Category Archives: Bicycle Rides

Riding in the French Alps prior to PBP

Before riding Paris-Brest-Paris in August 2011, I rode for a few days in the French Alps. Since my main focus was on riding PBP, I didn’t want to kill myself on long, arduous rides, so I would drive to the base of some epic climb, ride up, take some photos, and then come back down.

The first day of riding was sort of crazy: I landed in Geneva, rented a car, drove to Bourg d’Oisans, assembled my bike in a picnic area, and then rode L’Alpe d’Huez. Here is a link to the photos of that ride. I rode slowly and enjoyed the great scenery and the idea that I was finally in France! No PR on this climb but that wasn’t the point. Rather, I was being a cyclo-tourist, seeing the sights on my quasi-randoneering bicycle and getting ready for PBP.

After a good night’s sleep at Les Duex Alpes, I drove up the valley to ride the “easy” side of Col du Galibier. Here are some photos of that day of riding. Since the Tour de France had just used this route, the road was still covered with road markings from the fans. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t see any markings cheering me on. However, riding up Galibier and seeing the road markings took me back to 2005, when I pitched a tent on a side street in Valloire and rode up the “hard” side of Galibier (along with about a zillion other people) to stand in the mist and cold to watch Alexander Vinokourov lead the field up and over Galibier on his way to winning Stage 11 of the Tour de France.

The next morning, I awoke to rain but wasn’t worried, since I was driving to Col de  l’Iseran to try to bag my third Col in three days. The weather cleared for most of the drive and for the start of the ride. However, after getting to Val d’Isere, getting dressed, and riding about 30 minutes, the rain started in earnest. I hadn’t brought my rain gear with me on the ride and after getting pretty well soaked and pretty well frozen, I turned back down the hill. Photos of the ride are here. From what I hear, this is a simply amazing ride. Oh well, maybe next year…

After my failure to ride Iseran, I drove to Annecy, a lovely town not far from Geneva. After some great food and sleep, I rode around Lake Annecy and up Col de la Forclaz, which my friends Meg and Craig had said was just a great ride. They were not lying: the ride was really excellent but the payoff was even more terrific: sipping a beer while looking down an 800 meter cliff to Lake Annecy, while watching lunatics on hang-gliders swoop and dive just out of reach. Here are my photos from that day.

Overall, it was a pretty great way to (1) cure jet lag, (2) make sure that my bike was in working order, and (3) get the legs loosened up before PBP.


Presentation about my exploits at the 2011 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris

After a very long hiatus, it is time to start posting again.

Much of my bicycle riding in 2011 was directed toward participating in Paris-Brest-Paris from August 21-25, 2011. PBP is a 1,200 km randonee in France. Riders get up to 90 hours to complete this timed event. For those that use miles instead of kilometers, that is about 750 miles in 90 hours. Another way to look at it is that you only have to average about 8.3 miles per hour to complete the event within the 90 hour time limit. Of course, if you ride at 8.3 miles per hour, you don’t get to sleep for 90 hours. What could be simpler?

Here is a link to a PowerPoint presentation that I gave to a bunch of my friends in early December 2011. They politely sat through the whole thing and only a few dozed off:

Paris, Brest et retour 2011-12-13

Note that the download is a VERY large file, so it will take a while before you see anything happening. You will need MS-PowerPoint to view the presentation (which is a .pps file, for those that care). Also, note that there are some links and embedded video in the presentation. To activate the videos, you may need to hold your pointer over the video and then click the arrow that appears.

Rob Hawks (the Regional Brevet Administrator for San Francisco Randonneurs) originally pulled together a presentation that formed the basis for this presentation. Rob appears in a number of photos. Rob and I gave a longer version of this presentation to the Grizzly Peak Cyclists in November 2011.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!”

On January 22, 2011, I needed to go to San Carlos to try on a rain jacket. It was a nice day. Thus, Gail and I decided to take the tandem along and ride Old La Honda Road. During this ride, we had a surprise.

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I don’t really want to spend much time discussing the rain jacket. Randonneurs USA offered to sell its members an RUSA-branded Shower Pass rain jacket at a good discount. There had been some differences of opinion about the sizing of these jackets. The local REI didn’t have one and the San Carlos store did. Ergo, I needed to go to San Carlos (about 50 miles from home) to try on a rain jacket. I tried on both options from RUSA and ordered one (the Elite 2.0). It should arrive any day now. I sure wish that I had had it on the Worker’s ride prior to the San Francisco Randonneurs‘ Russian River 300k. Enough of that…

Since I had to drive over to San Carlos, Gail and I decided to bring along the tandem and get in a ride. Gail is coming off of surgery to repair a torn meniscus, so she is taking things easy. Thus, we decided to do some climbing from Palo Alto, up Old La Honda Road to Skyline Blvd. and then back down. A quick 20 miles. Piece of cake.

Since the roads in the South Bay are a bit of a mystery to me, I suggested parking at Stanford Shopping Center and riding from there. This would be great: we could ride straight up to Old La Honda Road, get done with the climbing, return to the car, and then have a fine meal.

Of course, there was a bit of a problem. I had managed to forget that we need several feet of open space on the starboard side of the Forester to get the tandem off the top of the car. Why? To get the tandem off of the car, the entire quick release mechanism that holds the front fork to the Yakima Sidewinder rack pivots (along with the tandem), which allows one person to take the tandem off the roof. Brilliant design. However, since the tandem swings to the side as the quick release mechanism pivots, you need about 1.5 parking spaces to get the tandem off the roof. So, we had to circle around the lot a bit to find just the right parking spot. This took longer than expected since the place was mobbed with shoppers.

After a bruising December, which was filled with massive rain storms and cold weather, January was unseasonably warm. Today was no exception:  it was in the 70s. However, having lived in the SF Bay Area for most of my life, I knew that warm weather on the east side of the Coastal Range was no guarantee that it would be warm on Skyline Blvd.  Thus, even though almost all other riders were wearing short sleeves, we dutifully packed our jackets and arm warmers into the rack bag.

