Endurance athletes have a misconfiguration in their brain, one that compels them to pursue increasingly foolish goals, for me the Death Ride was as foolish as it was ambitious. The course is 103mi, starting at ~5k feet elevation, with a total of about 14k feet of elevation gain. It is not a race per se, though I’m sure somebody is “first” back to the finish line. What is celebrated are completions. If you can survive all six passes, you’re a winner! The mountains are steep, the road largely exposed, and the heat is oppressive, but hey! Good luck! Have a great ride!
I managed to complete all six passes in 7:58:50.
Enough time has passed for me to reflect on the event, almost a month now, and both my brain and legs have forgotten enough that doing it again doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
Around 5am I rolled up in my car to the starting point outside of Markleeville. A CHP officer was directing cars to park on the side of the road. Cyclists were already passing by, having ridden from their nearby campgrounds. Aside from ALC I had never seen this many cyclists in one spot. “If these old geezers can do this, so can I!” ran through my head as I put my shoes on, topped up my tires, and ate the last of my food in the car.
The Death Ride is very well supported, there are aid and water stations along the way but with a new event I trend towards more self-sufficiency; better to have too much food instead of too little.
Picking up my number the dawn’s light is starting to creep over the mountains. The air is cool and the feeling is electric. I am excited! What an adventure! Look at all these old geezers, I’ll be fine!
The first mile is a coasting downhill through the town of Markleeville. The makeup of the course means that the last mile will then be an uphill slog to the finish line. Something to worry about later!
As I turn to start the ascent of Monitor Pass I find myself passing cyclists and have to intentionally slow myself down. I know that my adrenaline is making me all antsy in my pantsy. I don’t want to use up my legs on the first climb. At this stage of the ride the mental effort expended is about discipline. Don’t be stupid, pace.
The sun streaks over the mountains as I grind up to Monitor Pass and some of the views are simply spectacular! Despite wildfire which had recently burned through the area, the landscape is still something to behold.
As I crest the climb I see the first aid station and remember: “oh right, I have to go down the other side and then back up this bastard!” I pass by the aid station, I’ll hit it on the way back, I will need it then.
Coming down the southeast side of Monitor Pass is genuinely awesome, the view opens up in a big way and the massive valley is on full display in the morning sun. There is precious little time to enjoy the view because I am accelerating and the descent is fucking insane. 40+ mph rocketing down a mountain with certain death should you be stupid or unlucky and go off the side. I have to remind myself a couple times to relax my grip on the handlebars. At one point I exceeded 49mph, which was not the fastest I would go during the ride.
Approaching the Topaz Lake rest stop the descent slows through a rock walled canyon, which gives me the opportunity to see the slog being endured by cyclists heading back up to Monitor Pass.
I don’t take much nutrition in at Topaz because I intended to stop at the rest stop back up topside. I drop some gear in a drop bag and start my ascent. Falling in with a couple of doctors I intentionally chat them up a bit. If I’m talking, I won’t be tempted to pass people on the climb as much. Eventually they fall back because my pace is too aggressive for them. Climbing solo my pace picks up as I constantly find new people to chase. My legs feel good, it’s not too hot, the view is gorgeous, what a wonderful ride!
Stopping topside at the Monitor Pass rest stop again I stuff myself full of food. It’s basically all downhill from here until the lunch stop. My neighbor gave me the advice to not fill up at lunch since that’s at the base of the Ebbett’s Pass climb. As I finish chewing and drinking a pepsi (sugar water!) and prepare to leave the rest stop, somebody knocks over a rack of bikes. Oops!
The descent down from Monitor Pass to the fork was fucking fast. I chase a couple people down the hill, hug my top tube, and enjoy the big straightaways and gradual sweeping turns. My top speed for this segment is the fastest I will go all day: 55.4mph. According to Strava, the fastest person on this segment topped out at 70.4mph which is absolutely insane.
At lunch somebody who was descending with me mentions that they saw me narrowly miss a rock on the road and were anxious that I wasn’t going to see it in time. Fortunately I did see the rock coming, which could have been disastrous, but at high speeds it’s important not to make sudden corrections!
I nibble a bit and pack a sandwich in my back pocket from lunch for later. Time for Ebbett’s Pass, the biggest bastard climb of them all.
The top of Ebbett’s Pass is at 8,703ft and has a variable gradient from around 6-7% at the outset and then it gets steeper between 10-15% towards the summit.
To be honest I don’t remember much of this part of the ride. It was simply a slog, but if these geezers can do it, so can I! Honestly, much of the ride is really just a mental test of how much you can grind it out. All said and done, it was about an hour of sitting in and mashing pedals.
The rest stop is perched right at the top and a welcome reprieve. They were serving instant ramen, sprite, pepsis, and all manner of snacks with salt and sugar in them to replenish the tired muscles. As I sat in one of the graciously provided camp chairs eating my ramen I overheard a couple other cyclists talking about how many passes they were going to do. One geezer said “nope, this was it, I’m just doing this one.”
