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Ride report: Death Valley Spring Century 2011

The first warning signs for the Death Valley Spring Century came nearly two weeks before today's event: Early weather forecasts called for a possibly historic winter storm moving across the West. Depending on the day and the source, the forecast for Death Valley called for anything from rain to snow to cold to cool to wind.

And after the ride organizers sent out a warning-laden email a few days before the event, nearly one-fourth of the approximately 400 registered riders didn't even bother to show up Saturday morning at Furnace Creek Ranch for the combined start of the 100-mile, 150-mile, and 200-mile events. But I was there to attempt my first century of 2011.

As Adam and I descended into Death Valley on Friday afternoon, the storm-whipped southerly winds increased strongly and were easily gale-force if not stronger. Opening the car doors at photo breaks was a challenge. Dust and even small rocks were being flung through the sky as we watched the sun set over Zabriskie Point.

After dinner, the winds subsided somewhat, and we went to bed hoping that today would be better.

Alas, when we awoke at 5:30 a.m., the winds had increased ever so slightly and were coming out of the south at perhaps 15 to 20 mph. This wasn't a good sign. But we suited up anyway and made our way to the starting line for a 6:50 a.m. ride-out.

As I've pointed out in previous ride reports, Death Valley is most certainly not flat at all. The first 17 miles of today's ride were a copy of the route to Badwater that I most recently rode in December. The difference this time, however, was the wind. As soon as we turned onto Badwater Road, the headwinds began, and they did nothing but increase hour after hour all morning long.

Check that; we had a few miles without headwinds. Instead, when the road turned, the headwinds turned into even more annoying crosswinds. The winds were steady at perhaps 30 to 40 mph, if not more (it's not like there are any weather stations out there to let us know for sure), and I was able to easily pass more than a few riders by just doing 7-8 mph on gentle terrain. Any breaks? Not likely. Almost every descent required steady pedaling just to keep going forward at a single-digit speed.

The result was that I reached Rest Stop 2 at Ashford Mill (mile 45) with an average speed of 9.8 mph and about 5.25 hours of elapsed time -- which put me more than two hours ahead of the "official" rest stop closing time. The closing times were, quite fortunately, discarded by saner minds.

The final leg before the turnaround point is a gradual but very long climb from about sea level to Jubilee Pass at about 1,300 feet. I was fortunate to have a moderate tailwind up the hill, which allowed me to cover about a mile at a time before having to break to exercise my lower back, and I reached the turnaround point in reasonably good shape. The route back to Ashford Mill was almost entirely downhill, so even with the now-headwind, it was relatively quick and uneventful. In fact, the headwind helped hold my speed down so I didn't have to ride my brakes.

So now I was headed back north. And given the strong southerly winds of the morning, it seemed logical that I'd have a much quicker return, perhaps allowing me to make up time and finish before sunset.

As I left Ashford Mill, the wind did indeed slowly turn to my favor. Soon, I was cruising up hills at 22 to 24 mph and coasting on level terrain at 25 mph without even pedaling -- a wind experience even more fascinating than any of the notable tailwind days of AIDS/LifeCycle. Within just minutes, I had covered 12 miles, almost half the distance back to Badwater.

And then all hell broke loose. The wind turned, swiftly and suddenly.

The tailwind became mostly the crosswind from hell (actually, from the west), punctuated by occasional bursts of the headwind from hell. And my speed went right back down to 6-7 mph, if not even slower ... this time, the wind was even stronger than it had been in the morning.

As I leaned to the left to avoid being blown over, I pressed forward mile after very slow mile. I started doing the math and realized that, if this wind continued, there was no way for me to make it back to Furnace Creek before sunset. And, since I didn't have a headlight with me, riding after dark was both illegal and against the event rules.

So I started working out the options in my mind. If I could make it to Badwater, I could ask Adam to come retrieve me, assuming I could get a cellphone signal. Or I could ask him to bring me my headlight so I could continue riding. Both of these options assumed, however, that Adam had safely returned to Furnace Creek. Because cellphone signals are but a dream anywhere south of Badwater, I had no way to communicate with Adam or know whether he was still riding. I could flag down a SAG vehicle and get a ride, presumably all the way back to Furnace Creek. But if Adam had gone out to look for me, then he wouldn't find me -- and he'd be out of cellphone range.

The options weren't looking good, and as I very slowly passed mile 72 of the route, my mood was becoming quite foul. I was stopping about every half mile, if not more often, just to regain my bearings and take a break from the relentless crosswind. I saw ahead where the road would take a sharp turn to the left, turning the crosswind into a headwind. Would the headwind last? I had no way of knowing what the conditions were on the rest of the route. But what I could see, however, was the massive squall line over Badwater Basin. Was it rain, dust, snow, or something else? That I could not discern.

I noticed a car approaching toward me from the north. It looked a lot like my car. In fact, it was my car. With Adam behind the wheel.

In short (since this is my ride report, not Adam's), he rode about halfway to Ashford Mill but then turned around ... and got slammed by the leading edge of the squall line earlier in the day, complete with dust and rain. So he'd been off the road for a couple of hours, and he decided to head out to check on me.

As he slowed and rolled down his window, I don't remember exactly what I said or in what order, but I do remember the important part: "I'm done. We're going home." He pulled over, I loaded up my bike, and we headed south, on our way out of Death Valley.

First, however, there was a little business to attend to. We stopped briefly at the Ashford Mill rest stop so I could tell a ride official that I had bailed out. Adam was listening to the two-way radio conversations among the support crew, and he thought he heard an ominous suggestion: that the support vehicles start going out on the route to round up all of the remaining century riders and bring them in.

As of late Saturday when I'm writing this, I still don't know for sure how the day ended for the other 300-plus riders who began, but the official results site suggests that perhaps almost two-thirds of the riders who started didn't finish.

But the reality is that I indeed did not finish the big ride of my major-life-event weekend. And that made me both sad and angry. Adam's support and encouraging words (and his driving for the first 60 or so miles back to Barstow), however, made it quite a bit better, as did the deep-dish pizza back in Barstow as the local temperature dipped below freezing.

Word is that this was quite possibly the most unusual Death Valley Century in the event's 20-year history. I'll agree with that. I'm still disappointed that I came up about 30 miles short, but I also think I'm more than a little justified in saying it wasn't entirely my fault.

Here are some ride reports from other participants: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7