Now that I've had a few days to think about the Ride to Cure in Death Valley it's time for a recap. I'll skip the straight travelogue type account:
"Mile One. As I stared ahead into the unyielding desert, not knowing what was to come, it occurred to me that there was still an opportunity to turn back."
Nope, I'd like to impart a little more information that might be useful if you ever wake up one morning and say to yourself, "You know, riding 100+ miles across the hottest place in North America sounds like a hoot. Where do I sign up?"
Here's the first thing you should know: Finishing the JDRF Ride to Cure century in Death Valley is something that any reasonably well conditioned cyclist can achieve. Read on.
For reasons that you can probably imagine (and that I'll soon describe, if you're not into imagining), it's not a ride you want to take lightly.
The course itself is relatively simple -- it's an out and back ride that totals about 103 miles. Most of the terrain is flat or rolling, but the midpoint of the ride is marked by a six mile ascent, and since the turn point is at the top of the climb, a six mile descent. It is, in terms of the profile of the course, not a particularly big deal.
However, you're in the hottest place in N. America. The day we rode the temperature was somewhere north of 100 degrees F (104-105, according to several sources). There is no shade. Heat radiates off every surface, including the biggest radiator of all, the pavement.
The air is incredibly dry; humidity is perhaps 10%. Wind is a major factor; in 2007 the ride featured a headwind on the return leg that exceeded 30 mph. Further, the winds can change direction and gust without warning -- in short, make things miserable.
Once you leave the starting line, the oasis that is Furnace Creek, there are no towns along the course. No convenience stores, no place to fill water bottles, no signs of civilization that are normal parts of most century rides. You're dependent on the support system provided by the ride organizers.
Happily, the organizers do a superb job.
Now, here's the second thing you need to know: Once you sign up for the ride, you will hear many warnings about proper hydration. Take those warnings seriously.
Every year a few people end their ride on the receiving end of an IV (the record for IVs is owned by one unlucky dude who had to receive eight before he was released). You don't want to finish this way.
I drank copious amounts of water from the moment I landed in Las Vegas. By late Thursday I felt like I had a water bottle surgically attached to my hand. That much water felt like overkill. That much water was just right.
During the ride the goal is to drink two full bottles every 15-20 miles. I didn't quite achieve this early in the ride -- one to one and a half was more like it -- but by the afternoon two bottles per 15 miles seemed like almost enough. Throughout the ride I kept one bottle filled with water and orange-ginger Nuun for electrolyte replacement, and the other filled with an energy drink. I started with Hammer Heed, then switched to Cytomax as the temperatures rose.
When the temperature is 100+, and ice turns to warm water within 3-4 minutes, Heed tastes very, very bad. Cytomax is slightly more palatable (YMMV), but by the 70 mile mark the diet of warm liquid, whatever the flavor, began taking its toll on my stomach.
Food was less of a problem. I stuck to my usual choices -- bananas, Hammer Gel, the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- and never flirted with bonking, though (and this is for diabetics who are reading) the climb to Jubilee Pass caused the only noticeable dip in my bG.
Okay, here's tip #3: You will hear horror stories about Jubilee Pass. Don't freak out.
The road from Ashford Mill to Jubilee Pass rises from approximately sea level to 1,293 feet in elevation. The grade is about 5-5.5% for about five miles, with no flat or downhill sections. There is no shade. I was told to expect the climb to take an hour.
I'm no climber, but I'm happy to say I bettered that mark by a considerable amount of time. When the road turned upward I let the stronger riders go, resisted the temptation to hang with riders who were slowing, and rode at a pace that felt comfortable (I was moving steadily, but could talk to riders who I passed). I remembered to keep drinking, got out of the saddle to stretch my legs every mile or so, and hit the top of the climb feeling fresh. After a stop to eat a quick bite and snap some photos I headed back down the road to Ashford Mill.
Going down Jubilee Pass is, in some ways, worse than climbing it. The road surface is terrible. It's hard to distinguish road from soft, throw-you-over-the-bars shoulder. By the time I rolled into the checkpoint at Ashford I felt like I'd been resting my hands on a paint mixer.
Now it's time to head back to Furnace Creek. The fourth thing to keep in mind is that you should plan, at this point, to feel reasonably fresh.
This is important because as the valley floor becomes warmer the winds start to rise. Those winds could be minimal or they could be ripping. And you want to be ready for the worst case. After hearing the '07 tales of woe, I decided early on that I would ride very conservatively in case I had to deal with headwinds on the way home. Fortunately, really bad headwinds didn't materialize and we only had to contend with those of the less-than-ten-miles-per-hour variety.
From the saddle of a bike, the scenery in Death Valley is surreal and spectacular. Throughout the day the quality of light changes (most pleasant around 8 AM, when you're rolling along in relative comfort in arm and knee warmers, and totally harsh and disagreeable by early afternoon), and you have a stunning view of the Panamint Mountains. Between Badwater and Mormon Point the road winds along in a serpentine track around the mountains.
Heading in the opposite direction, from Mormon Point to Badwater, a certain amount of monotony can set in. You've logged about 70 miles so far, and with the road constantly disappearing around a series of sweeping curves, you always get the sense that Badwater, and the last checkpoint before arriving home, is just around the bend. That's a feeling you'll get to savor for far too long.
Reaching Badwater is a sign that the ride's almost done. There are 17 miles back to the Furnace Creek Ranch (HQ for the event), and even the hordes of Hummer-driving tourists aren't too much of a drag.
That last 17 miles is a gentle climb from -282 feet to sea level, followed by a one mile, 160 foot descent. There's a tough little climb about five miles out, but at that point you'll see the Hotel California (Furnace Creek Inn, and album cover photo subject) and you're close enough to smell the barn.
It's a ride I'd recommend anyone (if you're really hardcore consider the Death Valley Double Century or Furnace Creek 508) do at least once. And in my case it came with the added bonus of raising money for a good cause -- about $1.2 million among the 288 riders who participated.