I vaguely recalled registration where you selected the number of passes. I was signing up for the Death Ride, so I said “six”. I’m going to do them all damnit! The nuance of that registration form was lost on me. A lot of cyclists do shortened versions of the ride, picking and choosing which passes they’re going to do, enjoying their ride, and going home! A lot of these geezers were going to do six passes, but not all of them. I had to re-orient my motivational tactic slightly 😄
Either way, I had summitted Ebbett’s Pass, that was the “hard one” in my head. Three of six passes completed. “I’m practically done!”
Cycling is a constant lesson in humility. The distance between the Ebbett’s Pass rest stop and the turnaround point was only 14 miles, but four of those miles were painfully steep. After 50 miles of work already, the steep climbs up Pacific Grade were brutal, for the first time of the day I started to see cyclists stopped taking a breather.
One of the punchier sections of the climb is a brief stint at 32%.
My bottles were full as was my stomach so I passed some water stops and decided to keep my momentum pressing onwards to the turnaround at 69 miles.
Upon arrival I found some shade where other cyclists were sitting on rocks hiding from the sun. I took my spot and started eating my warm sandwich. Despite those climbs there was a lot of downhill that was about to turn into uphill on the return.
The sun was in full effect, it was only going to get hotter. I filled my bottles, saddled up, and started to climb back up the backside of Pacific Grade.
Long road home
Ebbett’s Pass is a mother fucker.
The rapid descent from Pacific Grade is followed by 5-6 miles of 8-10% gradient, exposed in the full afternoon sun, with little wind, and nothing to do but look at the road in front of your handlebars. Letting your eyes drift any further ahead and you’ll be reminded of just how hopeless it all is.
I slowly crank by cyclist after cyclist hiding from the sun under the few trees providing some shade near the narrow mountain road. The previous climbs had conversation and sometimes even laughter. The climb back up to Ebbett’s Pass is silent. Nobody is talking, nobody is following, nobody is happy, we’re all just surviving. I have difficulty deciding whether it’s better to drink or douse myself with hot water in my bottles.
Thinking about the geezers doesn’t help.
My legs feel fried, it’s hot as shit, the view doesn’t matter, what a miserable ride.
Getting closer to the top I hear echoes of what I think are cowbell and shouting, the rest stop must be just up ahead! I fooled myself more times than I can remember with that mirage. By the time I finally arrived at the rest stop I was almost surprised it actually existed this time.
Give me water, give me electrolytes, give me a couple of these sprites, I’ll take some of that watermelon too. I need to sit in one of those alluring camp chairs and reconsider the erroneous decisions which led me here.
As I sit and contemplate whether I’m hot enough for cartoon steam to shoot from my ears, I see people finishing the first ascent of Ebbett’s. Those poor souls, it’s just going to get hotter, the climb back up from the turnaround is a already a bastard.
Once my core temperature lowers a bit, I pull myself up and back into the saddle for the “easy” descent to the finish line. My plans change slightly, I’m confident I will finish, I now want to get off this route as quickly as possible.
The descent off Ebbett’s back towards the fork has some hairpin turns which slow me down quite a bit. I’ve come too far to eat shit on some mountain road just before the finish line. But as the road straightens out, I speed up, pushing my top speed for this segment of 44.9mph. I also fall in with a couple other guys and we start a paceline towards the finish. Teamwork always makes for fun cycling and high speeds, both of which I’m glad to have at this point in the afternoon.
Climbing into Markleeville I somehow fumble my water bottle when trying to return it to its cage. While I’m fatigued, I’m not about to leave my water bottle! We’ve come so far together! Of course, the problem with a cylindrical bottle on a hill is that as I dismount it starts to roll away from me. Water bottle no! Come back!
Clickety-clack go the bike cleats as I jog downhill 15 yards to capture the bottle. I cannot help but laugh at how ridiculous the scene must have been as I sprint back to try to catch my group.
The last three miles are uphill. Only a 5% grade, but fully exposed with a headwind, and after 100mi of absolutely mind-warping riding. I don’t think I have ever hated a stretch of road like I hated that one.
The relief of crossing the finish line was delayed. My core temperature was high, my heart rate was high, i felt dehydrated. There was live music, beer, ice cream, and food. That would all have to wait. I sat on a bench shirtless for probably 30 minutes slowly taking in water and electrolytes before I started to become functional again.
At a rational level I understand that the Death Ride was a brutal slog which was more of mental challenge than a physical one. Did I enjoy it? I think so.
The brain of an endurance athlete seems to have a misconfiguration, one which makes it difficult to distinguish between a challenge, punishment, and fun. The Death Ride was all three, so who knows, maybe I will be back next year.