Common Mistakes I Hope To Avoid: Stage 3

I know you think this stage is all about Townes Pass, but it’s not. That climb certainly is a part of it, but there are a hundred miles on this stage, and only 30 of them are on the pass. It’s easy to overlook those other 70 miles.

Mistake 1: Getting Ahead of Myself

The first climb of Stage 3 actually is the Trona Bump. It’s not much more than that, but it does take a little time to get up and over. The descent into the Panamint Valley is well-paved, and smooth. And that descent can get just as zippy as the descent off Townes Pass. And all that speed is part of the problem. It’s easy to start thinking about Townes, and hammering to get there, leaving you in a deficit at the base of the climb. The pavement ahead of the right turn is choppy, so back off a little bit and leave something in the tank for a solid effort on the pass.

Mistake 2: The Bonk

When I was crew chief in 2007, my racer bonked. He had been struggling with a “4-hour” bottle of Hammer products. I love Hammer, but the sludge bottle is one I haven’t been able to really use. Between the bottle and gels, my rider was taking on more than he could digest. And by the floor of the Panamint, he was sick. We pulled over when he  got sick. The calorie dump made him feel instantly better, and for 15 minutes, he rode like a house on fire. The problem was that it was all adrenaline. At the right hand turn up Townes, he bonked hard. For more than 2 hours, it was impossible to get him on the bike and moving. I thought we were going to be done right then and there.

In 2009, a similar thing happened. Nervous about the stage and getting sick again, my now-teammate was looking for “retribution” on the climb. Rather than pulling on the 4-hour Hammer bottle, he just went with water. The very obvious problem was that he was undernourished from the start of the stage. Halfway up Townes Pass, we were off the road once more, with the rider bonking, and more than an hour ticking by.

In 2010, as a race official, I saw a lot of riders stopped and struggling up the climb. The calorie deficits and hard bonks can occur anytime, anywhere on the course. But they seemed to occur most often in Stage 3 and again in Baker.

Mistake 3: Forgetting How To Climb

OK. The climb. Everyone thinks about it. You can’t look at the race profile and NOT think long and hard about the climb. The first third isn’t too steep. Up to 2000 feet, it’s a decent up with just a couple turns. Between 2,500 and 3,500 feet, though, the grade ticks up. At the guard rail, the climb is real work. Here’s where the rider and crew get a view of the entire Panamint. By the 4,000-foot sign, the grade levels back out, and it’s a straight shot up and over the top. For me, the most important thing is to not overthink the climb. I don’t need to stop at the base and “size it up.” I don’t need to blow up the first 1,000 feet of the climb only to explode at 3,000. I need to keep myself settled into a good climbing rhythm.

Mistake 4: Testosterone Poisoning (Redux){Redux}

Notice the trend? The biggest mistake I can make is not riding my race, but someone else’s. It’s easy to do, so I have to keep reminding myself. Rather than riding with my pride, I need to ride with my legs. I hate walking. It used to happen often (I came to cycling in general, and ultracycling in particular, late in life, so I simply don’t have the physique or abilities a lot of cyclists have), and there’s a reason I have a goal of “not stopping” on the Townes Pass climb, or to not walk the bike. Those are goals. But there’s no reason why those goals should prevent me from doing whatever it takes to get up and over the top. In 2010, I saw a guy practically sprinting to the top. He was in his sneakers and running with his bike. He was going faster than many of the riders still on their bikes. Clearly, this was part of his plan. In the end? Hey, whatever it takes. Remember there is a lot of road left ahead. We’re not even to the halfway point, so there better be enough in the legs to tackle the rest of the course.

Mistake 5: Break a Land Speed Record.

The descent off the pass intimidates me more than the climb. It’s dark. It’s 60 mph. There’s a van 20 feet behind me. Some racers are confident enough to let go and bomb it to the floor of Death Valley. I don’t need to do that. Rather than trying to make up time on the descent, just ride within myself to the bottom. No one is going to lose a ton of time on a big descent.

Mistake 6: Forgetting The Destination

It’s not Furnace Creek. The Time Station in the middle of Death Valley is nothing more than a very famous halfway point. The reason I have as a goal “don’t stop at Furnace Creek” is that I don’t want to make this Time Station more significant than it actually is. It’s #3… of 8! Yeah, there are bathrooms there. There also will be half a dozen crew vehicles there with resting riders. There will be a steady flow of team vans pulling in for rider transfers. It’s too chaotic here to honestly rest. It’s noisy and bright. Head on down the road a couple miles if the crew needs a pit stop.

Furnace Creek has an undeniable pull. I’ve done the Spring Double Century a few times, and the hardest part of that ride isn’t the climbs or the distance: it’s escaping the gravity of Furnace Creek. The same holds true for The 508. Minutes become an hour or more in the Twilight Zone of Furnace Creek. My goal simply is to roll past, shout out my totem, and continue down the road.

(To Be Continued…)

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