Friday, April 30, 2010

From the Archives - Death Ride ‘99


De Ronde van X recently got me thinking about the Markleeville Death Ride. The Death Ride is one of the most famous organized rides in California, covering about 125 miles with over 15,000 feet of climbing. I've ridden it twelve or thirteen times, and used to have a tradition of riding it with all three of my brothers. Click to zoom in on the map:

Alas, I won't get to ride the Death Ride this year. Registration is on the lottery system, with so little chance of getting in that my brothers and I no longer bother to try. But to motivate anyone among my readership who is doing the upcoming Death Ride (or any similarly tough ride), and as a companion piece to De Ronde van X, I present to you my Death Ride '99 Postmortem Report. I didn't bring a camera in 99, but to enliven this post Ive thrown in photos from the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2007 editions.

By the way, there is a literary gimmick lurking in this tale. I will give a prize to the first reader who e-mails me at and correctly identifies the gimmick. (To my brothers and friends who have seen this report before, obviously you are not eligible.) Enjoy!

Death Ride '99 - The Postmortem Report

Bryan and I drove to Markleeville on Friday, July 9, the day before the Death Ride. That night we went to a Mexican restaurant in South Lake Tahoe for dinner, and man, we really packed it in. Then it was a short drive down to Turtle Rock campground, more or less at the starting line of the ride, where we pitched our camp on a brambly dirt patch, next to our car, just at the last hour of the dying day.

The stars came out, and we gazed for awhile, pondering tritely our own insignificance in the face of the infinite beyond. Soon we tired of contemplating our mortality, and managed to fall into a light, fitful sleep (which was all that was possible given our cramped quarters in the tent).

For the next hour or so campers continued to arrive, fitting themselves into smaller and smaller patches of rocky, lumpy ground (there are no actual campsites per se in Turtle Rock park), chattering boisterously, and it seemed to take forever before the noise finally died down. Earlier, I'd really enjoyed the rare treat of seeing the stars, without them being drowned out by city light, and now I savored the dead silence. Not even the chirp of a cricket or the croak of a frog could be heard.

The night passed for me in a series of catnaps, and along toward four o'clock, as I was finally achieving a peaceful slumber, my long-sought rest was cut down in its prime by the most foul, heinous sound you could possibly imagine. At first I almost panicked—I didn't know what in the hell the noise was. It was a terrible screeching, as though an animal were being slaughtered. I finally realized it was music being played over the loudspeaker—or, more accurately, an ill-fated attempt at music by some deadbeat rock band. All I knew for sure was that it was four in the morning, a full half-hour before I'd planned to be awakened by the alarm on my Timex Datalink watch (which I'd set up to beep in its nefarious "step-tone” way while scrolling the word "DEATH!” across its LCD face). I'll probably never know what the first "song” was, but finally the "singer” let out his last gasp and another song, much less irritating, came over the PA. We decided it was pointless to try to continue sleeping, and succumbed to the cruel Death Ride wakeup call.


We'd elected to buy the optional pre-ride breakfast, provided by some volunteer group, though to my dying day I'll never understand why. The food is abysmal—rubbery pancakes, clammy eggs, and sweaty oatmeal, the kind of food I imagine they'd serve on death row. As is becoming a tradition, one of us forgot his ride number, which is the only way to prove to the cafeteria cashier that you don't have to pay at the door for your meal because you already bought it when you registered for the ride. While Bryan went back to the car, I stood in line and killed time talking with other Death Riders. We chattered away in the most breezy and carefree way, as if to deny the grave difficulty of the day's undertaking. Bryan arrived at just the right moment, and we moved through the chow line, which was manned by volunteers offering their hellish fare with cheerful enthusiasm. One volunteer, a rather attractive young woman, I found particularly perplexing: she was holding up a plate of plain, unbuttered, and untoasted bread, which left her very little to do but stand there and do her best to look drop-dead gorgeous. The other volunteers were much busier, and I have a feeling this gal was supposed to be making toast for us, which I would have liked—but I digress, and though I could spend an eternity complaining about the food, I should hurry up and tell you about the ride itself.

