2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred Race Report

2012 Cannondale Super Six EVO with Di2, Dura-Ace SRM and Zipp 808’s

Official Results for the 2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred here

George “Red Eyed Vireo” Vargas places first at 2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred

an excerpt from the Chief Adventure Officer’s report

But Mother Nature can be cruel, and as we have said a million times, “any kind of weather is possible any time of the year in Death Valley.” Still, the riders in the Hell’s Gate Hundred handled the situation with aplomb and good cheer. Most turned around ahead of schedule, because as the wind was picking up speed to 30, 40, 50 mph or more, it was coming from the south, making for a nearly impossible human-powered return to Furnace Creek. Also, many riders, once they got off the course, hopped in their cars and mini-vans to go out and scoop up riders who needed a lift. We thank all the Good Samaritans who helped out!

One hundred and twenty-nine riders participated in the event, with just eight riders completing the full 100 miles, while at least ten riders completed the 65-mile “Metric Century” route”

Hell’s Gate Hundred Grade Analysis

Ride With GPS terrain map and playback here

Speed analysis

source: National Weather Service

First of all I wish to thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. I also wish to thank Cannondale Bicycles, SRM and my anonymous sponsor who makes it possible for me to race my bike— one of the true and pure pleasures in my life. I wish to thank AdventureCORPS for putting on a fantastic event on rarely traveled roads. And of course, no thank yous would be complete without thanking the tireless and unfortunately usually unappreciated efforts of the volunteers. Thank you for putting up with the weather and allowing me to ride.

I will attempt to describe for you my experience of the 2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred, a 100 mile 8,600 feet of climbing, event. I say “attempt” because the words sometimes escape me as I try to convey to those that weren’t there how difficult the state of affairs were this past Saturday in Death Valley.

Many of the things I will say about the arduous conditions of March 31, 2012 need to be taken in perspective. While there were very high winds and a high DNF rate for the Hell’s Gate Hundred, Death Valley is still an amazing place to visit and ride a bike. Death Valley is one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure to ride in. The scenery never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I have ridden there. I’ve been racing and riding in Death Valley since 2003. I’ve done Centuries, seven Double Centuries, Six consecutive SOLO Furnace Creek 508‘s and many training rides. Sure I have had a couple windy days here and there but as a whole the weather has been spectacular. Extrapolate that out for the 50 some odd events AdventureCORPS has put on in Death Valley and what it really comes down to is this… windy event day = anomaly! More to the point, the previous four days before the Hell’s Gate Hundred the weather had been moderate and pleasant for the participants of CORPScamp.

We lined up for our pre-race safety brief from Race Director, Chris Kostman, at 6:20 ish for a 6:30 launch. Chris did mention to ride at your own risk and pedal yourself in. I wish more riders would have heeded his words of caution and exercised self-reliance.

I digress, at the start, I saw two familiar faces, Terry Lentz and Jim Whitford. I knew I was in the correct wave for the event. There were three waves but the prudent thing to do was leave on the earliest wave since the winds only pick up later in the afternoon. Terry in my opinion is one of the strongest riders I know and launching out with him in the first wave was essential to getting a good start on the day.

Terry Lentz and I before the start of the 2007 Furnace Creek 508 (Fixed Gear) we both rode our Fixed Gear bikes for 508 miles non-stop and 35,000 feet of climbing 

Furnace Creek start to Artist Drive

From the outset Terry, Jim and I formed a hasty and necessary alliance into the 20 mph headwinds as we headed towards the first real climb of the day, Artist Drive. Almost immediately after making the left turn onto Artist Drive Jim fell off the pace. I too struggled to stay with Terry. But I was determined to finish the Artist Drive loop with him and then let him go on the Daylight Pass climb. Artist Drive is short and steep Daylight Pass climb is a LOONG 16 mile grind… ahem climb. I managed to stay with Terry until the checkpoint. But once we left the checkpoint I was summarily dropped on one of the rollers by Terry and off he went. By the time I made the junction back to Badwater Road/Hwy 178 Terry was long gone… long gone!

