Wednesday, August 15, 2012

From the Archives - Odyssey '91


While riding over Ebbetts Pass near Lake Tahoe recently, I thought back to a really, really hard ride I did a couple decades ago. Two friends and I had set out to do something epic, something to test our manhood. Something we’d never forget. A week or two before the ride, we’d met in a cafĂ©, pored over some topographical maps of the Lake Tahoe area, and planned out a route that would be over 200 miles long with around 20,000 feet of climbing. We weren’t bike tourists: this would be a one-day ride. We gave the ride a name: Odyssey ’91.

Odyssey ’91 didn’t go so well, but then that was sort of the point. It was absolutely brutal, shockingly so, and took us to unprecedented depths of suffering. In the week or two following the ride, each of us wrote about the experience. I have tried to find Trevor’s tale and John’s epic poem, but in vain. I also cannot find a single photo from the ride. But here is my original tale, sprinkled with photos from other rides the three of us did around then. Enjoy please enjoy.

From the archives: Odyssey ’91

Imagine this: you’ve got a $10,000 stereo, have a couple friends over, and are playing rock music at full blast. The bass sends shock waves across the floor and through the walls, making your heart flutter. The lights in your apartment, starved of electricity, flicker along with the beat like a flame in a strong wind. You can’t resist cracking a huge grin when the sound, traveling up your legs, vibrates your cajones, which are the center for percussion appreciation in humans. Can you imagine this feeling? The last time I had it I was at the top of Ebbetts Pass, 8,730 feet above sea level, beginning the descent of a perfectly paved single lane road on my bike, 160 miles into an epic bike ride with my friends. 

Odyssey ‘91. Like that spontaneous rooftop concert by the Beatles, it wasn’t hyped and almost certainly left thousands of fans feeling cheated somehow that they weren’t notified. Like that general admission Who concert, somebody could have been killed. Like a 2 Live Crew event, it would shock a nation of concerned parents by arrogantly defying social norms. Two hundred and nine miles. Twenty thousand feet of vertical climbing. Cold rain. Burning sun. Go ride or go home. On August 15 we set out to kick the flyest dope ride the free world has ever known: Odyssey ‘91.

Crossing over the summit of Ebbetts Pass was in every way a high point of the ride, a chance to rekindle our passion for the sport of cycling and enjoy a really blazing descent. But before I let you entertain your own grandiose visions of conquering the vast American asphalt wilderness, I should perhaps take you back to an earlier point in the ride, specifically Avery, California, when we’d been forced by pure exhaustion to take an extended rest stop. By “we” I mean Trevor Thorpe, John Pelster, and I, flying the proud stars‑and‑stripes jerseys we won in the 1990 Collegiate National Team Time Trial Championship. (Not only were these jerseys an aesthetically sound choice, but is at turned out a safe one given the hillbillies we encountered—the type easily rallied to senseless violence by others’ transgressions, such as lack of patriotism.)

Pure exhaustion at mile 114 resulted from poor trip planning and a spate of unexpected climbs beginning around 90 miles into the ride, at which point we’d been descending for like 60 miles. We had expected another 20 miles of gradual downhill before the major climbing would begin. Really? A full 80 miles of descending? Yep—as we rode through a tiny town, Wilseyville, I checked the Odyssey ‘91 Elevation Profile chart that Trevor had made, and it showed a gradual descent from 2,700 feet to 2,400 by mile 110, before a slight rise to Avery, our designated lunch stop.

This was the part of the route we’d guessed at—the gap where two of Trevor’s topographical maps didn’t quite meet up. An accurate altitude profile of this section would look like an electrocardiogram of a heart attack victim getting CPR. Railroad Flat road was anything but. We didn’t mind at first, when we plummeted downhill at 45, all drafting inches from one another like F‑15 fighters in formation. But then the road suddenly went uphill. The G forces hammered my stomach down within the bones of my pelvis and stretched the skin tight over my cheekbones. Not that any of us was fazed, of course. We powered up the climb, out of the saddle, lean and fluid like praying mantises in some wild dance. Sure, you say, there’s nothing natural about insects dancing. Well, I’ll reply, there’s actually nothing natural about a person mounting a rolling steel and aluminum apparatus and putting it into motion like he belonged on it.

I suppose we made it look easy for awhile, until we rounded a bend and realized the hill was more than a short rise, and in fact went on and on. Slouching back down on our saddles, we quickly sobered up to the drudgery of torturing our bodies needlessly. Finally we reached what we expected to be a summit, only to be plunged down again. Descend. Climb. Repeat. Over the next few miles we learned to hate Railroad Flat road, and to resent the seeming innocence of its name.