First climb

There must have been cloud cover at some time during the night, because it was less chilly that morning than I've ever experienced before on this ride—a pleasant change, but it made us worry a little about how hot it would get later on in the great adventure. The weather looked so promising, we decided for the first time ever to pass on the jackets we would normally have carried in our jersey pockets. Still, it wasn't very pleasant slathering ourselves in sunscreen, but since my once gloriously suntanned skin is now closer to deathly pale, I'm forced to resort to SPF 15 to keep from getting horribly sunburned. Needless to say Erin would kill me if I came home looking like a lobster.

We started the ride at exactly 6:00 am, with a brisk descent—not as bone-chillingly frigid as in years past, but cool enough that when we started the first climb, up Monitor Pass, our legs were totally stiff. The road was thronged with riders — the field limit this year was 2,500, and it had been reached—and yet as many riders as we saw, we know others had started much earlier than we and had probably already crossed over to the other side of Monitor Pass. As always, we marveled at the wide range of body types represented on this ride—sure, we saw plenty of examples of the lean, ripped, almost skeleton-like breed of cyclist, but every year there are also people on the ride who are, well, not so fit. In fact, I'll come right out and say it: some participants are flat-out obese—heart attacks waiting to happen. By the third pass these ones would be goners, but you had to admire their spunk.

The front side of Monitor isn't all that tough, climbing only 2,813 feet in nine miles for an average grade of about 6%, and given the freshness of our legs we were able to dispatch the climb without too much suffering. At the top we each received our first-pass sticker: the way they keep track of who did all five passes, versus the majority of riders who don't make it, is to put a different sticker on your number for each pass you conquer. After the brief (five-second) sticker ceremony, we took our picture next to a very fitting landmark: a tombstone, basically, engraved with the name and elevation (8,314') of the pass, placed there and dedicated (to nobody in particular, apparently) in 1954. We also filled up on energy drink; bananas, a potassium-rich favorite; boiled new potatoes, an unlikely but very welcome Death Ride staple; and this year's innovation, Wheat Thins, which I'm normally not all that fond of but which, under these circumstances, were just to die for!

First descent

The descent down the backside of Monitor is probably the most dangerous part of the ride; although nobody's every actually died on this ride, this would be the place to do it. It drops 3,274 feet in just 8 miles, for an average grade of almost 8%, and because it's so early in the ride, cyclists are still bunched closely together (not like lemmings exactly, but almost). This fact, combined with the breakneck speeds possible (over 50 mph is a given for Bryan and me), mean that this would be a thrilling descent even if there weren't cattle guards. But of course there are, which caused me to ponder, as we flew down the mountain, what happens to the especially stupid cows who fall into them and break a leg . . . after all, isn't it standard procedure to shoot any horse that breaks a leg? Assuming cows are treated no differently, isn't the cattle guard like a Doomsday device for any cow stupid enough to wander into the road? Then I remembered that the whole purpose of most cows is to be slaughtered anyway, so there's no point worrying about it. Anyway, the game Bryan and I play is to see how often we can make it over the thin steel strip, maybe an inch or two wide, that crosses perpendicularly over the pipes of the cattle guard, so as to avoid that annoying series of bumps each time your tire crosses the bars.

Second climb

It was a totally killer descent, reminding us why the climbing is always worthwhile, and before beginning the long haul back up the backside of Monitor, we stopped only briefly to got some more energy drink and, of course, our second-pass sticker. The backside of Monitor is much harder than the front, not just because it's steeper, but because our vigor had been deadened somewhat by the first climb. Soon enough, though, our spirits were lifted by the appearance of what I could only describe as the ride's only full-motion water stop. This Death Ride institution, manned by a skeleton crew of tireless volunteers, apparently has as its charter the filling of every single empty bottle without a single cyclist needing to stop. A volunteer sprints like a hundred meters down to you, takes your empty bottle, and then practically kills himself running back to the water jugs to get the bottle filled in time to hand it back to you as you ride by. It's an inspirational thing to witness—those guys are out of this world!

