“No Country for Old Men” or “A Curmudgeon’s Death Ride”

The Death Ride. Which bicycle rider in California (nay, the entire western US), hasn’t heard of it, thought about riding, or even taken the leap, thrown their leg over the top tube (no offense meant to recumbent riders), and tried the thing? (If you just want to see my photos, click here).

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The Death Ride is a 129 mile bicycle ride in the Sierra Nevada mountains just south of Lake Tahoe. The ride ascends and descends five mountain passes: Monitor Pass (both front (west) and back (east) sides), Ebbetts Pass (both front (east) and back (west) sides), and Carson Pass (east side only). The first official Death Ride was in 1981, which made the 2010 version the 30th anniversary. The route uses three California state highways: CA-4, CA-88, and CA-89. The course is closed to traffic in certain areas (Monitor and Ebbetts Pass) while the majority of riders are on the route.  3,500 riders registered. Click here to see a map and a profile.

Before this year, I had started the Death Ride six times. There has been rain, heat, lightning, and rider inexperience/stupidity involved in all 6 prior efforts. I finished 3 or 4 passes in my first five tries (1994-1998). However, in 1999, the Fates smiled upon me, there was a tailwind up CA-88 through Woodfords Canyon, and I had a reasonable ride strategy, which allowed me to finish all five passes (even though I had to walk about 2 miles on Carson Pass due to cramping).

After 1999, I dropped out of the Death Ride scene. Work, moving to Richmond, and other life stuff took priority. Also, the ride had become very popular and the organizers went to a priority-based lottery system, where the riders from the prior year’s ride had priority in registration. I guess that this was fair but since I hadn’t ridden since 1999, the odds of me getting in seemed long.

However, each year, like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I would see the announcement, read the ride reports, and say to myself “Maybe next year.” I would even bring my bicycle to conferences in the South Lake Tahoe area and try to get in rides on one or more of the Death Ride passes.

I don’t know who from the Grizzly Peak Cyclists sent out the notice on December 10, 2009, that registration for the 2010 Death Ride was open. However, I had a little lull in work and decided to take a shot at registering. And, lo and behold, I got a spot! No lottery. Just a standard Active.com registration, just like any other ride.

After I got my spot, I immediately started riding a totally different type of ride: brevets. Some of my exploits are described in gory detail here and here. These long-distance rides are about as different from the Death Ride as one could imagine. I also rode a few double centuries, including the Devil Mountain Double, but that was in April, so any training for tough climbs that I did for DMD was long gone by the time the Death Ride rolled around.

Like a flash, 7 months had flown by since I had registered. I am laying in a tent in the Turtle Rock campground, which is the starting point for the ride. It is 1 am. Somewhere (either in the campground or, more likely, in the cars amassing in the parking lot), there is a dog barking. This dog barked for an hour straight. Finally, at 2 am, the dog quieted down. However, I was awake and was most likely not going back to sleep. Also, my mobile phone’s battery was about to die and since that was my alarm clock, I decided that I would lay there a little longer and then get up, eat some food, and start riding (using lights).

In my previous attempts, I had never used lights. Nick, my mentor in things Death Ride, told me that you got up at the sound of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” and started riding at first light. (It should be noted that Nick was also the guy that convinced me to ride the Death Ride, even though I hadn’t ridden a bicycle any distance at all until 2 months before the ride). So, I had no idea whether I would be all alone (except for a random mountain lion or bear) or would be in rush hour traffic when I rolled out at 3:30 am.

The question was quickly answered on the descent from Turtle Rock to Markleeville: there were a ton of riders on the road. Tail lights stretched out in front of me as far as I could see. Evidently, either others couldn’t sleep or they were nervous about the pending hot weather.

In any event, it was nice to have some company on the road, even though I had told myself that I would NOT commit the mortal sin of the Death Ride: to ride the first pass of the day (the front side of Monitor Pass) too fast and then die like a dog on the later climbs. This is harder to avoid than it sounds, since you are fresh, the air is cool, and that guy that just passed you is way fatter than you. Having fallen into that trap the first few times I rode, I turned left toward Monitor Pass, settled into a good (i.e., slow) pace and started to climb.

