Friday, July 21, 2017

Ride Report - Sierra Nevada “Almost Death Ride”

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and frontier violence.


You might not have known this about me, but I’m one of those big-shot bike racers on an elite racing team. Wait, that’s not quite right. More of a shot, baggy-eyed bike geek in a book club. Wait, that’s too harsh. I’m somewhere in the middle: an ageing former racer on the East Bay Velo Club. EBVC is a group of classy old veterans, some of whom still race and make the podium regularly, and all of whom love big food, good coffee, biking, and race reports (roughly in that order).

Well, I did race once this year but that was off-road and probably doesn’t count. So in lieu of a glory-filled tale of my peloton-crushing exploits, here is my food-filled tale of crushing myself on an epic mountain ride in the Lake Tahoe region with my EBVC pals Craig and Ian.

Executive summary

It was brutally hot. The climbs were brutally hard. Ian, Craig, and I are brutally old. We ate brutally well. Hydration was a problem. Mother Nature treated us brutally. Verdict? Epic PASS. We got in touch with our inner brutes.

Short version 
  • Ride stats: 117 miles; 8 hours 3 minutes ride time; 12,080 feet of climbing over 32 categorized climbs (at least, as categorized by Strava), including Monitor Pass (category 1) and Ebbetts Pass (HC)
  • Pre-ride dinner: huge plate of pasta, BBQ chicken & peppers, French bread, salad, one “hydration” beer (Stella Artois)
  • Breakfast: bowl of cereal that was organic but 90% sugar; bowl of fake Cheerios; 1% milk; banana; 1 NoDoz
  • During ride: 2 or 3 energy bars, 1 gel (2x caffeine), 3 sleeves shot blox, 2 Hostess cupcakes, 1 20-oz. Coke, about 10 bottles of water
  • After ride: 3 “Greek” wings, pita bread, baba ghanoush, ½-pound lamb burger with feta, big pile of seasoned fries with aioli, 3 huge glasses of water
To make the ride especially hard, we all failed to train properly. We also added on two more weekend rides as garnish: a 35-miler on Friday evening just to wear ourselves out, and a 67-mile “insult to injury” ride on Sunday. We modeled the main (Saturday) ride loosely on the Markleeville Death Ride, but did two trips over Luther Pass instead of the backsides of Monitor and Ebbetts so we wouldn’t run out of water.

The average temperature was 90 degrees. For long stretches, it was well over 100. The campground 2/3 of the way up Ebbetts Pass, where we’d planned to get water, was oddly dry. Nevertheless, we avoided heatstroke and completed the ride, though we were pretty well hobbled by the end. High spirits and sophomoric humor dominated the proceedings.

Long version

Who are Craig and Ian, anyway? (Since this post is destined to be a cult classic like Deliverance, The Osterman Weekend, and The Blair Witch Project, I suppose I should develop my characters.) Craig is a big friendly giant, who used to play football and now drags us around in his slipstream across the flats, never bothering to draft us because that would just slow things down and anyway he never needs to rest. Craig can climb like the dickens, which has never made sense to me given his size.

Ian, on the other hand, is not a giant, but he’s from England and has that cool accent that makes him sound all intellectual and authoritative, and he has that overseas vibe that makes you feel automatically inferior as a cyclist. Vague impressions aside, Ian holds a 5th-place Strava KOM—just behind four-time national champion Freddie Rodriguez—on the legendary Lomas Cantadas climb. Needless to say, I went into this ride very worried that my pals would hate me by the end for slowing them down so much.

I should also point out that my normal road bike was out of commission for this ride so I was riding my backup bike, which is pretty decent except the oversized aluminum tubes transmit all the road shock right the way up to make my ass and hands super sore, which causes whining. On the plus side, this bike has a really cool head badge. (I pointed it out to Craig, who said, “Oh, a photo of when your kids were younger and still loved you!”)

For a summary of our route consult Appendix A. The climb up Luther Pass was a decent warmup. It’s not that hard a climb, gaining 1,359 feet to a summit of 7,740. It was a beautiful day, with no rain forecast (a pleasant change from my last would-be epic ride).

After a short descent we made our way up Carson Pass, braving a headwind. I’m not complaining, mind you—the wind actually made it easier to suck Craig’s wheel.

