Team Coonhound Finishes the 508 — Bruce’s Summary

finish_line.jpgLike a stick of butter left out in the summer heat of 2005, Team Coonhound re-coagulated with the cooler weather of early October to participate in its first two-wheeled event, the Furnace Creek 508. The 508 is a bicycle ride of 508 miles that begins in Santa Clarita, California, travels NNE through the towns of Mojave, California City and Trona to Stove Pipe Wells in Death Valley, then turns SSE through Furnace Creek, Badwater Basin, Baker, and the Mojave National Preserve, to end at Twenty Nine Palms. Team Coonhound riders for The 508 were Bruce Gungle of Tucson and Sergio Avila of Tucson and the first Mexican national to ride in The 508. Sergio was born in Mexico City and raised in the city and state of Zacatecas. Two volunteer crew joined us: Sean Sullivan of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and Cory Jones of the Sky Island Alliance. The team used the race as fund raiser for The Coalition, soliciting pledges from supporters based on the number of miles Team Coonhound would managed to complete in the Furnace Creek 508. Over $3000 was pledged by the time Team Coonhound headed out of Tucson for the start of the race in Santa Clarita, California, northeast of Los Angeles.

The 508 is broken into 8 legs. Entrants may register for the race as solo riders (one individual rides all 8 legs/508 miles), 2 person relay teams (riders alternate the 8 legs, 4 legs each), 4 person teams (riders alternate the 8 legs in order, 2 legs each), and then specialty categories such as fixed gear and recumbent bicycles. (For more information about the specs related to the race itself, please go to the 508 website at (http://the508.com). Team Coonhound was registered as a 2 person team. Bruce took the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th legs totaling 272 official miles plus an additional 8 miles of riding across Santa Clarita (along with all other riders) to reach the official starting point. Sergio rode the even legs, 236 miles that ended with the 57 mile 8th leg, a rotten bit of course work that included a 15 mile climb followed by a short downhill teaser that quickly graded into a relentless 20 mile uphill grind to Twenty Nine Palms. And if that’s not enough, a short, steep hill appears out of nowhere less than two miles from the finish. But more on that later.

Check-in to the race included an official looking fellow — he held a clip board — who checked our truck and bikes for safety compliance. We had to have flashing yellow lights on the roof of the truck, signage of our team animal totem (coonhound) on all 4 sides of the vehicle (this race uses animal totems rather than bib numbers), "CAUTION BICYCLE AHEAD" in reflective letters on the vehicle’s rear, plus a reflective red slow-vehicle triangle, also for the rear, for when the vehicle would be following the rider through the night. The bicycles had to have a decent headlight, visible from 300 yards, flashing red rear tail lights plus reflective tape on the bicycle body. In addition, the relay riders were required to carry a baton that included the name of the team animal totem throughout the race (ours was a golden retriever statue with its fur trimmed and coat enhanced with a black Sharpy to give it longer ears and the appropriate Black and Tan markings of a coonhound). After some concerns expressed about the location of our flashing yellow lights, we were cleared by the official-looking safety guy and his clip board. Sergio and Bruce had meanwhile checked in with the race staff and had their mug shot taken. After a pasta dinner at a fabulous strip-mall Italian restaurant run by two real-deal old Italian ladies, complete with official accents and reasonable prices, Team Coonhound attended the pre-race meeting. Video of the previous year’s race was shown (brutal headwind throughout), details of the race and rules were explained, official photos were taken and then Team Coonhound retired to the Santa Clarita Motel, Room 107, to pack, snack and relax. The relay team racers were to leave from the Hilton Hotel at 9:00 AM the next morning, and then officially start — following the 8 mile cross-town group ride — about 30 minutes later.

In the AM, we arrived at the Hilton well in advance of the start. Bruce was already in his cycling clothes which included a long sleeve cool max shirt under his University of Arizona cycling shirt to get through the chilly marine layer that had drifted inland overnight. Fortunately the sun flashed through the clouds 10 minutes before the start and Bruce realized he didn’t have on his sunglasses. Next he realized he hadn’t yet made the adjustments to his seat he’d been meaning to, so he pulled out an allen wrench, over corrected things, took a trial spin, readjusted things, and then further readjusted them after another trial spin. With less then 5 minutes to go he had his act together and took his place at the back of the pack, our coonhound totem "Pete" zip-tied to his handlebar stem from where Pete could direct the hunt.