The remaining six or so miles of the second climb passed away uneventfully, albeit with the standard-issue suffering that, although long dreaded, always somehow manages to astonish me with its intensity. It's always kind of demoralizing to reach the top of Monitor for the second time, feeling significantly worn out, and realize you have almost 100 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing to go before the ride finally comes to an end some ten hours from this moment. I'd also managed to develop a saddle sore (only the second one in my entire life); it barely hurt as we dismounted at the rest stop, but was positively killing me as we got back in the saddle after filling up on food and drink. I pondered, bleakly, how Laurent Fignon believed it was a saddle sore that cost him the 1989 Tour de France (a loss from which his professional career never recovered). I cheered myself up by recalling LeMond's inspirational victory that year—his big comeback after a near-fatal hunting accident a couple of years before.

Second descent

I wish the mother of the kids across the street growing up—who earned the nickname "Mrs. Trapdoor" for her constant safety warnings such as "Bicycles are deathtraps!"—could have seen us descend the front side of Monitor. The riders were more spread out by this point, so we had more of the road to ourselves and hit what would end up being the top speed of the ride, a seemingly death-defying 53.8 mph. Don't worry, though, this was really a very safe and reasonable speed—my self-preservation instinct has increased dramatically since I set the all-time Death Ride land-speed record of 60.5 mph back in 1993 (or perhaps 1995, I can't remember for sure). Glorious as it was, though, our swiftness only served to bring us that much sooner to our greatest nemesis: Ebbetts Pass, the climb that every year claims hundreds of riders—as if they were veritable human sacrifices to this diabolically steep, winding, asphalt shrine to suffering.

Third climb

Remember "deadlegs"—the sudden punches to the thigh that bullies inflicted on you with impunity, knowing you couldn't show the bruises to parents or teachers without lowering your pants? Well, imagine feeling that kind of acute thigh pain for over an hour, and you'll begin to understand why Ebbetts is such a killer. As we labored up monstrously steep grades, negotiating switchbacks that practically stop your bike cold, all conversation ceased, kaput. We became pedaling zombies. We were too close to breathless to utter more than an occasional moan, groan, or whimper. This is the part of the ride when it's dangerous to think about whether or not you'll make it to the top of Ebbetts, much less complete the whole ride. The best way to motivate yourself at this point is to look at the relative novices around you, who never did a race in their lives, the Fuji Road Look set who seem criminally unaware of how hard this is, whose presence on this climb make you deny how difficult Ebbetts is—in short, you succumb to a totally unspoken, tacit peer pressure, and chastise yourself for thinking this is hard. You almost want to turn it into a race and charge to the top ahead of everybody—but all you can do is hold on for dear life and try to keep your composure.

At the top of Ebbetts, elevation 8,730', we were toast. We were spent, gone. We were completely knackered—shadows of our former selves, ghosts, spectres. We were history, we were in the archives, we were lemures—in fact, you might even say we'd had the stuffing knocked out of us. Fortunately, the Death Ride provides the best support of any ride I've ever done, because we were in grave need of calories. Specifically, we needed that miracle elixir of life—no, not energy drink, I mean plain old Coca-Cola Classic. Of course they had it, ice-cold, and we chugged it greedily as we sprawled on a grassy hillside, our lifeless legs spread out before us like dirty laundry.

A fellow rider was deliberating aloud about whether or not to cash in her chips, so I told her what I thought was an inspirational tale about a 65-year-old man who told me, under identical circumstances atop Ebbetts during my first Death Ride, "You finish the first three passes on ability, and the last two on guts." She stared at me like I was some kind of imbecile, which I supposed I was, or am. But then, she departed for the backside of Ebbetts, so either my little speech got to her, or she'd simply decided not to be outdone by such a wanker. After a short rest—well, okay, a fairly long rest, something just short of eternal rest—we headed down the backside of Ebbetts ourselves, fortified with carbonated water, sugar and/or corn syrup, natural and artificial flavorings, caffeine, caramel color, phosphoric acid, bananas, oranges, cookies, and What Things (a fine nickname for Wheat Thins, if you ask me).

Fourth climb

Of our climb up the backside of Ebbetts and passing back over the top, absolutely nothing is known.

