Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Can COVID Anti-Vaxxers Be Reasoned With?


I came across some crudely written graffiti recently, spray-painted on a pillar. It read, “ANTI-VAXXERS PIE.” I was like, huh? Another pillar a quarter mile away had the same thing but the vandal’s skill had improved: it read, “ANTI-VAXXERS DIE.” I guess this made a little more sense, but how persuasive was this presumed to be? (This graffito was itself vandalized before I return to photograph it.)

At the other end of the spectrum is an article I read recently in The Atlantic titled “Stop Death Shaming.” I found this article as annoying as the graffiti. In this post I explain my annoyance, and examine the larger question of how we might persuade holdouts to finally get the COVID vaccine.

 Stop Death Shaming

What a stupid title, clearly intended to be shocking so as to attract readers, like clickbait. Of course nobody is “death shaming” because the dead can’t feel shame and nobody is so clueless as to scold a corpse. Meanwhile, the article doesn’t actually provide examples of anybody shaming the non-vaccinated. It does go on to reasonably bemoan the lack of constructive dialogue between those who believe in the COVID vaccine and those who don’t. It also usefully recounts a poll that ranked the top reasons anti-vaxxers list for abstaining:

  • Potential side effects (just over half of respondents)
  • Don’t trust the vaccines (nearly 40%)
  • Don’t trust the government (a third)
  • Don’t feel they need it (just under a quarter)
  • Aren’t sure the vaccines are protective (22%)
  • Don’t see COVID-19 as a major threat (17%)

The author concludes that at least these people show “significant willingness to consider vaccination” (though I can’t figure out how she arrives at this conclusion), and describes a dialogue she had with her uncle about why he and his wife aren’t vaccinated. The uncle asks a few questions, puts his willful ignorance on display, mentions the “little bit of research” he’s done, and concludes, “We’re not, you know—we’re still thinking about it.” The writer wraps up this little vignette by saying, “I felt good about our talk.”

You know what? I don’t feel good about their talk. This guy, and anti-vaxxers like him, have had over six months to ponder this decision. When are they going to get around to their “research”? They’re dithering while people are dying, and this Atlantic writer seems to think that’s fine as long as nobody hurts anyone else’s feelings.

But what really irks me the most about the article is that this journalist misses the biggest point of all: she seems to think it’s perfectly acceptable to only ever expect people to act in their own self-interest. Her uncle, and people like him, are failing to understand or admit that this is a matter of public health. In fact, they are failing to realize that there’s even such a thing as the greater good. In short they are thinking selfishly. This is the real crux of the problem.


Now wait, you might be thinking. If somebody believes the vaccine works, and gets vaccinated because he or she doesn’t want to get COVID, isn’t that also acting in one’s own self interest? Yes, of course. But this is a situation where one’s self interest happens to coincide with that of the rest of the population. This is what makes it so frustrating when selfish people do the wrong thing to the detriment of themselves and everyone else. It’s a lose-lose.

I suppose you might also question whether selfishness is really the core of our dilemma. Given that all these people are fixating on outlandish fictions such as the risks of side effects, a nefarious government, or the idea that the vaccine is somehow unnecessary, isn’t the real problem that they’re all just as dumb as a sack of hammers?

Okay, now that is not constructive, and I don’t believe it’s even true. According to the New York Times, about thirty percent of the adult U.S. population hasn’t had a shot yet. I don’t think 77 million people actually lack the mental capability to understand that the vaccines do work, that there hasn’t been a rash of side effects, that COVID really is highly contagious, and that you can contract and spread it unknowingly. I think the problem is that people are so scared, as they struggle to adapt to this insanely bizarre new reality, that they’re simply not thinking clearly.

Neuroscience and the vaccine holdouts

Perhaps a shallow dip into the literature of social neuroscience can help illustrate what is going on here. According to this article by Dr. David Rock, a cognitive scientist, “Much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000),” and “several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008).”  When humans feel threatened in a social situation, the “resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease.… Due to the overly vigilant amygdala, more tuned to threats than rewards, the threat response is often just below the surface and easily triggered.… This discovery that our brain is inherently attuned to threatening stimuli helps explain many disquieting parts of life,” including “why the media focuses on bad news.”

In evaluating how this plays out in social situations, Dr. Rock focuses on “five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness” (which form the handy acronym SCARF).  Understanding how to approach these realms, he contends, is the key to motivating people, particularly when they’re facing the uncomfortable prospect of significant change: “For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.”

