Death Valley Double Century Felix Wong

Back in January ’97, the goal was set: the completion of three California Triple Crown events. The first of which being Death Valley Double, held on March 22, 1997. It would be right after my winter finals, and I would be in Southern California anyways to visit a Formula Mazda race car manufacturer and some friends. How convenient!

Supposedly, I would gradually increase my mileage to 160 miles/week, including commuting by mountain bike to and from my Sunnyvale home and Stanford a few days a week. As an incentive, I would also upgrade my drivetrain and wheels weeks in advance of the event so I would have sufficient time to work out all the bugs. Funny how things don’t turn out the way they’re planned…

Problems Before the Ride

Somehow, with projects, problem sets, lab reports, interviews, etc., I managed to ride only 50 miles/week in January, February, and March. Naturally, then, I turned my attention to the components to make up for my deficiencies… 🙂

In February I acquired a used pair of triple Shimano 105SC STI 8-speed shifters/levers and tentatively set them up with my 7-speed drivetrain. I never got the front lever to work well with my Suntour front derailleur, and finally conceded that I would have to replace the FD with the “correct” 105SC part…

So that was ordered in early March. Furthermore, I sold my old wheels and found a source of a built-up 24-spoke Mavic CXP30/Ultegra wheelset… in Florida. They would ship it right away. But I only received it on Thursday March 20–the afternoon after my last final, and the day before I planned on departing for Death Valley. This was close… I spent all night mounting tires, cassettes, and chains, in addition to adjusting the shifting. The latter was the most frustrating part. No matter what I seemed to do, I would have to overshift 2.5 clicks in order to downshift on certain cogs. And then I stripped the threads in the anchor of the new 105SC front derailleur. I mounted the old Suntour FD, and conceded defeat with the rear derailleur. I theorized that my new Taya chain was incompatible with the 8-speed cogs… yeah right!

Little training, untested equipment, 10,000 ft of climbing, high temperatures, strong winds, and a 35% dropout rate in the 1996 Death Valley Double– these are my thoughts the day before the event. Undaunted, I can’t help but think, this is going to be one helluva ride!

The Drive to DV: an Adventure Itself!

For some reason I had in my mind that DV is close to L.A., and that it would take maybe about 8 hours to drive there from the Bay Area. 10 max. But I am surprised when I look at distance estimates on a AAA map the day before I leave. It looks like 500 miles!

My dad wondered about the wisdom about driving a 28-year-old British car for such a trip. SURELY I would not make it, he said. But I have the utmost confidence in her, I replied. Never question a half-crazy 21-year-old college student with the faith!

So on Friday March 21, I take off at 11:00a. The start of the double century is 3:30a. Apparently, there are 3 routes to DV, none of them direct: through Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or Bakersfied. The Yosemite route looks the shortest and the most scenic, so I initially take that route. Mistake! Eventually I get to a roadblock on CA120 where a friendly officer informs me that Tioga pass is closed all winter and I have to turn around. So I have to backtrack 60 miles for a total of 120 wasted miles. But I have no time to feel bad or reprimand myself for not checking first.

Hours and hours pass, and despite the setback, I am making good time. I get close to Bakersfield by dusk, and decide to take an easterly “shortcut” via highway 155. This does not look like a major highway on the map, and on the road it sure is lonely! I am listening to my “Best of Brian Adams” CD all the way up… and down… and up, and up, and up! This highway has some of the steepest grades I’ve ever driven on, and there are hairpin turns galore! Goldie crawls in 2nd gear, and we are making lousy time. I regret going this way.

Finally, after 2 hours or so (and just ~60 miles), we are back on a “real” highway. I am very relieved. I drive on for a couple more hours, and finally stop at a McDonalds to grab a bite and review my maps. I allow myself to indulge in some fries and a chicken sandwich.

But wait! Where are my instructions to get to the start of the ride? I know it is somewhere in DV, but where? I call the ride organizer’s number, but of course he is not answering. I have gone 500 miles and am in jeopardy of not even finding the start location! But an idea flashes in my head… the information is on the internet, all I have to do is get in touch with someone with Web access. I start calling people at Stanford. Thankfully, my friend Nalu is there. He can’t find directions but gives me the phone number of the Longstreet Casino, which apparently is the start. I call and learn that this casino is actually 100 yards from the CA border, in Nevada. Thanks Nalu!

I finally arrive there at 2:00am, and it is obvious that I won’t be able to sleep before the ride. Kind of like the night before (3 hours of sleep), and the night before that (catnaps here and there before my morning final). Doh!

At the start

At Last, the Ride!

