Death Ride / Tour of the California Alps
Finally, I got a taste of this much talked about (if not venerated, sometimes mysticized) ride. Three prior years in a row, I'd signed up to do this and didn't get in (and did not bother traveling there to take a chance at a last-minute registration, which many ride vets will say is a good way to go if you really want to do it). I had gotten so fed up about both the hassle and cost of registering that I reluctantly signed up again this year, not giving a rat's bottom about whether I was gonna get in or not. But if I did, cool: a chance to experience it first hand with Lisa (who would be doing her fourth).

Year after year, I'd hear about Death Ride this, Death Ride that. Once upon a time, I looked at it as a major landmark and goal in my new found athletic endeavors. But with each year that I didn't get in, it became less consequential as I discovered so many alternatives to seek a challenge of the same magnitude (if not greater). With far less hassle and hype to boot. That's the beauty of living and cycling in California in general: an astounding array of choices for all sorts of centuries and what not.

Despite the "screw the Death Ride" attitude I'd developed, I do recognize the fact that this event has grown as immensely popular as it has for GOOD reason. And I'd be a fool to miss any opportunity to experience it at least once while living in California if I was physically up to it. My sentiments softened even more when Lisa took me up on a reconnaissance ride on Monitor and Ebbetts Passes the day after the Sierra Century. It was my first time on those roads. No doubt, this is incredibly beautiful cycling country, and we are incredibly lucky to have it.

Lisa and I traveled with friends, and took a whole bed and breakfast on the Nevada side of the Sierras to ourselves. What a treat it is to stay at a nice place before a big ride. The morning of the Death Ride was probably the most well rested I'd been before any long ride I'd done this year.

The masses of people present in the Markleeville area on Death Ride day are the only proof you need that probably most who do this ride come back again ... and bring 3 or more of their friends the next year. There were people and bikes everywhere. I've never seen anything like it. The only thing that came close in my memory was the NY AIDSRide (2,000 riders; 600+ crew and staff). And if the pre-dawn scene outside Turtle Rock park wasn't enough, daylight shining upon nearly 3,000 cyclists specked all over Monitor Pass was just unreal.

I think the fact that you're amidst hordes of people out there makes it all the easier to fall into anonymity on this ride. That, and when you're laboring up one mountain pass after another, you may be sharing the experience with everybody on the slopes, but the pain is each and everybody's own. I encountered or even rode with so many people along the way, yet never managed an entertaining and meaningful conversation with anybody all day.

But there's so much to see and appreciate along the way, I suppose shallow conversations about Campy this and carbon that would only get in the way of full absorption of these things that could so easily be overlooked. Like the slow entry of dayglow over the West side of Monitor Pass, and the sun breaking free of the horizon by the time I crested that first climb. Glorious. And so was the 10-mile screamer of a downhill that followed.

Full road closure on Monitor and Ebbetts Passes was certainly a treat, if not a necessity for an event like this given the number of (um) slow moving vehicles on the road. I can't imagine it being much different, however, on any give day as traffic volume on these roads can't ever compare to other roads and hill climbs I ride elsewhere.

One other identifying feature about this ride is you get to preview 2 of the descents and 2 of the ascents on either side of the first 2 mountain passes. While descending towards Nevada on the Eastern side of Monitor, I immediately noticed that the air was warmer and more arid. Even at the early hour of 7, it felt as warm as any midday ride I'd been on this year. In anticipating this, I'd downed nearly 2 full bottles of water at the bottom and decided to go with 2 bottles of formula drink from then on.

I had been told by friends that the Death Ride has its usual cast of characters who add to the overall flavor of the event. My favorites had to be the dude on a tandem whose stoker seat was occupied by a skeleton, whose feet were strapped to the pedals. Each year, the skeleton has a different schtick. One year it was a speaker box wirelessly connected to a rider behind. Another year, the skeleton appeared to be smoking (an engineered improvisation of a fog machine).

The other, even more welcoming sight, is a high-school running team that usually sets up camp halfway up the Eastern side of Monitor, fetching water bottles to top off and delivering them to you without you having to so much as change your climbing cadence. And, man, they HUSTLE. Talk about a quality drills day for them as well.

Dropping down the West side of Monitor has to be the fastest I've been on a bike all year long. I cracked 55mph for a moment. Most the rest of its 10-mile way, I sustained between 40 and 50. Amazing.

My favorite climb of all has to be the Northern side ("front") of Ebbetts. Definitely the toughest of them all from a pure analytical standpoint, as the climb steepens noticeably more here than it ever does on Monitor. And the scenery that envelopes you is simply stunning. Almost enough to make you forget the pain.

Descending the back side of Ebbetts isn't the reward that Monitor's descents are. Some vigilance is called for here as the road surface can surprise you with a nasty bump from time to time (just when you might be getting complacent). Descending the front side of Ebbetts poses the same sorts of threats, plus the added technicality of biker traffic around switchbacks.

In fact, Ebbetts seems to be the most likely place for any 'incident' to take place, as Death Ride history has it. This year would be no exception. As I was climbing the South side, I saw one ambulance responding to a call down behind me, which must have occurred after I'd past the point. Another took place near the bottom of the front side of Ebbetts, where one of those in my travel group hit the deck at spectacular speed and fashion that it's amazing to think he didn't break a single bone from that crash.

For mere challenges, the most overlooked part of this ride has got to be the section between Woodfords and Picketts Junction: the PRELUDE to Carson (#5) pass. This, combined with Carson Pass itself, would be my least favorite part of the ride since we'd rejoined vehicular traffic on the roads with very little riding room, if no shoulder at all at times. The grades up these climbs were the gentlest all day, yet I was also feeling quite tired from having gone lax about drinking and fueling after descending from Ebbetts.

By the time I was 2/3 of the way up Carson Pass, it was clear I was bonking. Didn't feel good at all, but knew that I had enough to just get me to the top. Once there, I would assess my condition to decide if I was going to hitch a ride back on a support car, or carry on. I ended up spending about 45 minutes atop Carson Pass, 15 of which yakking away with friends I encountered for the first time all day, and another 30 for a good power NAP on a beach chair. No kidding.

Judging by how I needed this much to recover, I'd long since decided against pursuing the optional sixth pass. But thankfully, the nap (and perhaps the chocolate popsicle) were enough to rejuvenate me, and I had a full appreciation for that final (and fast!!!) descent back to Woodfords. But just before you think the ride's over, there's still one slap in the face to overcome: that gentle rise back up to Turtle Rock, which may as well be Mt. Everest at this point. Back in the small ring... groan groan groan. In short time, parked cars and campers along the side of the road tell you you're getting there. Then the noise of excessively ecstatic cyclists and the smell of BBQ. Ah, now you know you're there.

So... I'm glad to finally be able to say: "Death ride, check." Think I'll skip it next year, but will certainly do some group rides in these parts to make up for it. But is it all what it's cracked up to be after all is said and done? I dare say yes.

Distance: 126 miles | Elevation gain: 15,125' | Ride time: 10h05m
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