Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Going downhill fast

I’m putting 2012 down as the Year of Intense Descents.

First, there was the fog-shrouded puckerfest on Thompson Pass during the Fireweed 400. In October came the Furnace Creek 508, another bit of ultra-distance craziness for which I somehow got talked into being Leonard’s crew chief. 

The 508 is one of the world’s toughest ultra-distance bike races because it has more than 35,000 feet of elevation gain, crosses 10 mountain passes, and runs through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley on its way from the start line north of Los Angeles to the finish line in Twentynine Palms, Calif. 

It’s 508 miles long, with a cutoff time of 48 hours. 

Leonard at Valley Wells, before shit got real.
The best thing I can say about ultras is that they give you focus. Real life mostly disappears as crew members become consumed with taking care of their rider and meeting critical needs like eating, finding gasoline and ice, or finding the necessary facilities when the racer or a crew member badly needs to drop a load.

For me, the real world completely disappeared at night. Soon after we met up in California, Leonard requested that I do all nighttime driving of the crew van. I’ve followed him down quite a few descents both on bikes and in cars, so I generally know what he’s about to do, and why he’s going to do it. 

Because I haven’t run over him yet, he seemed to feel reasonably confident that I could stay close and light up the pavement without turning him into a road biscuit.

But there’s a big difference between an autumn night in the 508 and a summer night in Alaska’s Fireweed 400. California gets really dark. And it stays that way for hours and hours. That makes for a very long shift of driving within a few feet of your racer’s wheel. But night is no piece of cake for the rest of the crew, either. Especially first-timers.

We were probably two-thirds of the way down a long mountain pass during the first overnight run when Randy, who was sitting in the passenger seat and had met me only 48 hours earlier, said the first words that had been spoken since we crossed the summit. I was keeping the van’s bumper about 12 feet from Leonard’s wheel, at speeds reaching 40 mph.

“You think you should back off a little bit?” Randy quietly asked.

“Nope,” I replied. “This is good.”

The van got quiet again, and stayed that way until the descent was over. 

Sometime about 24 hours later, I still hadn’t slept and was following Leonard as he dropped down a gentle, miles-long descent toward the last checkpoint town before the finish in Twentynine Palms. I slowly swerved from side to side in the highway lane, touching the shoulder on the right, then drifting left and putting the tires on the center line. 

I knew it must look strange, and the concentration required wasn’t as intense as the previous night, so I explained to Randy that I was trying to keep Leonard from riding into his own shadow, and trying to help him see the smoothest, safest line on a stretch of sketchy pavement. 

The race started at 6 a.m. Saturday. Sometime about 2 a.m. Monday, we rolled into the hotel parking lot that was the finish line. Once we got Leonard settled in his room, Randy and I shared one last surreal drive together: to an all-night drive-through selling big, shitty burritos.

They tasted incredibly good. They were like dessert after a main course of insanity.

1 comment:

Leo said...

Thanks again Tim,Dad and Randy.