The Fall Death Valley Double route: Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells, then back northwest along Scotty’s Castle Road, turning northeast up Grapevine Canyon to Scotty’s Castle, northeast along Bonnie Claire Flats to Highway 95 in Nevada, back to Scotty’s Castle, then out to Ubehebe Crater, and then back southeast down Scotty’s Castle Road to “Mud Canyon” – the climb to “Hell’s Gate”. A fast 10 mile descent precedes an 11 mile flat romp to the finish. 197 miles (the above profile is off for some reason), 9,500 feet of climbing according to my GPS.
Furnace Creek, Death Valley, October 26th, 2013
It seems like only yesterday that I was here last year, on what was then my third attempt at finishing a double century in Death Valley. Like last year, I’d been thwarted for various reasons in the spring of 2010 and the spring of 2011. It was particularly frustrating last year in the fall, as I had to abandon at the top of the last climb, just 21 miles from the finish. I was no longer able to steer the bike and thought it unsafe to continue. (If you count crashing during training for the fall ride the year before, this year’s ride will be my fifth attempt at finishing a double in Death Valley.)
Will Death Valley foil me again this year? Will I find myself weaving across the road on that final climb up Hell’s Gate?
Not if my riding companions for the day, Jim and Kim, have anything to say about it! They have made it their mission to pull me around the course. It was Jim’s theory that I expended too much energy last year riding solo, in the wind, by myself. He was sure if there was someone to help get me through the winds of the Bonnie Claire Flats, on the Nevada portion of the ride, that I’d have enough energy to make it up Hell’s Gate.
Seems like a good strategy …
Me, Jim, and Kim, all looking ready to go at the start line in Furnace Creek. We are set to leave with the 7:10 am wave. Everyone looks reasonably well rested. I know I got a decent amount sleep.
“Come again soon,” the sign says. Well, we hope so, though it may be a “wee bit” later in the day.
Mile 0, 7:10 am. Perfect weather greets us.
With starting temps in the upper 50s/lower 60s, and a projected high in the mid 90s (in the lower elevations — 70s for the upper elevations), this was shaping up to be a great day. As we leave Furnace Creek, Jim and Kim have me ride up front, telling me to go whatever I deem a comfortable pace.
That’s around 18 mph, and I eventually latch on behind another rider going that same pace, and the three of us draft off him for many a mile. We make the turn onto the road that will take us to Stovepipe Wells, our first checkpoint of the day.
Early morning light as we curve southwest towards Stovepipe Wells. In the clear sunny air, Death Valley is quite striking.
Here, we have a fast 3-6% descent for a few miles. The temperature is quite nice at this point. Jim had told me earlier that there’s a spot along here where the air is always chilly. I hadn’t noticed this last year, but indeed, that did occur a mile or so from where this picture was taken. Yes, Death Valley is a strange place.
Mile 23, Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes
As we approach Stovepipe Wells, Jim has the idea we should stop at the sand dunes parking lot and use the toilets there.
The famous Death Valley sand dunes, as seen from the sand dunes parking lot. We stopped here to partake of the toilets, which proved to be a good idea. We saved time by not having to stand in line at the porta-potty’s at Stovepipe Wells, and as a bonus, I had time to compose a picture of the dunes.
Mile 24.5 Stovepipe Wells. Fastest Rest Stop Ever!
We stop at Stovepipe Wells just long enough to get our number tags marked and to wolf down half a banana. We are at the checkpoint less than two minutes, max, for my fastest rest stop ever.
Our strategy is to top off our water supplies at the next rest stop, just eight miles away. Due to the projected heat today, we had all decided to wear camelbacks, which would prove later to be a good decision.
Jim and Kim riding northeast on the way out of Stovepipe Wells. We’ll be riding left along those mountains in the distance shortly.
This is for my friend Scott, who’s always looking for pictures of light and shadow on stark landscapes. He likes to turn these photos into paintings.