We headed toward the hills up Sand Hill Road. The ride to Old La Honda Road goes over a couple of hills and has some extended gradual climbs. We puttered along, getting used to riding the tandem again and enjoying the beautiful weather. There were a ton of other riders out that day, doing the same. Life was good.

I had ridden Old La Honda Road earlier in the year as part of the Santa Cruz Randonneurs’ Central Coast 1000k brevet. Thus, I sort of knew what we were in for. The hill isn’t killer steep but it is a good climb to Skyline Blvd. When we finally turned the corner onto Old La Honda Road, the temperature seemed to drop by about 10 degrees and the road kicked up. We thought about donning our jackets but decided to climb a bit and then decide. A good choice.

Old La Honda Road is just plain beautiful. It winds its way up the eastern slope of the Coastal Range through the redwoods. The road surface was perfect until near the top. There was very little traffic. We were in no hurry. Thus, even though neither Gail nor I had been riding much, the climb was a joy. Slow, to be sure, but still great fun.

When we finally reached Skyline Blvd., we made a right and headed down to Sky Londa for a break. I had floated the idea of eating at Alice’s Restaurant in Sky Londa. However, when we finally arrived, it was about 4 pm, sunset was in about an hour, and we didn’t have any lights, so we grabbed a bite to eat from the market and headed down Highway 84.

This was the first time I had ridden eastbound down Highway 84, so I asked an experienced-looking rider about what to expect. “As long as you can keep up with traffic, it is no problem.” In other words, we would likely be flying down the hill.

Off we went. The descent was fine. The traffic was generally well-behaved, the road surface was acceptable, the curves in general were reasonable, and I was able to keep our speed at a reasonable level, so there was no crying or begging from the stoker to slow down. We whipped a hard right onto Portola Road and continued the descent back toward Sand Hill Road.

All of the sudden, I hear Gail screaming “Stop! Stop! Stop!” It didn’t seem like she had fallen off of the bike and was being dragged down the road by her foot. Had the rack bag flown off? Expecting the worst, I jammed on the brakes and yelled “What the hell is going on?” Gail said “Look! Look! A Historic Marker!”

Sure enough, as I looked in my Take-a-Look, there it was: an official California Historical Marker. It hadn’t even crossed our minds that we might see one of these things on this ride. But, there it was: Historical Marker # 478: Site of San Mateo County’s First Sawmill. We made a totally illegal and dangerous U-turn and headed back up the hill to the Marker to check it out.

According to the Historical Marker, about 300 feet south of the monument, on the banks of the Alambique Creek, stood San Mateo County’s first sawmill, built by Charles Brown in 1847. About the same time, Dennis Martin was building a second mill, also run by waterpower, on San Francisquito Creek. These mills were similar to the famous Sutter’s Mill at Coloma, site of James Marshall’s 1848 gold discovery.

I had to hand it to Gail: she really did have a good eye for these things, since we were riding pretty fast when we passed the Historical Landmark. After some photos, we continued on our way back to Stanford Shopping Center.

Once we got home, we realized that there were a bunch of Historical Landmarks near our route. Looks like we will be heading back over there soon.

My first brevet

January 24, 2010. 5:00 am. Getting ready for my first brevet. If you want to see the photos and skip the text, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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I was supposed to ride my first brevet today, from the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the lighthouse on Point Reyes, then to Marshall, and then back to the Golden Gate Bridge. I have never done one of the mysterious events, which seem to have lots of rules for participation. It is pouring rain.

The rain in Richmond was not promising. I had my “normal” bike prepped for the ride (based on the NWS info from two days before). When I heard the rain, it was time to decide whether I wanted to get my normal ride soaked or to ride my “rain” bike. After a bit of mental back and fourth, I opted for the rain bike. Upside: fenders. Downsides: heavier, not a very good seat, double chainring, and I had to transfer stuff from one bike to the other. This put me a little behind schedule. (Since I had never ridden a brevet before, the whole starting protocol seemed a little daunting, so I wanted to have plenty of time to get things right).

Driving westbound on I-80 toward the start in San Francisco, I got stuck behind a pretty big accident at Golden Gate Fields. Another delay. Still raining. Were the powers-to-be trying to tell me something?

When I finally got across the Bay Bridge, through SF, and to the official parking lot near the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge,  it was nearly full: I got one of the last few spots. Yanked out the bike, the Camelbak with all of my spare clothes, and headed to the starting point. No rain! There were a ton of folks standing around, with Coordinator Rob giving out last-minute instructions. I found the sign-up sheet, got the card, and felt a little more under control. I immediately noticed that my rain gear was nowhere near as elaborate as most of the other riders about to start the brevet (I had a a non-breathable Performance-brand yellow rain jacket with a velcro “zipper” and a vintage ONCE bicycle cap).

Suddenly, it was time to go. I usually don’t try to ride in the rain. I don’t hate it or anything. It just seems like the rain amplifies certain riding-related risks. However, if caught out in the rain, I don’t dive for cover, either. Since the weather speculators were saying that it would be scattered showers, I could live with that risk, so off I went, trailing a long string of riders crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the sidewalk on the east side (normally, riders stay on the west side but at this hour, there were no pedestrians, so almost everyone used the east side).

I have lived in the SF Bay Area for almost my whole life. I have been a road rider since 1994. However, in all that time, I had never ridden from the Golden Gate Bridge through the little towns in southern Marin County and continued on to Point Reyes. Today would be a first.