Fourth descent

We descended the front side of Ebbetts with jubilance, carving up the serpentine roads and drinking in the slide show of scenic vistas overlooking the great beyond. There is an impulse, on such descents, that has nothing to do with suicide but everything to do with the repressed desire to deliberately miss a turn, to fling yourself and your bike off the edge of a drop-off and whoosh your way along in perfect freedom through open sky. Needless to say, I resisted the temptation, or you'd be reading a much briefer Death Ride report—in the obits.

Final climb

On the way to the fifth pass, my bike suffered what is proving to be an epidemic of broken spokes. If I couldn't find the technical support truck, I'd be doomed to ride a drunken, wobbling, ungainly bike for the next 42 miles. At mile 90, we were told tech support was nine miles and a scant 1,500 feet of climbing away, at Pickett's Junction (who Pickett was I have no idea, unless it's the General Pickett of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, in which he lost three fourths of his Confederate troops). Since fixing the bike could take some time, and Bryan's legs were even deader than mine, I charged on ahead—well, okay, I limped on ahead—solo.

Sure enough, technical support was there, and my bike was fixed in record time by a mechanic who looked exactly like Alfred Packer, the survivor of an ill-fated mountain expedition who ate his fellow explorers, and who appears on a mural at the University of Colorado's Alfred Packer Grill (motto: "have a friend for lunch"). From Pickett's Junction to the final summit, Carson Pass, is only nine miles with 1,573 feet of vertical gain, for a paltry average grade of 3.31%, so for the life of me I can't explain why it's so hard. Much of that nine miles is a "false flat," meaning it's not really a climb but rather a diabolical stretch of road that looks flat but feels like a climb. When it begins to get steep, it's almost a relief, because the cause of your hellish suffering is at least more obvious.

For awhile, our spirits improved as we realized the end was near, and we took some pictures in which we're actually smiling. The top section of Carson is really steep, though, and in the last mile our jubilance died down and we settled into a rhythmic pedaling drudgery. We were dead to the world by the time we rounded what we believed was the final curve (but without optimism, because there are so many false summits on a ride like this one). But sure enough, the Carson Summit sign was dead ahead, and our suffering was finally near its end!

I turned and looked over my shoulder at Bryan, who was about fifty feet behind me, intending to congratulate him on surviving Carson and to suggest we stop for a photo-op. Imagine my shock to see him sprinting, all-out, hell-bent on beating me to the summit! Nothing could have motivated me to sprint at that point—nothing, that is, except the mortification of being beaten to the summit despite having a good head start and a lighter and more expensive bike. It was a sprint to the death, and to this day Bryan insists I wouldn't have beaten him but for my Dura-Ace 9-speed STI, which enabled me to shift into a higher gear, under full power and without taking a hand off the bars, to nurse a little more speed out of the mighty Guerciotti and eke out a victory.

Final summit

At the rest top atop Carson, we grabbed more Coke and the long-awaited ice cream bars (another Death Ride tradition), and headed for some lawn chairs to rest our much-abused nether regions. At the time, we were vaguely aware of the difficulty of what we'd done, and certainly unable to calculate some of the statistics I'll now quote: roughly 16,000 feet of total vertical gain; .2244 horsepower (167 watts) average on the climbs (.2480 horsepower, 185 watts, for Bryan, who's heavier); four hours and forty minutes of climbing to end up here; 8,573 feet closer to heaven than our earth-bound peers back home. Our achievement was overshadowed, though, by that of another Death Rider: a man in his seventies, thinning hair white as snow, had finished all five passes! I would kill to be that fit when I'm his age!

It's hard to recall the full gravity of our suffering now, as I sit in a comfortable chair at home, and even harder to describe it. Suffice to say we were wasted, spent, totaled, used-up charcoal briquettes, mere smears of ash, quivering masses of protoplasm. But we had survived, and what's more, as we sat on top of Carson, which seemed at the time the top of the world, we had twenty-one miles of descending ahead of us.


A glorious descent it was, too, the highlight being when we blew this guy away, rode him right off our wheels. Then, we returned to the parking lot and enjoyed the hard-won opportunity to go to our reward: the poster signing ritual, a privilege granted only to those who finished all five passes. Even as we realized we were finally done, though, we were already contemplating our return to Markleeville and to the suffering in the California Alps, every year to our dying day.

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