So what does this have to do with trying to reason with anti-vaxxers? I would argue that just giving them their say, and being a good listener, as the Atlantic writer does, won’t change anything; nor will directly attacking their stated reasons for declining the vaccine (which are really just positions—you could even say excuses—rather than firm beliefs, not that they’re up for discussion). I think you need to cast the entire matter into a new light, that shocks the anti-vaxxer into a reassessing his or her status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

How to reframe the conversation

So here’s what I propose, should you find yourself in a position to discuss the COVID vaccine with, say, an uncle willing to hear you out. Instead of denying the risk of side effects, assume that they’re real, and focus on the utter selfishness that the anti-vaxxer displays when letting other people assume this risk. “So let me get this straight, Uncle Clyde,” you could say. “You’re so concerned about side effects, and the possible meddling of our untrustworthy government, that you’re going to stand by and let people like me take that risk so you don’t have to? So you’re basically looking out for number one? So if you were on the Titanic, you’d be elbowing women and children out of the way to get to a lifeboat? And in an active shooter situation, you might avail yourself of a human shield?” This argument would certainly light up the status, relatedness, and fairness realms described in the SCARF model. I wouldn’t expect the dialogue to continue much longer from here, but you’ll have presented Uncle Clyde’s amygdala with a new series of threats, and he might just start to reconsider the clever stories he’s been telling himself about vaccination. At some point he might even knuckle down and enlist the support of his neocortex.

As for your utterly selfish cousin Clint, who maintains that he’s robust and healthy and could totally kick COVID’s ass, you could say, “Oh, I see … and the possibility that your immune system is so good you could be infected but asymptomatic doesn’t concern you, because spreading the virus to Grandma isn’t your problem? So, if you were a smoker, you’d be the kind who totally blows smoke in people’s faces, and if they don’t like it fuck ‘em? I guess this is fine, until Grandma dies of COVID and me and the rest of the family blame all you for the rest of our lives.” This seems like a pretty decent appeal to the Status and Relatedness realms.

Let’s move on to our brother Bill who conveniently sits out the fight against the coronavirus by pretending COVID-19 isn’t a major threat. “So Bill … If this were a war that killed 670,000 Americans instead of a disease, and you were young enough to be a soldier, would you enlist, or just hope that the evil dictator running amok calmed down and called back his troops because he changed his mind? Or would you find some excuse, like flat feet or microscopic testicles, to stay home and hide out instead of facing the enemy?” His sense of relatedness, fairness, and status would have to be reevaluated. Is this shaming? Yes, of course it’s shaming! But it’s not death shaming, it’s selfish asshole shaming. Shaming is required here because these anti-vaxxers are shameless.

Now, when it comes to the poll about why people were declining the vaccine, there was of course the elephant in the room that nobody wanted to admit to: the pressure to follow their political party’s lead. This wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the poll results, but as detailed here, vaccination rates track closely to political party. This is primarily a GOP thing, obviously, though I blame the extreme right wing media more than the politicians. After all, as the Times reports, Mitch McConnell is encouraging Americans to get the vaccine, as is Mitt Romney, and even Donald Trump says he’s a “big believer.” The anti-vaccine mania is largely the fault of heartless, soulless, utterly self-serving media shitheads like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity who understand that keeping their acolytes’ amygdalae in a state of perpetual frenzy is instrumental in creating the seething, hyperbolic division among Americans that keeps ratings high. I think it’s very telling in this interview that twice Trump brings up the vaccine, and twice Hannity completely changes the subject.

Vaccination behavior shaped by political party can also slop over into the Democrat camp. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle, discussing various reasons locals gave for avoiding the vaccine, describes one person’s viewpoint: “It was bad enough that she felt nervous about the vaccine’s side effects. But it also felt like former President Donald Trump was mixed up in it all. ‘Trump said, “The vaccine is here because of me.” And I was like, do I really want it if he’s behind it?’ Maggin said. ‘But people feel that people who don’t get vaccinated are Trump supporters!’” The article goes on to ask, “What’s a frightened liberal to do?” I’ll tell you want to do: stop worrying about political parties, stop being bullied by biased blowhards, and think for your damn self! That could do wonders for your sense of autonomy.

I’m almost done, but I want to take a little more time to consider fairness, the F in the SCARF model. I think people often do make fairness a priority; as Dr. Rock points out, it “may be part of the explanation as to why people experience internal rewards for doing volunteer work to improve their community; it is a sense of decreasing the unfairness in the world.” Consider how many people, surely yourself included, blithely exceed the speed limit, but how few would illegally park in a handicapped spot. Freeway accidents are one of the leading causes of accidental death in America, but that risk is abstracted so most of us don’t think much about it. But we can easily imagine a person in a wheelchair being inconvenienced because we wrongly took her spot. What would be more embarrassing to you: being pulled over for speeding, or getting caught parking in a handicapped spot?

