Lisa and I travelled up to the Markleeville area and stayed with friends at a bed-and-breakfast inn in Genoa, NV. She and the bunch were signed up to do the Death Ride (aka Tour of the California Alps) again. Early this year, I had already decided I would not ride this event again, but that I'd travel to enjoy the area more quietly while everybody else was out riding. In February, I was probably thinking if just lounging about in the B&B all day. By June, that boring concept was replaced by the idea of a mountain bike ride. I had no idea where; I'd just take the bike and decide when I got there.
When I dropped Lisa off at Turtle Rock Park at 5AM on ride day, I still had no real idea of where I was going to ride. All I knew was that I wanted to include the famous Tahoe Flume Trail in it somehow. I've done very little mountain biking in this region before, so most any place I went to would be new territory (including the flume trail). I had a bunch of trail maps, photocopied pages from trail books, lots of food, gels, drink mix, Camelbak, rain jacket, vest, a digital camera, a sense of boyish adventure, a dose of nonchalance, and many hours to use up.
And that was all good, too, because at the end of the day, I finished an 12-hour solo odyssey on about 70 miles of trail (63 of which were singletrack). Did I have any idea beforehand that this ride would be so challenging? Of course not.
FIVE PASSES ON THE DEATH RIDE WOULD HAVE BEEN EASIER
Yes, this is a relative opinion, but one easily applicable to those who possesses the humble sort of off-road bike skills I have (read: I suck). To put things in perspective, I started my ride a little after 6AM. By the time I got back to the start, Lisa and all my friends had already completed the Death Ride. But, really, I should have known I was in for something like this when I calculated a loosely planned route to a distance of 50 miles. It actually turned out to be 70 miles and, on dirt, those just don't come as easy as double the miles on road. Especially here. My long day was a harsh reminder of that simple reality.
I took half a dozen tumbles (no blood or broken bones), pushed up hopelessly technical sections at least a half dozen more times, unclipped and dabbed on rocks and boulders what seemed hundreds of times, bonked mentally and physically more than once, battled high altitude, bla bla bla.
It was exhausting. But what an awesome adventure it was. Oh but probably never again... certainly not by myself.
THE ROUTE IN A NUTSHELL
I began and ended my ride in Genoa, off the Kingsbury Grade section of the Tahoe Rim Trail. I rode North to Spooner Lake in the morning, then entered Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, where I did a loop around Marlette Lake by way of the main Flume Trail and the Red House Flume trail, then reconnected to the Rim Trail from Twin Lakes and rode back to Spooner Summit. Across, Hwy 50, I picked up the Tahoe Rim Trail again and rode South to Daggett Pass.
The first 10 miles were a simple, soul-crushing affair. Nowhere to go but straight up from the very start, for a 3,500' elevation gain to kick things off. Switchbacks for days. Turning back and completing an out-and-back from here actually would make for a very satisfying, full ride in itself.
The beauty of starting good and early on a ride like this was the sense of having the entire world to yourself as I did for the first 15 miles of my ride. Relying on a mediocre map and guide for this section, I found myself off-course soon after my first summit and having to rely on my inner compass and instincts to at least head in the general direction of Spooner Lake. (Note to self: when on stupid solo adventures, bring real compass.) I got there, somehow, but through a really tangled network of trails that was anything but what my map described.
All I know is that I kept intersecting a main jeep road, so even if I found myself going in circles, I could always just hop onto the jeep trail, assuming it took a fairly direct path to where I wanted to go. It was pretty boring and had lots of annoying deep sand everywhere.
On the way out to Spooner Lake, I saw dawn sun shining above the mountain range on the waters of Lake Tahoe. It turned out to be one of the rare moments all day when the sun actually shone. For the rest of the day, skies were drearily overcast and the wind gusts were fierce at just about every summit clearing.
This stretch started at just below 4,700' above sea level, rose to a high point of about 8,700', then dropped back down 7,100' outside Spooner Lake. Dense forestry composed of many varieties of evergreens dominate the landscape.