It was weird doing Carson so early in the ride … every other time I’ve ridden it was toward the end of the Death Ride, when I was already worn out. The temperature was perfect at this point. Still a fair bit of snow at the higher elevations. In case you were wondering, this pass is named for Kit Carson, an illiterate trapper and frontiersman whose idea it was to pioneer this route through the snow (against the advice of local Washoe Indians), causing the expedition to have to eat their dogs, horses, and mules for lack of game.

At the summit we fared better than that expedition had. Though there was no running water, the visitor’s center sold us bottled water for the low, low price of $0.50. I feel bad for all the wasted plastic but I guess it’s better than eating our pets.

Here’s the requisite glamour shot. The real point of this photo is the elevation sign over my shoulder. It’s a little too small to read, but the summit elevation is 8,574 feet. I’d have liked to get a better shot of that sign, but Ian and Craig seem to have some problem with standing out in the middle of the road and getting run over. These signs meant a lot to me during the ride, because they were my only indicators of progress: my backup bike has no computer and I wasn’t even wearing my watch.

After Carson we descended for a glorious 15 miles, then had some rollers through Markleeville. Is there anything interesting to be said about this little town? Well, it’s named after Jacob Marklee who lived there for many years before dying in a gunfight. Also, according to Census data, 100% of Markleeville’s population live in households, 0% live in non-institutionalized group quarters, and 0% are institutionalized (at the moment). That photo of my bike (above) shows this town in the background. (Yes, that’s pretty much all there is to see.)

It started getting really hot as we headed south on Highway 89 towards Ebbetts Pass. Ian’s bike computer registered 104 degrees, Craig’s 106. I think we had a bit of a tailwind as well. My energy bar was sweating in its package and came out covered in a snot-like film. Melted frosting, maybe. Not that I minded. What I do mind is how so many modern energy bars are full of seeds. My kid has swiped all the basic flavors from our stash, leaving me with the weird ones, like “Berry Pomegranate Chia” which is mostly chia seeds.  Worse, I have all these “Nuts & Seeds” bars that have actual pumpkin seeds in them, as though people actually eat those other than after carving Jack-O-Lanterns (in which case most of the seeds end up on the floor anyway).  After eating one of these modern bars, I spend the next five miles running my tongue around dislodging all the seeds from my teeth.  A tired, sore  tongue is just that much more suffering I don’t need.

See that sign in the distance? That marks where Highway 89 heads east toward Monitor Pass, which we’d hit later. But first we went straight to take Highway 4 up Ebbetts Pass, our hardest climb of the day. Ebbetts Pass is named for John Ebbetts, another pioneer, who naively recommended this route for the transcontinental railroad because he mistakenly thought it didn’t get much snow, based on his one visit there. He planned a second trip but was killed in a steamboat explosion before he could go. I get the impression lives were more exciting, and shorter, in those days.

Ebbetts Pass is a beautiful and very hard climb. My backup bike lacks a compact crank; I thought the ensuing boost to my mojo would help me handle the grade, but it did not. (At least both my legs were working right … last time I did this climb, I was recovering from a broken femur and dealing with asymmetrical power delivery.) At times my gearing limited how easy I could take it on a steep pitch, thus this photo.

For the most part I couldn’t keep up with Ian and Craig, but could at least keep them in sight. Here, I’d planned a scenic photo with my pals in the distance, but by the time I got my camera out, they’d rounded the bend.

There’s a campground about 2/3 of the way up that we were counting on for water, but none of the spigots worked. We asked a couple of campers about it and they said, “We know nothing. We’re so stupid we don’t even know our own names. Please bother somebody else because we’re about to cry. We just don’t know what else to do.” (I’m not sure I heard this right, but it’s the gist of their response.) We found the camp host, who was hiding in a giant RV and pretended not to hear Ian’s salutations, despite his commanding accent. Finally the host mumbled, “No water, go away, I hate you,” or something to that effect. He had this giant water tank but offered us nothing because his misanthropy and selfishness were limitless. Note: we were not bitter.

Near the summit of this pass is a beautiful lake, Kinney Reservoir to be precise. This reservoir was dug in 1896 by frontiersman Joseph Kinney, who never got to see it filled, as he was fatally garroted with fishing line by his six-year-old nephew in a freak fishing accident. (Okay, I made that up.)