So to appeal to the anti-vaxxer’s built-in sense of fairness, it would be useful to stimulate his imagination a little. “So, Uncle Bruce,” you might say, “is this pandemic inconvenient for you? Kind of a pain?” You could draw him out on the indignities of endless Zoom calls, etc. Invite him to share a story about the most awful thing that’s ever happened to him at work. Then say, “Hey Uncle Bruce, do you ever chew out flight attendants when your flight is delayed?” He’d say of course not. Ask if he’s ever stiffed a waiter on his tip. “Hell no!” Uncle Bruce would declare. You then reply, “Of course not, you wouldn’t deliberately cause trouble for a working person, you always show them respect.” Then you go on to say, “You might be aware that ICUs at hospitals across the country are filling up with COVID patients. Did you know many of them are straining under the burden of two to three times the normal number of patients? Did you know almost all of these patients need to be intubated? Do you have a sense of how gnarly a procedure that is? Do you know how hard it is to bring a patient back from that? Did you know doctors are having more patients die than at any other time in their careers, and that many ICU docs have now treated more patients for COVID than for any other malady? Can you imagine how hard it is for them to tell the family members of their patient that he isn’t going to make it? Look, I know you didn’t sign up for boring Zoom calls when you took the job with TechCorp, but these doctors didn’t sign up for  a brutal, endless onslaught of their ICUs being inundated with mostly doomed patients either. I’m sure you’ve read how unvaccinated people like yourself are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID … I just want to make sure you can kind of imagine how that pans out. Oh, don’t worry, these doctors would never shame anyone, though I talked to one who said he actually wished the fact of his patients’ non-vaccinated condition wasn’t in their charts because that just reminds him how huge a problem this is, and rubs it in how utterly avoidable all this would be if people just accepted the vaccine. And don’t get me wrong, when talking to the non-vaccinated family member of a terminal patient, a doctor would never say anything like, ‘This non-vaccination policy you have … how would you say that’s working out for your family?’ They have much more tact than that, they’re unfailingly polite despite being overworked and losing so many patients. And if you yourself did land in the ICU with COVID, and your doctor was telling me there’s not much more he can do, and I was begging him to do everything he can, he would never say anything like, ‘Would you say your Uncle Bruce did everything he could?’ Because doctors aren’t about shaming anybody. And I’m not either, believe me, I’m not trying to be a dick or anything, and I know you’re afraid of needles. But did you know that when an intubation goes sideways, a mixture of blood and saliva from the COVID patient’s throat can spray all over the doctor? I’m just sayin’. But hey, take your time deciding, it’s all good. It’s totally your choice, a deeply personal matter. And don’t worry, if you do end up dying of COVID, all of us family members who survive because we’re vaccinated will be very gracious at your funeral. Nobody will say, ‘It’s sure a shame about Uncle Bruce, though this could have been avoided if he hadn’t been such a selfish, stubborn old dumbass.’ We would never say that because that would be death shaming.”

More reading on the pandemic

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Monday, September 20, 2021

Ride Report - DIY Everest Challenge


I just realized 2021 is the first year since 2007 during which I haven’t done a single bike race. That’s a shame. Worst of all, I haven’t done the Everest Challenge since 2014 … but then, it’s no longer being held. The good news is, it’s possible to suffer in those same mountains with none of the competition, and none of the support. A couple of East Bay Velo Club pals and I pioneered this approach four years ago with our “Almost Death Ride” and repeated the trick recently by mounting a “DIY Everest Challenge.”

What follows is my full report, in the traditional three-part format: an Executive Summary for important people; a short version for impatient ones; and a long version perfect for busy people facing important projects and looking for ways to procrastinate. 

(Note: copious photos accompany the long version. They are pretty hi-res so zoom in and, if you really want to see something, right-click and select “Open image in new tab.”)

Executive Summary

The breakaway consisted of Craig, Ian, John, Ken, and me. (There was no peloton; we broke away from our sofas, our jobs, and all our responsibilities.) The first day was brutally hot. We had to alter our routes on the first two days due to road closures. We added a third day just to be mean. We ate extremely well. We broke tradition by drinking beer between stages. We fell short of the desired 29,000 feet of vertical gain, but not by much. Verdict? PASS. To paraphrase Faulkner: middle age may have killed us, but it ain’t whupped us yet.

