were only going about 40 mph". I have a feeling it takes quite a bit to get him excited...
Stage seven covered the distance from beautiful downtown Kelso to Amboy ( or almost Amboy ). It Starts off with a moderate 12 mile climb in the high desert. Tim and Scott made the climb look easy as they made their way to the top of the first false summit. We passed many very large rock formations that looked very small in the distance, but were very large when you finally came close. After being teased for 5 miles along the top they descended the south side of the mountain for the next 17 miles. I felt likeTim and Scott had been cheated a bit by the moderate headwind that was still blowing. We followed them down the hill at 40 mph or so, but had been no wind it would have easily been a 50 + mph descent. At the bottom of the hill sat the lonely race official. He said he felt like the Maytag Man since so few riders had come through the checkpoint. We made our final baton pass to Joe and Benda and they were off to the finish line.
Stage 8 is less than 60 miles, but the road to the finish has lots of high speed traffic. Twenty miles into it you begin the last climb. It's not all that steep, only 1500 ft in 10 miles, but with over 450 miles behind you it's not exactly a piece of cake. There was still a headwind to deal with, but it was not nearly as bad as last nights. Joe and Brenda made good time. When you can smell the finish things have a way of picking up. We'd decided at at the beginning of the ride that we would all come in together. This meant we'd all meet at a staging area, ( Pizza Hut parking lot in Twenty Nine Palms in this case ) put our gear on, ready our bikes , and ride the final mile across the finish line together. I can't adequately express what a great feeling it was to cross the finish as a team. There was a croud waiting to congradulate us at the line. This was Tim Skippers 5th finish of the 508 ( he's now a hall of fame member ) . Scott and Matt Skipper ( both 15 years old ) completed their first 508 ( with their Dad ) , Joe and Brenda completed not only the race, but rode stage four from 12 a.m to 7 a.m. under the most terrible conditions. Barnie completed his 9th FC 508 , and Jerry and I completed our 1st 508 as rookies... IT WAS THE BEST!!!
I've had many rides I'd consider memorable, but first rides seem to be among the best. The first Death Ride ( DNF) , The first Terrible Two (DNF), the first Flume Trail Ride, The First Downieville ride... Thay all hold a special place in my heart ... Now the 508 is there... I look forward to going back. As Andres said... It's Magical.