2004 Furnace Creek 508

"When the Jet stream passed through Death Valley on October 16th and 17th 2004"

by Peter Pop. Photo's courtesy the508 webcast. 

For those special people who know, the Furnace Creek 508 represents the premier 48 hr Ultracycling event in the US. As one famous ultracylist has put it: "agony, total exhaustion mixed with moments of bliss and ecstasy". For all others, it is just one of those crazy events,  where extreme fitness addicts go head to head. In the " normal" 9 to 5  world, I get asked all the time: " Are you doing that desert thing again?" "Still riding that crazy race?" Didn't you do it enough already??" Yes, yes and no. I just bought these nifty new  all carbon Campy $$$$ Hyperon wheels , Reynolds ultra light all carbon high profile wheels and converted my bikes to 10 speed. What better event than the 508 to put them to the test? Only the small matter of being short on training and long on weight might interfere. No problem, I still had 3 months. After losing 25 pounds and riding as much as I could with work, family, etc, I was as ready as I could be for this race. The night before the start, Mr. 508 aka Chris Kostman mentioned that thermo nuclear winds were reported by some in Death Valley. How strong could those winds be? More hyperbole surely? That same night fellow multi 508 finishers (5 plus finishes) got inducted in the 508 Hall of Fame. At the end every rider climbed the stage, what a field!! What an enormous growth in the last ten years!

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The next morning 7 am sharp, we are off! The driver of this year's pace vehicle must have Indianapolis 500 aspirations. Jeez, slow down will you, my pulse rate is already 150 just riding under yellow flag conditions. I am one of the first into San Francisquito Canyon but subsequently get passed by lots of riders. The lead group stays close together leaving me behind pretty quickly. This years field is the largest ever. Good for Chris, bad for the Penguin. Trade places with Chuck, Springbok, Schroyer. Chuck crewed for me in RAAM 1997, attempted the 508  and has really improved. He looks  great. The canyon is cold with some headwind. Crest the summit after 1:14 about average, but too slow for my liking. Lost of gusty winds after Johnson Summit. The high profile rims are giving me problems, they are great on the flats but I can not control them as well on these fast descents while combating  these winds. Throughout the race  I will continue to be passed on the descents. I should have taken my own advice: do NOT switch equipment until you thoroughly have tried it out. Previously I  used my Otis Guy titanium Softride with regular spoke wheels and suspension stem for the descents. For this race however I changed to a bike with high profile rims and standard stem. Since I am braking a lot on the descents and am hammering those abominable road surfaces,  my wrists and hands get trashed. The wind pushes us nicely along before and during the wind mill climb. After the climb the two riders in front of me, miss the right turn to Mojave. One of them did not make a stop on a prior stop sign, so he gets what he deserves. Left hand turn to the 14 North. Unfortunately I forgot to tell my crew we needed the van to trigger the signal and they  did not read the 508 route sheet carefully, another two riders catch up. Catch up to Steve Winfrey, who aims for a sixth finish. He apparently is also a Harley Davidson enthusiast. Next time I will do my personal 508 Odyssey on my Harley. Care to join? Great tail winds through California City and Neutralia Ave. Here the ultra light weight wheels excel. With all the favorable winds we are making record time. Breaking the 50+ record is a real possibility. Little do I know what's to come! 

Trona road, finally nicely paved,  we are still smoking this course! Being passed again on the descent to Trona! What can one say about Trona? I wonder what the Trona cancer rate is with all these chemicals. During all the times I have passed through here, the streets have been devoid of people and  any other living creatures. It has great milkshakes though. Get a super size and it will give you enough energy to make it to Furnace Creek and back. I will be drinking mine climbing towards Panamint Valley. Panamint Valley is one of the high lights in the 508. To descend into the valley , late afternoon with the mountains having turned purple, the road being downhill and smooth, is just exhilarating. The gods have smiled on us and some CA bureaucrat decided to pay for repaving of the road through Panamint Valley. Just to show who really is in charge though, he left a short section of the best part of the original road. Still rough and giving the rookies a hint of what is still to come. Miles before the right hand turn to Townes Pass, rip roaring tailwinds push my speed to 32 miles/hr. Fly by Scorpion. At the right turn to Townes Pass I change to my climbing bike (Spectrum) with the 30/29 smallest gear. Now I will have to pay the piper. The same wind will turn to cross and headwind. The head wind is strong during the first half of the climb but this same wind will push me the last few miles over the summit. Reach the summit just after dark. Continue with the Spectrum. Trying to stay in control with the  gusts of cross wind, I am braking a lot causing my carbon rims to heat up severely. There is an amazing difference between aluminum and "naked" carbon fiber brake strips in heat dissipation. I smell something burning! I stop , big fumes of smoke are coming from the brakes of the Penguin van. Unfortunately I am just too scared to make the descent any faster. At Stovepipe we change to the Otis Guy softride, the bike least sensitive to crosswinds. The conditions are bad and are getting worse!