Short version

  • Ride stats: 45.6 miles on Day 1 with 6,575 feet of vertical gain; 88.4 miles on Day 2 with 10,633 feet of gain; 92.1 miles on Day 3 with 7,139 feet of gain. Total: 226.1 miles with 24,347 feet of vertical gain.
  • Day 0 pre-ride happy hour: half a pint of Federation Brewing Zero Charisma Hazy IPA (Oakland)
  • Day 0 pre-ride dinner: unbelievably large combo platter of chile relleno, beef enchilada, pork tamale, beans, rice, chips, salsa … probably at least 4,000 calories
  • Day 1 breakfast: one lozenge of Wheetabix with FAGE Greek yogurt and raspberries, and about an ounce of sunscreen (consumed via dermal absorption)
  • During Day 1 ride: two Clif bars, one Gu, two large bottles Gatorade, three large bottles of water
  • Day 1 lunch: two large soft-taco-size carnitas burritos, some scrambled eggs
  • Day 1 dinner: kid-size Trippel ale, medium-rare hamburger, waffle fries, onion rings, French-fried pizza crust, various dips (I know, I know: you are what you eat)
  • Day 2 breakfast: one Clif bar, a glass of water, several large gasps of air
  • During Day 2 ride: two or three Clif bars, three large bottles Gatorade, three large bottles of water, a few bugs
  • Day 2 lunch (before final descent): hamburger, fries with mayonnaise, two large glasses of water, probably a decent serving of coronavirus aerosol particles
  • Day 2 happy hour: New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA
  • Day 2 dinner: countless slices from two 20-inch pizzas: meat lovers + custom build (salami, mushrooms, black olives, and onions), a pint of some local IPA (too distracted by pizza to note details)
  • Day 3 breakfast: one lozenge Weetabix with either dairy or almond milk (too bleary to notice or shunt which type), crow
  • During Day 3 ride: two Clif bars, one 20-oz. American (i.e., corn syrup) Coke, one 12-ounce Mexican (i.e., sugar) Coke, one Häagen-Dazs chocolate/dark chocolate ice cream bar, several large handfuls Kettle chips, four large bottles of water
  • Day 3 happy hour: Juicy Haze IPA, slice of leftover pizza
  • Day 3 happy hour #2: local hazy IPA, hunks of giant pretzel, chips & guacamole
  • Day 3 dinner: pork broth ramen with egg, pork belly, veggies, extra pork belly, and extra noodles; two pork gyoza (gyozas? gyozae?)

To add excitement to the ride, we did much less training than for the real Everest Challenge (in my case, like a third as much). Also of note: this was the first real ride we ever did with John, our newest EBVC member. I’ve been riding with him for about ten years, but only ever to the pub. (It’s not that we’ve never wanted to do proper rides together; it’s just that we really like beer.)

For an hour and fourteen minutes of the first day, it was over 100 degrees F. Peak temperature by my computer was 108; Craig’s registered 111 before panicking and powering off. That day was cut short by a road closure: Inyo National Forest is closed this month to protect against fire, so most roads through it were closed too. We pioneered new routes for Day 2 and managed plenty of climbing and distance. Day 3 had nothing in common with the Everest Challenge routes but was designed to increase our vertical gain, increase our mileage, increase our suffering, and take advantage of our proximity to Tioga Pass. It succeeded on all counts. In fact, the whole three-day adventure was a rousing success: we had a great time, didn’t die of heatstroke, didn’t end up eating one another, and are already looking forward to next year.

Long version

I rode yesterday, a week after the DIY EC, and I just wasn’t myself. My legs were empty. They could turn the cranks, but only in a minimal, zombie-like way, and I thought, “What’s wrong with me, do I have COVID?” But I could smell the rain on the asphalt, and the Gatorade in my bottle, and I don’t have a fever. I’m just comprehensively, fundamentally exhausted … still.

I’ve raced the Everest Challenge six times (in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014). I always took the preparation very seriously, training a ton and giving up all alcohol like six weeks beforehand to lose weight and perhaps give my liver an easier job making glycogen. This year I didn’t train nearly as much for some reason (sloth? old age? denial?) which gave a little razor edge of excitement to the run-up.

Fortunately, I made up for the poor preparation by continuing to drink beer (responsibly!) all the way up to, and including, the night before the event. But I was good: I only had half a beer the first night, splitting it with Ken. Here is the official Beck’st:

If that EBVC bottle weren’t so hammered, you could read our club’s slogan: “It’s like you never stop riding.”

I already mentioned the giant Mexican dinner on Day Zero. I got to a point in eating it when I thought, “I’d enjoy the rest of this more tomorrow,” but then I just kept going. I was the only one to finish, and when I did, Craig turned to me and said, “You are a GOD.” I wish I could inspire somebody to say this about my cycling, but I’ll take praise wherever I can get it.

Day 1

The first day started near Big Pine, which is where Highway 395 meets Highway 168, the road up towards the Bristlecone Pine Forest. We parked halfway up the climb. This is normally the final climb on Day 2 of the EC, but we had to switch things up based on the lack of support and some other factors you wouldn’t care about. The van would be our second refueling stop; the first was at the base of the climb, where we stashed a cooler. So the first ten miles of the ride were downhill and we averaged almost 30. Here we are about to set out toward the first climb after removing a layer of clothing.

Our first climb was to Glacier Lodge; this is normally the first climb on Day 2. The temperature was perfect and of course we were fresh as daisies. Craig dropped us all by accident before waiting up.

Eventually our group broke apart again. Craig and Ian were the fittest, and John and I brought up the rear, keeping an eye out for a chance brewpub.

Here’s John digging in. He’s not rocking the EBVC kit for reasons I don’t understand. It’s possible he missed the ordering window.