The Start

I take off the Taya chain with the Sachs one I picked up the day before. Then, I take my front wheel out of my trunk, and… Canny’s new tire is flat! An ominous sign. I replace it with my only spare tube, a sketchy $2.50 latex “clearance item.” One of the ride staff gives me a hand, whom I’m very grateful to. He is elderly, even-tempered, and has a MG TF. He tries to find the leak in my old tube, but can’t. So he lends me one of his tubes. “You just might need it,” he says.

Flat tire at start

3:30a passes, but I still have to change my clothes, register, and mount my lights. So I depart at 4:00a. Shifting seems somewhat improved with the Sachs chain, with less chain noise, but I still need to “triple click” to downshift into certain gears.

The First 30 miles

I get into a good rhythm. A rider with Spinergy wheels and I trade pulls, and we are steadily catching up to the earlier riders. Then, at around 25 miles, things get slightly more exciting…

DV rider

It’s all downhill! We are maintaining speeds of 35-45 mph, without even pedalling! It is like this for 20 minutes or so, and in no time we are at the first rest stop. The sun was coming up, and I was feeling good. Yes!

From Mile 30 to 100

My strategy is to stop at most rest stops, but only long enough to fill up my water bottles. I am feeling strong. What happened during miles 30 to 100, I don’t really remember too well, but I do recall drafting off of some tandems from miles 80 to 100. They are going fast and, to avoid slowing them down, I do not take a turn at the front. This is bad cycling etiquette. Eventually one of the guys on the tandem makes a comment about how I am reluctant to pull, but doesn’t make a big deal of it. I feel bad though and after mile 100 I hardly draft at all.

Surprisingly, it is only 9:30a by the time I reach the 100-mile checkpoint. It only took 5:30 to do it, my fastest century by far! And to think I was conserving energy (for the next 100) and that my preparation was lacking. I am feeling pretty good.

Canny at 35-mile checkpoint Felix at 100-mile checkpoint

For the first time during the ride I use a Port-o-Jet. I talk with one of the riders who noticed my Stanford jersey… he is a rider from Western Wheelers in Palo Alto, and inquires if I know a Stanford rider named Dan C. Well of course I know who he is, everyone knows Dan! It is nice to see someone from my area in this deserted part of the world.

From Mile 100 to Hell

For the next 30 miles, I am riding mostly alone. The sun was shining brightly; it was getting hot; and hence I take off my arm warmers and tights. The barren desert scenery is fully exposed, and I am somewhat bored. I start to think of my plans for the days ahead, the people I hope to see, etc. Suddenly I have this urge to be with some friends and am somewhat indifferent about cycling.

“My gosh, it’s not even 11:00 and I have only 70 miles to go! I have 11 hours to do 70 miles [the ride officially ends at 10:00p]. This is not even a challenge! What happened to the sandstorms, the obnoxious winds, the steep climbs that I’ve heard so much about regarding the 1996 Death Valley Double?”

I am getting particularly cocky that despite laughable preparation, no sleep, etc. etc., I am so far along and am hardly tired. Tired of the repetitive desert scenery, perhaps, but not really physically tired. I was more tired on the ’96 Davis Double at this point! It was almost like I had mastered ultramarathon cycling and it was time to move on to another hobby…

But, almost as suddenly as I have these thoughts, my fortunes begin to change. First the winds pick up. It begins to get a little hillier. In a huff, I attempt to shift into my granny gear for one of the few times during the ride. Darn Suntour derailleur! Oh no, it looks like somehow the front derailleur got sucked into the chainrings! I dismount and try to fix it. A magnanimous rider stops and lends me the appropriate size allen wrench. We can’t figure out what is wrong, so I end up removing the entire derailleur and to get it fixed by a mechanic at the next rest stop just a couple miles ahead.

Unfortunately the mechanic doesn’t even want to attempt to fix it. I have already lost a lot of time, so I leave it alone. I figure, I can always dismount and shift the chain manually if I have to.

It is about this time that I try to unclip my left shoe from my Sampson clipless pedals, and twist my ankle awkwardly. Apparently too much dirt got into my cleats from walking around on the dirt roads at the rest stops. At first I am able to handle to pain… but now comes THE CHALLENGE!

From Mile 135-145

The winds start to die down again, but here is the hill I heard a little about. Jubilee pass is a climb of a couple thousand feet, and in 90 degree heat, it is exhausting. But it isn’t too long, at least. But now my left ankle is really hurting. From this point on I produce most of my torque output with my right leg due to the pain.