TAHOE STATE PARK
My next destination was the Flume Trail. Upon reaching Spooner Lake Campground, I paid my $2 to enter the park (a fee that didn't previously exist for bikers riding in, I'm told), and chatted with the rangers a bit about trail loop options and difficulties, areas to avoid due to impassable snow, and trails off limits to bikes. In the end, they gave me a back-country map which revealed lots and lots of trails one could ride on within the 12,000 acre park alone.
I opted to climb up to Marlette Lake and ride the flume on the North bound trip. It was here where I'd encounter the first of so few cyclists I'd see throughout the day. I rode with a couple of fellas from the Sacramento area along the Marlette Lake shore to the mouth of the flume trail. We reached what appeared to be a dead end and the two pointed to a shore about 50 feet across the lake. Because of heavy winter precip, the Lake was so full that the mouth to the flume was totally under water! So I went ahead and rode the foot-deep water all the way to the other shore, but was surprised to hit a ditch along the way which had me and the bike drop so much that my whole crankset was under water. Wonderful. Somehow managed to pedal out of it though. And I wouldn't doubt that desert air would have me (and shoes/socks) dry again in less than an hour.
The Marlette Flume Trail itself is probably one of the most hyped and written-about trails in the whole Western USA. And now I know why. The trail itself is the actual location of a flume built in the late 1800's that carried as much as 10-million gallons of water a day from the mountaintops to the Comstock mining colonies as far away as Virginia City (what remains of this pipeline, in fact, still works). The flume hugs a steep edge of the mountain high above the Eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. At nearly every point of the flume trail, you're treated to panoramic views of the deep blue lake, the Desolation Wilderness area and the snow capped Sierra range beyond. A truly outstanding view around every turn of the skinny trail worthy of all the praise I've heard and read.
Most of the flume trail is flat and easy riding, with the exception of two notably hairy technical landslide sections. But folks with even a modest fear of heights should probably think twice about riding a bike here.
The north end of the flume trail is characterized by a 3-mile descent to Ponderosa Beach in Incline Village. Many end their ride here and hop on a shuttle which takes them back to Spooner Lake Campground. I opted to turn East before the descent and begin my return trip. First, I rode a clockwise loop to the Red House, which included another flume section, though nothing nearly as long or spectacular as the Marlette Flume. The small loop ended at the Twin Lakes intersection of the Tahoe Rim Trail, which would turn out to be the real start of my ride.
Every foot of the TRT that I traveled was skinny singletrack trail. Beautiful, to understate, but challenging. On the inclines, it meant tight switchbacks with sand, rocks and boulders to battle with. The stretch from Twin Lakes to the the meadows below Marlette Peak (8,800') was a long granny-ring affair, all right. And this part of the trail was on a north-facing contour, there was still lots of snow on the ground -- covering trail even -- in at least 10 different sections. Some I rode through, others had to be hiked. Damn, feet wet again.
If the snow wasn't enough of a sign, the explosion of late wildflower blooms all over the side of Marlette Peak was another that snowmelt took a long time this year. What an incredible sight it was, and how interesting to see how durable a life form is that most of us think as delicate. Wind gusts that had me walking up the meadow at a steep angle had no destructive effect on them -- just the forces that made them dance all day long.
The descent back to Spooner Lake was a twisty and manageable ride with yet more snow crossings along the way. I was happy to know that almost the entire ride back to the park entrance would be a downhill run. I was feeling pretty tired by now and was beginning to think about just hopping on a shuttle to take me back to Daggett Pass.
TRT, PART DEUX: IT'LL END IN TEARS
I was so dismayed to find out that the shuttle service to Daggett Pass no longer runs. The kid behind the counter of the Flume Trail bike shop spilled that bit of bad news. In doing so, I could tell he had slight, cruel grin on his pimple face. Little fucker. Fine, give me a better map than what I have then. I'm not about to explore that territory again with the piece of shit map I've got now.