Underway at last, Bruce, who was entirely uncertain what nearly 300 miles on a bike was going to feel like, was looking forward to getting this thing over with. Sergio had had three or four 100-plus mile weeks, with a single 215 mile week a few weeks before the race. Sergio’s longest single ride, however, was only 65 miles. Bruce, on the other hand, had completed a single 100 mile ride and a 75 mile ride, but had never ridden over 175 miles in a single week. Needless to say, both Team Coonhound riders were woefully under trained, so there was some concern, at least on the part of the riders, about completing the ride in something resembling respectable condition. Forty hours to complete the 508 miles was the agreed-upon goal.

The cross-Clarita pre-ride was not a simple matter. It ran up and down three significant rollers, and Bruce dropped into his lowest gear at least a couple of times. Knowing that many more significant climbs lay ahead, this was, to say the least, disconcerting. At the urban-rural interface on the east side of town a race staff member met the riders, and when all riders (this was just the relay racers; the solo racers had left at 7:00 AM) were back together again, the official race (and thus time clock) began — approximately 9:35 AM, Saturday, October 8, 2005.

BRUCE, Stage 1, Santa Clarita to Cali City, 82 + 8 miles

The first part of the first leg of the race heads up into San Francisquito Canyon, a long, winding, drainage that runs through picturesque ranch and horse properties tucked into golden California hills. Further on, the canyon narrows, oak trees crowd the road and stone cabins are built up against the shaded rock walls. While the race magazine claims we climbed 2,500 feet over 15 miles, it was gentle enough that it was hard to be sure we were climbing at all in San Francisquito Canyon–I had to kept an eye on the creek to make certain it was still running in the opposite direction. Near the top of the canyon a short but serious climb took me to my lowest gear, and then after a short downhill and a sharp left turn we encountered what some witty race staff member had signed, "Alpe Du Spunky," a serious introduction to the significant climbs that lay ahead on the route of The 508. I had to take a few pedal strokes while out of my saddle for this one, and low gear all the way while seated. I passed my first broken down competitor on the climb as well — "I’m OK, but my pedal broke off. That’s it; I’m through," he told me.

After a fast decent into and through the quaint hamlet of Green Valley, I reached a T-junction and had no idea whether I was to turn left or right or if I had perhaps missed a turn earlier. I circled around and headed back, hoping I wasn’t going to have to climb too far up the hill I’d just coasted down. A rider I’d passed a few times already (and he me) soon approached and confirmed that we turned right. Not too much further we reached the 30 mile point where our crews could meet us for the first time. Joking, Sean had told me that Team Coonhound would be the 13th vehicle parked along the road after the 30 mile mark. In fact, they were the 6th, but I still recognized them.

From here the route drifted down out of the coastal hills and mountains into a desert basin cut up into agricultural fields. The wind was blowing much harder out there on the flats, and depending upon our heading — generally north with an eastern jog — it was either a cross wind or a tail wind. This would be the case for the entire race: head winds would be rare throughout. One of the two gross exceptions to this theme, however, awaited me across the basin on the second mountain stage, named The Windmill Climb for the windmill farm at its summit. In the early afternoon of October 8, they were generating a whole lot of electricity at the summit, and what wasn’t going into the turbines was blowing straight into my face at about 30 miles per hour. I fought my way up and across the hilltop, wind howling the entire time. After a stop with the crew, I headed downhill through a wicked cross wind to the town of Mojave, pretty much scared out of my riding shorts the entire way. You see, my bicycle has bladed spokes, the flat surface perpendicular to cross winds. These are exceptionally aerodynamic when the predominant wind vector is pointing from my face to my rear. When traveling over 35 mph or so, however, if a gust hits this bike from the side, it can literally wrench the handle bars out of my hands. Scary, at least for an old guy like me. From the descent the route continued a short way on along some minor highways into California City where, after 90 miles in the saddle, I handed Pete the Coonhound over to Sergio for his first leg of The 508.

SERGIO, Stage 2, Cali City to Trona, 70 miles:

BRUCE, Stage 3, Trona to Furnace Creek, 99 miles:

After 4 or so hours with my 36 inch legs folded up accordion-like in the jump seats of the truck, it was my turn to ride again. Sergio had been kicking butt for 70 miles. I’d watched him pass nearly a dozen riders before I finally did the prudent thing and closed my eyes for a while. But sleep was hard to come by, especially when it was punctuated with powerful slams of the truck door — that crack crew of ours was not interested in doing anything half-baked.