After crossing the bridge and descending into Sausalito, I hooked onto the back of a group and soon we were on the bicycle path heading toward Mill Valley. The group was quite diligent about stopping at traffic signals (yes!), so after a little waiting, we got off of the bike path and started the climb up Camino Alto. At this point, the group broke up, with me falling off the back, struggling a bit with my lack of gears. Once over the top, it was a slow descent into Larkspur, given that the road surface was quite wet. At the bottom, I caught on with another group and hung with them through the twists and turns through Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo, and Fairfax, finally popping out onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

As we rode through these sleeping little towns, there was lots of talk about the vigorous enforcement of traffic laws, especially when (1) it was early in the morning, (2) there was almost no traffic, and (3) bicycles were involved. Everyone was still on their best behavior, stopping (or at least slowing down significantly) as we hit traffic signs/lights.

After climbing and descending the hill outside of Fairfax, it started to drizzle, which quickly progressed into full-on rain. I would now see how my cobbled-together rain gear would perform. Pulling on my jacket and cap, I continued past the turn to Nicasio, toward the coast on Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

I had never ridden on Sir Francis Drake through Samuel P. Taylor State Park. I had heard the horror stories about the road surface and was pretty sure that I would opt for the bike path that Rob had discussed at the pre-ride briefing. The surface seemed fine to me, at least until I got past a little market on the north side of the road, where some randonneurs had stopped for a snack, some warm beverage, and a little respite from the rain. As I made the left-hand bend, the road surface changed from smooth to a pot-holed nightmare. Given the rain, I was not riding very fast but the holes in the road slowed me down even more. After hitting my fourth or fifth deep hole, I was CERTAIN that the bike path was in my future. The only question was: where was the thing?

After a few miles of the silliness on SFDB, I saw a rider turn left and head into Samuel P. Taylor Park. Figuring that they probably even knew what they were doing, I followed them and, after weaving around a bit, finally found a restroom, some water, and the bike path.

What a joy it was to ride on this bike path! There was some tree litter on the path but, aside from that, it was smooth and nicely graded. I understand that this bike path was an early example of converting abandoned railroad grade to a bike path. The path followed Lagunitas Creek, gradually descending through the redwoods. Given the recent rains, the creek was gushing. I could see why many ride organizers decide to ride on this bile path when coming back toward Fairfax: no cars, no pot-holes, and a chance to enjoy the scenery.

All good things come to an end, however, and the bike path ended at Platform Bridge Road. After a little maneuvering, I got onto SFDB again and headed over the hill to Olema. Another first for me. The climb wasn’t as hard as I had anticipated and the descent into Olema was a blast.

Since this was my first attempt at a brevet, I really didn’t have a great plan for eating or drinking. I had filled my bottles in Samuel P. Taylor. However, I couldn’t think of what kinds of resources would be available on the road to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse (which was the second  controle of the ride). So, when I passed the Pt. Reyes ranger station, I stopped with J.T. and a couple of other riders to try to find water for the next leg. In retrospect, this stop was probably unnecessary, since there are a couple of markets in Inverness. However, between the rain, the lack of sleep, and the newness of the experience, I wasn’t thinking so clearly.

After topping off my bottles and shedding my rain jacket at the ranger station, we headed off toward the next controle. The previous summer, Gail and I had ridden from Terra Linda out to a beach on the northern side of Point Reyes (our destination today was at the southern tip of Point Reyes) so I knew that there would be a fun section of flat roadway along the western edge of Tomales Bay, followed by a real hump of a climb over Inverness Ridge. After that, the route would be all new to me.

The climb up Inverness Ridge was tough, especially with my double chainring and lack of a real granny gear. Also, the sun had popped out, causing me to start pouring sweat as I climbed. At this point, I realized that in my haste to move equipment from one bike to the other, I didn’t have a cycle computer or heart rate monitor. Thus, I knew I was working hard as I climbed but I didn’t know just how hard.

After cresting the top of the hill, I started down the other side. About halfway down to the turnoff toward the lighthouse, I noticed a couple of riders standing on the side of the road. Pulling over, I asked if they needed a hand. One rider pointed to his wheel and grumbled something. He had ripped a spoke out of his wheel. This was NOT good, since his wheel had a relatively low spoke count. Because the spoke was ripped from the wheel, the wheel was really out of true. I took out my Topeak Alien multi-tool and tried to true the wheel as best I could.  In true randonneur form, the rider with the trashed wheel was weighing the possibility of finishing the ride (we were about 40 miles into a 125 mile ride). After a little back-and-forth with his riding buddy, he decided that it would make more sense to return to Inverness, call his spouse, and get a ride home. A good decision.

Getting back on the road, I caught up with Alfie and Lisa, who I had first met while riding the Knoxville Fall Classic staff ride in 2008 and then rode with quite a number of times in 2009 as we all earned our finisher jerseys in the California Stage Race. Alfie and Lisa ride everywhere and are really helpful and friendly. Thus, it was good to hook up with them. I peppered them with questions about  what was coming up over the next 12 miles.

I had an inkling about what was in store. I assumed that there would be great views, rolling hills (some quite steep), cows, and wind. I completely underestimated how much of each there would be. First off: the views are just great. From the top of some of the hills, you could see for miles (especially since the wind and rain had cleared the air). Unfortunately, to GET to the top of some of the rollers was really tough: some of those suckers are STEEP. It didn’t help that I had no granny gear. It also didn’t help that my shorts/knee warmers were pretty soaked (even though the sun was out and they were starting to dry) and I had a wet jacket in my jersey pocket. The road surface was just OK except for a couple of spots where there were either cattle guards or cattle crossings, which were just caked with cow shit. However, those are minor complaints. The riding was fine and we had a stoic audience of cows as we climbed and descended toward our goal, the lighthouse at the southern end of Point Reyes.

It was a long 12 miles but after one last tough climb, we were at the controle. It was well-worth it. Between the clouds, the sunshine, and the rough surf, the views to the north were breathtaking. Also, the volunteers at the controle had water and candy! I was tempted to walk over to the lighthouse but felt that I should keep moving, since I didn’t really know how my body was going to react to riding 125 miles on a bicycle that I had been using for commuting, rather than for long distance riding.