Scene at the rest stop at mile 32. This comes only 8 miles after the Stovepipe Wells rest stop, but this stop is here for the century riders that don’t make the side-trip to Stovepipe Wells. It’s 36 miles from here to Scotty’s Castle, and a large chunk of those miles involve climbing. Like last year, I don’t take many pictures beyond this point. I’m focused on struggling up the climbs.
Mile 50. The climbing begins in earnest.
We have mostly flat riding for a while, with occasional ups and downs, the general trend being upwards, and then at mile 50, the climbing begins in earnest. It starts out at 2% grade, and then ramps to 6% and beyond.
It’s starting to get hot. I’ve learned from past doubles that I tend to get queasy if I start out cold. So I decided to wear a base layer today, knowing I probably would not need it very long. No problem, there was plenty of room to store it in my camelback.
Wanting to take off the base layer proves prescient, and by the next water stop, I waste no time getting rid of it. This leads to …
Mile 55. Idiot moment #1.
We stop for water, and I remove my base layer. As I put my jersey back on, I forget to pull up my bib straps. They dangle on my butt. I get on my bike and ride for at least five miles before trying to stand out of the saddle, finding I can’t. Something’s keeping me down. It’s my bib straps which are hooked onto the saddle!
Jim says he noticed something odd earlier about my riding but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. I pull over to rearrange my straps, feeling like an idiot. As I click back into the pedals and head out, the straps don’t feel right. Oh, well, I’ll correct that at Scotty’s Castle, now just 10 miles away.
This would lead later to another idiot moment …
Mile 65. The Grapevine Ranger Station.
The road swings from northwest to northeast as we make the ranger station. Jim and Kim stop for a breather. I elect to ride on. I know steep climbing looms, and just want to get it over with. Rather than stop at the ranger station, and then have the other guys have to wait on me on the climbs, I figure I’ll get a head start. I know they’ll catch me easily.
The grade ramps up here to 6% and beyond, reaching 11% in spots. But this year I’m expecting it, so it doesn’t seem as bad. Nevertheless I feel my energy waning, with exercised induced asthma coming on.
Halfway up the climb, Jim and Kim catch up, and then just before we reach the castle, there’s a steep little hill. That little hill, partly at 12% grade, just about does me in. I’m wheezing and gasping for breath.
Mile 68. 12:15 pm. Scotty’s Castle.
Just like last year, I roll in to Scotty’s Castle with my back killing me. I quickly hop off the bike and go stretch in the grass. A few minutes of this seems to solve the back problems.
I feel completely wiped out. I could easily take a 1/2 hour nap here. That’s what I want to do. But that cannot be. If we don’t keep moving, we’ll never make the cutoff for the next rest stop, some 27 miles away – and with 6 or 7 more miles of steep climbing.
Idiot Moment #2
Just as we get ready to leave, Jim notices that my bib straps are on the outside of my jersey. No wonder they felt weird earlier! I once again have to take off my jersey and set things right, feeling like an idiot all the while.
Miles 68-74, Grapevine Canyon, Bonk City, U.S.A.
We depart Scotty’s Castle at 12:32 pm. The next rest stop closes at 3:30 pm, so we have three hours to ride the 27 miles it will take. Seems entirely doable – except there’s more climbing to do before we reach the flats. And I have no desire to do said climbing. At all. Quite frankly, I feel like shit. Light headed, weak, and very tired.
I don’t remember this part of the climbing being so steep last year. It’s nominally 6% grade, ramping to 8-10% in spots. It’s relentless.
A few miles up the climb I’m forced stop. I don’t have any power left to push the pedals with. I pause for a minute or two, hands on the handlebars, head down, gasping for air. Jim asks me if I’m dehydrated. “I don’t think so,” I tell him. I’ve been drinking regularly and going to the bathroom at every rest stop. I’ve had clear water each time.
A mile further I have to stop again. Jim asks me if I’m overheating. I say no, I don’t feel hot at all.