As the sun began to set, the truck drifted around a bend into a community built around a salt mine — the town of Trona. We pulled over at Time Station 2 and while Sean and Cory got the truck ready for the night time drive (flashing yellow lights, red triangle, lights for the bike), I walked across an old concrete building slab and down through some pig weed and Russian thistle to take a whiz near the railroad tracks. While we were still getting the car and bike ready, Sergio rode in to the time station pumped up about what had been a very fast ride. I promised him that at least half of the people who he had just passed would likely pass me as I had nearly 100 miles to cover in this leg, not to mention the steepest climb of the race, and I wasn’t going to risk riding as aggressively as had he.

After what was likely to be our longest pit stop of the race — perhaps 10 minutes — I was off with a headlight I had borrowed from my friend John Fleming clamped to my handlebars next to our totem, Pete the Coonhound. To save the battery for as long as possible, however, I waited to turn it on until dusk was well on its way to darkness.

Riding out of Trona was surreal. First I passed the Catholic Church on the right, an oddly shaped white polygon with no windows, taller than it was wide. It was dirty white and had a surface texture like plaster of Paris or bondo. It was an odd architectural form for any building, but doubly so for a church. Next, a wide variety of abandoned and semi-abandoned buildings and houses lined the road. Then on the left was the Trona Gem-o-rama, This Weekend!, for which we’d seen signs as we’d entered town. Three or four cars were parked in the lot. A hand scrawled sign on the door of the beaten down auditorium informed the random gem and mineral dealer that, indeed, the Gem-o-rama was being held there. A little further along, a couple argued furiously in their front doorway, then paused to wave to me as I rode by. After passing the road to the camping area/RV quarters for the Gem-o-rama (a couple of miles outside of town in a tamarisk thicket), I flipped on my light and started up the short climb called the Trona Bump (5 miles, 1000 feet).

The ride up The Bump was uneventful, especially with the wind at my back, but the ride down the other side seemed to go on forever. Except for the occasional cross wind that would grab my front wheel, set my bike frame oscillating and freak me out for a few moments, it was a great coast and seemed to go on for longer than the seven miles and nearly 1600 feet of elevation loss the race magazine allows for. On the valley floor I turned left onto Panamint Valley Road, and begin the 14 mile grind and 300 feet of rolling elevation gain along a rough road (all the 508 veterans like to tell you how much rougher it was in the old days) that took us to the T-junction at Route 190. Here I joined the familiar route from the Badwater 135 foot race. Where the Badwater 135 route drops down 3800 feet over 10 miles off of Townes Pass, however, the Furnace Creek 508 route heads the other way, up 3800 feet over 10 miles, with the bulk of that climb coming in the middle two-thirds of the hill. I had been stressing about this one particular climb for weeks. Essentially it came down to the fact that I was confident if I could get up Towne’s Pass, then I could finish the race. If not, well, then that would be that.

At the turn onto Rt. 190 a race volunteer told us we had now finished 200 miles of the 508, and then directed us to turn right at the junction, and begin the climb — gentle at first, then steeper with sections of up to 13% grade before piping down again a mile or so before the summit of the pass. We took a break just after the turn where I caught my breath, ate some melon and had a drink. Sean or Cory asked if I needed to refill my water bottles and I laughed at that. There was no way I was going to have a free hand to get a drink once the climb began in earnest, and besides, more water meant more weight to haul up that bloody hill.

And so that was that, no sense waiting around filled with dread, might as well get after it and see what was going to happen. The first quarter mile or so was actually downhill, to where the road bottomed out in the center of the Panamint Valley. This was replaced by a gradual climb (I recall having run this section easily during the Badwater 135), that then steepened and as the road passed from the alluvium of the valley floor into the mountains, the grade dramatically increased. I was still able to sit on my bicycle seat at this point, and spin away, chasing the cone of light from the head lamp attached to my helmet (the original head light that had been attached to the handlebars had run out of juice back along the Panamint Valley Road). I began to gain on a guy in yellow and blue who appeared to have a bike that was geared lower than mine, although I could see that he had just two front chain rings like me. His smaller one was significantly smaller than my smaller one, though, which allowed him to crawl along, weaving back and forth across the road like an exhausted drunk.