The ride back to Inverness was OK. I rode with Alfie and Lisa for a while until I went over a cattle guard and heard a horrible scraping noise. Slamming on the brakes, I realized that my rear fender was rubbing against my wheel. What was going on? After a little head scratching, I realized that I had lost a mounting band for my fender while going over the cattle guard. Walking back up the road, I found the bugger and put it back on. However, I was not confident that it would hold (ultimately, I had to tighten it up two more times on the ride). Also, after about 60 miles, I realized that my butt was really hurting. The bike I was riding had, at one time, been my main road bike. We had ridden Death Rides, the great cols of France, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. However, in 2007, this bike morphed into a commuting bike when I got my current road bike. As a result, I didn’t pay much attention to the saddle, since almost all of my rides were 10 miles or less. I knew that I was going to be paying for that lack of attention later on in the day today.

After getting over Inverness Ridge, I zipped along into Inverness, where the market was open. I was pretty hungry (a bad sign…the cardinal rules are to eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty). So, I pulled over and joined a bunch of riders, buying food and drink and just lounging about a bit.

I was kind of surprised by the generally mellow tone of most riders. They were in no particular rush to get going. They acted like they were out on a Sunday ride with some friends, not a 125 mile brevet, for god’s sake! I sort of liked this. The riders didn’t seem as driven as lots of the folks that ride double centuries. “I could get into this,” I thought to myself.

From Inverness, we headed back to Highway 1, where we turned north, rode through Pt. Reyes Station, and then continued on to Marshall. This section of road can be fun, it can be tough, but it is always pretty, since it hugs Tomales Bay with views across the water to Inverness and the ridge. I was feeling OK but started to see riders returning from Marshall not long after I left Pt. Reyes Station, so I knew that I was nowhere near the front of the pack. Nevertheless, I felt like I made pretty good time up Highway 1.

It was good to finally roll into the third contole at the Marshall Store. It had rained off and on from Pt. Reyes Station but not enough to warrant putting on a jacket, so getting inside was going to be nice. Also, people had been talking up the clam chowder at the Marshall Store as something not to be missed.

The store was full of riders. The woman working the cash register knew the drill: take the cash and card from the sweaty rider, sign and stamp the brevet card, give the rider their change, and move onto the next person in line. She was very friendly and tolerant of the stinky riders filling up the place. I got chowder and water. Both were excellent. Some randonneurs opted for beer. I didn’t have the nerve to try that but it sure looked like they were enjoying it.

After a long stop (where I got a chance to get off of my bike seat and onto a chair), it was time to go. There were about 42 miles left and they wouldn’t get done if I didn’t get to it. The ride back toward Pt. Reyes Station was quick and uneventful, which allowed me to enjoy the scenery along the way.

We didn’t return to the start/finish the same way that we came out earlier in the day. Instead, we turned inland on Platform Bridge Road, past the Nicasio Reservoir, through Nicasio, and then ultimately hit Sir Francis Drake Blvd. With the favorable winds, the trip from Pt. Reyes Station to Nicasio just flew by. However, once we hit the climb on Nicasio Valley Road, things slowed down considerably. The climb was tougher than I recalled it being but that was probably due to the higher gearing of my bike. As I rolled into Fairfax, I was feeling pretty good, ready to zip through the little southern Marin towns and get the ride over with.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Since I didn’t have an odometer and since I was unfamiliar with the route, I got a bit lost between San Anselmo and Ross. It wasn’t like I was wandering around in the wilderness or anything; I just took a couple of wrong turns and meandered around for a bit while mentally flogging myself for not bringing an odometer.

I saw a group of riders heading toward Ross and I took a chance to follow them. Sure enough, they were randonneurs, heading for home. Even though they were behind me, it was clear that they were faster riders, so I had to pick up the pace to keep up. Once I got through Ross and into Larkspur, I knew where I was and slowed down, letting my guiding party cruise off.

There are two hills left once you get to Larkspur: the climb over Camino Alto and the climb up to the Golden Gate Bridge south of Sausalito. I was feeling the miles when climbing Camino Alto, so I took it slow and steady. There was plenty of time to finish, so there was no need to hustle. When I got on the bike path from Mill Valley to Sausalito, I noticed that the path was littered with driftwood and other stuff that had washed up on the bike path earlier in the day. Avoiding that, I rode through Sausalito, struggled up to Highway 101, rode across the Golden Gate Bridge, and was done.

What did I learn on this ride?

  • You have to think about things a LOT more on brevets than on double centuries.
  • Keeping fed and hydrated is important, especially on days where the weather changes from rainy to warm and sunny.
  • A good seat is a good thing.
  • Making last minute changes to equipment is a good way to forget something important (e.g., a cycle computer).
  • Knowing the route really, really helps make the riding easier.

Ride Statistics:

Distance:  125 miles

Elapsed Time: 10:54

Mt. Tam Double: Bill is a Contestant on “Beat the Clock”

It sure is nice to be able to get out of bed, hop in the car, and drive to the start of a bicycling event. Also, there is just about nothing nicer than cycling in Marin and Sonoma Counties. For that reason alone, the Mt. Tam Double Century is always a pleasure. This year’s edition had some wrinkles but was ultimately a good time. If you want to see the photos and skip the commentary, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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The Marin Cyclists put on the Mt. Tam Double as a part of a cornucopia of ride options associated with their Marin Century. There is a ride for every flavor of rider: kids on Big Wheels to hard-core ultra-distance cyclists. The rides criss-cross each other throughout northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties. The Mt. Tam Double hits just about everything that everyone else rides (with a few extras thrown in for good measure). Riders get to climb Mt. Tamalpais after riding up Fairfax-Bolinas Road (aka Bofax), zoom down to the coast and then head north to Pt. Reyes Station on Highway 1, head inland to Petaluma and then back toward the coast to Valley Ford for lunch. After lunch, the riders continue north to the brutal Coleman Valley Road for a very tough climb over the first set of mountains in the coastal range. After heading back south, riders only face one real challenge: climbing the “harder” side of the Marshall Wall. After that, it is just rollers with a couple of bumps back to the start (although those bumps seem a lot bigger after 185 miles!).