By the time we have turned right to Badwater, the headwind has slowed me down to 7 miles/hr. I can't take my hands of the handle bar to eat or drink for fear of crashing. Another 45 miles to go i.e. 6 or 7 hours. Ouch!! The winds are now ferocious. I have never ever ridden in such conditions. Having ridden Death Valley 30 plus times, I have never encountered anything like this. One gust whips up so much sand that the visibility is momentarily reduced to 2 or 3 feet at most, throwing me all the way across the road nearly into the dirt. I immediately stop and unclip. What the hell happened?! Try to get back on but simply can not get the bike going. Call for my walking shoes. The sliding door won't open because of the wind! Unbelievable. I walk the last mile to Badwater. To keep the bike between me and the wind is the only way to go forward and even then I get pushed into the dirt. At Badwater I jump in the van and stay put for 45 minutes, stuffing myself with Coca Cola, Frappocino, yogurts, trail mix and whatever else I see what's edible. The crew Velcroes my bike to the other bikes but it gets blown off!! Surprise, surprise, my Campy Record carbon fiber levers did not break!! What the hell am I to do? Wait it out?? It can blow for days. DNF?? That's not an option. I can try walking some more, but with my arthritic right hip that won't get me very far. What's left?? You guessed it, just get back on the bike and stop and walk when necessary. Only certain sections have crosswinds so severe I am about to be literally blown over. Of course doing 5 miles /hr does not help. I get to walk another half a mile somewhere, but ultimately we reach the climb to Salsberry and Jubilee. I have never been so glad to start this climb. There is lots of headwind but steady, no problem the Penguin will paddle on. 

After Shoshone the Baker Death March starts: strong headwind and a slight incline. That's good for another 4 1/2 hours of great fun. I hear about the first DNF's: Hoopoe, Ostrich and Scorpion. Too bad. I will just struggle on. I change back to the Merlin with the Reynolds wheels. They are "slicing" the wind . I am driving my crew nuts, asking them to change the front wheel but then changing my mind. Somehow we reach Baker. Enough said. The climb to Kelso is another one of my favorites, but not today. I am trading places  with two fixed gear riders Seal and Boar. My hat off to them. Gears are fixed with both riding  42/15. Seal with 175 mm crank length while Boar used 170 mm crank length. The third competitor, Jeff Bauer used 42/17 gearing. Amazing! Boar did not ride a regular bike since last November, did all the brevets and some doubles and is sure all three will finish. The sky is darkening and I am getting worried about rain and thunderstorms over Kelso Summit and Granite Mountain. I went though that in the Badwater to Durango race and it was scary!  I start picking up the pace. It is cold on the climb to Granite Mountain  but it feels easier than last time. The descent however is much worse, by now my hands are trashed, my butt is so sore I am applying " Boil Ease" ( topical anesthetic ). First flat tire in the  race. My crew does a super fast wheel change. Chamois Buttr and more ChamoisButtr. On we go. The approach to Sheephole, did I mention headwind? This will be the third Death March in the race. I simply can not get comfortable on any of the bikes. I stick with the Otis Guy Softride. We are spending so much time with all these changes, I get to climb Sheephole in the dark. A first for the Penguin! Switch to the Spectrum and some god awful time later we get to the top after fighting severe head wind. What else is new? The road has gotten steadily worse over the years. I believe we have reached the limit what Joe Blow Public can tolerate. This road is heavily traveled with trailers, motor homes and angry " Red neck" drivers. I have Hella lights installed at bumper level lighting up just over the surface of the road, revealing tons of rocks and half assed  fixed  potholes. One has to see it to believe it. Shame on Cal Trans!! Descent is made snail pace. Get passed by Wolferine. Stay on the Spectrum without aerobars to the finish. Enough said about the road conditions. Someone should be recalled and forced to ride this road till blood is drawn! I have never been more glad to see a Best Western sign, the sweet, sweet finish!! 39:28, but we managed to stay under 40 hours.

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Thank you crew: Charlie Griffice, John Gower and my, still loving?, wife Linda. Thanks Chris for continuing to put on this epic race. Thanks to all the volunteers. It must have been hard for all of them too to stay out in those conditions.

The Death Valley rangers reported 48 mph wind gusts that night. These were the second strongest gusts reported, the record being 54mph.

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Comments from Linda Pop ( edited ):

"NEVER, ever, ask me to do this again!"

Comments from John Gower:

Five times I have crewed solo FC508 races for Peter Pop. I have personally ridden most of the course on doubles and training sessions with Peter and others. I know this course and the difficulties imposed by the terrain and weather. I am constantly impressed by the tenacity and ability of Peter to complete this course....with un untouchable record of never, I repeat never DNFing while completing EIGHT FC508s....seven solo and one team. A fantastic record that I believe will stand for a long time.

Kostman, keeps getting better and better at putting on a first class race. I hope he continues to be successful and gets bigger and bigger fields each year....maybe even drawing pros interested in the toughest time trial in the world ( apologies to RAAM.... which I have crewed 2x and I believe is too extreme and over the top!)

Weather,,, never, never, NEVER have I seen worse winds in Death Valley. Since 1996, I have ridden and crewed through these roads; rain, thunderstorms, heat, winds, etc. are all just normal elements for this course. But this year has to stand out as the zenith, or nadir. The crew could not open the doors of the van during some gusts. The wind and dust were enough to earn special recognition for those who completed this FC508.

Speaking of special recognition for those who completed...I still find it beyond reason that 3 maniacs would attempt and complete this race on FIXED GEAR bikes! We had the privilege of racing most of the course with two of these racers: leapfrogging them and seeing first hand what was possible. Still blows me away! I salute those three crazy guys who had the capability and tenacity to finish this FC508. I hope they write up their stories. Hats off to their crews also!


Comments and pictures from Charlie Griffice

Course profile by John Gower










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