Friday, April 16, 2010

Dante's View - Redefining Epic

The word “Epic” is probably a bit overused to describe the experience of completing a challenging bike ride. But, having said that, I think I’ll go ahead and use the word to describe our century-plus ride to Dante’s View in Death Valley recently because it fits.

I tried once before to finish this ride, and as I look back on it now with a critical eye, I probably wouldn’t have finished it anyway even if I had kept going, as I had left everything “out there” prior the epic portion, the last 13 miles. So not wanting to “DNF” this time around, I set out to conquer this monster once and for all. Actually, the first 100 miles doesn’t require a herculean effort, it’s the last 13 that jumps up and hops on your back like a 500 pound gorilla.

We always seem to start these events early in the morning when it is cold outside. This day was no exception. However, the difference this time was that we started in 40 degree weather and not 20 degree weather, as we have done on previous occasions. Sheer genius on our parts!

The fast guys left us “seasoned” veterans behind on the first climb, much to my delight personally, as I was not looking forward to a slug-fest this early on. I did that on my first attempt and that’s probably the reason I never made it all the way up to the summit at Dante’s View. So, up we went to the top of our first challenge for the day: Mt. Potosi, a ten mile grind that basically got steeper with every mile.

The art of climbing is kind of, “The search for the Holy Grail”, in my mind. There is no making it look easy, or “dancing on the pedals” as some describe it. Climbing mountains is just plain hard work and your search for the perfect “technique” changes every time. There are some things you can always count on, however. Your breathing starts to become rapid, you can feel your heart beating faster and harder; you start to sweat no matter how cool it gets on the way up; and if you are lucky like me, you can feel the sweat working its way down the crack of your ass! That nice rhythmic song playing so joyfully in your head turns into four-letter words repeating with every pedal stroke. The key, I have found, boils down to one thing: focus. Just focus and get into a pedaling rhythm and stay there, to get there. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Road Angel Jen and Driver Shortbus

Our gracious ride hosts, Jen and Paul (a.k.a. Shortbus, or Salty) met us at the top with a surprising, and most welcome assortment of refreshments. It’s great to have cycling friends who don’t mind giving up their whole day to support everyone else. Thanks guys! You where true “road angels!” Exchanging pleasantries and downing a few refreshments, we pressed ahead to our next destination: Pahrump, Nevada. NDOT was even nice enough to have paved our way with a brand spankin-new shoulder along Hwy 160—those gambling taxes payoff now and again! This stretch was an exhilarating downhill pleasure and I think the slowest speed I saw for the next 10-15 miles was 28 mph!--definitely payback for all the expended effort getting up and over Potosí.

The Road to Pahrump

Pahrump, Nevada…let’s see…the most awesome town in America if you are into brothels, gambling, and dirt, lots and lots of dirt! That’s really all I can say about it. If it weren’t the only way to Death Valley from Vegas, I probably wouldn’t have gone there. You just gotta see it, to believe it!

Kinda says it all, doesn't it?

Leaving Pahrump and heading west is like riding to the coast of California (without the lush, green countryside), then riding straight out to sea, except there is no water, only this barren flatland that is, or once was, a vast sea bed--a rather eerie experience, indeed. Luckily, on this day, very little wind accompanied us to Pahrump and beyond. I say lucky because when the wind blows out here, there is nothing to stop it, slow it down, or divert its path. When Mr. Wind finds his fancy to accompany you on your ride, he can be your best friend or your most hated enemy, and my experience has been that he is your most hated enemy 8 out of 10 times, especially if you choose a southwesterly path.


Our penultimate rest stop of the day occurred at Death Valley Junction, famously known as it houses the world-renown Armargosa Springs Opera House and Hotel. Check it out, it has a pretty interesting history. Jen and Shortbus were waiting off the side of the road with another incredible assortment of refreshments. Of which, we eagerly took part. At this point, it is a 1% - 2% climb for about 10 miles, or so, to the beginning of the “epic” part.

Seasoned Veteran: Dr. Dog

We were teased by a bomber downhill run to the left turn that takes you up to Dante’s View. Remember what I said about Mr. Wind? Well, he decided to join us at this point. And like I said, he decided to take us on as a dead-in-the-face headwind. How nice. Making the left turn and starting the climb we were greeted by the standard, “Dante’s View 13 miles” sign and about a half-mile later we were greeted with another sign: “Last one-quarter mile 15%.” Nice again! Us seasoned veterans vowed to stay together for the climb but as fate would have it, we separated a bit and fell into our own rhythm. About 5 miles of the last 13 is anywhere from 3% - 6%, not bad. What made it difficult on this day was Mr. Wind. He was just plain annoying! There’s just something really annoying about hearing the wind whip through you helmet for 2 solid hours.

Halfway up the grade changes to 8% - 10%, and in some spots reaches 12% as the road meanders and cuts its way through the mountain. This is the epic part. Epic because we were already 105+ miles into the ride and we were being all we could be at 6-7 mph going uphill into a headwind. I had experienced this part before from the window of a SAG vehicle, but I had no idea how hard this climb would be from the seat of a bicycle. Out of gears and short on energy, I stomped as best I could in my 36 x 27. I kept thinking: “You should have gone with the 34 x 27, you dumb shit!”

The Sign Didn't Lie!

The epic of the epic came when I climbed up out of the road cut-out and made the turn towards the summit. As I approached the first of many turns, I heard a cowbell and people shouting something at the top. It was all I could do to hear them above the sound of my panting and the whipping noise of the wind. Looking to my right and seeing nothing but rocks and dirt, I raised my head up, looked at the tiny dots that were people peering down at me, and said to myself, “oh shit!” Yep, it’s a fucking wall and it’s a steep one! Rounding the first turn, I said to myself in a half-assed attempt at thinking positive, “Well, at least I have a tailwind now. Bully!”

The really steep bits of these meandering climbs are always in the turns, so I decided to attack those while standing and then try to recover on the straight stretches. That worked pretty well until I got to the last quarter mile. My ass never touched the saddle for the rest of the climb. The cowbell got louder and louder so I knew I was getting close. The last turn into the parking lot of the summit was absolute heaven and there was an angel walking towards me with a beer! That was the best beer I’ve ever had.

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Fast Guys on the left, seasoned Veterans on the right