There is endless debate among riders of the Death Ride as to which pass is the “toughest.” The back side of Monitor has the most pure climbing (from about 5,100 feet to about 8,200 feet). The front side of Monitor is steepest over its entire length (5.85% over the entire climb). The front side of Ebbetts has some sections that are 12%-14% and it can be hot. Overall, Carson from Woodfords isn’t too steep but (1) you already have 90 miles and more than 12,000 feet of climbing in your legs and (2) there can be tough headwinds. So, in the interest of science, I have prepared a little table that presents the facts about the climbs. The table presents two sets of information: the average gradient for the “entire” climb and the gradient for the “real” climb (e.g., it ignores the false summit on the front side of Monitor, it only counts the steep part of Ebbetts (from the first steep uphill after Scossa’s Cow Camp), and it breaks Carson into 2 parts (Woodfords to Hope Valley and Red Lake to Carson)). Here are the facts (based on my HAC4 altimeter and odometer, assuming Turtle Rock is at 6,000 feet):

Death Ride Climb Statistics
Overall Climbs
Front of Monitor Back of Monitor Front of Ebbetts Back of Ebbetts Carson from Woodfords
Start Ele 5,685 5,236 5,691 6,990 5,682
End Ele 8,162 8,162 8,514 8,514 8,392
Change 2,477 2,926 2,823 1,524 2,710
Start Dist 7.50 24.66 41.21 60.30 89.49
End Dist 15.61 34.13 55.24 65.36 104.13
Change 8.11 9.47 14.03 5.06 14.64
Gradient 5.78% 5.85% 3.81% 5.70% 3.51%
“Real” Climbs
Front of Monitor Back of Monitor Front of Ebbetts Back of Ebbetts Woodford Canyon Carson from Hope Valley
Start Ele 5,685 5,236 6,497 7,020 5,682 7,378
End Ele 8,093 8,093 8,514 8,514 6,994 8,392
Change 2,408 2,857 2,017 1,494 1,312 1,014
Start Dist 7.50 24.66 49.00 60.73 89.49 100.69
End Dist 14.86 34.13 55.24 65.36 95.30 104.13
Change 7.36 9.47 6.24 4.63 5.81 3.44
Gradient 6.20% 5.71% 6.12% 6.11% 4.28% 5.58%
1.  Assumes Turtle Rock is at 6,000 feet
2.  Elevation and mileage from HAC4 cycle computer.

I am not exactly sure why I put this table in this post, other than it answered a few of the things that I have often felt but never “proved”:

  1. The front side of Monitor is, in fact, the steepest section of the ride. It is also quite long. However, since it is the first real climb of the day, the adrenaline is still pumping, and the weather is likely cool, one sort of shrugs it off.
  2. The back side of Monitor is, from bottom to top, the steepest climb of the ride. Also, the bottom part of the climb (until one gets out of Mono County) is damned steep. However, one is usually still pretty fresh while climbing this, the temperatures are likely still pretty cool, and the views are so spectacular that you might be suffering a bit but it just doesn’t seem all that rough.
  3. The front side of Ebbetts is the killer climb of the ride. You have a long haul from the bottom of Monitor to the base of the climb (almost 8 miles of gradual and not-so-gradual uphill) and then you get slammed in the face by some really steep ramps that are unrelenting, with the steeps continuing for more than 6 miles. Also, by this time, if it isn’t raining/sleeting (which has happened to me before), the temperatures have started to rise and, as a result, you bake on the steep middle and top sections.
  4. The climb from Hermit Valley to the top of Ebbetts isn’t that must less steep than any of the other climbs. However, it is shorter (but usually hotter), making it tougher than one might otherwise think.
  5. Woodfords Canyon shouldn’t be as tough as it always seems. However, you know that you still have to climb Carson, there is a ton of traffic, the road is narrow, and there can be a nasty headwind.
  6. Carson shouldn’t be so tough, either, even though it is steeper than Woodfords Canyon (and almost as steep as the back side of Ebbetts). However, it is the last climb of the day (except for that ugly little climb from Woodfords to Turtle Rock) and you can see the whole climb right in front of your face, smirking.