Finally we reached Sheep Ranch road, which we were certain would be an improvement. I checked the profile chart again. Sweat had penetrated the plastic tape coating it, making the ink run precisely where the chart was radically incorrect. The chart gave me no warning that the next twelve miles would be absolutely brutal, nothing but up and down—a microcosm of the pathetic, wretched human condition with its illusory peaks and crushing depressions.

Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, we writhed like tortured animals, little understanding our suffering and powerless to bring it to an end. Suddenly, I was no longer on a bicycle. I was in the ring with Mike Tyson, a turnbuckle wedging its way into my back, pressing deeper into me with every body blow. I had a mental picture of blood running freely down my chin, out of my nose, out of every pore, my teeth flapping uselessly on ripped strands of gum. My sight gone, I strive only to sink to the mercy of the mat, except the constant beating is holding me firmly against the turnbuckle. Suddenly, the bell rings and my coach is telling me don’t worry, kid, you’ve only got ten rounds to go.

The vision faded out and I realized I was descending again. This only meant a new, lower low and severe penance for my momentary, ill-gotten relief. We learned to loathe descending more than climbing itself, as the harbinger of future torment. For you to truly understand the Hell that is Sheep Ranch Road, you must read this paragraph over again and again. Keep reading it until you hate it. Then read it some more. Remember that it is only the literary rendition of what we actually faced on the road.

Terrible things happen to the mind when the body is inflicted with incessant hardship. Take, for example, the Donner party and Alfred Packer, people who ate one another when locked in by harsh winter storm. Or consider desperate animals who chew their feet off to escape a steel‑jawed trap. Or women who set about tooling men to somehow get revenge for the horrible pain of their high heels. I suppose every mind develops some kind of psychosis when starved of food, oxygen, or common sense. On Sheep Ranch Road, my own derangement must have seemed harmless enough to the others; I never went completely berserk or tried to kill anybody. Rather, the mental firestorm manifested in an incessant incantation that reverberated through my brain, a thousand voices chanting an old ditty from summer camp:

Green Mountain, we’re the very best.
The best camp in the west.
Whenever we go out, 
The people always shout: 
There goes Green Mountain,
And the very best!
Da‑da da‑da da da da
[Repeats, over and over again]

The next thing I knew, I was waking up. Not in my nice warm bed, realizing it was all just a horrible nightmare, but on the toilet of a public restroom in Avery, halfway through a dazed defecation and wondering how long I’d slept. I was trying to sort out the dream I’d had, which somehow involved getting back the Bear Creek Elementary t‑shirt, the mottled brown one with milk‑chocolate sleeves that my mom chose out for me in the sixth grade. It was in perfect condition and gave me strength somehow.

I didn’t want to move. The dream was slowly replaced in my mind by the memory of the last half hour, during which time I struggled to wash down an XL‑40 Chocolate Truffle Bar with the last of my Exceed Fluid Replacement And Energy Drink. The roof of my mouth still ached and my throat was raw from the dry friction of the gagging reflex when I choked down the last of the dry energy bar. My stomach was churning now, from the lunch I bought at a convenience store: two‑thirds of an Entenmann’s orange cake, lubricated prudently with a Pepsi and a Dr. Pepper.

I left the restroom, found JP and Trev, and that was the end of our rest stop. The prospect of another 100 miles, with another nine thousand feet of climbing, stopped me cold. I couldn’t bear to mount my bike. But what else was I gonnna do? I’d dug my own grave.

Over the next twenty miles I heard the jeering voices of those who told me I was a fool to attempt Odyssey ‘91: “You’re crazy.” “Why the hell are you gonna do that?” “You’ll never make it, you haven’t even been riding.” I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, they just turned around slowly, and my arms could barely support my upper body. Holding the bike in a straight line became like a drunk driving test I couldn’t pass. A few times I bumped into John, and finally the impulse to drift overcame my body and I veered off towards the center of the highway.

Trevor called for a break and we pulled over. Trying to rest my arms on the handlebar was futile. I kept sliding off, my arms bathed in a queer sweat that had my whole head swimming despite the mild sixty‑five degree day. Trevor announced we’d need to make seventy miles in the next four hours; I honestly doubted I could make even seven miles. When we set off again, I resolved that even if I somehow survived this ordeal, I would never ride a bicycle again. The next dozen or so miles reinforced this depressing resolution.