What’s going on? Has the Death Valley Vortex caught me firmly in its mysterious grasp? Is Death Valley going to thwart me once again? Say it ain’t so!
I have to stop a third time, and this time Jim notices I’m wearing a bandana, and has me take that off. “Having that on your head can’t be helping,” he says. “Won’t you feel cooler without it?”
This is true, but I don’t think heat is the issue. And looking back on it now, a week later, it’s clear what the issue was: I was bonking! I did not give this possibility any credence during the ride, for I was eating and drinking my usual amount, the magic formula having been worked out over many long rides.
There’s a lesson here: The formulas don’t mean diddly squat. If you feel like you are bonking, you probably are! In hindsight, I should have been sucking down extra gel at this point.
Instead, I just struggle onward. I know the top is only two more miles, and then we’ll reach the plateau and have 20 miles of riding on the flats. Surely my legs will recover then.
Miles 74-95. Echelon formation does the trick.
At Mile 74 we reach the top of the climb, at some 4,100 feet in elevation, and are of course now riding into a headwind. Jim’s up front pulling, Kim spelling him from time to time. I’m having a hard time holding a steady cadence behind them. Pedal, coast, pedal, coast. I can’t get into any sort of rhythm. This is annoying, frustrating, and tiring.
Somewhere along the way Jim makes the astute observation that I should ride just behind him, to his left. Of course! The wind has shifted into more of a cross-wind, and the “echelon formation” is just the remedy for that.
I move into position and feel instant relief. I’m able to hold a steady cadence now. My legs recover at least 50% in just a few miles. Under Jim and Kim’s pulling efforts, we pass quite a few people. This boosts my spirits, and by the time we reach the Nevada turn-around, my legs have recovered almost 100%.
Looks like Jim’s strategy is working!
Mile 95: 2:45 pm. The Nevada turn-around.
Last year, I reached this point at 3:15, just 15 minutes before the rest stop closed. This year, we’re a half-hour ahead of that schedule. So far, so good.
They are giving out ice at the rest stop. I fill my camelback completely full of ice, and top it off with water. That icy cold water would taste especially sweet later on.
Scene at the 95-mile Nevada turn around. It’s 2:45 pm.
Miles 95-116 - The road to infinity
We leave the rest stop and head back southwest. In a fair world, we would have a tail wind now. Ha! This is Death Valley! Of course we have a head wind going back too. The wind gets stronger as the miles progress. Jim sets a pace around 16-18 mph. Last year, I was zooming along here at 20 mph plus.
Kim plows through stiff headwinds as we ride southwest along Bonnie Claire Flats. Here, the road seems to stretch into infinity. We’re 105 miles in.
Bonnie Claire Flats.
Just six miles to go before we begin our descent down Grapevine Canyon.
Mile 121, 4:45 pm. Scotty’s Castle
The descent down Grapevine Canyon is a lot more pleasant than last year. Back then this descent consisted of sketchy gravel on washed out roads. Now we are able to zoom down the hill at speed, the only problem being the sun in our eyes from time to time. We reach Scotty’s Castle – past burned out vineyards (what a tragedy!) – by 4:45 pm.
The park grounds and picnic tables are closed, so we eat a sub-sandwich out of the sag truck and down a couple cans of V-8 and are soon on our way.
Scotty’s Castle in the late afternoon light, 4:45 pm.
Scene down the Grapevine. The road is fairly steep along here.
Miles 121-130, 5:50 pm. Ubehebe Crater.
After resting at Scotty’s Castle and then further descending down the Grapevine, I’m feeling good, and find myself out ahead of Jim and Kim, spinning down the road towards Ubehebe Crater. There’s more climbing here, and Jim and Kim catch me just before the climbs. Even though we’re back to 6-8% grades, it doesn’t seem to bother me. The sun is now descending over the mountains, but the air is still warm – actually, perfect is more like it. I settle into the saddle and patiently spin up the climb to the crater.
Unlike last year, my bike is not drifting off to the left as I make the 9% grade to the crater. That’s a very good sign.
