Death Valley Omnium: Changing Gears – Joy McCulloch

Photo Credit: Danny MunsonPhoto Credit: Danny Munson

I have lived in Southern California for over 10 years now, and I have never wanted to go the hottest and lowest place on earth – the fabled Death Valley. I have driven past it on the 395 numerous times and I have never given it more than a thought and a shudder, thinking of what just might lay at the bottom of the sand. But racing calls, and I am not one to turn down a day to pin another number on and test myself again the clock, terrain and my inner demons and angles. It was time to head to the desert.

I rallied my most faithful training and travel partner Cynthia to head to the Death Valley Omnium which consisted of two stages in one day. The stages covered a mere 30 miles in total with a whopping 8,000ft elevation gain, climbing up to over 7,500ft. Stage 1 would begin in Big Pine, CA and the racers would climb 14 miles to the summit. In order to begin stage 2, we would then need to ride 16 miles down into the basin of Death Valley where the group would begin the final climb up out of the valley to the summit again. This set-up quickly made a 30 mile race a 60 mile day. Here’s the crazy thing. I can’t remember the last time I purposely climbed anything let alone did climbing intervals. My racing is focused on criteriums, time trials and fast-paced NRC road races that boast short pitchy climbs. My coach Paul and I have worked a lot on my efforts to be top-notch from 1-5 minutes and anything over that has been a bonus. The majority of the climbs in the national road races I have done are out of the saddle suffer-fests that are done before you know it. At Cascade, I got a taste for the longer sustained climbs. When it came down to it though, I was in the groupetto riding it in for 35th place, not setting a new threshold sustained power. To say I was a bit intimidated is an understatement. I was worried I was not prepared at all! But as I tell my clients over and over, trust the work you have done.


The most exciting part of the event was realizing that through specific and focused training on the bike, you can truly perform well in all areas of riding. Just because I don’t climb all the time doesn’t mean I can’t climb!

I knew my competition well and I allowed Hannah Swann to set the pace early as we began the first climb. I was still sleepy and slightly unmotivated to ride moch-9 at 7am so I let her slip away. This was a calculated gamble and I kept her in sight knowing I had allowed a gap of over 1:10 to form. I focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing under control and as I neared the one hour mark, I finally checked my Garmin to see how far I had gone. It read 10.6 miles and I knew it was time to bump the effort up a notch. Not wanting to grenade myself and know that Hannah had been laying it all on the line to stay away from me, I slowly revved my heart rate up to where it was just uncomfortable as I have done many times training for time trials.

Photo Credit: Danny MunsonPhoto Credit: Danny Munson

With about 4K to go, I caught her and gave it one big twist of the throttle to see what she had left in the tank. No response. Knowing that this was an omnium where the final results were based on placing not time, I created a manageable gap and backed off the effort level a few ticks so that I wouldn’t be blown at the top of the climb.

The most awesome part of the event was riding down into Death Valley. The stark brightness of the sun mixed with the dramatic landscape and rock formations was nothing less than awe inspiring. When I try to explain I sound like I am babbling. The grandness of the rock and thinking about the settlers coming through years ago and wondering if there were cowboys and Indians scurrying around the secret trails high above us, my mind took several journeys through the event. I stopped on one of the overlooks to take a longer look out into nowhere in an attempt to soak it all in. I could see as far as the horizon and the heat was beginning to radiate off the asphalt creating a shimmer and a mirage that if you looked to long at it, actually made me feel off balance. Or maybe that was the vortex – which we did ride through!

At the bottom of the road, we rode to where the paved road turned into gravel and waited. This would be our starting spot for stage 2 and thankfully Steve Barnes the promotor had copius amounts of water, ice, gold fish and pretzels. It was super cool to sit under the EZ-Up and talk to the kids, adults, and extremely diverse racing field that came out for the day. Richard Swann was driving along the route offering us ice cold water bottles to drink and pour over our backs as well which proved the race atmosphere to be quite different than your standard Sunday crit. It was a big breath of fresh air for me. As we started stage 2, I was pleased I had put the longest ice sock in history down my jersey. Spanning all my vertebrae it was lifesaver! The pace started out high again and I didn’t want to dig too deep of a hole, but I also didn’t want to have to reel anyone in again. I stayed with the lead group until the guys tip-toed away and it was just Hannah and me again. Monitoring my heart rate, I kept it at a sustainable pace as we rotated up the climb. Knowing that this climb was longer and steeper than the first stage, I knew this would be to my favor. On a short and steep rise, I dug a big deeper keeping the gas on as it crested and I was able to create a gap and hold it. This climb was amazing – pitchy with a few rollers where you could really put the hammer down as the multi-colored rock walls rose on either side. I tried my best to appreciate every piece of the experience that I could.

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It was a welcome change to not have to race with my brain as is required in criteriums and large road races. To have the opportunity to just ride and challenge myself was a much needed respite from the rat-race racing I have been doing. Double bonus was that the oppressive heat didn’t start until we had finished the race and were riding back down to the cars. The air was thick and tinged with smoke coming over from forest fires in Yosemite. The cold coke in the car was the best thing ever! Having won both stages, I was able to win the overall omnium and add a few more wins to our teams win tally.

I am grateful for such a supportive community to be part of and for a husband, team and director/coach that continue to challenge me on and off the bike. It is events like this that will continue to develop me mentally and physically to become the cyclist and athlete I dream to be. Thank you!

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