Dancing with Death Valley: Interview with Munny Duncan

With its tagline “Hottest, Driest, Lowest”, Death Valley is probably the last place you would expect to find touring road cyclists. But for Canadian adventure racer Munro “Munny” Duncan, the beauty of this basin in California’s Mojave Desert is more than enough to make up for the harsh environment.

In October 2014, Munny returned to Death Valley for four days to once again test his mettle against one of America’s most inhospitable landscapes.

The Clymb: This is actually your fourth time cycling through Death Valley. What was the impetus for your trip this time?
Manny Duncan: I rode it a couple years ago along a different route and had a couple of buddies—Kyle Long and Etienne Letondeur—that I wanted to bring along this time. Years ago, I fell in love with this place just because it’s so hard, so vast yet so beautiful. People have no idea. The pictures don’t do it justice until you get there. The road is the most beautiful pavement in the world and there’s nobody out there.

Clymb: How hot did it get?
MD: The day going in to Badwater we had six litres of water on us each, we left before the sun came up and the sunrise coming up over the mountains was just magical. It was about 14 degrees Celsius (57 F) at 6 a.m. and by 8:30 a.m. it was like 35 C (95 F). It got up to 42 C (108 F) and it was just absolutely punishing. We had 100 miles to ride that day. As soon as we were leaving Badwater to head to Stove Pipe Wells via Furnace Creek, the wind came up and three miles took us an hour to ride. 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.

Clymb: Did you have any other medical situations or mechanicals along the way?
MD: As we were approaching the dunes at Stove Pipe Wells I ripped the bolts out of my cleat and basically busted the right pedal. What we had to do that night is we had to wrap my pedal and shoe together with electrical tape. I had to pedal 140 miles back to Las Vegas like that; I couldn’t unclip on my right side. It was crazy.

Kyle didn’t have wraparound sunglasses, which managed to burn his eyes on the first day, so he had to make these side patches with electrical tape which made them look like homemade glacier glasses. But that’s tricks of the trade when going into such a hostile environment. You have to prepare yourself and recognize that if things are starting to go bad, you have to look out for the warning signs and fix it quickly.

Clymb: What were you guys carrying? Did you have any kind of gear for an emergency?
MD: We had small flashlights, but from years of adventure racing, we would have made it. We were carrying CarboPro in a powder formula for carbs, electrolytes and minerals. Each of us brought 30 electrolyte tablets, every day our jerseys were encrusted with the salt and minerals we were losing. We had a little bit of food with us but we made sure we ate properly. The night before we left Shahone we asked the guy at the restaurant to make us a pack of bacon so we could eat some protein at the top of the ride. Other than that we just had some gels and Probars, because we’d stop at the restaurants for food and recharge on calories. But you’ve got to make the healthy lifestyle choice, you can’t have the 32 oz. burger, because it’s just going to rock ya. Finding healthy options in that area is tough but we were burning so many calories it didn’t really matter. But every day there was a nice cold Corona at the end of the ride.

For parts, we were lucky to have no flats this time but we carried a spare tire just in case we shredded one. I put cable wire inside my handlebars, we had zap straps, a medical kit, Crazy Glue and an emergency blanket. That would have got us through most stuff.

Clymb: How much of a mind game was it staring down those straight roads in all that heat?
MD: The boys I went with were super fit but were also really smart mentally with knowing how to pace, knowing how to take their time and not being too aggressive. 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.

There’s not really an option to throw in the towel—you have to keep going. Everybody just has to look at each other and keep each other in check. Everyone has a bad day out there, everybody. But you just have to take care of your friends.

Clymb: What keeps you coming back to ride your bike in the continent’s hottest, and driest environment?
MD: Death Valley has a special place in my heart. It keeps me honest. It brings me back to what’s important. There’s no cell phones out there—there’s no nothin’. Kyle is already keen to go again and next time we’re going to bring another friend who missed out on this trip; I get excited just talking about it.

I would recommend to anybody that’s looking to bike it to be very prepared. It’s not an easy challenge.