Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Death Valley Stage Race 2010
By George Chester
Just the stats on a race like this keep many a racer from trying, so only 50 or so racers showed for the entire field. Our 60 and 55+ fields were about average in size, with 5 of us in the 60+ and 5 in the 55+. The two big fields were 45+ at eleven and cat 5 at twelve riders. 60+ field comprised Don Kimper, Jim Morehouse, Mike Crystal, Bruce Steele and myself, while the 55s were made up of Gary Shuey, Bill Tippets, Peter DuFour, Howard Work and Phil Behrends. While the racing in the Sierras is so hard it usually turns into a long individual TT, this year Gary and Bill were very evenly matched in the 55+, while Mike, Bruce and myself were quite close in the 60+, with Don always nearby and Jim riding strong enough to hold onto Gary and Bill and leave us in the wake, all of which led to a great race.
Day one arrived following two days of 45+ mph winds. It seemed to have settled down, but was still cool, 50’s to 60’s with a 15 mph tailwind up the 1st power climb of 14 miles at 6%. Due to the small field size, a last minute change was made to do one mass start. Masters were staged at the back, and with the tailwind this lead to 30 minutes of Crit level racing from the gun, as everyone scrambled to hold the wheels of the Pros, Cat 3s, etc. by jumping across gaps as they opened and fighting to stay in the bunch through the lower section of occasional cross winds. By a half hour in the peleton had completely blown into mostly solo efforts, save a group with Jim Morehouse, a number of 55 and 45+ and Lisa Campbell and diminutive lady cat 3 who ultimately showed all of us her rear wheel. Bruce was the last of the 60’s to come off that group and I was able to make it back up to him about 15 minutes later. In another 15 minutes along comes Mike Crystal and we voted unanimously to minimize the suffering by working together and let the final climb sort things out. Crossing the 1st KOM at 7800’ we dropped into a winding descent at speeds approaching 40mph which dropped us into a 5mile, or so, long section of almost Paris/Roubaix style pave’ and rollers, where we swapped pulls into an increasing 15-20 mph head wind. This finally dropped away into a descent of 7-11% down into Eureka Valley, (the far north end of Death Valley), and proved to be one of the most harrowing descents any of us have ever ridden. While not at all technical, we were greeted by very gusty winds of 45+ coming from side to side. Everyone we talked to after commented on hitting the brakes on straight sections and being afraid of literally being blown off the road and possible the bike. Mike and I went into one corner with him in the lead when a gust blew us completely across the road. Gladly all rode well and with safety in mind there were no incidents. At the turn-around neutral support handed us bottles and we picked up Mikes lovely wife and her friend and set up a 5 person rotating echelon into the stiff headwind down in the valley. After a mile or so this wind turned up the 4500’ climb and Mike, Bruce and myself set off up the 7-9% grade together. As we neared the end of the Paris/Roubaix section and approached the final short 7-9% climb to the finish, with three and a half hours riding and 7000’ of climbing already in our legs, they were not even attacks, it simply came down to who was the horse for this course. Jim was just finishing as we approach the bottom of the final climb, where Mike’s steady rhythm became a bit too much for Bruce, and myself. The three of us finished, with Mike being 1 minute in front of me and I was only 2 minutes ahead of Bruce which meant we were still potentially tied with the steepest 10 miles in the US coming up tomorrow, Onion Valley. Don, who got stuck riding this solo, suffered from not having any help in the Paris/Roubaix headwind miles, and still put in a great ride to minimize his loss to us to only 15 minutes. I don’t know the details, other than Gary Shuey was ahead of climbing legend Bill Tippets by 1minute 15 seconds after what must have be quite a battle. This power climbing course being a bit better suited to the 6’+ powerhouse that Gary is, while the following days 10 miles at 9+ % would shift in the favor of the smaller pure climber, Bill Tippets, making for a nail biting final at 9400’, which neither one of them new who won, when I headed back down Onion Valley, on Sunday.
Day 2 arrived with the best weather I have ever been treated to in 6 climbs up Onion Valley. With tired legs and a neutral start, we were treated to a reasonable 1st mile out of the town of Independence. As we got onto the lower section of the 13 mile course, (the real climb hits at about mile 5 when it shoves a couple miles of 10+% into your face), the pace again became painful as we all fought to hold onto the cat ½ pro driven group. I knew this entire climb would have a duration of less than two hours, and both Bruce and I seemed better in the short/intense early part of the race, while Mike showed his pedigree in the long haul. So my thinking was to hang on to the front group as long as possible and put a minute plus into Mike and then somehow hang onto the lead to leap over him into 2nd, at the same time defending against Bruce doing the same. All the while hoping against reality that Jim’s effort of the day before would lead him to crack big time. The harsh reality, again the strongest prevailed and Jim rode off and left us. I got my gap, and the brief hope of being 2nd on the road, but Mike, riding stronger and smarter, rode his own pace and caught me near the top of the steepest section with about 6 miles to go. Somehow I was able to hold his wheel until a mile from the top when I cracked and congratulated him as he rode on to a great 2nd place. Bruce, who has too many fast twitch muscles and was up in SF the previous week working rather than training, dogged me all the way to the finish in another epic day we were all happy to be over. Don came in soon after and the 5 of us all got together for a podium picture with Jim hoisting a shoebox-sized chunk of granite over his head for 1st place. I think we all felt that the podium picture had to include everyone, as the words of Ron Skarin have never been truer, when he said, “Everyone who finished is a Winner”.