Artist Drive Loop


Terry and I working the 10-12% grades on Artist Drive

While sucking Terry’s wheel I had the realization that he represented the purity of cycling. He was riding a steel frame that he fabricated himself. As far as I could tell his chain rings were 52/42 maybe 44 coupled to an 11-21 cassette controlled by downtube shifters. His box section low-profile alloy rims and his single bottle cage and bottle seemed more at home on a Sunday recovery ride and out of place in one of earth’s most inhospitable places – Death Valley. His thin short sleeved wool jersey, unshaven legs and helmet mirror would be scoffed at during the local club ride. But make no mistake his appearance IS deceiving. You will be hard-pressed to find a more talented endurance cyclist anywhere! To wit, no amount of high-tech carbon über light weight machine I had was going to help me keep up with Mr. Lentz.  I admit I love riding a steel bike as well. However, I am also very fortunate to have a Cannondale sponsorship.  Thank you Cannondale!

Artist Drive to Beatty Cut-off

Now back on Badwater Road the once 20 mph headwind felt like a nice gentle push on my back by Mother Nature’s hand. As if to say, “scurry along young man…” I took the helping hand from Mother Nature knowing that later I would have to repay the favor. I sailed along not overly exerting myself because I was headed towards a 16 mile climb at the end of the easy cruise from Artist Drive through Furnace Creek to the Beatty Cut-off. At this time, I was running in second place, with Terry ahead of me and Jim presumably behind me. As I pulled into the aid station at bottom of the long climb to Daylight Pass, I was alone with no one behind me. I was quite surprised to see two riders pull in just as I was leaving the aid station. So where was Jim then?

Beatty Cut-off Volunteer

Daylight Pass Climb

I started the long climb up to Daylight Pass with the intermediary checkpoint at Hell’s Gate. I settled in for the 16 mile climb knowing it should take me at least 1:30 hours (1:45 actual). I guess I was a little too optimistic lol! Shortly after beginning the climb I saw a rider rapidly closing ground on me. I didn’t recognize him as he went past nor did I try to pace off of him. I was in my own little world and I was quite content. Now I was running third. I knew his pace would be too fast for me.

A few minutes later here comes another rider who passes me. Now I’m running fourth. I usually take it hard when people pass me especially on a climb. I fancy myself a climber, which is to say I like to climb not that I’m a good climber. But today was not the day for letting your ego get in the way of accomplishing the mission or as I like to say “getting it done”. I let the second rider pass me without a worry in the world.  I was pacing myself off my power meter.  I knew what I needed to do to complete the 100 miles with plenty left in the tank on the last 25 miles.

Why don’t I have a worry in the world? First and foremost because the two riders that have passed me are unknown to me. I have not seen them on the century and double century circuit. And while I may be taking a risk my experience in this sport and my instinct tells me to let them go. Also I have not been training much and I didn’t expect a good result. I have averaged less than 100 miles a week for the last thee months.

What you need to understand about endurance cycling is that it’s not how fast you climb, or how fast you descend, or how fast you ride on the flats. Rarely has the KOM won the Tour de France. I remember one of my cycling heros, Eddie Merckx, won all the jerseys (overall, mountains and points) in the Tour 1969 and the Giro in 1968. But that was the Cannibal – the likes of which we may never see again. So then what is endurance cycling about if not how fast you can do this or that? It’s how little time you spend off the bike — resting, nature breaks, eating, chatting with others, telling war stories of battles that you haven’t finished yet. Endurance cycling is about pacing, perseverance, patience, being good at climbing, descending, riding flat terrain AND staying the bike. Endurance cycling is about conservation of energy and proper timing in expending your energy. Endurance cycling is about not chasing rabbits who are unknowns and don’t have the racing pedigree in what you consider your niche. Endurance cycling is knowing how to work all adversities in your favor including your arch nemisis Mother Nature. Endurance cycling is about the childhood stories of the tortoise and the hare. Endurance cycling is about a good nutrition plan and most of all, and pay attention and take notes because this IS important …. HAVING A STRONGER MIND THAN BODY.