We thought about filling our bottles in the lake, but it’s full of filthy, drooling, peeing fish such as brook, rainbow, and cutthroat (!) trout.

At the summit of Ebbetts we encountered a friendly biking couple in their 60s who had parked their car at the intersection of Highway 4 and 89—that is, the start of Monitor Pass, our next big climb—and offered to meet us there (after we all descended Ebbetts) to give us water. The nice couple also snapped this photo.

Zoom in all you want, you still can’t read the elevation on that sign. It’s 8,730 feet, which is higher than the summit of the Col du Galibier, the highest point in this year’s Tour de France.

Ebbetts is a glorious descent. I must say, it was really nice riding these roads without all the Death Ride throngs: safer, and quieter, and less chaotic. Of course I wasn’t able to get many photos—just this one.

Along the way down we stopped to fill up bottles at a fast-running section of the creek. That is, Ian and Craig did. I am far too afraid of waterborne parasites to drink anything that doesn’t come from a tap. With creek water there’s a giardia risk, of course, and I particularly had in mind this description by Anthony Bourdain of the aftermath of ingesting an amoeba: 
It slammed me shut like a book, sent me crawling to the bathroom shitting like a mink, clutching my stomach and projectile vomiting. I prayed that night. For many hours. And, as you might assume, I’m the worst kind of atheist.
I should point out that when fact-checking this, I discovered that it was a bad mussel that made Bourdain sick, not an amoeba. But that doesn’t change the fact that during this ride I was more willing to risk dehydration than waterborne illness.

Monitor Pass was a mother. The heat, which had subsided somewhat on the higher elevations of Ebbetts, was back into triple digits. A long, straight section of 10% grade felt like it would never end. What with my tired legs and old school gearing, I had to weave quite a bit. Fortunately, there’s absolutely nobody up there, so you can hear a car coming from a mile away. (Okay, maybe not actually a mile, but a right fur piece anyway.)

This section of highway is one of the newest in the Sierra Nevada mountains, having been paved in 1954. According to Wikipedia, “The highway project was promoted by Robert M. Jackson of Markleeville, who worked for the Alpine County Public Works Department for more than 30 years until he perished in a grisly wood chipper accident.” (Yeah, I embellished that.)

The summit of this climb marked a milestone for at least two of us: we were now 80 miles into this ride, making it the longest we’d done since the 2014 Everest Challenge. This gave us a sense of accomplishment, sure, but also dread, as we had 37 miles left to go.

Craig got a front flat. His tire had developed a hernia. We had to boot it, using a rubber boot I had and a duct tape one from Ian. To be extra safe, Craig put only 70 or 80 PSI in his tire. The point of this photo, of course, is the sweat salt on Craig’s jersey.

Craig kept dragging us along. Even 90+ miles into the ride, I honestly don’t think he’d drafted either of us once. Drafting him all day must be what it’s like to be Chris Froome ensconced perpetually in the womblike slipstream of Team Sky (except I’m not jacked up on performance-enhancing drugs).

As we rolled along I had an in-my-body experience: this sudden full realization of living my life right now, moment by moment—that what I was seeing before me wasn’t a dream, a memory, a flashback, an illusion, or a vision of the future.  Gone was the sense that my life is all cerebral and abstract; I was aware during that moment of being a living organism processing and reacting to immediate stimulus. I know this all sounds obvious, but actually this real-life sensation, this sense of bearing real-time witness to my own currently unfolding experience, is for me the exception and not the rule.  I experience this feeling from time to time, and find it exhilarating. (I’ve talked to at least one person who finds it terrifying.)

We stopped in Markleeville again for water and goodies. At this point I still had an energy bar on me, but it was a “Cloves, Peppercorns, Grape Nuts & Gravel” variety and I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I also had a gel, but it was an expired tangerine flavor that is the wrong kind of sour and should really be called “Tangerine & Stale Cigarette.” I was really craving a Hostess fruit pie (which packs like 600 calories) but the general store didn’t have any. Fortunately, I got something almost as good.