Eventually I went solo on the climb due to my gearing, which isn’t so low. To maintain a comfortable cadence I had to set my own pace. As I made my way along I pondered the elegant mathematical shortcuts available when comparing my gearing to John’s. He has a one-to-one gear ratio, meaning the same number of teeth on his front chainwheel as his largest rear cog. Calculating gear inches can be a bit tricky to do in your head (especially when you’re fighting for oxygen); you multiply the chainwheel teeth by the wheel diameter and then divide by the number of rear cog teeth. But with a one-to-one like John’s, the chainwheel and cog cancel each other out, so the gear inch total is simply the wheel diameter, 27. My bike makes it easy, too: it has 27 teeth on the largest rear cog, which cancels out the wheel diameter, so the gear inch total is simply the number of chainring teeth, 34. I calculated the difference in our lowest gears using the guess-and-check method: I surmised it was something like 25%, and since 27 is practically 28 and a quarter of 28 is 7 and 27+7=34, this guess was pretty accurate: that is, at the same cadence I’d go 25% faster. I explained all this to John but he didn’t hear a word of it … he was, perhaps mercifully, no longer within earshot. At least my explanation didn’t put him to sleep like it has you.


Eventually we made the summit, or close to it (we’d gone past a Road Closed gate but then had to turn around when we encountered a ranger.) Here’s the only photo I got of the descent, for obvious reasons.

Our return to the base of the second climb was uneventful (other than a couple flat tires). Here’s the side road where we stashed our cooler. I love how aero, almost two-dimensional, my bike looks here.

Now, full disclosure: the actual Everest Challenge route would take us pretty far out on the road you see above, if we took it: a climb about as high as Glacier Lodge. We totally could have ridden this, and done three climbs instead of two, but we simply didn’t want to. The Waucoba Canyon climb is like a sauna; doesn’t feature much scenery; and is just plain hard. If you want to go do a proper EC route with all three climbs (and no support) and then hassle me for not doing the same, well … be my guest.

We fetched fresh bottles from the cooler, took an extra drink or two, and remounted our bikes. It was already broiling hot as we set out on the Bristlecone climb, Craig and Ian setting a sustainable pace.

It got hotter … way hotter.

Craig and I yo-yo’d a bit … at 108 degrees he had to back off the pace to keep from overheating, but at, say, 105 he would roll away from me again. Here you can see him just about to disappear for the final time as the mercury dropped all the way to 102.

I modulated my fluid consumption carefully so I wouldn’t get dehydrated but also wouldn’t run out. I finished my last bottle just as I neared the turnoff to where the van was—but wait a second, the van had moved! It was now pointed down the hill, and Ian and Craig had changed out of their biking costumes for the drive back. This is how I learned the road was closed. Oh well. I won’t lie: as disappointed as I was at the setback, it was a relief to be done for the day. Here’s what we ended up with.

And here’s the map:

Back at the condo in Mammoth, we made burritos (four of them) out of Craig’s leftover carnitas. We also foolishly drank a beer, and researched alternatives to the next day’s two main climbs: Mosquito Flat and South Lake, both of which (we confirmed) were closed, being on Inyo National Forest land. We decided that the non-closed first half of the first climb was enough, and for South Lake we could substitute a ride to Lake Sabrina (most of the original climb but a different final destination). Some official told Craig, “The lake itself is closed but you can drive up there to take a look. But if you take one step out of your car I’ll kill you myself.” (I’m paraphrasing here; he may have actually said, “I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”) Craig discovered a café a couple miles shy of Lake Sabrina, which we could hit on the way back before descending, with our distended aero-bellies, all the way back to the van. Thus our route for Day 2 was settled.

Day 2

We started Day 2 near Bishop, where 395 hits Pine Creek Road. It appeared, as we climbed out of the van, that God had decided never to inflict such heat on us again, and as a symbol of this covenant provided this beautiful rainbow.

We started out nice and slow, just spinning, and my legs felt surprisingly okay, but listen to how hard I’m breathing in this video:

The gorgeous scenery continued, making this ride the next best thing to shelter-in-place:

This first climb went so well, in fact, that I find I have nothing more to report. Here are Craig and Ken beginning the first big descent of the day:

We refueled at the van and began the second climb, Pine Creek Road. After a few miles Ian and Craig rolled away … I was beginning to sense some kind of pattern here.

But were they actually feeling okay? Imagine my shock when I saw that one of them had thrown up what appeared to be either Grape Nuts, pomegranate seeds, or Israeli couscous.

It turned out this was probably just bear-berry-barf.

I didn’t expect to see Craig and Ian again but I did, because Ian flatted. They’re adults with toolkits and know-how so I didn’t stop. They would catch me soon enough.

I made the summit and descended solo. On the way down, cruising at about 40, I kept seeing all these lizards darting out of my way. As I pondered their apparent mental superiority to squirrels, deer, and turkeys, who don’t know how to get out of the way of a speeding cyclist, one of these lizards came running right at me from about 10 o’clock. There was no chance to take evasive action (and I’m frankly not sure I’d have risked anything for a lizard anyway). The little bugger went right under my wheel. It felt like running over a pipe cleaner wrapped in felt. Its tiny reptilian soul flew past my head on its way heavenward. Poor little lizard.