By now, a few miles into the climb, I had to get out of my saddle periodically to push the peddles down one at a time like a Stair Master. As I stood up off the seat, I would up-shift two gears. Standing gives you more leverage and it is more efficient to use a higher gear if you can take it — it’s more distance per pedal stroke — as well as the fact that too low of a gear will burn out your quadriceps muscles quickly without giving you much distance. After standing for a while, my quadriceps would tire and I would have to sit back down. Riding in the saddle you use a different set of muscles, and thus you rest the quads you are using while standing. If you go so far as to just pull the pedals while sitting (rather than pushing), then you use your hamstrings and can almost completely rest the quadriceps muscles that are used while out of the saddle.

After passing the rider in blue and yellow, I realized I needed a rest or I was going to fall over, and so I pulled in to a paved pullout along the road side (the mountainside that Rt. 191 climbs up to Townes Pass is so precarious that there is no breakdown lane at all, just occasional pullouts). While I was resting, the guy in blue and yellow staggered past. Sean informed me that he was, indeed, a solo rider. We had been catching the back end of the solo riders, who had started two hours before us, since late in the afternoon. To know that this guy had ridden the entire race and was now cranking along on his way up Townes Pass without taking any breaks was impressive, even if he was geared a little lower than I was.

I got back on my bike and the ritual that I’d established just before the pull out became the mantra I lived by going up the hill: sit down and spin the cranks — well, turn them, anyway — in the lowest gear until I couldn’t turn them any more, then climb out of my saddle, up-shift two gears (later one, and eventually, as time wore on and the steepness of the grade maxed out, none at all — low gear all the way) and then pound down the right pedal, then pound down the left pedal, then pound down the right, then pound down the left. It didn’t so much feel like riding a bike as it did hiking. The road had left the open mountain side and now cut into the slope, and there was a head wind. After another twenty minutes or so, my light faded and I pulled over again. We swapped out the dead helmet head lamp for Sergio’s back-up handle-bar mounted headlight. It had an extremely heavy battery pack that went into the rear shirt pocket, but that was the price you paid for a long burn time.

Back on the hill I noticed that the road, while still steeper than anything I’d ridden before tonight, was slightly less steep than the worst of what was now behind me. But it was still the same drill — ride in the seat for 5 minutes or so, then stand up and hike, one distinct pedal stroke, then another, and then another and on and on…for 5 minutes or so, then sit back down and pull the pedals up one after another after another for another 5 minutes. The odometer told me I was over 6 miles into it now, and according to which description you believed, I had another 4 or 7 miles to go. I banked on it being another 7, just to be safe, and at the same time forgot about how far it was and concentrated on just keeping the bike moving. Somewhere along the climb I passed the guy in blue and yellow again. It must have been when I had just stood up after a long turn in the saddle, as my legs felt strong at that point and I went by him almost too quickly.

"Good job, man!" I called out.

"You, too. You’re looking strong."

"Yeh. Looks are everything."

Before that, however, an Asian fellow had ridden up behind me going faster than I could believe (what was he doing behind me if he was such a strong rider? I wondered aloud), chattering away to whomever was within earshot.

"Hahllo," he called to Sean and Cory as he passed our truck, "Yah, just out for a nice ride, ha ha."

I heard him coming at this point, and given how hard I was working did not look forward to exchanging pleasantries just at that moment.

"Yah, up we go. He climbing, climbing. You going to make it, do fine."

"Good job," I called to him and off he went into the night, making us look like we were standing still. And then I caught up to the guy in blue and yellow and passed him again.

I took a third break around the 8 mile point, and Sean informed me that I only had two miles to go to the summit.

"Two? I thought it was a 13 mile climb; five to go."

"No, it’s just ten to the top according to the magazine."

Well I certainly wasn’t going to argue. Off I went, grind grind grind, sit sit sit, pull pull pull stand stand stand grind grind grind and then, low and behold, the grade of the road began to decrease and I could once again handle a higher gear for those sections where I was out of my saddle. And then, not too too long after that, I was able to pedal from my saddle entirely, no standing at all, and a sign appeared telling us that Stove Pipe Wells was 18 miles away (I knew it was 17 miles from the summit to Stove Pipe — 1 mile to go!) and another 10 or 15 minutes later things really began to level out, I could shift out of low gear for the first time in a few hours, and then, sooner than I could have even hoped for, the reflective sign indicating the top of Townes Pass caught our headlights and another couple of minutes and we had pulled into the big open dirt lot on the north side of the pass. Sean and Cory were pretty psyched about getting to the top, and so was Sergio, probably as much so that he could now relax and get some sleep as anything else. He always thought we were going to be able to do fine on the climbs, and right he was. So far, anyway.