The first ingredient in these Hostess cupcakes is sugar, but don’t worry, they also contain high fructose corn syrup, along with “vegetable and/or animal shortening.” These cupcakes are sold as “Pingüinos” (i.e., penguins) in Mexico. Could these actually have penguin fat in them? Possibly. But the point is, they’re light and fluffy and really easy to eat, unlike a standard energy bar, which is hard to chew when you’re 100 miles into a ride and knackered.

Craig ate an energy bar and a small bag of potato chips, one or both of which, as we headed toward Luther Pass, started to mess up his stomach. (I momentarily wondered if it was the creek water, except Ian’s stomach was fine.) The upshot of this was that Craig no longer felt like dragging our asses along into the headwind we found ourselves facing. Fortunately, I finally started to feel pretty good. Clouds had appeared and it was a bit cooler, and I think I’d hit that perfect level of dehydration: not enough to affect my power, but enough to cut my weight by several pounds, improving my power/weight ratio.

My gearing still wasn’t as low as I’d have liked, so I had to dig pretty deep in the long run-up to Luther Pass.  Strava calls this stretch “Death Ride Carson Pass Part 1” and reckons it a category 2 climb. I guess that’s about right, especially since we had a headwind. It was a real slog, but my legs did this odd thing they sometimes do really far into a ride:  they just kept turning, as if unbidden, surprising me with their tenacity.  Their motion was utterly without pause, as if the turning of the rear wheel was dragging them along instead of the other way around. I was kind of mesmerized watching them go, wondering things like “How are you doing that?”  My legs didn’t even hurt that bad, though my butt, feet, and hands were in agony.

After a subdued final descent (subdued owing to the low pressure in Craig’s front tire) we reached the car, triumphant because we’d conquered a seriously hard ride without having really trained for it. Yeah, we’re fricking old, but maybe we’ve still got some heat left in our coals. Here I’d thought winging it was the privilege of the young ... but it turns out the cussedness of age is highly compatible with reckless ambition.

Here is the requisite “after” shot. The point of this photo, of course, is the pair of ridiculous dents in my forehead from my helmet.

Look , I know this report would be more exciting and fun if our ride had been a disaster, like this one, but things turned out really out well, especially when it was time for dinner. Due to poor planning, we had no bike lock for the car rack, so were restricted, when choosing a restaurant, to a place that looked out on the parking lot so could see our bikes. Fortunately there was a Mediterranean place with a picnic table out front, which was doubly handy because when Ian’s hamstring cramped and he cried out in pain he didn’t scare anyone. Check out these kind vittles:

On that note, I just realized I’m starving, having been on the South Beach diet for two weeks (excepting this Tahoe weekend, when I ate like a king). Time to go eat some squash and other assorted vegetable nonsense.

Appendix A – route and climb stats 
  • Parked at the junction of Highway 50 and 89 (elevation 6,381 feet)
  • Rode up the west side of Luther Pass (a category 3 climb, summit elevation 7,740 feet)
  • Turned right on Highway 88 and headed up Carson Pass (cat 2, elevation 8,574)
  • Turned around and descended to Woodfords, where we turned right to stay on 89 and headed to Markleeville (elevation 5,489)
  • Continued on 89 and then Highway 4 and climbed Ebbetts Pass (huis categorie, aka HC; elevation 8,730), failing to get water along the way
  • Turned around and dropped back down to the junction of 4 and 89, elevation 5,827 feet
  • Turned right and headed east on 89, climbing the west side of Monitor Pass (cat 1, elevation 8,314)
  • Turned around and descended back to Markleeville, then retraced our route along 88/89 to the Luther Pass junction (this bit is listed as a cat 2 climb)
  • Turned right on 89 and climbed the east side of Luther Pass (cat 3, elevation 7,740)
  • Descended back to the car
Appendix B – What does “Almost Death Ride” mean?

I say “almost” because our ride was almost as hard as the Death Ride. And it was better because we didn’t have to fork out $125, share the road with thousands of others, and endure all the fuss of registration, etc.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the Markleeville Death Ride is a popular century ride (not a race) that traverses five mountain passes over its 129-mile length. I’ve ridden it 12 or 13 times, and (as described here and here) always very much enjoyed it. These days, the main purpose of the Death Ride is to make people like me feel old. I first rode it in 1993, half my lifetime ago, and last rode it in 2005, a quarter of my lifetime ago. Where has all the time gone?

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