We refueled again at the van. Ahead of us was a 13-mile slightly rolling stretch, mostly on Ed Powers Road, to the base of the final climb which headed southwest on Highway 168. We faced a tricky bit of logistics: we had about 27 miles to go to the final summit, 14 miles of it uphill, and would need another fuel stop—but it’s the middle of nowhere. Ken and John volunteered to drive the van across the rolling section and partway up the climb and park it there. Brilliant! Craig dragged Ian and me toward the climb at blazing speed. It was like motorpacing.

The climb, which gains more than 4,000 feet, was really hard, but also beautiful. I could try to describe it but these photos will do a better job.

Have you ever been to the Mystery Spot, or the Exploratorium, or any other venue devoted to educating or entertaining you with optical illusions around spatial perception? The mountains around Bishop are just like that: a road that looks flat can be a 6% grade, and what looks like 6% can be 8 or 9%. The gradient display on my bike computer is probably the main reason I didn’t lose all hope. The final third of this climb was not only 8-9%, but into a fairly stiff headwind.

I passed the tiny town of Aspendell where the café was, and presently perceived a rider behind me. Huh? Here, really? It was Ken. He and John had enjoyed a coffee out on the café porch and took off after us as we rode by. This was the best photo I could get of Ken; the camera stabilization software was no match for my unsteady hands.

The highway dwindled into a smaller road that got narrower and steeper as we approached Lake Sabrina. Not shown: the final grind of about 14%, when photography became impossible.

This selfie would have included John but we weren’t sure how far back he was and it was starting to rain. It’s a pity; we saw him like a minute into our descent but weren’t about to go back up that final pitch for the photo-op. Lake Sabrina is looking pretty sad with the drought and all.

We all met up at the café and were able to get a table on the porch.

The outdoor seating was a good thing because the staff & clientele weren’t hugely devoted to COVID protocols. John and Ken had noted earlier that nobody was wearing masks, and they’d heard snippets of conversation such as, “We don’t have a vaccine problem, we have a Biden problem” and “George couldn’t make it, he came down with the COVID.”

We had some great burgers etc. and the waitress was nice enough to take at least fifty shots of us across two phone cameras. You already saw one of them, at the top of this post.

It was cool up at 9,000 feet but during the glorious 14-mile descent we started to cook. After a good, long day in the saddle we were glad to pile into the van and head back to the condo. Here’s the Day 2 profile:

And here’s the map:

I already mentioned the pizza. The guys were really worried I’d eat more than my fair share. I assured them that if we ran out, we’d just get more. In the end we had a few leftover slices. Back at the condo we watched “American Ninja Warrior” and hurled verbal abuse at the screen … that’s how brain-dead we were.

Day 3

The next morning I had the worst bags under my eyes I’ve ever seen. I snapped a photo that would later cause my kids to shriek with terror and glee. (No, I’m not going to share it here.)

For this final leg we didn’t need the van: we rode right from the condo in Mammoth. Again my legs were oddly non-destroyed. I began to wonder if having a beer might actually help somehow. We started climbing right away, up this Mammoth Scenic Bypass (which as Ken pointed out sounds like what you’d take if you want to avoid the scenery).

Then it was a not-entirely-pleasant blast along Highway 395 for about 20 miles to the turnoff on Highway 120 west that goes over Tioga Pass. (For an entire blog post about cycling Tioga Pass, click here.)

It’s a long climb—12 miles—and gains about 3,000 feet.

Here’s a nice shot looking down the pass (i.e., to the east … I stopped and turned around to snap this).

Everyone went his own pace. Peer into the distance here and you can see Ken. Note the camera glitch involving the double-yellow-line.

There are a couple of pretty lakes up there. I reckon this is Ellery Lake.

Craig made the summit and rolled down the hill to pace me over the final bit, and got this photo.

Here are four of us at the summit, a few minutes before John arrived. (If I had the skills I’d Photoshop him in … or skip the ride and just fabricate the whole photo album, come to think of it.) This is at just under 10,000 feet elevation.

The descent was uneventful and lizard-free.

At the junction with 395 we stopped at that Mobil station with the oddly, famously good restaurant to refuel. Fortunately we don’t run on gasoline because this is the most expensive I’ve ever seen.

Now all that remained was the 39-mile schlep back to the condo. It could have been a 29-mile schlep but we chose to ride around June Lake, to take in the scenery and avoid some of the unnervingly fast traffic on 395. I knew these miles would hurt, as we had a headwind and over 2,000 feet of vertical gain ahead.

Needless to say, all this meant more time holding Craig’s wheel for dear life.