Now back to the climb…there was an occasional tailwind as the road curved left curved right and again as you  headed in a Northerly direction. Thank you Mother, thank you for your gentle hand… the gentle push.

I reached Hell’s Gate 11 miles later. No sign of Terry, no sign of the 2nd place rider, but just as I’m pulling in the third place rider is leaving. By my calculation I haven’t lost too much ground or time to this rider and I am riding well within my limits. I am conserving for what I know is going to be a very difficult return leg. The forecast called for 40-60mph gusts. I’ve done this before. You take what Mother Nature gives you — smiling like a child given a bowl of ice cream and then at some point you argue with her like an angry teenager told to turn is music down when you battle the headwinds on the return leg.

Hell’s Gate Volunteers

Time to get a little more focused as the grade from Hell’s Gate to Daylight Pass is a little more persistent at preventing you from defying gravity. It’s only about 6% but It’s been a long climb already of 11 miles. A check of my “instruments” numbers are good — legs? good. nutrition? good. overall fatigue? good. Onward and upward …steady as she goes…I see the third placed rider up ahead every now and then as the road snakes it’s way up to the 4300 foot summit. I count off my gap to the him and I feel I’m close enough to not feel “dropped”

Daylight Pass to Rhyolite

I crest Daylight Pass and the third place rider is just leaving again. I’m guessing a couple of minutes is all I’ve lost to him on this 16 mile climb. At Daylight Pass I see my good friend Steve Barnes. It’s great to see him out here volunteering with his son. I descend off of Daylight Pass. I remembered feeling like it was a long way to Rhyolite. But for some reason it didn’t feel that far at all today. I’m expecting to see Terry heading back already. I know I have lost lots of time to him he’s been “off the front” of the race for many miles. I start to wonder if I’ve gambled and taken it too easy up the climb and allowed too much of a gap to the top three riders on the course. I see Terry a couple of miles from my turn to Rhyolite. He looks good. He looks strong. I then see the second place rider about a mile from the Rhyolite turn. Ok that’s one and two now let’s see where the third place rider is. Once again I reach the aid station and the third place rider has just exited. A quick refueling stop and I’m back on the road.

Volunteers at the furthest checkpoint – Rhyolite

I roll out of the stop on a gentle downhill back to the main road and I see one rider coming in. Now on the main road I see solo riders and an occasional pair working together. I count five or six and then I lose interest. The wind is strong but my energy level up to the task..still. It had been two years since the last time I did the climb up to Daylight Pass from Rhyolite. I couldn’t remember if the last combination of turns was a right first then a left or left and then a right to the clearing at the top.

Rhyolite to Daylight Pass

Dan Crain’s spirit was really strong today as I crested Daylight Pass for the second time today, It was there that I saw the Race Director, who was now turning people around and not allowing riders to continue through Daylight Pass and on to Rhyolite. From the top of Daylight Pass it is essentially a 20 mile out and back in and out of Nevada. The reason for his decision? The winds had continued to pick up on the valley floor and it was going to be very difficult for riders to finish the event under their own power. In my opinion, if you were still climbing up to Daylight Pass at this hour you really didn’t need to endure an additional 20 mile loop. I believe some riders were disappointed with having their ride shortened but I am quite certain Chris’s controversial yet sapient advice became more than apparent to them shortly thereafter. Once those riders hit the valley floor it should have been more than obvious that Chris had their safety in mind.

Descending from Daylight Pass down into the valley was, in a word, treacherous. As mentioned before, I was riding Zipp 808’s front and rear. So far during the day the wheels weren’t an issue. But in this canyon-like descent the winds were agley. They didn’t have a pattern from which I could predict which way to lean or where to put my body weight. It’s funny the things that go through your mind when descending a mountain with circling winds. I thought of Ayrton Senna (please watch the video). Senna was a Formula 1 driver for the ages. One of his many talents was his ability to drive in the rain. And there is a quote by one of the commentators “….Senna is a wet weather master!” That echoed in my head over and over again as I envisioned having a commentator assess my windy weather riding prowess. Yes in my mind I had become the “…windy weather master!”