A number of other crew vehicles were at the top of the pass, most crews (and some riders?) apparently sleeping, so we took just a quick, quiet break, refilled my water bottles, and off I went into the 17 mile downhill into Death Valley.

It had been pretty cool up on Townes Pass in the middle of the night, and I welcomed the warmer air as I made the decent into the valley of death. Spooked as I was by the earlier crosswinds on descents, I kept it between 35 and 40 mph and enjoyed the rest my legs were getting. Eventually the pitch of the road lessened and I could pedal, and after all that resting it felt good to turn the cranks again. A half an hour from the top of Townes Pass brought us to Stove Pipe Wells where we pulled into the motel parking lot to take a break. We’d only been there a few minutes when another cyclist pulled in with his crew and announced that now he was going to have a nice bowl of hot soup. Well that was the ticket — soup sounded so good right then that I couldn’t believe it, and Sean or Cory got me a can and a spoon and I ate it cold right out of the can while I rested my legs, sitting on the tailgate of the truck with my feet up on the bike rack. I’ll tell you, there is nothing that tastes so good when you’re well into an endurance event than some soup. I don’t know if it’s the carbs or the protein or the salt or all of that wrapped up in a liquid matrix, but something about it really hits the spot. After the soup and some snacks — chips and a cookie, as I recall — it was back on the horse and off to Furnace Creek, another 25 miles away across the rolling road along the alluvium of Death Valley’s eastern flank.

To my psychological advantage, I am familiar with this stretch of road due to my experience with the Badwater 135, and so I knew pretty much where I was the entire ride, and what hills to expect and that there would be a number of broad sweeping curves and rolling hills that were miles long. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist scanning the horizon for the little cluster of lights that would indicate the gas pumps and hotel at Furnace Creek. Of interest, while the legs were fine after the big climb, after 90 miles on the bike (and10 yet to go), the arms and shoulders were exceptionally sore, as in excruciating. I finally found a position for my left hand on the handle bars that reduced the knifing pain between my left shoulder and shoulder blade. I held that position perfectly, even after I began to get a blister at the base of my thumb where the riding glove and handle bar met — the blister pain was nothing compared to the shoulder pain I would get if I lost that hand position and couldn’t recover it. But this did not appease the throbbing ache of the bi- and triceps, nor the sharp shouts from my elbows when I locked them up in an effort to rest the other muscles.

Down a hill out of what I knew in the daylight was a mustard-colored formation and the multi-use path appeared along side the road, indicating Furnace Creek was about a mile away, and finally we were at the time station by the Chevron. I got off my bike and immediately stretched out on the pavement next to the gas pumps and did my best to relax my arms, but they were pounding and pounding and I kept yelling, "My god damn arms are killing me! Oh man! My arms are just killing me!" I was pretty much no use to Sean and Corey in getting Sergio ready for his next — and toughest — leg of the ride. All I wanted was ibuprofen and a turkey and cheese sandwich and a doctor with a saw to cut of my arms.

SERGIO, Stage 4, Furnace Creek to Shoshone, 74 miles:

Well, Sergio handled his climb like a stud, topping out at Salsberry pass following sunrise and 14.5 miles/2300 feet of climb on really bad road. The Valley of Death was behind us, as was the golden morning light on the rugged mountains along its border. Death Valley is at once unforgiving in its demands on life and unselfish with its gifts to the spirit and the soul. It is truly one of the great beautiful places in the world.

After a quick 12 mile descent, Sergio caught us in the throws of prepping for my next stage — Sean was on a payphone with Kevin G. B., giving him our first update for the Coalition website since the start of the race some 22 hours before, Cory was in the bathroom and I was wandering around trying to figure out what I should do and wishing I’d gotten more sleep.

BRUCE, Stage 5, Shoshone to Baker, 56 miles:

After throwing on my shoes and salt-encrusted helmet, I slammed some Hammer Gel, ate a handful of ibuprofen, got on my bike and headed off under the morning sun, wind at my back, thinking, "This ain’t so bad, being out here, going for a little ride on a beautiful day like this."

Seven or eight miles brought me to the end of the nice gentle downhill and a bend to the west put an end to the tail wind and it was time to get serious. Eventually the road turned back to the south and with the wind at my back once more I was able to make the entire 750 feet/3.5 mile climb to Ibex Pass pedaling over 15 mph. I even passed a few other riders, which I’m sure made Sergio happy if he wasn’t sleeping.

