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.