The views on this ride are stunning. From the ridge on Mt. Tam, one can see the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and the gleaming buildings in SF in the distance, all while riding just above the redwoods. While riding up Highway 1, riders see the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach, and Tomales Bay. From Bay Hill Road (north of Valley Ford), you get a terrific view of Bodega Bay. Before climbing Coleman Valley Road, you ride next to the ocean and a long, sandy beach. And you see more cows than can be counted, happily munching on the green grass of the coastal hills and emitting methane.

The ride only has one intermediate time cutoff: you have to leave lunch by 2:30 pm. If you don’t make this time cut, you get sent back south toward the finish line without having the “pleasure” of riding Coleman Valley Road or the Marshall Wall. This year, the ride organizers tossed a bit of a wrench into the works: they added about 10 miles of riding before the time cut at lunch. Thus, prior to the ride there was a great deal of wringing of hands and grousing by riders in the event about making the time cut. Being one of the slower riders on this ride, I was worried. As a result, I knew that I had to get rolling at 4 am and hoped for no mechanicals before lunch.

I got about 5 hours of sleep before having to get up and drive to the start. After checking in with the crack Marin Cyclist team (Craig, Dirk, and Phyllis) at the ride start, I queued up with about 30 other riders for the 4 am mass start. At the appointed time, we rolled off in the dark, headlights and taillights blazing.

To get to the country roads, we rode through Terra Linda, obeying stop signs and traffic signals. At Lucas Valley Road, we turned left toward the ocean. I managed to miss the light at this corner and, as a result, when I turned  I was a little behind the main pack. Not 50 yards after turning the corner, I heard the sound that cyclists hate: “HISSSSSSSSS”. Flat tire!

This was NOT a part of the plan. Here I was, no more than 4 miles from the start and I had to change a tube in the dark. It was unlikely that any SAG vehicles would be coming by, so it was all on me to get the thing repaired. After a few choice words, I took out the stuff and got at it. However, as I pumped up the spare tube a bit, I realized that the spare had a hole in it and wouldn’t hold air! This was REALLY not part of the plan. OK, pull out the second tube, pump it up (it held air), get the tube in the tire, the tire back on the bike, check to make sure you aren’t leaving anything on the side of the road, and get going. All the time that I am screwing around with the flat, groups of riders were rolling past (generally asking if I needed help).

For those that don’t ride road bikes, it is very critical to find the source of the flat, lest you put in the new tube and get another flat right away…since I didn’t have any more tubes, I took great pains to make sure that I got the nasty little wire out of the tire before putting everything back together. As a result, it took me about 30 minutes to get back on the road. Needless to say, losing 30 minutes right out of the chute had me worried about the time cut at Valley Ford.

Because of the frame geometry of my bike, I use a mini-pump (there isn’t any way to mount a frame pump). Unfortunately, this pump only seems to be able to put about 80 psi in the tube after about 400 strokes, so I took off with low tire pressure, knowing that I could pump the tire up at the first rest stop. Riding with low tire pressure is risky: if you hit a bump or hole in the road, you can pinch your tube and get yet another flat. So, I had to take it easy on the descent down Nicasio Valley Road to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and down White’s Hill into Fairfax. This was too bad, since I was riding with Bruce for a while and having a very nice chat.

As I climbed up Bofax toward the Pine Mountain checkpoint, I developed a little mental to-do list for the upcoming stop: (1) Don’t take too much time. (2) Pump up the tire. (3) Find a spare tube or two. (4) Get some water and food for the next section of the ride. (5) Shed some clothes for the climbing ahead. I found a floor pump and got the tire up to the proper pressure (it has been at about 80 psi) but the rest stop workers didn’t have any spare tubes, which made me really nervous about continuing. Fortunately, Lee Mitchell, SAG driver extraordinary, drove in as I was getting ready to leave and he had spare tubes in the fabulous BikeVan. It was a slower stop than I had hoped for but I checked everything off the list and got riding.

Bofax is just an amazing road. After ascending out of Fairfax, it climbs up and then dips down in Marin Metropolitan Water District land, ultimately crossing the dam that forms Alpine Lake. After that, you climb through the redwoods up to the ridge. The climbing after crossing the dam is not killer steep but it does get the heartrate going. Since I was well behind my crew of early risers, this was the point in the ride where I was starting to get passed by the quick riders that had started at 5 am. No worries…just keep climbing.

After turning left onto Ridgecrest Blvd., the fun began. The fog was rolling over the ridge, making the trees drip (i.e., rain). The road was soaked. However, when you looked down and to the east, it was sunny and clear. Every once in a while, the fog would thin a bit and let the sun peek through a bit, causing a number of riders to stop to take photos or to just gawk.

Ridgecrest is a set of rollers that generally increase in elevation. Eventually, we popped out of the marine layer and saw the bright sun, above a thick blanket of fog, which was penetrated by some peaks further to the south. The road rolls through green hills with incredible sightlines. Perhaps this is why numerous car companies use this road as the setting for their commercials.

At the end of Ridgecrest, you turn left toward the summit of Mt. Tam, which is the highest point of the ride. The climbing itself isn’t too tough but given the sun and warm temperatures, I had planned to keep my heartrate down, knowing that there was still a lot of miles to go. As I started to climb, I saw Alfie and Lisa (a couple of my 4 am cronies) speeding down the hill. This gave me a kick in the butt…I needed to pick up the pace or I was at risk of getting a DNF (did not finish).

As I struggled up the last kicker to the checkpoint at the summit, I knew that there would be no hanging out up there. Get checked in and get a move on down to the next checkpoint by Muir Beach. The descent to Muir Beach is most excellent. The roads were basically empty (albeit a little wet). Thus, it was possible to descend at a pretty good clip (although there were others that went much faster than me…I like to descend but do not like road rash). After getting off of Panoramic Road and past Muir Woods, I rolled into the next rest stop.