In 1999, I had tried and failed 5 times to finish the Death Ride so I figured it was time for a new approach. No rocket science here: the plan was to spend as little time as possible in the rest stops, skip the rest stops at the summits (except for Carson), and try to keep moving. It worked: I started at daybreak and finished within the time limit. Thus, I planned to use the same plan this year.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that even though I had been riding LOTS of miles prior to the ride, I had not done nearly enough hill climbing and, as a result, I was climbing at a snail’s pace. Additionally, it didn’t help that I had ridden a 1,000 km brevet a couple of weeks beforehand (although that didn’t seem to slow down Jack, who had ridden the 1000k as well but looked fresh as a daisy and gave me his usual good-natured greeting as he sailed past me while I was struggling up the back side of Ebbetts).

Although I was not feeling particularly strong, I wasn’t suffering too badly as I climbed the front side of Monitor. I rolled through the rest stop at the top of Monitor, slowing only to get my first sticker (signifying that I had made it to the top of the first pass). As the sun came up, I was at the summit and stopped to take some photos of the amazing fields of flowers and the view down into the Carson Valley, where I would be in a few minutes.

Even after stopping to take photos, I was about the 20th rider to the turnaround at the intersection of CA-89 and US-395. I got my second sticker and jumped off the bike to get ready for the climb back up Monitor. After stuffing some food in my mouth and stripping off some clothes, I started back up toward Monitor Pass. It was then that I realized how slowly I was climbing. A continuous stream of riders rolled past me on the way up. I noticed that all of them had lights on their bikes, so at least they had started before daybreak. I knew now that it would be a long day. However, since I had started so early, I was hoping that I would miss the worst of the forecasted hot weather.

Since I had so much time on my hands while climbing, I began to notice the insane antics of some of the riders that were descending the back side of Monitor as I was climbing. (Full disclosure: the first year I rode the Death Ride, I hit 56 mph on the back side of Monitor but slowed down significantly when I hit the steep part of descent). Some of these morons were screaming at people to get out of their way (“On your left! On your left!”) while veering into the opposite lane (where I, along with plenty of riders, was climbing). They were also riding really, really fast. Since I had never been “off the front” of the majority of riders while climbing the back side of Monitor in the past (I was usually in the last third of the riders over Monitor), it really opened my eyes to how dangerous this ride could be. I could only imagine what was going on in their heads but it most likely involved a running commentary from an imaginary Phil Liggett, comparisons to the descending skills of Sean Yates, and visions of trying to unify with the lead pack in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. Thus, these fools kept taking chances, screaming at other riders to get out of their way, and putting themselves and others at risk.  Thankfully, I didn’t see or hear about any accidents on this stretch of the ride.

While lugging up the back side of Monitor, there are a couple of diversions. First, the scenery is just stunning and since you are riding very slowly, you even have a chance to check it out. Second, about half way up the climb, there is a water stop that is manned by a group of teenagers. However, in true Death Ride fashion, this is no ordinary water stop. The guys queue up down the hill from the water stop and wait for a rider to approach, at which point they grab your empty water bottle(s), ask what you want, and then haul ass up the hill to fill them up. When you reach the water stop, the bottle(s) are there, waiting for you. By the end of the day, these guys must have sprinted several miles, all at about 8,000 feet. It puts a smile on your face watching these guys helping out, which is sure needed for the next couple of miles to the summit.

After cresting Monitor for the second time, it was a quick (but not THAT quick) descent back to Highway 4, which would take me to Ebbetts Pass. This is a very pretty part of the ride as the road snakes up the canyon next to the East Fork of the Carson River and Silver Creek. The geology also changes here, becoming more volcanic than the rugged granite peaks more typically seen in the Sierra. As I slowly rode up this river canyon, I noticed two things: (1) that a number of riders were starting to really FLY past me (i.e., the fastest riders that started at daybreak had caught me) and (2) the temperature was starting to increase.

Having riders pass is nothing new for me, since I usually start with the earliest starters on most rides. However, most rides that I ride have a few hundred riders, while the Death Ride has about 3,500. Thus, I realized that I was in for a very long day of getting passed, which proved kind of demoralizing.

Before the climb up Ebbetts, there is a great rest stop. These folks, all locals, have about as much fun at a rest stop as one can have. This year was no different. The rest stop had a pirate theme. The volunteers were dressed as pirates and wenches. Even the kids were into it, hollering “Avast! Who needs some water, mates?” as they filled water bottles. It was, as always, a fun stop.