Looking into the bottom of Ubehebe Crater. This volcanic formation is 600 feet deep and 1/2 mile across.
Another scene from the crater.
Back to the ranger station, 6 pm.
We descend from Ubehebe Crater and make our way to a low spot, before climbing again to the ranger station. My legs do not suffer on the climb at all. We arrive at the main highway and the ranger station by 6 pm.
Twilight settles in, looking southeast from the Grapevine Ranger Station. We stopped here to top off water bottles and prepare for night riding. It’s just after 6 pm, and we’ll have a glorious descent from here for 32 miles.
Miles 136-169. A glorious twilight descent.
Now comes the best part of the day, the descent down Scotty’s Castle Road, heading southeast back towards our final destination. Even though we’re descending at a pretty good clip, and could just coast, Jim’s up front, constantly pedaling. I’m barely pedaling at all, and have a good 10-15 miles of rest along this stretch.
Jim eventually slows down and soon I find myself up front, doing the pulling. This is the first time today that this has happened. I don’t mind – in fact, I want very much to pay back Jim and Kim for all of their pulling.
With skies darkening, the temperature somehow remains warm, and this, coupled with the slight downhill now, (0 to -2 % grades) leads to perfect riding conditions. I feel very energized.
I escape for a while by me lonesomes
My pace seems a bit fast for Jim and Kim. Unbeknownst to me, they are tiring. Well, why shouldn’t they be? They spent an awful lot of time in the wind today. It isn’t long before I notice they are no longer right behind me. Their distance alternates between getting closer and getting further away.
Last year there was a water stop somewhere along here. I figure that’ll be a good place to stop and wait. But the water stop never comes. All I can think about is that the sooner we make the bottom of Hell’s Gate, the more time available for doing the climb. We can all take a good breather at that second-to-last rest stop.
I climb a small ridge and roll down the other side and suddenly there are no other bikes around. I’m alone now with my own thoughts, in the deep dark that is Death Valley on a moonless night. It’s nice to have a few moments of peace like this. I get caught up in these moments. In retrospect, I should have slowed completely down where I was and waited for the others to join me.
I catch and pass several riders along this stretch. Yes indeed, my legs are feeling awesome! I’m not riding all that hard, though. My heart rate’s in the lower 120s, in the lower aerobic zone for me. I can continue this pace indefinitely.
Mile 169, 7:57 pm. Bottom of Hell’s Gate
I pull in to the next-to-last rest stop, at the bottom of Hell’s Gate. I have just enough time to fill a water bottle when here comes Jim and Kim.
We sit for a while and drink a Coke and eat a cup of noodle soup.
Jim says, “It’s in the bag. You’re going to make it.”
I don’t want to make any such proclamation myself. I remember quite well what happened last year. But I have to admit, the prospects look good. Unlike last year, I’m not stumbling around, barely able to walk. Unlike last year, I can still steer my bike in a straight line.
Miles 169-176. The climb up Hell’s Gate.
We depart for Hell’s Gate at 8:12 pm. We have almost four hours to make the next 28 miles. Surely, that’s doable.
Hell’s Gate is a 7 mile climb, 2,100 feet elevation gain, or thereabouts. It features a lot of 6-8% riding, perhaps even steeper. It’s certainly a challenge after 170 miles of riding.
The climb begins. Jim and Kim have me out front, to set whatever pace I deem comfortable. I drop down into my triple’s granny gear (30×27) and spin as consistently as possible. I try to go into yoga zone, the in-the-moment-relax-into-infinity zone. To much relief, I’m able to steer the bike properly this time around.
The relaxing-into-infinity mindset works past Mile Marker 2 up the climb, then Mile Marker 3, 4, and 5.
Almost a mile too far.
A some point along the way Jim asks what the gradient is. Now, there’s a bit of history there that makes this funny. Earlier in the day I was constantly calling out the gradient as we made the climbs. The others wanted me to shut up about it. “We don’t want to know what the gradient is!” they remarked. “You’ll just make the climbing seem harder.”