The mood here was very upbeat. The fast riders were arriving after the great descent. The volunteers were happy to see us and ready to help. The dining options were fine. The lines at the toilets were kind of long but not too bad. “Top off the food and drinks,” as Paul Sherwen says, and get on the road.

In 2008, I got a flat just after this rest stop and knew that if I got another one, the ride would be over, so as I climbed out of Muir Beach on Highway 1, I was extra careful about holes in the road and glass. As I reached the top of the first climb, I got a good view to the north. Although it was overcast, the wind and clear air made the coastal hills beautiful. The coastal road is far from flat and can give the rider a little bit of a challenge as you ride north, since you dip down to cross the creeks and then have to climb back out. Nonetheless, the riding into Stinson Beach went quickly.

From Stinson north to Pt. Reyes Station, one stays on Highway 1 and basically rides along the Bolinas Lagoon (behind Sea Drift), climbs over the hill past Dog Town, and then rides rollers and flats to the next rest stop. The climbing shouldn’t be too hard but for some reason, the section out of Bolinas over Dog Town always seems like a struggle. Once over that, it was a quick zip into the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station.

I cannot exactly say why, but it seemed to take forever to get out of the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station. The volunteers didn’t have any Gatorade out, which meant he had to find some. The lines to the toilets were a little long but not too bad. The food was tasty, so maybe I hung out for a while. Who knows? It just took me way too long to get going.

The astute reader may be sensing a pattern in this narrative. Each rest stop, I am getting more and more nervous about the time. As I pulled out of Pt. Reyes Station, I thought I was in real trouble. Why? The leg from Pt. Reyes Station to Petaluma follows the route used by the San Francisco Randonneurs for a number of their brevets, so I knew that it went in a northwesterly direction with some climbs not nothing too tough. The problem was the wind out of the west that was starting to pick up. It was the next leg (out of Petaluma to Valley Ford) that had me worried, since it is almost due west (i.e., straight into the stiffening wind).  As a result, I really tried to push the pace on this section and started to pick up a couple of the riders that had left in the 4 am crowd.

Knowing that time was tight, I flew through the Petaluma checkpoint, quickly grabbing food and drink and then heading out for Valley Ford.

Even though I have ridden in this area for many years, I had never actually ridden from Petaluma to Valley Ford. In the past, the Mt. Tam Double route went from Valley Ford to Petaluma (as you were heading south toward the finish) but the ride organizers decided to tweak the course and send us in the opposite direction today. As I climbed out of Petaluma, I started chatting with Mark, who it turns out is a friend of Jack’s (another of the double century/brevet riders from Grizzly Peak Cyclists). Mark said that he was looking forward to the next section of the ride, since it went through Chileno Valley, which is very lovely. I agreed about the scenery but noted that it was 12:20 pm and we had to be in and out of the next rest stop (which was 25 miles away) by 2:30 pm and, by the way, there was going to be a howling headwind. Mark hadn’t caught this fact on the route sheet, so my comment must have got his attention because he immediately suggested that we team up and ride together. Mark was a great “team time trial” partner. He recognized that there is no reason to pull on the front for 10 minutes at a stretch (he suggested 1 minute pulls) and that when you got on the front you shouldn’t immediately drop your partner (he checked his mirror to make sure I was hanging on). We made great time along Chileno Valley, catching a couple that had been riding a bit ahead of me on Highway 1. Unfortunately, when we slotted in behind them and asked if they wanted to work together, the man in the lead put the hammer down, leaving us (and his riding partner) in the dust. Huh? After we would ride together and catch the dude, he would sprint off the front again, leaving his partner behind to get pulled by us. What was this guy thinking???

All of this foolishness took its toll on me and I finally just dropped off, even though we were still heading into a the wind. Mark continued on and rode with the couple for a bit but they ultimately split apart, too. As they rode off, I looked at my watch. It was a bit before 2 pm and I had about 6 miles to go to the rest stop. I started developing a strategy: ride in, grab some food, and then pull out of the rest stop and eat up the road. If necessary, get some drinks at the market in Valley Ford. Just do not get DQed.

It turns out that the last 6 miles went very fast (except for that one nasty hill right after turning north) because of the great tailwind, which blew me all the way to Valley Ford. I hit the checkpoint at 2:15. Time to spare! I grabbed a burrito, sat a bit, and even got to use the toilet and get some drinks.  The volunteers (a group of high school mountain bike racers) gave everyone plenty of warning about the impending cutoff time but, realistically, I am not sure how many riders missed the time cut, since I was passed later in the ride by a number of riders that were coming into the checkpoint as I was leaving.

Having (1) busted my tail to make it to Valley Ford and (2) wolfed down a chicken burrito for lunch , I decided to take it easy over the next leg (or, as Amy says, I was riding at a “digestive pace”). There are a few very large rollers between Valley Ford and Bay Hill Road, which I just crawled up. After turning onto Bay Hill Road (which loops around the town of Bodega Bay), I continued my snail’s pace up to the top of the ridge. Since I was in no hurry, I took in the scenery. The hills were just gleaming. The views down to Bodega Bay were pretty spectacular. The place was so pretty that I didn’t even mind the rough road surface. The sightseeing continued after I turned north onto Highway 1 as I checked out the beachcombers next to the road.

All of the fun ended when I made the right-hander onto Coleman Valley Road. This thing is not as tough as Sierra Road, but it does have its moments. From the initial gradual climbing, the road points almost straight up as it makes a sharp left turn. I am not embarrassed to say that I did a bit of zig-zagging on this road. However, that was not easy since it seemed like there were more than the usual number of motos, autos, and pickup trucks out. As I reached the “King of the Mountain” spot from the Tour of California, I had a brain freeze and seemed to forget that there was still a bunch of climbing after that first intermediate summit. Looking at the route sheet, it seemed to imply that the checkpoint/rest stop was not far from the KOM. Wrong, sir! It seemed like it was another 4-5 miles of gradual and not-so-gradual climbs before I finally found the checkpoint, which came none too soon since I was completely out of water and Gatorade.