From the top of Ibex pass it was a nice 8 miles of descent and then across a basin with some dunes to the east at the base of a small desert mountain. At the road in to the dunes, two large RVs each pulling one large trailer filled with ATVs pulled out along side of me. The sucky part was that they were huge and loud and pulling trailers and a little scary on this fairly narrow road. The good part was that they were huge and I was able to draft off of the them for a short time. Had that been the end of it, the RVs pulling ATVs would hardly warrant a comment in this summary. The rest of the ride into Baker, however, was punctuated by more of the same again and again, almost as though they were part of some redneck army, and huge RV’s or huge dually pickup trucks pulling large trailers filled with ATVs was required gear.

The road through here was rough, although not as bad as coming across the Panamint, and no where near as bad as Sergio’s road climbing up Jubilee and Salsberry Passes. Furthermore, the wind was at my back throughout, so I had little room to complain, and the 56 miles to Baker passed uneventfully. I must admit, however, that I was thankful that this leg was a whole lot shorter — nearly half the distance — than my last. While the pain in my arms did not return, I was quite happy to get off the bike under the watchful eye of the world’s largest thermometer (not currently functioning), and hand Pete the Coonhound back over to Sergio.

SERGIO, Stage 6, Baker to Kelso, 35 miles:

Sergio ground out his 23 mile/2700 feet ascent into Mojave National Preserve, where he caught Cory and me off on opposite sides of the road taking care of business. Sergio did not enjoy his climb, and I cannot blame him. It was too late in this event for having to endure yet another long hill. Unfortunately for him, more of the same lay ahead for his final leg. A 12 mile downhill brought him into the ghost town of Kelso, where the BLM, who manages the Preserve, has spent years and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring the old Kelso depot and hotel. It has been well worth the effort, as it is a handsome, multi-story Edwardian building and the restoration has only improved it.

As usual, Sergio made it down the hill and across the 4 or 5 sets of rail road tracks into the time station before we were ready for him. I was in no hurry to get back on my bike, really, although on the other hand I was definitely ready to get this all over with.

BRUCE, Stage 7, Kelso to almost Amboy, 34 miles:

Eventually I saddled up and headed off for my final climb, up into the Granite Mountains where I have often camped on my way to Death Valley. The Granites are just that — granite, well exfoliated into rounded goblinesque humps and bumps. The largest peaks could be giant fossilized whales, all set on end, snouts in the air. I was looking forward to this part of the ride so I could view them again, and because, from looking at the description in the race magazine, it seemed that after 2 miles of flat and then 12 miles and 2000 feet of climbing I had 20 miles of nothing but downhill! For all intents and purposes, my work ended just 14 miles from Kelso, and then I just had to hold on!

The climb was, of course, unending. I had done more climbing — both longer ones and steeper ones — over the course of the event, but with over 240 miles already behind me, this was the one that went on and on and on. And then, of course, it got steeper closer to the pass. I took a couple of breaks on the way up, and the boys would pass every now and then and Cory would leap out of the truck and run along side of me, telling me how much further to the pass, and then how far across the relatively flat top it would be. And, of course, at last I was there, at the top, Granite Pass. I never did get a really good look at the mountains, and I don’t think we stopped, although we may well have. Who knows? At that point I was just really pleased that I was done with the hard stuff and hoped that the descent would not be too steep and there would be no crosswinds.

I told the guys we’d meet at I-40 and I’d take a break there, thinking that the road flattened out at the underpass. I coasted down from Granite Pass through the last miles of Mojave National Preserve. The road ran to the southwest, and so I got a crosswind yanking at my front wheel again, freaking me out for the final time. After exiting the preserve and crossing under I-40, the road turned back south, and the crosswind became a tailwind, but then I had to stop because I’d asked the guys to wait for me. I pulled up to the truck, got a little something to eat, and said,

"Well, I’m not really sure why I told you to wait for me here. All it did was waste my momentum."

"Yeh, we were wondering about that, too," said Cory (or was it Sean?).

Back on the bike, it was a tailwind and downhill all the way to Amboy. For much of the ride I was going too fast to be able to have helped by pedaling even if I had wanted to. I topped out in the low 40 mph range, although I was mostly between 35 and 40. The wind was at my back — no evil crosswinds — the entire way and it was probably the most glorious ride of my entire life — twenty fabulous miles of almost no effort. It got so I looked forward to the times the grade lessened enough that I could turn my pedals to some effect. Oh, it was a great way to end my part of the ride.