The human body is an amazing machine. Without warning, relief began in my head, in the form of optimism, and slowly drained through my body like gasoline filling the empty tank of a previously stranded car. I could feel my spine straighten as if invisible hands were lifting me by the armpits. My vision returned as though I’d put in contact lenses. By the time we reached mile 140 and Big Meadow, which turned out (like so many stops along the way) to be less a town than a roadside outhouse, I was back from death’s door and began to feel positively powerful.

Unfortunately, at this point John’s face became sunken and pale and he seemed to fall under the deadly spell of a wasting disease. At Bear Valley, we stopped at a gas station and he didn’t have the physical strength to effectively chew his Coke, much less the dreaded energy bar. Slouched up against a gas pump, he complained to Trevor, “I wish I was dead.” Trevor nodded in agreement and started to say something—but John stopped him and said, “No. I’m not just using the expression. I mean it, I really wish I was dead right now.”

John, too, eventually recovered and although Trevor never experienced the Grim Reaper effect, he was obviously fatigued during the four‑mile, two thousand foot wall from Hermit Valley to the top of Ebbets Pass. I felt positively fresh, although in retrospect I think I had merely become accustomed to the strain; my frame of reference was skewed. Now I could maneuver around and capture the moment in pictures with my little Minolta. Not that I could get Trevor to pose for the camera: he was locked into a fierce struggle against the mountain and the thin air of over eight thousand feet of altitude. Only on the ensuing descent did we all experience the euphoric feeling I described in my opening passage. Only then did we begin darting around like the bats that occasionally seemed to fly at our heads from out of the evening sky.

At Markleeville, we stopped for the night. Not because we were bedwetters, and not because the unexpected climbs had worn us out, nor because we’d realized our own physical limitations (since we evidently had none). The real problem was a tactical error we made in planning the ride: our itinerary just wasn’t sound. We planned to average about sixteen miles per hour, to take a certain number of rest stops, to spend between fifteen and eighteen hours on the bike, and to cover the distance in one day. We failed to figure in the amount of daylight available to us. Even with the horrors of Sheep Ranch Road, we kept to our original pace, perfectly, but we left at 7:00 a.m., which found us in Markleeville at 8:30 p.m., just as the sun had dipped out of sight, with about thirty‑five miles to go.

We could have made it if we were near civilization, but Lake Tahoe has its own style of darkness. It doesn’t mean reduced visibility with enough light pollution to get by. It means there is no difference between having your eyes open or closed. We had to get a motel room and park the bikes. We were too late for the restaurants in Markleeville, so we found a little store and picked out our dinners, which were very simple: John got Doritos corn chips, Trevor got Ruffles Sour Cream ‘n’ Cheddar, and I chose my favorite, Cool Ranch Doritos.

We ate at the motel. My third handful of chips tore the roof of my mouth like a cheese grater and I gave up on eating. A shower washed off the outer layer of my full body grime. You know the old clichĂ©, “He was asleep before his head hit the pillow?” Well it didn’t apply in Markleeville. Too much pain was buzzing through our limbs to allow sleep. We all basically waited a bunch of hours for the sun to come up, while lying down with our eyes closed. The next morning, we climbed begrudgingly back on our bikes and hit the road. The climbing started immediately. Three hours later, Odyssey ‘91 was history. And so, of course, were we.

Final stats: 209 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing, 16½ hours, 15.7 mph average speed.


  1. Believe it or not, it's pure coincidence that I posted this story on the anniversary of the ride. What are the odds?

  2. Jesus, remember the bats? I thought something was wrong with my eyesight but then discovered that the flitting shadows were not from fatigue, but from all the bats.

    Also, I recall you were pretty damn chipper after your nap on the toilet. For a few minutes anyway.

  3. Ohhh . . . the Entenmann's! The horror! I seem to remember that you bought that cake because it was the first thing you saw in the store. I also remember you asking me if I wanted to have any, but I think I declined.

    Trevor, I do recollect the bats as well. That's the only wildlife I think I saw the whole ride. I sure didn't see the bee that stung my finger on day 2. I also lost a contact lens somewhere that night and had to ride home with one eye. Gawd. And do you guys recall the sprint to the Tahoe City Limit sign?

  4. Your blog is super-inspiring -- would you consider sharing your posts on Albany Patch (community news all about Albany, CA)??

  5. My sister was at that Who concert. That was at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati...