I used to ride the Markleeville Death Ride every year, until the registration process became too cumbersome and I started racing the Everest Challenge instead. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Death Ride hadn’t filled up, so I signed up with my daughter Alexa. Read on for all the gory details. (Full disclosure: there is no actual gore.)
We ate like supermodels; we ate like kings. It was really hot. The scenery was gorgeous. My daughter set some new PRs. Verdict: EPIC PASS. (Any linguistic shimmer here involving mountain passes is involuntary.)
Here are the elevation profile, basic map, and Deluxe map (with numbers showing what order we rode the passes in).
Seemingly following my own bad example, my daughter Alexa went into this ride woefully undertrained, at least by the standards of anybody who takes preparation seriously. The Death Ride includes five high mountain passes, but our plan was to tackle just three of them: #1 (west side of Monitor); #3 (Ebbetts); and #5, Carson. We figured this would be about 100 miles with ~10,000 feet of climbing … but this was just a guess based on nice round numbers.
Dinner the night before was at a somewhat pricey Italian joint in South Lake Tahoe. I had an appetizer of stuffed mushrooms and then chicken saltimbocca over homemade fettuccine. The portions were woefully small. I could picture Kate Moss across the table saying, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. I’m such a cow.” It was pretty tasty, though I could show their cook a thing or two about making hand-cranked pasta; theirs was a bit limp. I inherited some of my daughter’s entrée because she got tired of it … the spiciness pretty much overwhelmed everything else.
Breakfast was supposed to be instant oatmeal, but our morning went totally awry (details below). We ended up scarfing a Clif bar apiece instead. It was a new flavor I’d never tried: Apricot Lunacy. Wait, that’s a Luna bar flavor. Or should be. But it was apricot, anyway. Pretty yum, in a wow,-my-hundred-thousandth-lifetime-Clif-bar kind of way.
During the ride I ate a banana-and-trans-fat mini-muffin; hundreds of Kettle-style potato chips; gobs of orange slices; about a dozen really poor robot-made chocolate chip cookies; a cup of weak instant coffee, black; five Pepsis; an electrolyte placebo capsule; three V-8s; 1.5 Cups-O-Noodles; several gels; ice cream bars; blah blah blah (all the usual nonsense ride foods) and a couple big ham & cheese sandwiches.
The post-ride dinner, which did not come with our $160 (apiece!) entry fees, was supposed to be at a far-flung restaurant (out of spite), but in the end we caved and had the onsite $10-a-pop burger plates: two burgers each (replete with trimmings, though the patties were cold), some admirably non-vegan baked beans, and hella potato salad.
We camped on the ground at Turtle Rock Park, a Death Ride tradition. It was surprisingly—almost eerily—easy to find a spot compared to years past. I almost wondered if we had the right weekend.
We carpooled to the ride with Chris, a fellow Albany High mountain bike coach, who was also one of Alexa’s teachers last semester. (Alexa got an A- in the class; any lower and this coach/teacher would not have been welcome in our group. Just kidding. Actually, if she’d scored lower, he surely wouldn’t have deigned to go with us.) Chris asked if we should set an alarm for the morning, and I explained the Death Ride organizers’ tradition of blasting the Jimi Hendrix performance of “Star Spangled Banner” at party volumes at 4:30 a.m.; i.e., no alarm needed.
Not far (enough) from our tent was a large party of jackasses who decided to hit the road at 3 a.m., which meant waking up at 2 (or maybe they never went to bed) and making a big breakfast in their stadium-lit compound. They talked incredibly loudly, like a bunch of drunks, so I couldn’t sleep. Without any knowledge of their leave-at-3 strategy, I kept waiting in vain them to turn in, and finally gave up and went over to tell them to quiet down. Most of them were so immersed in their 100-dB chitchat they didn’t even see or hear me. What a bunch of tools. My take is, if you have until 8 p.m. to finish a 125-mile ride, and you still need to start at 3 a.m., you’re not a real cyclist and should go try some other sport, like cordless bungee-jumping. Fortunately, they did quiet down, because my Plan B was to send them home to Mother in a cardboard box.
At 5:30 a.m., Chris woke us up. Evidently the 4:30 a.m. Hendrix wake-up call is no longer a tradition. He was just heading out (for all five passes) and we eventually got going at 6:30. Here is the “before” shot.
The ride begins on a descent and we froze our asses off … a Death Ride tradition that will never change. As the sun made its way up past the ridge to the west, things warmed up a bit.
Monitor Pass is a bear. So is taking father/daughter selfies with my ice-cube-slippery phone, especially when a scorpion is crawling toward my neck.
The scenery was as breathtaking as the altitude, notwithstanding fire damage.
The first rest stop wasn’t nearly as mobbed as in years past, which was fine by me. They no longer have energy bars or gels available, and the energy drink is either weak or diabetic-friendly depending on which volunteer you overhear. But they have weak instant coffee now, which is a plus at least from the hydration standpoint. You can tell Monitor was a tough climb because my daughter is a bit surly here.
Here she’s a bit perkier, no doubt due to the dueling V-8 juices she quaffed. Chris took this photo; after descending the backside of Monitor and climbing back up, he encountered us at the rest stop.
Wondering what ebvc is, on our jerseys? It’s just another way of saying EBVC. Does that help? No? Okay, here.
Here’s the official summit marker. Monitor is the lowest of the Death Ride passes, but not by much.
Not shown: the descent of Monitor. I don’t own a GoPro, or even a StayAm. If that doesn’t strike you as funny, it’s because I’m trying to avoid amusing even myself, due to my sunburned lips. If I were to smile too much they’d crack. Maybe you’d think that’s funny.
It’s a long run-up to Ebbetts Pass, with the temperature climbing along with us. I would like to take a moment to point out that I have done this pass with individuals (whom I won’t name) who whined the whole time, and I didn’t exactly blame them: it’s a steep, long climb. But my daughter didn’t whine at all. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe because no hill climb could ever compare to Mount Evans, which she rode three summers ago. (Though come to think of it, she didn’t whine then, either. At the time I chalked this up to lack of available oxygen.)
There’s a lake. Actually it’s Kinney Reservoir. This is at 8,350 feet elevation—so we’d already broken the climb’s back. It’s it amazing how you, gentle reader, barely have to exert any energy to journey up these passes with us, and yet you still complain about how long and arduous my blog posts are. Man, you’re not just humorless … you’re downright grumpy.
Due to California’s modern all-precipitation-all-the-time winter/spring format, there was still snow up there. It’s not hard to spot the snow in this photo, but I’ll bet you can’t find Waldo.
To mark our progress I would tell Alexa how much vertical gain we had left to go, but expressed as Berkeley-area climbs. For example, “We have 1.5 Spruces to go” or “We have 1 Wildcat to go.” My bike computer was understating the elevation, though, so I’d just announced half a Spruce to go when suddenly we reached the summit. Surprise!
This next photo doesn’t perhaps look very interesting, but that’s only because my arm isn’t like eight feet long and my phone’s “lens” isn’t very wide-angle. The point is, Alexa was so knackered, she had to lean her back up against me for support. The position I had to sustain for this made my back hurt quite a bit, proving what many of you already know: parenting is even harder than cycling.
Amazingly, I didn’t get the song “Lean On Me” in my head after this little exercise. Sometimes life is surprisingly merciful.
Check out this bag of chips. I wonder how high you’d need to take it before it actually exploded?
In other news, what’s with the watermelon? I mean, why offer what’s essentially a calorie-free food to hungry cyclists? Frustratingly enough, this is almost all Alexa felt like eating. I had to plead with her to eat more food. This is one area where you can’t “listen to your body.” Your body is a freaking liar!
Here is the requisite elevation shot. For the second time, Chris made the summit—his fourth, our second—right around the time we did. Incidentally, Ebbetts Pass is 62 feet higher than the Col du Galibier, which is the highest point in this year’s Tour de France. Does this mean Ebbetts is harder than the Galibier? Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. The Galibier is way, way harder. It’s a beast. But Ebbetts is hard enough.