As I hit the first ramp on the front side of Ebbetts, it became clear that I was going to be struggling. The ramps were steep, the road was narrow, and soon there were riders coming down the other side, meaning that there was no way to zig-zag up the hills. As a result, I just slowly climbed in my lowest gear, getting out of the saddle often but not for long periods of time. As I slowly ascended, I noticed that lots of riders either didn’t call out when they were passing. As a result, I had a few riders complain when I got out of the saddle and didn’t hold directly to the edge of the road. Granted, I don’t pass many people while climbing but I usually try to let them know when I am coming up behind them and when I am going to pass, so that neither they nor I end up on the tarmac. It doesn’t seem like a lot of the racer wannabes at the Death Ride had learned that common courtesy (even though racers talk all the time in the pelaton in order to avoid crashes).

The climb up Ebbetts was tough. It was getting hot. I was running out of water. More and more riders were zipping past me. And, unfortunately, I didn’t exactly remember how many miles it was to the top. Thus, when I reached the Kinney Reservoir, I had convinced myself that I was almost at the top. Not so: there was still another mile and a few hundred more feet to climb.

When I finally reached the summit, I rolled right through and headed for Hermit Valley to get some food, liquid, and find some shade. The temperatures did not seem excessively hot. However, it was clear that it was going to be in the high 90s soon. The high temperatures, combined with my lack of sleep the night before (damn that dog!), were starting to take their toll.

Hermit Valley, which is the location of the rest and where you got your sticker to prove you had climbed Ebbetts, was a mad house. Riders were racing into the rest stop, grabbing food, and rushing to leave. Bicycles were everywhere. Some riders had their friends and families there, cheering them as they arrived.. The temperatures were higher than at Ebbetts Pass. It was dusty. Also, without the cooling breeze from riding, I was pouring sweat. Thus, I felt like I should get in and out quickly, per the plan. However, I was also feeling pretty beat up after climbing Ebbetts. Thus, I decided to hang out for a bit, find some shade, and stretch a bit. 30 minutes later (which flashed past like a wink of an eye), I knew that I had to get going. Gulping down some liquid and a few Endurolytes (which the ride sponsors didn’t seem to provide), I turned back toward Ebbetts Pass.

As noted above, the climb out of Hermit Valley seems like it shouldn’t be too tough. This is all a misconception. The climb itself isn’t too long. However, overall it is about as steep (over 6%) as the front side of Ebbetts. I always forget about the pitch and incorrectly focus on the length of the climb (about 4.5 miles). Another slow climb. More riders passing me. Temperatures going up even more. No shade.

By the time I reached Ebbetts Pass, I was really down in the dumps. It seemed like at least 95% of the riders in the event must have passed me in the last few hours. Also, even though the time didn’t seem to be a problem, I didn’t want to miss the time cut at the top of Woodfords Canyon in Hope Valley and fail to finish because I was riding so slowly. So, as I started down the front side of Ebbetts, my spirits were pretty low.

The front side of Ebbetts looked like a war zone. Riders were slumped over their bikes, gasping for breath. Some riders were sitting in the dirt, trying to muster up some energy to continue climbing. Some were walking. Some were lying in whatever shade they could find. It was only about noon and the temperatures were already in the mid-90s, meaning that they hadn’t seen the worst of it yet and were in for some really rough going, especially as they climbed out of Hermit Valley.

This was all a shock to me, since I was usually in the middle of the carnage, wondering why the riders that were descending had such looks of pity on their faces. Now I knew. I continued to pass riders as I descended all the way to the lunch stop, which was a full 10 miles to the top of Ebbetts. The riders on the lower slopes of Ebbetts were in for a very long day and had almost no hope of finishing.

I got to the lunch stop at Centerville, which is where I had ridden the day before as a warm-up ride. It sure was different today: crowds of people trying to find shade, get some food into their bellies, and get ready for the next bit. Lunch was fine. Not the best but not the worst, either. I found a spot in the shade, had some soda and tried to cool off a bit. I was done with 4 passes but my nemesis, hot weather, was rearing its ugly head. I could ride slowly and likely make the time cuts, thereby finishing. It was only another 55 miles to the finish. “Should be doable, if I get going” I told myself. However, getting out of the chair and then stepping into the sun was tough, as I knew the temperatures were still rising.