And now here’s Jim asking for the gradient. I turn on my light and glance at the GPS.
“Eight percent,” I say to Jim.
Eight percent. That’s a bit steep for this late in the day, I tell myself.
For some reason, I psych myself out with this. My power instantly drops.
Actually, I’m not sure what happened. Later it was realized that a headwind came up about this time. But whatever the case, I find myself beginning to wheeze, unable to stay with Jim and Kim. The wheezing gets bad enough I have no choice but to get off and try to recuperate. I don’t stop though. I walk the bike. I remember Jim saying throughout the day, “Keep the bike moving!”
Eventually my breath recovers enough to get back on and ride for a while. Jim and Kim are quite a ways up the road.
Mile Marker 6 passes by. Just a little more to go.
But a half mile from the top my legs cramp up something good. I’m forced to get off the bike again. I’m forced to walk into the last rest stop – the top of Hell’s Gate.
As I clop along in my (mountain bike) shoes, that last half mile seemingly takes forever. I’m not worried, though. There’s still plenty of time to finish.
Mile 176. 10 pm. Hell’s Gate.
I reach the rest stop. Jim and Kim say they are glad I made it. So am I, of course. Last year, this is where I had to abandon. But now, barring any unfortunate incident, I will finish this double! I top off my water, down a few fig newtons and a packet of salt. I want these cramps to go away. The salt should help. So should the upcoming 10 mile descent.
Miles 176-197. A steep, fast descent, followed by easy riding to the finish.
The other side of Hell’s Gate is steep. I don’t know how steep. I just know that within a few seconds, I’m going 20 mph! Both Jim and I have dual pairs of Ayup lights. These allow us to the see the road quite clearly, even though it is pitch black out there.
And I mean pitch black. If you turn your lights off, you can’t see anything except stars. Wonderful, fabulous stars. Too numerous to mention.
Kim’s got only one pair of Ayup lights, so he descends at a more “leisurely” pace, (under 20 mph) to avoid outrunning is lights.
Me and Jim? We are flying down the road! Later, I would see from my GPS data that we were doing 30 mph for at least 5 miles down that hill. It was exhilarating, if a bit scary. We reach the bottom and wait a full fifteen minutes before Kim arrives.
I worry about the ride back to Furnace Creek. Though it looks flat on the profile, I do remember descending quite a ways on the way out, earlier this morning. How will my legs react to those climbs on the way back? Will my legs cramp up?
The answer is no. Those little climbs are not a factor. Soon the lights of Furnace Creek come into view.
I can’t believe it! I actually am going to finish! And it has not been a death struggle these last few miles. Quite the contrary, my legs feel awesome.
Well, not exactly awesome. Kim realizes at this point that if we hustle, we can finish the day just in under 16 hrs. I climb out of the saddle to make this a reality, only to have my legs say:
Er, excuse me! This sprinting here at the end is not in our contract! We are going to get you to the finish, and that’s all!
I settle back into the saddle, and roll with Jim and Kim into Furnace Creek in fine form. It’s just after 11 pm.
We roll into Furnace Creek around 11 pm. We don’t look to be in too bad a shape, given the 197 miles we’ve ridden. And yes, I finally, finally finish a double century in Death Valley.
We’ve finished. The Death Valley Curse has been lifted. Woohoo!
Many thanks to Jim and Kim for pulling me around the course today. I don’t think I would have finished without them.
Stats for the day:
Clock time: Officially, 15 hrs and 49 minutes.
Saddle time: 13 hrs, 45 mins
Time off the bike: 2 hrs, 4 mins
Avg speed (on the bike): 14.4 mph
Average riding heart rate: 124 bpm
Heart rate zones:
Below zone 1: 42 miles
Zone 1: 79 miles
Zone 2: 65 miles
Zone 3: 11 miles
Zone 4: Never
Zone 5: Never