Instead of the STP on Saturday like folks from the PNW, I rode in the "Death Ride" in California which if you have never heard of it before, is an endurance ride located in the Sierra Mountains just southwest of Lake Tahoe. The 200k ride is known primarily for it's 15,000 feet of climbing most of which is gained on 5 ascents of 3 passes: Monitor (2x), Ebbetts (2x) and Carson and when you look at the elevation profile, you notice two things:
1) The climbing accounts for only 60 miles of the ride (these are pretty steep hills)
2) Most of your effort is spent in elevations between 6000 and 8500 ft (a real challenge for someone from sea level)
My wife Robin and I had driven down there arriving on Friday afternoon. What a stunning area! The mountains that surround the lake are comprised of granite and the landscape is marked by large fissured boulders protuding out of the earth, covered in forests of pine and aspen groves. The lake, a clear gem of multiple hues of blue.
We stayed in a resort about mid station at the Heavenly Valley ski area - 7300 feet above sea level overlooking the lake from the Nevada side. Up at 3:30am after a fitful nights sleep to have breakfast, Robin drives me to the starting line.
The place was already crowded when Robin drops me off. There's a drum band (from Seattle!) playing in the cool early
morning darkness as if imploring the the sun to waken and rise into the sky so we can ride. At 5:30, there was enough light so off we go, down a canyon past Markleeville for the 1st climb of the day - Monitor pass.
The first climb of the day! 10 miles, all on a road closed to cars. The canyon starts off narrow and rocky and ends at the first checkpoint in a wide open meadow at 8300 ft, riders bunching up to get the first sticker on your bib to prove you completed your task. Feeling pretty good, not overly taxed by the thin air, I refill the water bottles, eat a little food and push off to descend the backside of Monitor pass. The backside of Monitor is dryer, more open and desert like, the road in fine shape for high speed descending but with all the riders, I kept my speed in check (40-43 mph). The first bunch of riders ascending on the same road from the turnaround point were sharing the road with us and there were a few very fast reckless riders taking chances with themselves and the rest of us going by at 50+ sometimes inches away on my left with no warning and taking the uphill lane and I found myself checking over my shoulder as much as looking forward to stay safe. The lowest point (5200 ft) of the ride was the turn around point at the bottom where we received our second bib sticker - it made sense to award the sticker for the 2nd climb at the bottom of the hill as there was no way to go but back up to get out of there.
The 2nd descent down the front side of Monitor was very much like the first. A bit nerve wracking because of the fairly wide variation in speeds of the descenders and the uphill riders but it was a bit less crowded.
Soon enough at the bottom of the hill there a left turn onto the road up to Ebbetts pass, the most 'infamous' of the climbs. This was, I think the prettiest and most interesting part of the day. The road again, closed to cars, starts on a mellow pitch that follows a river past some small farms shaded by aspen trees. Aspens are my favorite tree - the white bark skin and leaves - green on one side and silver on the other, flitter in the breeze waving at us like beauty queens on a parade float.
The climb gets steeper, quite steep in sections but mercifully, it is largely shaded protecting you from the sun. There are spectators at sections along the way cheering us onward. The road narrows to less than two lanes. A mistake while descending here would be disasterous and I make a mental note of this section to be careful later on especially with all the riders that will still be climbing up.
It was starting to get hot (at least by pacific northwest standards!) even in the shade when I reached checkpoint 3 at the Ebbetts and I took a fairly long break at this point. I was starting to feel a bit tired and a hot spot on my right foot started to bother me. Watching the volunteers at the bib check and break station, I realized how great this event really is in large part because of their support. Bib check persons would cheer everyone on. If a rider wished to continue without stopping they were processed by the volunteer running along side. Those that wished to stop had a volunteer right there to take their bike from them to park it so the rider could get right over to the food and water. Good food too: PB&J bagels cut into quarters, fruit, fig newtons and energy bars, shot blocks.
The descent down the backside of Ebbetts was fast, less crowded and ended at another turn around point where I got sticker number 4. Now I had to earn it, climbing back up the shortest climb of the day. It was hot as there was less shade and I was starting to suffer. I slowed down and was thankful that I had worked alot on climbing while in the saddle. It came in handy and helped me to preserve my legs. The top of Ebbetts and another break off the bike for maybe 10 minutes then down the front side. Alot of riders still coming up. I rode carefully past the narrow steep sections and then was able to open it up on the safer lower sections arriving soon at the lunch stop in the shade at Centerville and my longest rest stop of the day.
Great food selection - veggie or ham and cheese wraps for sandwiches. I ate carefully - only 1/2 a wrap and some fruit as eating too much can make me sick to my stomach at this point..
Feeling refreshed, I got on the bike and finished the descent to Markleeville then on up to the cheerful cheerleaders manning theWoodfords water station for the start of the final climb of the day: Carson pass was the only section that was ridden on roads open to cars. The shoulder was wide enough for most of the way. Boy it sure seemed like a long climb! There was a flatter section about 1/2 way up through a beautiful mountain meadow. The car traffic eased as most cars turned off at Pickets junction to got to Lake Tahoe. A headwind started to pick up but I didn't mind. It provided some cooling from the heat. I was getting tired and my foot hurt again. I started to get passed by riders more often than I was passing others, not that it matters all that much but it is an indication I was losing steam. The road seemed to go on forever. Coming around a corner, you could finally see where the final stop was which helped but you could see where the road pitched up again and the wind started to gust upwards to maybe 25mph in your face to put a final hurt on you.
It was on this final pitch that I stopped on a mid-climb all day. My foot hurt so badly I couldn't stand it anymore. After a few minutes of massaging it, back on the bike for the final push to the summit.
It felt so good to reach pass number 5! I pulled into the rest stop and received my reward: An ice cream bar, a Death Ride Pin and a chair to sit in for a few minutes. I signed the big Death Ride poster for posterity before descending back to Markleeville where my wife would be waiting for me.
The last descent was pure joy. I rarely touched my brakes. A tailwind pushed me over the 'false flat' by Pickets Junction and I didn't have to expend much energy. One final short climb up past the starting point at Turtle Rock Park then down to Markleeville and the lovely Ms. Robin.
What a Ride! It was hard. It was humbling. I was blown away by the locals who support this ride. There were alot of amazing athletes on this ride. I have never seen anything quite like it. It seemed like the whole county was into it in one way or another. I will also wear with pride the finishers' jersey I just ordered. I felt like I truly earned it and it will signify something very special.
(also posted on the Serotta forum)