Dancing with Death Valley 

Road biking through one of North America's harshest landscapes

click to enlarge death valley driver Munro "Munny" Duncan, right, with fellow cyclist Kyle Long in the grueling Death Valley.
  • death valley driver Munro "Munny" Duncan, right, with fellow cyclist Kyle Long in the grueling Death Valley.

With its tag line "Hottest, Driest, Lowest," Death Valley is the probably the last place you would expect to find touring road cyclists. But for experienced adventure racer Munro "Munny" Duncan, the beauty of this basin in California's Mojave Desert is more than enough to offset its harsh environment.

"Years ago I fell in love with this place, just because it's so hard and so vast," said Duncan.

"People have no idea. The pictures don't do it justice until you get there."

This was Duncan's fourth cycling trip to Death Valley, this time bringing along his friends Kyle Long and Etienne Letondeur for the roughly 550-kilometre circuit. Their route began in Las Vegas and headed west to the motel-and-gas-station town of Shoshone before climbing up Jubilee Pass and descending into Death Valley the following day. The trio then cycled through the lowest point of the continent at Badwater Basin (-86m) before climbing up and over to another rest stop at Stove Pipe Wells. To return they then headed the east to the town of Pahrump before the final leg back to Las Vegas.

While four days to cover 550 kilometres doesn't sound too difficult for road cyclists, the extreme heat (upwards of 42 degrees C), strong headwind and exposure made the tour anything but leisurely.

"As soon as we were leaving Badwater to head to Stove Pipe Wells via Furnace Creek, the wind came up and the three miles (4.8 kilometres) took us an hour to ride," said Duncan.

"We felt like we were in reverse. We got beat down, it was just savage. We had a lunch at a restaurant to recoup and my heart rate was about 150 (b.p.m.) for about half an hour, I couldn't get it down."

Long had an equally difficult day after getting sun exposure to his eyes after the first day from not wearing wrap around sunglasses, a problem he fixed by crafting lateral light covers out of electrical tape. Then the crux of the trip came with the gruelling climb out of Badwater, where each rider took turns at the front of the echelon formation to battle the headwind.

"We were lucky that it didn't get any worse than it was," said Long, who managed to flag down several motorists that afternoon that handed him their spare water. They left Shoshone that morning with six litres of water each.

"You really are far away from people that can help you. It's barren, there's no cell service and there's no shade."

In the last few kilometres before reaching the lunch stop at Furnace Creek, Duncan made a reluctant decision to hitch the rest of the way into town in order to help lower his elevated hear rate. Long and Letondeur were left with an extra bike, which was slow and cumbersome to ride with. Meeting another motorist, they entrusted the stranger with transporting Duncan's bike to the restaurant at Furnace Creek. Duncan recovered, got his bike back and the group continued to Stove Pipe Wells, reaching their motel shortly after sunset.

"You really had to pace yourself and watch your exertion," said Long.

"If you go out and try to hammer through it you just can't physically do it. You have to tone it down, ride at a calm pace and make sure everyone else is doing the same thing. Otherwise you're going to blow them up and they're not going to make it through the day either."

But as hostile as the second of the four-day tour was, Long found that day to be the most rewarding.

"It was when we finished the leg after having that pivotal moment, with the sun setting and knowing we were going to make it that I thought, 'This is a pretty cool place and I conquered it on my bike,'" said Long.

"I saw a different form of what I had inside (of me). There were still two more days to go, but my biggest road ride previously had been 100 kilometres and that day I did 170 kilometres from sunrise to sunset."

There were no major mechanical problems over the four days, but on the ride in to Stove Pipe Wells Duncan managed to shear the cleat off his cycling shoe. The roll of electrical tape again came to the rescue by wrapping the shoe to the pedal for the remainder of the trip.

"I had to pedal 230km back to Vegas and I couldn't unclip on my right side," said Duncan.

"There, in such a hostile environment, you're so exposed. You're not conquering Death Valley, it's just getting along with it and surviving with her. She'll do what she wants to you."

Duncan is already looking to return to ride Death Valley, though next time he will attempt a different route. With a tolerance for suffering well above the human average, he advises caution to those considering the punishing ride.

"I would recommend it to anybody that's looking to bike it to be very prepared. It's not an easy challenge," he said.

"Death Valley has a special place in my heart. It keeps me honest, it brings me back to what's important."

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