What advice do I have for riding in the wind? Stay loose, stay relaxed be ready and vigilant for anything. Look at the vegetation– which way it is blowing and how far is it leaning over. Keep driving that rear wheel if even mentally YOU need to be in control of your machine. Keep pedalling as the gust comes and hunker down on your bike. Sitting up and not pedaling only creates a higher profile and essentially you are acting as a sail. Keep driving that rear wheel and keep power putting that power to the ground.

Daylight Pass to Beatty Cutoff

There were times when the wind would hit me so ferociously that it would take my current 30 mph speed and literally stop me. Once through the canyon-like section I approached Hell’s Gate. There was no need to stop for refueling. I sped ahead only to be greeted with significant head-on gusts that had me pedaling and yet barely doing double digit speeds. I saw plenty of riders standing alongside the road and passed many others fighting their way to go downhill. It’s sounds incredulous but yes we had to pedal to go downhill. Even with all this effort of pedaling I am barely doing 10 mph.  It’s tough going for everyone today. I’m proud of those riders for pushing themselves and pedaling themselves in to the finish.

Descent from Hell’s Gate – note the sandstorm on the valley floor

I reach the bottom and see the third place rider sitting on an ice chest with his head in his hands. I have enormous respect for his efforts thus far but now it seems he’s bitten off more than he can chew. He doesn’t look like he can be roused up from his languor. It is now that my patience and experience in riding in these conditions that things start to pay off. You know this isn’t my first rodeo 😉 Don’t chase rabbits, don’t over exert, pace properly stay on the bike and stay fueled and a race takes on a whole different dimension on the latter stages just like when the two minute warning is given in a football game.

Beatty Cut-off to Furnace Creek

I roll on. I’m down to the last 11 miles to the finish. I am running in third place again and while there won’t be a podium I like to think that I have a podium finish as long as I stay the course and finish. You see my mantra while riding these events plays over and over in my head….It’s about suffering and getting it done. The thing is many people do these events. But only a few suffer, even fewer LIKE to suffer consequently  even fewer get it done. These two components go together they go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly, Abbott and Costello and Tom and Jerry. You must always know, be aware, and more importantly, embrace the suffering that comes with endurance cycling and then GET IT DONE! Because in my opinion, doing only the suffering is like a dancer not performing because she has blisters on her feet….the show must go on! I say this to most of my friends and newcomers to endurance cycling  and fledgling ultra cyclist — MOST PEOPLE DON’T LIKE TO SUFFER.  They don’t want to do the requisite work i.e. training that it takes to become a good endurance cyclist.

My last 11 miles were purely a mental exercise. It was a test of my mind, will power, against the steadfast resolve of Mother Nature’s adroit ability to change wind direction and speed. She made it interesting, I’ll give her that. Her ability to change the wind speed continuously as adept as an iPod can randomly shuffle your 10,000 song music library from Metallica to Liberace.  I imagined her sitting at the finish line saying “Ok try this one… not bad. Ok try this one, ahh I got you on that one didn’t I? Alright now try this!” She was intent on testing me but I was resolute in finishing. I did the math in my head many times….”the course closes at 5pm…I’ve got four hours….I’ve got three hours….” GETTING IT DONE was tantamount to that “podium” finish.

Numerous volunteers drove up next to me and offered me a ride in. I understood their good nature but I couldn’t understand why they would think with 10 and then 8, then 5 and then 2 miles from the finish I would quit. That’s right … getting a ride in was akin to quitting.  I’m not a quitter.  I am 5 time Furnace Creek 508 finisher — 508 miles non-stop and 35,000 feet of climbing.  I’ve completed RAAM 2 person when my partner DNF’d and I finished the 3,000 mile race on my own.  I appreciate all of you that asked me if I needed to SAG in but today was not the day. I was going to finish this under my own power even if I walked in. It took me an hour and 48 minutes to finish those last 11 miles into 50 mph + gusts!  That’s right that is barely 6 mph average speed for a so-called accomplished ultra cyclist …but I DID finish!  I GOT IT DONE! While 100’s didn’t finish!

