Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Standing on Hell’s doorstep….

At least that’s where I assumed we were….we rode through Hell's Gate which I assume leads to Hell's Doorstep...

The Friday before last, Deb and I loaded up the truck and set out on the road for Death Valley. Although it’s a long, boring, ugly drive for 90% of the 9 hours we were in the truck, the last hour is actually pretty cool….in a desolate, barren, post-apocalyptic sort of way.

Saturday morning I got up early to meet up with Bob, Leticia, Bill and Gail and begin the Hell’s Gate 100 ride that I had signed up for and driven an entire to day to attend. I’ve never been to Death Valley before and although the desert does have its own particular beauty, I must say I really prefer trees and mountains and rivers…..oh yeah, and to see stuff that’s actually living.

As I stood there lining up with the other slackers that had waited until the last possible rollout time of 7:00am it dawned on me that for the first time I had done the smart thing and opted for the metric century instead of the full century. 

In year’s past, I would have let my ego make the decision then spent the rest of the day regretting it.  Today though, it would be different.  I had made the intelligent choice to do the shorter route and had also chosen to ride with people smart enough not to kill ourselves with a pace we couldn’t sustain…..sometimes my good judgement amazes me….

The ride starts out heading south out of Furnace Creek and down towards Badwater. As we rode along in one of the most desolate places I’ve ever ridden, the stark barrenness of the area started to grow on me.
Sure, there’s nothing there and, should you happen to be here in July instead of March your brain would cook inside your head, it was kind of pretty. The bottom of the valley is flat and looks like a salt marsh, but on either side are mountains that to the west held snow and to the east showed an incredible array of colors from the differing rock formations.

Not long after we started the road turned left and we began our first climb of the day…..and boy was that a surprise. As is my style, I had totally failed to train and instead of looking at the route guide to see just how unprepared I was, I took the ignorance is bliss attitude and just took off with the group.

The climb was pretty tough and gained about 1000ft in 3 miles. The nice part is that it’s a one way road and there were only 2 cars in the time we were climbing. After pretending to take pictures at the top long enough to get my heart rate under control we hit the first rest stop of the day at Artist’s Palette. Wow, ok so maybe the desert isn’t completely devoid of beauty.
From here it was a fun, fast, perfectly paved one way road downhill to the valley floor and then the trek north towards Hells Gate. I think the worst part of riding in the desert is that without one single tree to block your view, you can see for miles. Unfortunately, in a mostly flat, uninhabited area where you can see where you’re headed miles away, it seems like no matter how long you ride, you never get closer.

This fact went from boringly apparent to painfully apparent once we turned off Hwy 190 and headed up towards Hell’s Gate proper. From the bottom of the valley to the rest area at the top is a 10 mile climb and you can see the tent at the top from just past the first turn at the bottom…..it’s a white spot at the very top that no matter how long I pedaled, never seemed to come any closer….

Finally though, after what seemed like an eternity of pedaling uphill with no respite, (is that what purgatory is?) we came around the final bend and were at the official turn around point for the metric century. Hell’s Gate…..as I stood there on Hell’s doorstep, I looked back at the valley below in all it’s desolate glory and agreed again, just how intelligent I was for doing the metric and not the full century. (Bob, evidently has either less brains or is just plain tougher than I am as he was doing the entire route)

The 10 miles up of course resulted in 10 miles back down and it was awesome! Unfortunately, as all good things must come to an end, the downhill ended and we were faced with a long, flat grind back to the start. Thankfully, Bill and Gail on the tandem took the lead and the rest of us (yes, a tandem in a headwind develops a large following) fell in behind, put our heads down and made circles as best we could.

Eventually, we made it back to the start, and as this was the first long ride of the season, I couldn’t wait to get off the bike. My legs, though tired, felt pretty good. My butt, shoulders, neck and arms though were pretty much done.

All in all, we ended up with 65 miles and right about 5,000 ft of climbing. It was a gorgeous day in some barren but beautiful scenery spent with good friends. Not sure I’ll be driving back down to Death Valley any time soon, but I was very glad that I had done it.

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