It seems that the fellow running the rest stop had decided that he didn’t want to set it up at the official location. While I commend his rugged independence and individuality, I was quietly cussing him out as I kept riding along, wondering if I had missed the stop or if he had just packed it in. When I finally found the checkpoint, it was time for serious measures, so I downed two cans of Mountain Dew. In the real world, I never drink this stuff. However, on a ride like this, it has all the key ingredients; sugar, water, and caffeine. As I rode off, I could feel the buzz starting.

The next section of the ride has a little bit of everything: riding through bucolic valleys past one-room schoolhouses, insane steep descents on bad road surfaces, and gradual downhills on the road to Valley Ford. It goes by much quicker than the road TO the checkpoint and, as a bonus, you get MORE BURRITOS when you get to the next checkpoint!

After dawdling a bit at the Valley Ford checkpoint, it was time to head south. I was sort of nervous about this section since I was almost blown off the road by crosswinds on the SF Randonneurs’ 600k brevet. However, the winds from earlier that day had pretty much died down, so I had a very nice ride past the dairy farms on the way to Tomales. Exhibiting great restraint, I decided to skip the Tomales Bakery and headed south on Highway 1 toward Marshall and the looming Marshall Wall.

Right after Tomales is one of my favorite sections of road in northern California. The road hugs an estero of Tomales Bay. The road surface is excellent, the views are great, and it is just a lot of fun to ride, especially if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. After zipping through that section, there are a bunch of small and medium-sized rollers until you hit that hard left turn onto the Marshall-Petaluma Road, which is the start of the Marshall Wall.

This was another new feature of the ride this year. In the past, the ride had ridden over the Marshall Wall from the east. Although that climb is steep and has a nasty false summit, it is not nearly as much climbing as from the west and is a much shorter climb, too. Also, since I had only ridden this direction once before, I didn’t know when the climb was going to end (and it was getting foggy and dark, so I couldn’t see the summit). This was some slow going. Richard, who was driving SAG, zipped past me a couple of times, checking to make sure that I was OK. Zig-zagging was the order of the day. I also noticed a strange scraping noise as I climbed but couldn’t figure it out, so I just kept going. After reaching the top of the hill, it was a quick zip down to the next checkpoint at Walker Ranch.

The volunteers were starting to pack the place up but were very cordial. I asked if they had any brie (which I had on this ride in 2008). They found me some as well as some crackers! All I needed was a little white wine and life would have been perfect. It was going to be dark before I reached the next checkpoint in Nicasio so I changed my glasses, turned on the lights, and put on my reflective vest. One of the volunteers was going to head back to Nicasio and offered to accompany me but I said that there wasn’t any need. He said OK but that he would be checking up on me.

The road toward Nicasio was just great fun. I didn’t remember it being as much of a descent as it was, so it took no time at all to get to Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. Along the way, I saw one of the strangest things I had ever seen: a cow had tried to jump over a wooden fence but didn’t have the legs to pull it off. As a result, it was stuck with its front legs on one side of the fence and its hind legs on the other side. The cow didn’t seem particularly upset by all this, which seemed strange to me. The volunteer from the ride had stopped, assessed the situation, and was going to knock on the nearest farmhouse door to inform the farmer of his cow’s predicament. I just rode slowly past the cow, gave it a thumbs up for trying, and continued down the road.

As I turned onto Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road, I noticed the scraping noise again. It was not coincident with my pedaling, so I knew that it wasn’t in the crank or chain. It got faster when I rode faster, which meant that it had to be on one of the wheels. At this point, I did a little risk assessment. What would happen if it was something serious? What if a tire blew while descending a hill? What if I was just hearing things? Could I make it to Nicasio, where there would be lights and a place to work on the wheel? Being a wimp, I pulled into a turnout just past the Cheese Factory and checked out the situation. It quickly became obvious what was going on: the bead on my front tire was starting to pull away from the wheel, which was making the tire bulge. Well, hell! Fortunately, the volunteer, fresh from getting the cow off of the fence, pulled up. Having his headlights really helped, since it was totally dark. My brain was not working too well at that moment, so it took me a while to decide that I had to deflate the tube, re-seat the tire, and pump the thing up. Once I figured out what to do, I remembered that I only had my mini-pump, which I was not keen on using to pump up the tire. Unfortunately, the volunteer didn’t have a floor pump, but he was kind enough to finish pumping the tire up for me when my arms gave out.  What a guy! After repairs were complete (and I was sure I hadn’t left anything in the turnout), it was time to get to Nicasio, which was a quick jaunt.

In 2008, I had reached this rest stop and was told that as long as a SAG vehicle didn’t pick me up, I could finish at any time after the time cut and would get credit for the ride (only to find out that this was wrong, I had missed the official time cut but the ride director had arbitrarily extended the cut off time by 30 minutes, so I was, in fact, an official finisher!). Thus, I didn’t want to have that happen again. I checked my watch. It was about 9:15 pm when I rolled into the Nicasio rest stop and the volunteers were closing things up. The final time cut was 10:30 pm. Thus, there was plenty of time to get something to drink, pump up the tire (the rest stop had a floor pump…yes!), and make it back to the finish. Gulping down one last Mountain Dew, it was off into the darkness, heading for the finish line.

I love the last section of this ride. The climb up Lucas Valley Road is not tough. The traffic is almost non-existent. Last year I rode it with Scott but this year I was on my own. It is quiet except for my breathing, the chain rolling over the gears, and the wind in my ears. Also, since it was clear that I am going to make the finish in plenty of time (unless there is a major mechanical), I can enjoy the ride through the quiet Lucas Valley (and past Skywalker Ranch) and ease into the finish.