Preceding three photos last few miles
Final thoughts
I was lucky enough to ride Friday on the last day of CORPScamp. After my fully supported ride, attending a yoga class I felt nice and relaxed before the Hell’s Gate Hundred. I like this course because it’s well organized, like all AdventureCORPS events, there is very little traffic, no street lights, and there are only five turns all day! No route sheet required!! You get to ride some great roads, with great pavement and different climbs than those offered on either of the spring or fall double and century routes. You get to visit a real life ghost town, Rhyolite as well. A town that rose from nothing in 1905 and then declined just as quickly by 1920.
All smiles at the finish, George “Red Eyed Vireo” Vargas, 8:02 finishing time at the 2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred
Ever wonder why AdventureCORPS events in Death Valley are a little pricier than other events? Here’s one reason the paramedics are driven in from far away and their standby time has to be paid for. You may never need them but if you get injured it is a long way from Death Valley to a proper medical facility. Thank you guys for being there.
I would like to make a comment about the results. Currently, I am posted as first on the official results. I do know that Terry Lentz pulled out and he was running first. So then that would put me in at second place. But there was one rider that was still ahead of me and I don’t know his whereabouts. He passed me on the climb to Daylight Pass and I saw he was still in the event at the Rhyolite turnaround. He might not have checked in at the finish which technically makes him a DNF. But there was quite a lot going on at the finish line and maybe just maybe there is a good reason for him going MIA.

15 thoughts on “2012 Hell’s Gate Hundred Race Report

    • BAL!!!!!

      Where have you been? How have you been? I’m glad to hear you’re still out there reading my stuff lol! I hope to ride a little more in San Diego in the coming months. I’ll post on Facebook. Senna is a God!


  1. Terry pulled out with 5 miles to go so he can go get his car and help pick riders up. He was about an hour in the lead but knew it would have taken another hour to ride the last 5 miles. I rode with Terry last Saturday and tried to get him to admit defeat and/or guilt about not finishing. Once the conditions got to “crazy” level it was not a race anymore so he took the sag offer. Believe me I know what it is like to be humbled by Terry on a regular basis. Great to see George finish like that but get a 303 for the front next time. 808 on the front, you got to be kidding me. Good job keeping that 808 on the pavement.

  2. What an AWESOME report! Really enjoyed reading about your experience. We saw you finishing the last miles and we just knew you were going to make it to the end no matter what! Congratulations on your finish and remarkable attitude!
    Stan and Helen Rose

    • Helen,

      Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to post a comment. It wasn’t easy and I suffered just like everyone else. Unfortunately or fortunately, I have had way too many experiences suffering in Ultras (Double Centuries and the Furnace Creek 508) that a century is something I MUST finish.

      How did it go for you guys?

      george “red eyed vireo”
      Furnace Creek 508 Hall of Fame

  3. Great job George!
    You inspire me! I am part of the Killer Bees team and will be riding for the second time in the 508 this October “The team has finished the 508 the Last two years”. I would like to try solo some time in the near future but I must admit I am very intimidated. I also signed up for the fall Death Valley double. It will be my first double. I trained on leg three last weekend and struggled with towns pass, I was dealing with anxiety issues so I didn’t finish. The legs where still great but I’m working out other issues. I’m heading back there this coming weekend and give leg three another go. I’m physically ready, I have been training hard but I struggle with the mental aspects. I keep fighting though and I won’t give up!
    Thanks for your inspiration, it helps me deal with my own mental stuff.
    God Bless,
    Lonnie “Killer Bees” Binderim

    • Hello Lonnie,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and leave a comment. Thank you for considering me an inspiration. The Hell’s Gate Hundred was extremely difficult even this year with the windstorm that blew through at 40-60 mph. It was truly just surviving to get to the finish line. Good luck on your events. Feel free to report back on how your training and racing goes this season.

      george “Red Eyed Vireo” vargas
      Furnace Creek 508 Hall of Fame

  4. Pingback: The Road to the 2012 Furnace Creek 508 – a year in review | George's Epic Adventures

  5. Pingback: AdventureCORPS Fall Death Valley Ultra Century Ride Report | George's Epic Adventures

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