The next section of the ride (from Centerville to Woodfords) is only about 15 miles. It only has one real climb (a little 500 foot climb from Markeeville to Turtle Rock). Thus, I just put my head down, rode within myself, and decided to ignore who was passing me. I caught on with a couple of groups of riders, thereby making the time go a little faster. About 2/3 of the way to Woodfords, I arrived back at Turtle Rock. Happily, nobody had already finished the ride. I found my car and dumped my lights, spare batteries, and other junk that I didn’t need for the final ascent to Carson. Then it was a quick downhill to the water/rest stop in Woodfords.

As I rolled into the rest stop, I noticed a woman working at the rest stop wearing a Grizzly Peak Cyclists jersey. Holly and I chatted for a bit (her husband, Bruce, was out flogging himself on the ride, too…she was obviously the most sane one of the group!). As I was standing in line to get soaked with a hose, another Grizzly (Andrew) came over and introduced himself to me (he was resplendent in his Grizzly Peak Century jersey). In addition to the friendly faces of my fellow Grizzlies, there were a great crew of people filling bottles, handing out soda, and generally making life more pleasant for the riders. There was even was a character dresses as the Grim Reaper in the rest stop. Given that the temperature on the road was over 100 degrees, I was glad that it wasn’t me in that costume!

It was time for serious measures. I needed cool drinks for the slog up Woodfords Canyon. I also needed some caffeine to keep me awake. So, I grabbed a Mountain Dew and filled one bottle. One last squirt from the hose girl at the rest stop and I was off.

The climb up Woodfords Canyon isn’t all that steep. There wasn’t much wind. But, as always, there was lots of traffic. Since I was still getting passed by most riders (however, I should note that I did, in fact, start to pass some riders, too), I tried to stay on the edge of the shoulder but had to veer into the traffic lane when the shoulder got so narrow that there was a risk of riding onto the soft shoulder and falling. As a result, some of the faster riders were a bit peeved since this old, chunky curmudgeon in the Grizzly Peak Cyclist jersey was slowing them down. Nothing could be done about that, so I just kept my pace, watched my heat rate (keeping it at about 140 bpm), and spun up the canyon to Hope Valley and the next rest stop.

The rest stop at Hope Valley is the “do or die” spot on the ride. The positives:

  • You are at mile 95.
  • The temperatures are starting to come down.
  • You only have another 9 miles to go before Carson Pass, ice cream, and success.

However, There are some negatives:

  • You are at mile 95 and you want to lie down (don’t do that…your legs will almost certainly cramp).
  • The temperatures are coming down but it is still almost 100 degrees.
  • You only have 9 more miles to go but it had taken an hour to ride the 6 miles from the last rest stop, so who knows how long it will take me to climb up that last 1,400 feet.
  • There were so many riders that there is no place to sit down!

So, what do you do? More Mountain Dew. More Endurolytes. Get a little more food into the stomach. Wait for someone to stand up and grab an open spot on a log in the shade. Stretch the legs. Hope to catch a little breeze. Keep your eye on the watch.

Then, it is time to go. Fill the bottles with ice, cold water, and Mountain Dew, find the bike, and get riding. Let’s finish this thing!

The ride through Hope Valley is just wonderful. The scenery is amazing most years. This year, it was even better than normal, given the heavy snowpack from the previous winter. So, I told myself:

“Self, just keep looking around and keep your mind off of your aching legs. Notice the wildflowers by the side of the road and in the meadows. Look at the great mountains all around. Chat a little bit with a fellow traveler that has never ridden this way before. If they speed up, bid them farewell and keep to your pace. If they drop back, let them know that you have to keep to your pace (which isn’t very fast but is about the best you can do).”

There are a couple of rollers before the grand finale up to Carson Pass. These seem to be interminable but that is only because you are riding so slowly. There are still riders passing but not as many as before. Every once in a while, you catch on with a group and follow a wheel, not to draft but to have something to keep you on task.