I was left with a 12-mile technical ride on the Tahoe Rim Trail over to Genoa Peak as my only way to get back to the start. This is not what I wanted to discover. Well, OK. It wasn't the only option. I could have hopped on the shuttle to get back up to Incline Village, then paid a cab to haul my bike and carcass back to Daggett. Or I could have even just ridden the jeep trail back over the Grade. But nooooooo, I didn't want that monotony and subjected myself to the most punishing part of my ride yet.
The IMBA map I just purchased had a black diamond next to the TRT trail lines. Even that I ignored and stubbornly persisted with the urge to explore. Man, if I thought anything on the Tahoe State Park section of the TRT was technical, soooo many sections between Spooner and Kingsbury made all the others seem like a sissy ride.
The climb alone up to the summit of the grade on the TRT -- if on smooth trail -- is a beastly grind. But of course, it had to be spicier than that. Here's a summary: tight switchbacks around trees, off camber turns, rocks, stair steps, more rocks, switch back, shale, rocks -- loose ones, boulder, more stairs, rocksrocksrocksrocks, boulder, switchback, steep mofo pitch, fuck ya call that a bike trail???
I have never bashed my pedals, cranks and wheels against so many rocks in my life. And my less than ideal line through the endless mine field of rocks just made my saddle like a mallet to my ass (n.b. I was riding a hardtail XC bike). It took me an eternity to get to the summit of the grade, which presents itself with such a breathtaking view of the Lake again, with a log bench built by a trail worker, no less. I was silenced so effectively by the beauty and the blasts of wind before me, that I almost forgot about all the moaning, bitching and complaining I did in my head on the way up. The bench was a great chill-out spot, and later I learned a typical turn-around spot for a lot of people who ride the Grade.
A look at my new map told me I wasn't even halfway back to the start at this point. It did appear that most of the way back might be downhill, but trails like this always have their share of nasty rollers, even going down hill. This suspicion was confirmed by a pair of riders I encountered, riding up from where I was headed. Nice bunch of guys from Carson City -- one of them had a helmet cam, so if some MTB video surfaces on the Web somewhere that shows one pathetic looking rider asking a lot of paranoid questions about the trail features, let me know.
We parted ways, and as I rode on, one guy shouted back, "The real fun begins here!". I'm not so sure what he meant, but I was surely worried now.
Within minutes, I came upon boulder city. Predominantly descending for the next 7 miles or so. Boulder stairs everywhere. Big ones. 1 to 2 foot-high steps again and again, followed by tight turns between boulders. Loose sand. Trail edges like the flume trail. Steps to ride UP, steps to hop off. They were right -- these things could be loads of fun, but in as tired a state as I was in, I would have much preferred to be blasting down Monitor Pass at 50+ MPH. Brainless by comparison.
Unfamiliar with this descent, I had to stop dozens of times to evaluate a descending line (read: "to not die"). A glance at my watch told me that my return trip was already twice as long as my outbound trip. Just as I was beginning to really tire of having to stop every several hundred feet, I encountered some hikers on the trail and exchanged a few good words with them (honestly, I don't know how I managed to stay cheerful). It took a while to hit me, but realizing that they were the first hikers I'd seen in hours also meant a good probability that I was close to a trail head. And when I realized that, I was oh so hopeful again. Sure enough, within 15 minutes, the trailhead appeared so differently than before because I departed an entirely different way. I never felt so relieved to be finished with a ride. Ever.
I racked the bike and drove back out to Markleeville to pick up Lisa. By the time I got there, she had been waiting around for nearly an hour, probably visualizing some horrific scenes of me in a pool of blood on the edge of a trail, or playing Who's Edible? with a bear. I knew I decided to set off on my own today to avoid the crowds of the Death Ride. All of a sudden, the same crowds in the finish area seemed strangely comforting. So, too, was retreating to a wonderful inn with Lisa and the rest of the travel gang for the night.