But here comes Salsberry Pass. Oh, what a climb! It is sooo steep and it is so hot. I am squirting water on myself every few minutes or so. Not knowing how long the hill was, I guess that the top is just a few miles away and I decided to grin and bear it. I figure, the faster I go, the sooner the climb will be over. I don’t know that the top was still >5 miles away!

Then, SH*T! My rear tire is hissing. This one is a butyl ultralight tube. I knew I should have stayed away from them; I learned two years ago these things are CR*P but decided to give them a shot again with my new wheels. Thank goodness for the extra spare tube that was lent to me before the ride! I lose even more time now… fortunately one of the support vehicles comes to help out, with a floor pump and all.

Back on the bike. I am really dying! Every few minutes or so I have to dismount and walk. There is no shame in walking, but it is really humbling. It seems like the top will never come.

But finally, it does. As I see the rest stop up there, I suddenly have a second wind. I am now going triple my speed, from 4 mph to 12 mph. The other riders can’t help but chuckle at my newfound glee. I stay at the rest stop longer than usual… my energy has been sapped. And psychologically, I am crushed… it took 2 hours just to go 6 miles, now that is pretty pathetic!

Salisberry Pass 3500 ft.

From Mile 145 to Mile 180

Fortunately, with every uphill there’s a downhill. I coast all the way down, I am so drained! My ankle is really bothering me. Around mile 175 I am really confused about directions… fortunately, one of the support vehicles is there to help out. The rest stops weren’t the best but at least support is superb: every time I have a problem, I can count on a support vehicle being there within minutes.

It is starting to get dark. I still have hopes to make it back by 7:00p, and despite ankle pain, I have enough energy to go at a respectable pace of 18 mph+.

To the End

A couple of other riders soon join me and we are exchanging pulls. Now we’re moving. I am grimacing but try to hold on as long as possible. Finally, one of the riders has to stop for some reason. He urges us to go on saying he’ll catch up. I have lost my momentum again, and my ankle is hurting enough that I resign to a much less-frenzied pace. The rider catches up quickly and wants to work together to catch the other guy. I tell him I am hurtin’ though, so I ride alone, watching him depart into the darkness.

It is now totally dark and a little cold. The batteries in my front Vistalight headlamp are almost dead. I can see blinking tail lights ahead, but I really wish I can see my cycle computer so I would know how many more miles to go. It seems like an eternity. Once in awhile a support vehicle catches up to me and follows me for awhile, but otherwise nobody is around. This is the first time I did an organized bicycle ride in total darkness at the end.

At last, in the distance, I can see lights past the Nevada Border. Are they of the Longstreet Casino? Ultimately, the answer is yes. But it is agonizing that I can see them 7 miles away but do not seem to be getting any closer to them.

At 7:30 pm, I finally arrive at the casino. I check in, talk with a couple of cyclists whom I met during the ride, load my bike, change my clothes, and put the top up on my car. What a ride.

The Aftermath

At 9:00 pm I am ready to leave. Yearning for a phone, a shower, and to hear the voice of some friends, I stop by the only hotel I know that’s even remotely nearby on the west side of the CA border. Of course, there are no vacancies and none of my 3 wishes are fulfilled. I briefly ponder driving for 3 hours or so to Bakersfield, but only go a few miles before pulling 100 feet off the road. Nobody is around–no houses, businesses, or even passing cars. This is no-man’s land, a loner’s world, a vacuous pit in grave contrast to the frenetic life of the Bay Area that I’m used to. Peaceful for sure. I came to Death Valley in part to a desire to relax and to get away from it all, and this is just what happened…

Almost instantly, the stresses of the past week and the sleeplessness of the last few days melted away. And there I slept, cuddled up with my plaid blanket in the inviting driver seat of my beloved MGB, only to be awoken the next morning by the rays of a hot sun that had baked me just 15 hours before.

Ride Summary

  • 198 mi, through "the most beautiful
    desert scenery on the planet"
  • 15.5 hours overall; 4:00-19:30
    • 1st 100 miles: 5:30 (19.5
      mph moving average)
    • 2nd 100 miles: 10:00!!!
  • Max speed: 47.5 mph
  • Problems encountered: broken front
    derailleur, 2 flat tires, injured left ankle!

Rating

(1=ho hum; 5=best)

  • Scenery: 2+
  • Support/Organization: 4
  • Food: 2
  • Relative Difficulty: 2 for all parts
    except for miles 130-140 (I’d give it a 5!), which
    included obnoxious headwinds, high temperatures, and a
    killer 3500-ft climb.
  • Overall Rating: 2+ Relaxing, though
    ho-hum in many areas and a little TOO challenging in one.
    But worth the 15-hour drive from Sunnyvale I guess (I got
    lost!)

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