But it couldn’t have been more different than what Sergio had awaiting him on his final leg.

The last time station (not counting the finish) is at an intersection of two small roads, the one I was coasting down, and the one that Sergio would take to the right. The guy who was in charge had set up some plywood palm trees and plywood hula girls, was wearing a Hawaiian shirt himself and playing some Hawaiian music. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on, what was up with the palm trees, as fatigued as I was (well, not from that final leg, but from all the time without sleep, I guess). I coasted in, got off my pony one last time without falling, and got into my jeans and a T-shirt for the first time in a day and a half. That in itself was nearly reward enough.

SERGIO, Stage 8, Almost Amboy to 29 Palms, 58 miles:

Sergio’s last leg was 58 miles, and after a climb and short downhill it ground slowly uphill, relentlessly, into 29 Palms. It was soon dark, and the road was filled with big pickup trucks pulling trailers with boats and/or ATVs on their way back from a weekend of sun and beer on the Colorado River. It had to have sucked, even for a rider who was fresh, which he was not at this point.

Sergio stopped a couple of times to catch his breath and get a little something to eat or drink, and I think he was always hoping that he had gone a lot further than he had. Because it was dark, we were trailing him in the truck with the lights going, and were unable to pull up ahead of him to clue him in to the distance left. He went back and forth with another rider; they passed each other 3 or 4 times as one of them would get a second wind or the other would run out of motivation. Eventually Sergio passed him for the last time and a few miles later we came to the turn into 29 Palms. Somehow I was in the navigator’s seat. I hadn’t been doing this during the race and so didn’t have the drill down like our crusty old crewmen, and misstated distances a couple of times. We’d lost sight of any rider’s ahead of us and Sergio had dusted the guy behind us so he, too, was out of sight, and a couple of times we weren’t sure whether we were on the right road any longer.

One last turn put us on the last stretch to the finish line at the Best Western, 29 Palms. It was a long, flat, dusty 5 lane stretch of strip malls and fast food places interspersed with the occasional boarded up building, or homegrown business of some sort that was just hanging on by its teeth. Sergio was working really hard but not really going so fast, and we kept hoping to see the hotel up ahead somewhere, just after a Burger King, according to the directions. We pulled up next to Sergio to let him know that the Best Western hotel would be on the left. He was so tired at this point that he was starting to weave back and forth along the side of the pavement. We rode on for another mile and a half, and then, up ahead, was not the finish, but a serious hill. This was not in the directions, and we still couldn’t see any other riders and Cory and Sean started to stress that we were not on the right road at all. We didn’t want to make Sergio ride up this hill if it was not the right way, but we finally decided we’d just have to go for it and see what was over the hill.

Half way up the hill was a little run down motel with individual cabins. Sergio saw this, and in his half-baked state thought it was plenty good enough for the finish line hotel and cut out in front of us to make a left turn into this place and finish the race. We yelled at him that this was not it, to get back over to the right side of the road before he killed himself. He turned back to us and said, "Hotel! Hotel!" and pointed at it and we yelled "NO! NO! Keep going!"

Finally we crested the steep half-mile hill and Sean was beginning to insist that we stop to figure out where we made the wrong turn when a car passed us with another team’s totem and name on it full of folks cheering for Sergio. Yes! We were, in fact, on the right road, and we figured we could just watch where this car went to find the finish, but then it turned into a restaurant (not Burger King), and we went back to searching the road ahead. There was still no Best Western in sight. Sergio cut out into the road again, trying to follow the path this other car had just taken.

"NO!" we yelled, "NO! Keep going!"

Sergio was really frustrated at this point, really wanted the ride and the race to be over, and it was pretty painful to watch (but not nearly as painful as it was to ride). And then Sean, our fast food connoisseur, spotted the Burger King sign up ahead. Cory seconded Sean’s sighting and eventually even my untrained eye pieced it together, too, the sign hiding behind a tree or other signs or something. And then the Best Western sign came in to view, and we pulled up next to our man and pointed it out to him, and where he should turn, and got him out into the center turning lane of the 5 lane road and then up a little rise to the turn, and then up another rise to front door of the Best Western and the finish line. Sergio gunned it through the finish ribbon and skidded to a stop, smiling ear to ear.

THE END

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