|The view for much of the ride.|
Sam and I flew to Reno to crew for frequent commenter Damon, who competed October 5 and 6 in the Silver State 508 ultra-cycling race. About 40 solo riders left Reno from the Atlantis Casino at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 5 and followed a circuitous route through Reno to Geiger Grade, at which point they began in earnest to race -- not merely to ride -- 508 miles out-and-back to Eureka, Nevada. Damon was no stranger to riding long, having in the previous 15 months completed 3x24-hour races and 2x1200K rides, as well as attendant shorter preparatory events. (See rememberingjaron.com for fuller details.) But his 32:15 on Sunday and Monday, an average of 15.8 mph including all stops, is either a remarkable capstone or an entree to a whole new world of riding fast across mountain and desert, through hot and cold, and digging far deeper than mere ultraraces require. Damon tells that story well here.
Sam and I were there to help. As Ashley Hill reported in July, crewing a race like the 508 is not just advanced cheering. Sam and I were functionally awake for 32:15 straight, in and out of the car approximately every 15 minutes during the light, driving directly behind Damon from 7:45 pm to 7:00 am at a distance of between 15' and 15 yards, mixing and handing off bottles, finding and serving food, performing minor bike maintenance, helping Damon to don and to shed clothes, and even raising our voices when needed to get Damon through the inevitable dark hours. And things did get dark.
While crewing we had the chance to interact with other crews and cheered for riders across the front end of the field. We saw one rider -- world-class Slovenian Marko Baloh -- only twice, once at the first stop and once as we neared the turn-around and he was on his trip home. Nobody was realistically racing against Baloh, so the 508 involved a parade of North American athletes vying for second place.
Those US riders included Crow, Holstein, Rock Rabbit, Spotted Horse, Red-Necked Falcon, Great Basin Ichthyosaurus, Irish Hare, and Wild Turkey; lest that sound like a late-night hallucination, Race Director Chris Kostman assigns "totems" to each athlete, an animal name the rider keeps for life after finishing the event. Damon was "Thundercat."
We hung with that pack for some time, exchanging pleasantries with the other crews, cheering the other riders, and working our way slowly from West to East across Nevada on US Highway 50. That stretch of road is nick-named "the loneliest highway in the world," which somewhat overstates the remoteness but is nonetheless appropriately evocative. (Having now driven Highway 50 through Nevada twice, I can say with some confidence the Richardson Highway north of Gakona, Alaska, is emptier.) On Highway 50 and part of the time on Highway 722, we crossed desert mountains, salt flats, and sage-brush deserts. One thing we never crossed after reaching about 30 miles from the start is any form of water.
It was never extremely hot -- Damon's Garmin reported 90 degrees at the peak and the car reported a peak of around 85 -- but with the altitude (between 4000 and 7500 feet), an utter lack of cloud cover or trees, and dry air, we baked, and the riders much more so.
We were charged with keeping Damon hydrated and satiated, no trivial task when everything seemed to upset his stomach. At one point bloating led to a roadside purge. We took to hiding caloric and salt powders in flavored drinks -- Carbo Pro or Skratch Mix with Coke, V8, or coffee. Food was harder. We crushed chips to get him simple carbohydrates, fat, and salt. We handed off nuts. Where possible, which was not frequently the case, we provided hot food -- convenience store microwave burgers and McDonald's breakfast food.
One lesson about the Silver State 508: there is one place meaningfully to refuel, in Fallon, Nevada, which riders encounter at mile 75 and again at 435. In between, and in particular at night, the pickings are slim to none. Crews should definitely pack a small assortment of solid foods -- perhaps bagels, cooked pasta, and boiled potatoes -- and hot drinks in thermoses.
|Desert sky at moon-set.|
But much of the night we could not enjoy it, worried more about running the rider over than seeing any scenery. Descending hills at night when providing direct-follow support is particularly fearsome. The art is trying to maintain the closeness while moving as fast as 45 mph and keeping your light beams in positions to do the rider the most good. You are painfully aware that a sudden fall will put the rider under your wheels. It is amusing in retrospect that Sam, who is experienced in the crewing arts, was instructing me in the art of direct-follow support on mountain descents even while I was doing it, weaving back and forth across the road to keep the high beams in front of Damon as he rode.
And desert nights, in particular at altitude, get cold. Damon rode for scores of miles with temperatures in the 30s; the lowest we saw was 34 degrees. (Again, Damon reports his Garmin went more extreme yet, hitting a low of 28.) Despite shoe covers, leg warmers, mittens, and double jackets -- for nearly 50 miles he wore my synthetic down parka -- nothing could make our rider warm. After nearly 24 hours in the saddle, one's body has no fuel left to burn to keep the core warm. It is a dangerous time, with fears of hypothermia and exhaustion-induced crashes. As crew we balanced the desire to keep him moving with the fear for his safety. The right approach was never clear.
|The view ahead. "Just a few hundred yards up! (Or maybe a few miles.)"|
After a short nap -- Sam enforced the allotted 15' to the second -- Damon began to ride stronger. We crested the penultimate climb to the route's highest elevation at maybe 5 am and began the miles-long descent to the flatlands leading into Fallon. The light returned and with it some warmth; by Fallon our rider was stripped back to his skin-suit. And in the light and on the flats, we moved back into the mix with a couple of the relay teams and with Wild Turkey; we learned in Fallon that Spotted Horse and Red-Necked Falcon were not far ahead.
|Deluxe Big Breakfast from McDonalds, advertised at 1400 calories.|
Whether it was the hot food, the new day, innate competitiveness, or my exhortation, from Fallon home Damon unleashed some of the fire from the previous day. He rolled straight through the next time station and closed quickly enough on the riders ahead that we found ourselves playing games, hiding the car from the competitors' crews and never rolling too far ahead where we might be spotted. Damon finished with the ride's fourth-fastest time for the brutally difficult final segment.
|Final grade on Nevada 341 from Virginia City to Geiger Summit|