We safely descended, had a nice lunch at the base (I grudgingly ate Alexa’s sandwich), and then the day got really, really hot: over 100 degrees for well over an hour! We tackled the seemingly endless Category 2 climb toward Carson Pass, and then it tackled us. It’s hard to describe how tedious and strenuous it was so I won’t bother. Eventually we arrived at the last full rest stop before the Carson summit. The Gu people were there handing out free product, which probably rescued Alexa from total blood sugar collapse. She loves herself some gels, especially their vanilla and their salted caramel. The Gu-sters also gave me some electrolyte capsules, which I took a) just to be nice, and b) as a placebo. I don’t doubt that these capsules are slightly useful, but potato chips have plenty of sodium, and orange slices have plenty of potassium, and that’s all there is to it.
While at this stop, some random woman came up to me and said, “Look at this! Somebody put his water bottle in my cage! What am I supposed to do with it?!” I was utterly perplexed. I mean, why tell me about it? Do I have a sign around my neck saying, “Come to me with all your problems”? Before I was able to come up with a response, I glanced at the bottle and discovered that, in fact, it happened to be mine. I have no idea how this happened; nor does Alexa.
Here is Alexa about to mount her bike for the final slog. If her expression is sanguine, that’s only because I hadn’t yet told her we had ten more miles to climb. On the map, we are at Picketts Junction where the boxed-in R is.
Beautiful meadow, snow-capped peaks, brisk headwind. Seconds after I snapped this, Alexa asked me to take the lead again. She certainly got to practice her drafting on this ride.
Up, up, and up.
Finally, finally we made the summit, then descended to the final rest stop, which shimmered like an oasis. (Full disclosure: it didn’t really shimmer, and I’ve never seen an actual oasis. But still.)
I knew there would be ice cream up there but I couldn’t find it. I looked around for somebody who had some. The first guy I saw was wearing a triathlon national champion jersey. He was eating a Drumstick. I pointed at the Drumstick and said, “Excuse me, but … where did you get that?” He replied (somewhat haughtily, I thought), “National championships.” As in, “This jersey you cannot buy.” I said, “No, I mean the ice cream.” Ouch … I felt a twinge of vicarious embarrassment. The champion pointed toward a huge truck with these vault-like doors on it which contained all manner of ice cream bar. You can imagine how tasty these were.
In the photo above, look at that little plastic strip bisecting the middle vent on my helmet. It gave me the stupidest tan lines of my life. No, I won’t be posting a photo of that. It sure sucks losing my hair.
And here’s the elevation photo. I suspect the height of the pole is to make the sign readable when the snow is incredibly deep … but if so, why is the Ebbetts Pass elevation sign so stubby? [Update: an alert reader has informed me that Ebbetts doesn’t need a tall sign because it’s closed in the winter.]
Descending Carson is an absolute blast. My brother Max, during a long-ago Death Ride, passed a cop car at over 60 mph. We took it a bit easier.
There’s one last uphill slog just before the finish, which is tolerable only because the excitement of being nearly done always gives you a final burst of energy. Alas, when we reached Turtle Rock we were at 96.6 miles with 9,750 feet of cumulative vertical gain. It goes without saying we had to keep riding, just so we could round out our ride at 100 miles and 10,000 feet of gain. Two miles of downhill, then two grueling miles back up. Here is Alexa stoically grinding out the last stretch.
I made a surprisingly unexciting video documenting the culmination of Alexa’s first full-on century ride.
Here is the “after” shot. I cannot account for my totally overblown expression. My only theory is that my crows’ feet are so deep they were causing me physical pain, and that my crazy grin is actually a grimace.
Here is our dinner. I cropped Alexa from the photo because the camera caught her mid-blink and you know how awful those shots can be. She didn’t touch the burger, by the way, so I got it. She was oddly un-hungry for someone who’d just conquered the longest bike ride of her life.
I’m sure there’s more I could write, but now it’s time to apply another coat of Carmex to my poor lips.
Here are the stats based on my old-fashioned bike computer.
- 100.2 miles
- 8:49:47 ride time
- 11.4 mph average speed
- 10,249 feet cumulative elevation gain
- 40.1 miles total climbing
- 42.8 miles total descending
Further Death Ride reading
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