I don’t think Craig drags us along out of pity; rather, he just doesn’t need to draft anybody and surely sees no point slowing down (which would happen if I were to lead). The only time he didn’t pull was when he was snapping photos, like this one. (By the way, it may appear here that I’m smiling, but I assure you, that’s more of a rictus. If you could see my eyes you’d know better.)

After some rigorous climbing we reached a pretty sweet vista. The point of this photo is the gradation of facial hair.

Finally we reached the general store at the end of the loop. We gorged on junk food while Ken peered into an existential abyss. “Deep into that darkness peering, long [he sat] there wondering, fearing,/ Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

Highway 395 was a grind … headwind, heat, rubbish road surface. The turnoff to the Mammoth Scenic bit was a relief, except we had to climb. The grade was a mother, generally only 5-6% but four miles long, into the wind, and I was fried. It was the hardest I’d worked all day but finally it was over and we coasted most of the way on to the condo where things suddenly got real, real good:

Here’s the Day 3 profile:

And here’s the map:


Is there anything to be gained from this experience, or from reading about it? Can we glean some lesson from all this effort and strain? Is there some point to it all? Upon much reflection, I can say: no. All the suffering was completely pointless. But then, that’s kind of the point.

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

From the Archives - Death Ride 2007


This year marks yet another when I didn’t ride the Markleeville Death Ride. It used to be too hard to get a spot, it being oversubscribed, but now it’s just too expensive. Almost the last time I did the ride was 2007, and this is the story I wrote for my bike team pals at that time. (I did return to the Death Ride with my teenage daughter a couple years ago … click here for that report.)

Death Ride Post-Mortem Report – July 14, 2007

It’s time to report on the Death Ride. This year I rode with five other guys, though we splintered apart almost immediately so I won’t bother introducing the dudes who got all uppity and rode away to prove their dominance. Mostly I rode with my former UCSB teammates John “Cap’n Pelstar” Pelster and Dan “AAA-cell” Wolnick; the others were Dan’s pals from Bend, Oregon (aka Benders).

As usual, the Death Ride was all about the food. You know what they say, a mollusk travels on its stomach. This year the rest stops had miniature energy bars (why miniature? I don’t know!) which, being a bit hard to open, didn’t have a very high calorie-to-effort ratio. Also provided were [Brand X] gels. These were very handy but I can tell you with perfect sincerity that the flavor was absolutely revolting. (I won’t say what brand they were because this company sponsors cycling teams, thus I wish them well.) That people pay money for such a product is astounding to me, especially considering—and again, I say this in all honesty, our EBVC nutrition sponsor notwithstanding—that the [Brand Y] gels are downright yummy, especially the chocolate, which I’ve contemplated putting on ice cream in a non-athletic context.

You can see how insanely popular this ride is by this rest stop, visited after the first and second passes (front and back side of Monitor).

Of the trip of the third pass, the front side of Ebbett’s, absolutely nothing is known. I can neither confirm nor deny that there has been some kind of cover-up of this operation.

Here’s a photo from riding the fourth pass, that being the back side of Ebbett’s.

After coming back down the front side of Ebbett’s we stopped for lunch. This presented a bit of a conundrum. They offered a complete sandwich bar, which is pretty fun, but doesn’t provide the kind of food that exactly fuels you during exercise. I mean, ham? Pressed-turkey-lip-lunchmeat? Cheese? These are protein foods that can rebuild our shredded muscles, but rebuilding comes later, and we’re just trying to get the kinds of carb-centric calories that fuel the muscle shredding process. And yet, it’s a sandwich bar, which means you can choose whatever bread you want, and then put whatever you want on it. Irresistible prospect, that. Peanut butter and jelly on sourdough? Sure, if you’re that kind of lunatic! Ham, turkey, cheese, Doritos, and double lettuce on wheat? Whatever floats your boat! Now, this sandwich bar thing might not seem like a big deal to most Americans, but have you ever tried to get a proper sandwich in Holland or France? You have almost no options in such cases. In France you can have jambon (ham) OR fromage (surely you don’t need me to translate that for you?) but almost never both. If you do get both, it’s probably a tourist-centric place selling out to Americans, and thus crappy. Holland is even worse: they’ll lay out a really nice spread, so you could make a giant sandwich that would make Dagwood proud, but you’re not allowed to. It simply isn’t done—you’re only permitted to select one thing to put between the bread slices. If you add more, you won’t get arrested or anything, but you’ll get plenty of stink-eye, and your hosts will be ashamed of you. It’s like a trap. So as American patriots, we almost felt compelled to make big elaborate sandwiches simply because we could. And as financial custodians of our households, we also faced the classic economic motive: we paid for this ride, we should avail ourselves of every amenity! So we ended up eating big-ass sandwiches even though it seemed they could only slow us down.

(I know, it’s a pretty blurry photo. I blame the kind bystander who offered to snap it.)