After reaching Red Lake, the fun begins. Ahead of you, you can see the road, which is cut out of the granite cirque. That is where you will be riding. Two riders I was following pulled over for a break and so I did the same. One of the riders was David, Fred’s son (Fred was the guy that I rode with on my first double century). David was riding with Team in Training. We chatted a bit about our aches and pains, about what was up ahead, and just hung out a bit. A nice break before the last ascent.

The last time I rode the Death Ride, I was cramping so badly at the start of the last climb that I walked from Red Lake almost all the way to the top of Carson Pass. The goal this year was to avoid walking. Putting the bike in the lowest gear I had, I started up the final climb. Surprisingly, it went much more smoothly than I had any right to expect. That is not to say that it was easy. However, as I climbed, the temperature dropped to a cool 80 degrees, making it feel downright chilly, which suited me fine. Some people don’t like seeing the road up ahead. Not me: I like knowing where I am and what is in store. It allows me to mentally check off bits of the climb and realize that I am going to make it.

As I make right-hand bend of the road, I am at the top! Unfortunately, this isn’t where the rest area is located. A little drop down the back side of the pass and there it is: the final rest stop! A quick glance at the watch: 5:20 pm.

There is another mob scene at the rest stop. Ride volunteers check your bib to make sure that you have all of your stickers, note your time, give you a pin and a hearty congratulations, and send you off to get your ice cream and to sign the Death Ride poster. In other words, the ride was done…there was no need to ride back to Turtle Rock and, consequently, some riders decide that this is the end of the road, as it were. They have friends and family meet them, they pile into cars and split. This seems sad to me, since those riders miss out on the amazing descent from Carson Pass to Woodfords.

I wandered around the rest stop for a while, grinning and just taking in the scene. I saw David with his group of TNT riders and went over to congratulate him.  He, like I, was definitely happy to be at the top. I looked around for Linda, a friend who I had ridden with on a number of double centuries but didn’t find her. It was just nice to be walking around, off the bike, and done with almost all of the climbs (except for that last bit back to Turtle Rock).

After filling up the bottles one more time, it was time to ride back down to Woodfords and then on to Turtle Rock. The descent was about as much fun as a person can have on a bicycle. 15 miles of pretty smooth pavement, almost no uphill, and 70 degree temperatures. Remembering what I had seen earlier that day, I kept my speed under control on the steep part of the descents and then zipped along the flats at a fair clip. Even the traffic was light, making it unnecessary to hug the side of the road. Too much fun!

All good things must end, however, and after I turned right off of Highway 88 at Woodfords, there was that little matter of getting back up to Turtle Rock. It is only 300 feet of climbing over 4 miles. However, after flying down from Carson Pass, it was a little shock on the legs to have to start working again. Slowly, slowly I made my way back to Turtle Rock, getting cheered by friends and families either waiting for their riders or just hanging out and supporting anyone that came by. It is quite a feeling and I could feel my face starting to hurt from smiling.

Then, it is done. Since all of the formalities took place at Carson Pass, there was nothing left to do except to buy some merch from the Death Ride Boutique, get an ice cream, take a shower, and pack up the car for the drive to the motel in South Lake Tahoe.

What did I learn from this ride?

  1. To ride hills, you have to ride hills. Next time, I will not try to substitute miles for climbing. It is a lousy trade.
  2. As an old curmudgeon, I find the behavior of some riders (primarily younger ones) to be appalling. Some common courtesy is sure nice, especially when passing.
  3. The Death Ride course is about as beautiful a ride as exists anywhere. Do not miss any opportunities to ride in this region.
  4. Some people don’t like the Death Ride because it is very commercial, has high entry fees, and sells every imaginable form of merchandise. I have to respectfully disagree. Alpine County (the home of the Death Ride) is dirt poor with very high unemployment. The Death Ride puts money into the local economy. I don’t mind paying relatively high entry fees for a ride such as that (having paid about that much to an un-named for-profit ride organizer in the past).
  5. Lights saved me. If I ride the Death Ride again, I will be starting early and using lights.

The only remaining question is: When is registration next year?

Ride Statistics:

Mileage: 129 miles

Climbing: 14,400 feet

Elapsed time: 16:00

Riding time: 12:40

Time off the bike: 3:20

Average speed: 8.1 mph

Average rolling speed:  10.2 mph


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