Sunday, July 15, 2012

Non-Death-Ride Non-Warmup

I found myself in the Lake Tahoe area just prior to this year’s Death Ride. That ride is so popular it’s hard to get in, and when dudes started scalping spots on craigslist I gave up on it. But this year, a couple days before it, since I was in the area I did a hard ride over Luther Pass (a former DR pass) and Ebbetts Pass, which is the granddaddy, en route to another campground. If everything went fine I wouldn’t have much to report.

My plan was to ride from South Lake Tahoe, where my family was camping, over the west side of Luther Pass, down the east side, through Markleeville, and over Ebbetts Pass and on to the campground some 25 miles farther on where we were meeting up with my wife’s friend and all her in-laws. The road to this place isn’t on Google Maps and my smartphone battery was dying, so I only had verbal directions. I love a point-to-point road ride—it’s the furthest thing from riding a trainer. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere.

Pre-ride meal was Red Hut in South Lake. Great place, where the cops go. Whenever I’ve gone this place has offered a special called The Usual which is eggs, real hash browns, and a biscuit and gravy. I love hash browns and despise home fries. I can kind of make home fries at home, and except for the ones at the dearly departed Spaghetti Western restaurant in the lower Haight, I’ve never had very good ones. It’s easy to screw up hash browns too but I admire a place that tries, and love a place (like Red Hut) that nails it. I got most of my wife’s hash browns but my kids successfully fought me off from their French toast and pancakes.

I almost doomed the ride before it even began by wearing the wrong shorts. The awful chamois of modern bike shorts is a topic I’ll have to tackle as its own post one day. Suffice to say the modern chamois is less like a little pad and more like crotch upholstery. Giant thick thing and they’re bigger every year. This year’s shorts have a chamois the size of a basketball. Paul Bunyan could use it. And where traditional chamois had a little terry-cloth section where your unit goes—we always called it “the penis patch”—these latest ones have full thick chamois all the way up practically to the navel so there’s no ventilation. It feels like you’re riding with a book shoved down the front of your shorts. I’d actually put them on before I remembered their cursedness. Had I ridden in those, this would be the story of a crotch done wrong and maybe of a mid-ride suicide.

My second choice of shorts were last year’s, with all the seams done in bright orange. It’s a really lame Spiderman kind of look, especially the bright seam running right up the front of the crotch, and my wife has said they’re downright lewd. My kids get embarrassed when I wear them. I’d have blown all this off, except that (though I’d met only one of them) I knew the men we’d me meeting up with for camping would all be real men: big strong guys with trucks and boats and biceps. (Not that they’re lowbrow; they know how to make non-grey, non-slimy hash browns and how to roast an entire pig on a spit.) I pictured them sitting around a campfire drinking beers when this skinny little bike guy shows up with obscene orange-piped shorts: not a good first impression. So I had to wear the shorts I’d worn a couple days before during a 55-mile ride over Luther and Carson Pass.

I hit the road a little after 1 p.m., a few minutes after my wife took off in the car with the kids. (She’d have lunch before driving to the campground and would pass me on the road.) It was 95 degrees. The west side of Luther Pass is much harder than the east side that used to be a Death Ride pass. It starts at about 6,500 feet and winds up at 7,740. I could really feel the altitude and my bad leg felt heavy and kind of stiff. The climb is long and straight and there’s no shade. Plus, I had a headwind—not the kind that’s at least refreshing, but the angry hot wind that just parches you. But Luther is not that big a deal and soon enough I was cruising down the east side, then down through Pickett’s Junction and Markleville where I refilled a bottle at a cool old drinking fountain right alongside the road.

My family passed me at the base of Ebbetts. They acted like I was some kind of hero. Then they drove on, and I began my suffering. Ebbetts is a pretty brutal climb. It’s got some switchbacks of grotesque gradient. I’d never ridden it solo before—it’s a lot easier when it’s the Death Ride and you’ve been training and have excitement and camaraderie working for you. Plus, I really didn’t know what else awaited me after the summit. I imagined it would be around thirty miles of gradual descent, but had to keep something in the tank in case the ride turned out a lot longer and/or harder than I expected.

About halfway up I was really suffering, and running low on energy drink. The air was cooler but also thinner. My gearing was just barely low enough. I weaved like a paperboy. The grade blocked the wind most of the time, but in sections it would return and rush in my ears trying to shatter my morale. There is a human impulse to complain even if nobody is around to hear it; I fought this. Ebbetts has a lot of sudden downhills that slam you into another steep uphill section. All they do is screw up your rhythm and undo some of the progress you’ve made toward that 8,736 foot summit.

Finally I reached the top. There were already port-a-potties set up for the upcoming Death Ride. I took a leak and started the descent. The road is steep and twisty and I was so tired my hands were hurting just working the brakes. In very little time I’d reach Hermit Valley, which is around 7,000 feet above sea level. This is where the Death Ride has you turn around and climb the south face of Ebbetts. From this point on I had little idea what to expect from the ride but was still shocked to find myself climbing again. Not just a little roller or two, but serious grades, one melting into the next. Eventually I realized that Hermit Valley wouldn’t be a valley if it didn’t have a grade on either side of it. I’d literally never considered this before in my life. I’m not very bright.

As I toiled away, trying to be like a robot (and thus incapable of misery) some guy in a jeep drove down toward me. He slowed down and asked, “How far is it to Hermit Valley?” Of course he didn’t deserve scorn, and of course this is a reasonable question, but at the time I felt true contempt. What—is your foot getting tired on the pedal? Is this drive boring you? Are you in a rush?

Finally I reached a sign: Pacific Grade Summit, Elevation 8,050. Only then did I vaguely recall seeing that on a map. Now, though, I figured it must be all downhill to the campground. But it wasn’t. The road continued to roll up and down and put the fear into me. How much longer could I hold out? Strength aside, there was the matter of fuel. I had some gels left but nothing to wash them down with. I encountered a lodge at Alpine Lake and topped up my bottles. When I got back out to the main road, I suddenly wasn’t sure which direction to go in. My brain was that muddy. I figured it out but wasn’t completely confident.

It took me forever, still fighting the wind, to get down to 7,000 feet. Fortunately I didn’t miss the single sign to the little uncharted road leading to the campground. It was at this point I realized two unsettling things. One, my assumption that by the end of the ride I’d have logged as much vertical loss as gain was erroneous. That rule only holds true when you start and finish at the same place (i.e., home). There is of course no guarantee of this when you don’t know the elevation of the destination. Second, I realized why it had seemed like I’d done more than my fair share of climbing over the last 40 miles: it’s because after climbing Luther, I’d gotten more than my fair share of descending. Markleeville is more than a thousand feet lower than South Lake Tahoe. I’d dug myself into a hole I’d have to climb out of. So maybe point-to-point rides aren’t such a great thing after all.

So yeah, there was one more brutally steep grade to get over, a few miles and maybe 600 more feet of climbing. I made it. Hardest ride in ten months. I guess there’s not much more to tell.


  1. Shades of Odyssey '91--only in the other direction. I think DR had the climb out of Hermit Valley heading west as a sixth pass one year, didn't they? Well done on the ride. And Red Hut is most excellent!

  2. Um, yeah, sorry Dana. About the shorts, I mean...