After lunch, while still trying to digest, we suffered the indignity of having to pedal up Carson Pass. Just getting to the pass proper is a seemingly endless process, and then Carson itself is a mother. In this photo, the place where the road disappears (up at the left edge of the frame) is pretty much the top.

Of course, seeing the summit and reaching it are very different things. Just ask Rider #486. Oh, wait—don’t ask him anything! He’s completely crazy!

Well, that’s pretty much all there is to tell. Oh, wait, I almost forgot! There was  one other thing. At the top of that final pass, we got ice cream bars! There were no chairs to sit in, and sitting on the asphalt with no shade or anything wasn’t exactly civilized, but still—ice cream! With those little toffee bits and everything! Look how stoked we are! JP is practically smiling through that grimace!

Which brings us to the thrilling climax of the adventure: dinner. This was included with the price of the ride and we ate it outside the ... well, I don’t know what it is, a structure of some kind with a kitchen. A clubhouse, maybe? They had picnic tables. There was a live band doing covers of actual rock groups, and as live bands go I would give them about a 6.5 out of 10 (6 being opera and 7 being a cat getting slaughtered). The band sang—I kid you not—“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and rather than taking the obvious bait (à la Old School) of singing itironically, they sang it straight, which I’ll admit takes guts. They dispatched their task admirably, though I’m not sure you can exactly screw up a song that is so cloying, maudlin, and downright absurd to begin with.

But enough about the ambience. The food was typical Death Ride fare, the culinary philosophy evidently being “why waste good food on knackered bikers?” There was chicken. I’m pretty sure it was white meat. It was coated in barbecue sauce, though this sauce appeared to have been applied after the fact, possibly with one of those frosting dispensers pastry chefs use. I’m not quite sure how the chicken was cooked; it lacked the grill marks of having been barbecued but wasn’t all dried out as an oven would have rendered it. It was eerily tender (though not squishy and spongy like the perfectly cylindrical turkey logs I inherited from the ill-fated and ill-attended century ride that the UCSB cycling team put on as a fund-raiser, or more precisely fund-loser, back in ‘90). The chicken didn’t have a smoky flavor at all, so it couldn’t have been smoked; it may have been gassed. It may actually have been turkey, I’m not sure. The taste was mainly that of metal, though in fairness that’s not the food’s fault; pretty much everything tastes like metal after you’ve ridden the Death Ride.

There were beans. They tasted like baked beans always do. I suppose connoisseurs would argue that there’s a world of difference between Van Camp’s and Bush’s, and normally I would agree, but again, my mouth was not the as sensorially perceptive as a sommelier’s nose at this point. There was also an impressive array of salads: potato, green, and several versions of pasta salad. I avoided all but one of the pasta salads, because they all looked kind of creepy, like you could just tell the little noodle tubes would be limp and slick. The one I did try lacked the pleasant oversweetness that a product from the Safeway deli would have had, that derives its appeal from sheer nostalgia for the sneaked sample of the food that other people’s parents brought to picnics when you were a kid and your parents brought Wasa crackers and tinned sardines. The potato salad was bland, starchy, and eggless—in other words, perfect, as it filled a void in my stomach without causing me any messy spasms. The green salad was unremarkable, having like so many green salads been fabricated from recycled plastic milk jugs, except that it had cherry tomatoes. A regular tomato is so simple, it’s amazing that the agriculture industry has so thoroughly screwed them up (picking them green and hitting them with nitrogen for redness and then freezing and thawing them and somehow thoroughly insulting them until their guts are just mush) but I’ve never had a cherry tomato that was all that bad, so I was cheered to see them in use here. Also on offer were three different salad dressings, none of which appeared to have any chewing tobacco stirred into it, which was a nice plus. I had the Italian vinaigrette, which was neither Italian nor a vinaigrette but which was a perfectly acceptable lubricant for the salad.

There was a roll that worried me very much. It was the size and approximate shape of a giant apple fritter and I couldn’t imagine how I could choke the whole thing down, as my throat was all dried out from the arid air of high altitude and the 100-plus-degree temperatures we’d ridden in. But then inspiration hit: I sliced that bad boy in half like a sandwich roll and put my chicken and my cherry tomatoes between the two halves. This got me through the roll, and prevented me from having to try to cut the chicken with plastic flatware. It’s so easy to break the tines off a plastic fork doing that, and then to eat the tines without even realizing it. My blood plastic levels were thus largely normal (albeit slightly elevated from the gels earlier). Dessert was pudding, which I skipped because I’d already ingested a couple gallons of energy drink, countless cookies, etc. during the ride.

Instead of drinking yet more Cokes so we could stay awake for the drive home, we actually camped another night because the Benders, having a much farther drive ahead, had secured a campsite and brought all the necessary gear. A couple of the guys even found a hot springs to visit but the rest of us were too lazy to partake. We all chatted (and also argued) around the campfire for a while, had a beer or two, and called it a day. We might have even called it a good day. Which I think is about right.

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