Back for another year! This was my 4th Death Ride. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a tough one day ride - variously reported as 124 - 129 miles and 15 - 16,500 feet of climbing. It goes over 5 passes south of Lake Tahoe. Here's an elevation profile:
I've done this in years past, with good results and bad. I originally trained for the ride with Team in Training, so it was nice this year to be in a position to return the favor by coaching with them to prepare a ride group for this ride. I spent most of the season riding with a great group who went from solid century riders to being strong enough to try something more challenging.
The day started great - we were up nice and early and drove to the start to roll by 4 am. The Death Ride is not timed, so you can start when you want. However, there are strict time cutoffs designed to ensure Carson Pass is cleared by dark - it's a very busy road and the only pass open to traffic during the event. Since we'd be cutting it very close by starting at the official time of 5:30, we elected to start early to build in some extra flexibility if things started going wrong.
My friend's car with our bikes, ready to go to the start:
The initial climb up Monitor Pass is a good climb, but really not that tough. A couple of 10% sections, but otherwise a fairly consistent 6-7% grade on a 9 mile long climb. It's a great way to start the day, and it's pretty spectacular to be climbing up as the sun rises!
We all made it up to the top of the first pass without incident, right at 6 am. Next came a long, steeper, spectacular descent towards the Nevada border. Partway down, I clipped a rock in the road and flatted (fortunately my rear tire). I was following a slower rider, so no big deal - I slowed down and quickly fixed it and was on my way again - probably cost me 5 minutes. However, under strict orders to keep moving, my ride group kept going - I wouldn't see some of them again for hours!
Quick refill of water bottles, turn around (the DR is a series of 3 out and backs, and actually does the front and back of Monitor and Ebbets Passes) and climb back up what we just descended. This is another long climb and is steeper than the west side, with no real breaks once you start climbing. Nothing super steep, but a consistent 8% or so grade until you get within a mile or so of the summit, where it finally flattens out.
Not even 10 minutes of climbing, and suddenly my front tire goes flat! OK, it's going to be one of those days. I check it out, find a piece of glass that had worked it's way through the tire (no idea where it came from - the roads up there are pretty clean) but I'm happy it happened when climbing and not descending! Another quick fix, but now I have the happy thought that on my next flat I'll be patching and pumping - I was only carrying 2 tubes and 2 CO2 cartridges. Luckily, that didn't become an issue for the rest of the day.
By now I'm well behind the group I'm supposed to be coaching, so I start pushing harder. However, the views from the pass are spectacular, so I can't resist a couple of more photos:
As I climb up near the summit I get back in touch with one of my riders. Sadly, it's not for a good reason - after starting strong and feeling good, she is suffering badly - and it's pretty clear that she's not going much further. I ride with her to the summit, but we're stopping every couple of hundred feet for her to catch her breath. She was just struggling to much to keep going. We get to the summit, and find another of the TnT riders who is also sick. Fortunately, an old friend was volunteering at the rest stop and is able to SAG them back to the start.
Once they're taken care of, I have a problem. I am way behind schedule, and my ride group (fortunately now riding with another coach) is way in front. It's 10:30 and I have 2 1/2 hours to do the 10 mile long descent down the west side of Monitor (the part we climbed first in the dark), then the 22 mile long climb along the Carson River and then up Ebbet's Pass - probably the toughest climb of the day. Doable, but I'll need to average about 8 mph up that climb - fast for me. There's a time cutoff at 1 - if I'm not there by then, they won't let me do the 4th pass.
The descent is fast and fun. The pass is almost entirely clear of other riders, and I hook up with another guy who is a very good descender. He's taking more risks than me, diving into blind corners at speeds I'm just not willing to go, but I'm able accelerate out of the corners faster and keep up with him all the way down. We average over 40mph for the descent, taking full advantage of the sweeping turns, and finish in less than 15 minutes, making the climb up Ebbets seem a bit more doable in the remaining time.
I start pushing pretty hard, but the guy I descended with is strong and quickly rides me off his wheel. Oh, well. I keep pushing, quick stop at the last water stop before the Ebbets climb gets serious. 9 miles to go and 1 hour 40 minutes to do it in. This is looking better - I feel good, and it's not real hot yet. I push on, through the first steep switchbacks and quickly ride up to the 7,000 foot sign - only 1,800 feet of climbing to go!
At the next set of switchbacks, it comes unraveled. I have a bad back, and it's worse when I'm carrying extra weight. This year I'm about 20 pounds heavier than I want to be for these kinds of rides - and sure enough I can feel my back start to tighten up. I try every trick I know to ride through it, but finally have to throw in the towel - I won't be any good to my ride group if I throw my back out. Since Ebbet's Pass is an out and back, I can relax, stretch out my back the right way and roll back to the lunch stop and wait for my riders there. Hopefully they'll come in with 4 passes and plenty of time to make the cutoff for the last pass. Then I'll have fresh legs to pull them through the headwinds that are always there on the 15 mile long stretch from the lunch stop to the base of the last pass.
I roll back down and have lunch with a couple of old friends. After an hour, I'm thinking I should start seeing our riders. It's now after 1, and the stronger ride groups should be coming through. Our plan was to be out of the rest stop by 2, 2:30 at the latest. Most of our riders made it, but a couple more didn't. One member of my ride group had come down with food poisoning the week before, and hadn't fully recovered. Once it heated up on the 4th pass, she wilted. Another rider stayed with her for the long descent to the lunch stop, and I rode back with them. They did 4 passes, but missed the cutoff for the 5th by 10 minutes. A crushing disappointment after all the hard work they put in for the season.
Overall, the team did great. Over 80% of our riders finished - and this is an event where less than 60% of the riders who enter finish. The riders I helped out were really disappointed, but some things are just beyond your control - and I suspect they'll be back next year for another go.
I also missed out on my chance but I've done this ride before - I have the 5 pass finisher jersey already hanging in my closet. Here's a picture of me riding with a teammate while finishing all 5 in 2008:
and here I am celebrating at the top of Carson after finishing off the 5th pass in 2008:
Notice the wet pavement - 2008 was a crazy weather year - starting temps near freezing, hitting 90 in the afternoon, and then we were treated to mountain thunderstorms, rain and hail for the last pass as temps dropped 20 degrees in a half hour.
This year, it was the best weather we've had (always a concern in the mountains). Warm in the morning (around 50) and in the high 80s in the afternoon (vs. over 100 some other years). Most importantly, no thunderstorms, rain or hail!
Great day, and great ride - this is one I'll do my best to do each year.