Sunday, April 8, 2012
The Everlasting Century
I have never finished it, and this year I decided to not even begin. The wind warnings proved accurate, and then some. By late morning, anyone who was out on the road would be returning to Furnace Creek into an intense headwind and a soul crushing (and gear-munching) sandstorm.
Having ridden through Death Valley's windstorms every year for the past 3 years, I think I've finally figured out what should have been obvious to me from the start: Riding through Death Valley isn't as much a physical endeavor as it is a philosophical problem.
My friend Chris Cameron, in his description of his attempt at the Hell's Gate Metric Century, calls riding here "a negotiation between oneself and nature".
For me, this place has always been where I've allowed Nature to take me by the hand and walk me to the edge of my limitations. Not so that She could expose all my weaknesses, but so that I could learn to be respectful of Her enormous power, and perhaps overcome my limitations by relying on my smarts rather than my ego. (No surprise that it has taken me three years to understand this!)
Back home, in Cleveland or Toronto or Minneapolis or almost anywhere but Death Valley, riding a Century is, indeed, a way to highlight individual strength. And if adverse conditions arise while on these local rides - thunderstorms, multiple mechanical issues, intense heat and humidity, even high winds - there is usually a viable option available. Wait it out in a cafe, call for a ride home, take a shortcut, rehydrate from a garden hose.
In Death Valley, none of these options are on the table. Riding here is challenging under the best conditions. When those conditions deteriorate, missteps and bad decisions can be deadly. No water, no cell phone service, wind gusts that can blow a cyclist over (or into traffic), not a living soul for miles and miles - all of these things are real. Riding a bike through the vastness and grandeur that is Death Valley National Park, it's surprisingly easy to dismiss any of these factors, especially when you've never had to consider them.
Of course, AdventureCorps provides excellent SAG support for all their rides, including the Hell's Gate Hundred. But I wasn't going to start a ride that I knew I might not be able to finish under my own volition. I didn't come out here to get rescued again.
And so, as Chris C. describes, I negotiated - not with Mother Nature (she can be a terrible bitch, and not open to negotiation), but with myself. Could I take advantage of the perfect conditions the day before the HGH, and ride to Rhyolite, truly my one 'real' goal? Would I be able to watch riders leave the morning of the HGH and not feel like I'm wimping out by not joining in? Would I be perfectly content to not ride into the same dusty fury that has been my nemesis every year since we started riding here every spring?
Yes, yes, and hell yes.
And so there will have to be a next year, because in spite of my being OK (more than OK) with the decisions I made this year, I would one day like to start - and finish - a Century ride in Death Valley.