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.”)
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.