Which is exactly what I did. I rolled into the finish at about 10:15 pm, which was pretty good given that I had two tire issues. I checked in, got my jersey (denoting that I had finished the ride), and went to grab some food. I saw Terry as I was walking to the dinner area. She had torn it up today and had finished an hour ahead of me. Kudos to her!

As I was sitting down with my plate of food, I heard some drama unfolding. There was a rider that was about 4 miles out and he only had 10 minutes to make it to the finish. There was no way he could make it in time, meaning that he was going to get a DNF. That put a melancholy tone to the end of an otherwise good day.

Lessons learned:

  1. Check your tubes before you start a long ride.
  2. A good riding partner can make a tough section of a ride zip past.
  3. Have a plan when you approach a checkpoint and then STICK WITH THE PLAN!
  4. A little recon ride before an event can help refresh the memory.
  5. Cows can’t jump.

Ride Stats:

Miles Ridden: 194

Climbing: 14,800 feet

Total Elapsed Time:  18:15 hours

Total Rolling Time: 15:57 hours

Average Rolling Speed: 12.2 mph

“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 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

Berkeley: City of Hidden Historical Markers!

It was July 5 and I needed to go to my mom’s house in Castro Valley. Gail was free so we decided to hop on the tandem and pedal over. Since it had been a few weeks since our last Landmark adventure, we dug out the book, IDed some of the Landmarks in Berkeley and Oakland that we had missed to date, and took off (of course, going on a ride like this is never a “decide and ride” event: the departure was fraught with clothing and food choices, bike prep, sunscreen, and myriad other tasks). (Want to just look at the pictures? Click here.)

Since the main purpose of the ride was to actually get to my mother’s house in a reasonable amount of time, we designed a route that would hit the maximum number of Landmarks with the least amount of veering off-course. Thus, we were going to ride up toward the University of California, hit a couple of Landmarks in the general vicinity, and then head toward Oakland, and San Leandro. After meeting with Mom, we could visit Castro Valley’s only officially-designated Historical Landmark before hopping on BART for the return home.

Our first stop would be an easy one: the University of California, Berkeley Campus (Historical Landmark #946).  According to our “California Historical Landmark” book: “These landmarks form the historic core of the first University of California campus, opened in 1873: Founders’ Rock, University House, Faculty Club and Glade, Hearst Greek Theater, Hearst Memorial Mining Building, Doe Library, Sather Tower and Esplanade, Sather Gate and Bridge, Hearst Gymnasium, California, Durant, Wellman, Hilgard, Giannini, Wheeler, North Gate, and South Halls.”

In my misspent youth, I had attended college at UC, we had lived in Berkeley for a number of years, and I also had a great innate sense of direction. I even knew where a number of the buildings mentioned in the description quoted above were found on campus. However, we assumed that there was only ONE official Marker, not a bunch of them scattered all over the campus. Thus, we searched high and low around “University Avenue, Berkeley” looking for the thing. We even asked a couple of UC police officers where we might find the Marker (they didn’t even know such a thing existed…so much for the observation abilities of UCB’s finest). Gail seemed to recall a marker of some variety in a redwood grove but that was not the OFFICIAL Marker. We even tried the UC information building, with no joy (since the place was shut down for the July 4th holiday). We are going to have to go back to the campus with the list of official buildings and see if the State actually sprung for more than one Marker. However, that was for another day. Mom was waiting, so off we went, without finding the Marker. Once again, we were starting off one of these trips without anything to show for our first visit.

Fortunately, we were in the dumps for only a few minutes, since our next destination, the Berkeley City Club, was only a few blocks away and I was certain that it had a Marker. The Berkeley City Club was organized by women in 1927, to contribute to social, civic, and cultural progress. The building, constructed in 1929, is one of the outstanding works of noted California architect Julia Morgan, whose interpretation of Moorish and Gothic elements created a landmark of California design.

This place is just lovely from the outside. It stands on the north side of Durant Avenue, the sun was shining on it, and the building was looking great. Upon closer examination, we could see that it was getting a little worn in places. I had attended meetings in this building and the interior was a little faded but still grand. No matter: this building truly looks like a Historical Landmark. Also, the Marker was right on the façade, so no need for any hunting to find the thing. Definitely visit this place and then follow up your visit with a trip to Yogurt Park, which is just up Durant Ave. from the City Club!

Our next stop, Piedmont Way (Historical Landmark #986), was a surprise to us. Piedmont Way was conceived in 1865 by Fredrick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect. As the centerpiece of a gracious residential community close beside the College of California, Olmsted envisioned a roadway that would follow the natural contours of the land and be sheltered from sun and wind by “an overarching bowery of foliage.” This curvilinear, tree-lined parkway was Olmsted’s first residential street design. it has served as the model for similar parkways across the nation.

Anyone that has lived in or around Berkeley for any length of time knows this road. It runs across the top of the campus, past fraternity and sorority houses, the International House, Hearst Greek Theater, Memorial Stadium, and other landmarks. The architecture along the road varies from Julia Morgan wood-singled structures to ghastly apartment buildings, which presumably replaced the old grand houses that originally graced the road. There is a circle at Channing Way, where frat boys play frisbee on warm spring days. The smell of beer is evident, especially on a weekend day. Trees provide plenty of shade on the days where the sun pokes through our omnipresent marine layer. Plants and flowers are everywhere. The only thing that this street seems to be missing is the OFFICIAL HISTORICAL MARKER! We rode up and down the street a few times, with Gail looking for the Marker and me trying to avoid getting run down by motorists gawking at the sights. We even drove down the non-curvilinear part of Piedmont Ave., looking for the thing. No luck.

However, don’t let the lack of a Marker deter you from visiting this beautiful street. Walking is probably the best way to get to see the great houses, the use of native plants, the way that the curves tend to calm traffic, and the overall coolness of having a street follow the contour of the land. Not to be missed.

Batting a cool .333, we headed out of Berkeley, toward Oakland, San Leandro, and our rendezvous with Mom.