-By Peter T. “Gunn”
Back in February 2007, Paige, Herb, and I foolishly agreed to participate in this year’s Tour of the California Alps, a.k.a. the Death Ride. Who we blame for planting the seed in our heads is still up in the air. The Death Ride is one of the most popular, physically challenging cycling events in the West, and the course this year covered 129 miles with 15,000+ feet of climbing.http://www.deathride.com/info/
Check out the course map and ride profiles here:
The ride took place on Saturday, July 14th. We were also joined by another friend, Mark, (who even more foolishly agreed to participate about 2 weeks before the ride!) and Herb’s family, who came along for moral support and camping fun. The plan was to car camp at a nearby campsite so that we could sleep in a little bit and still get to the Turtle Rock starting point at a decent time. I don’t know if you consider a 4:15 a.m. wake-up sleeping in, but our campsite neighbor woke at 3:30 a.m. so that he could hit the road by 4:30 a.m.! Our start time was 5:15 a.m.
Everything went according to plan. We arrived Thursday afternoon to relax at the campsite with the intention of acclimating to the altitude. We set up camp, Herb cooked a great dinner, and we even enjoyed some S’mores over an open fire. Even though Thursday was a relaxing day, I was really starting to stress about the ride. It was extremely dry and hot, and there were no signs that the heat would let up. The last thing I needed was leg cramps on Saturday to cut my ride short!
Friday was a complete leisure day. The main goal was to conserve as much energy as possible, yet stay loose for Saturday. We decided to put in a light 1-hour ride. At this point, I had not ridden since the previous weekend. Once again, I started to feel a bit scared. Did I take too much time off? What if my legs feel like jelly? Luckily, our little ride helped ease the nerves. Not only did the legs feel fresh, I wasn’t gasping for air in the higher altitude. And, the temperature out in the open was nothing like the searing heat we felt at the campsite. That was a relief!
Friday evening was all about prep. I could feel the anticipation building up, not only in myself, but also in all of the Death Riders around us. After an early dinner, we checked our gear, our energy foods, our bikes. Tires were inflated, chains were lubed, brake levers squeezed. What does squeezing the brakes do? I don’t know, but the bike check isn’t complete until you squeeze the levers. We each ran through our morning routines in our heads. If we step through it enough times in our heads, we can move like an efficient machine, even if we’re groggy. I know I didn’t want to let my fellow riders down by lagging in morning. Now if I can only get enough sleep…
Saturday. D-Day. We were up at 4:15 on the spot. Of course, I hardly slept at all. I had long ago accepted the fact that I’d be sleep deprived for this ride. We parked by 5:00, and by 5:15 a.m., my heart rate monitor and computer were reset and recording the data for the day. I clipped into my pedal with my right foot, and began my first pedal stroke to the Death Ride.
With the whole day ahead of us, I was just hoping for the best. Tons of people were starting early, probably in anticipation of high temperatures later in the day. Not knowing what to really expect, I just kept reminding myself that we’ll be fine. We trained for almost 4 months! My first long ride of the year was back in March, from SF to San Jose for the Handmade Bike Show. Over 1,500 miles (and ~100,000 feet climbed) later, here I am, just hoping to add a few more miles. I know I’ve trained enough, I just have to believe it.
Usually, the hardest part in the beginning of a long ride is keeping a steady pace, but I think we planned really well, and we stuck together. Don’t focus on the people passing you. Stick with the game plan! My personal game plan was to stay hydrated. Drink! Drink! Drink! I literally pounded that thought into my head. As the sun rose, and as we gained elevation, the beautiful scenery started to come to life. It became obvious why so many people love to do this ride. So far, so good. No labored breathing, keeping a steady pace, I was feeling great! Unfortunately, Paige was not feeling so great, and it looked like it was going to be a rough day for her.
By the third pass, things were really starting to get interesting. Paige was feeling so awful, she had to ride at a much slower pace, thinking she may even have to turn around at any point. Reluctantly, we split up, and wished each other well. We were only 1/3 into our ride, and now I’m struggling to stay positive. I can’t help but to look at my mileage, thinking how much riding and climbing remains. The 3rd and 4th passes go up and over Ebbett’s Pass and back, which is arguably the toughest climb of the ride. Herb and I remind each other to keep our heart rates down, and we keep chugging along. The sun is now out, and the exposed roads are really heating up. My muscles are complaining a bit, but I can only keep pedaling. Of course, I went into this with the full intention of climbing all five passes and finishing the entire ride. But the climbs are soooo long, and it’s now incredibly hot. Now I’m feeling the total opposite of great. Instead of drinking to be hydrated, it feels like I’m drinking to stay alive. Every part of my body seems to hurt. But then, this is where the training comes in. I tell myself that I’ve done this before. It hurts, but I can push a little harder. I’m drinking right (more or less), I’m eating right (more or less), I won’t cramp (I hope). Think short term goals. It’s just a little farther. Rest at the next flat, rest at the top, rest on the long descents. It hurts no matter what, so I might as well keep pedaling. I play these mind games over and over, and now it’s just a test of how long I can do that. Well, I did do it long enough to conquer Ebbett’s, and now I really wanted to quit.
Luckily, the lunch stop was next, and we had a slightly longer stop with a bit more of a substantial meal. We also ran into Mark, who incredibly, was still a few minutes ahead of us. All the while, he had thought he was behind us! Fearing that we might miss the next cutoff time, we didn’t allow ourselves to stay too long at the rest stop. I still had doubts about finishing the 5th pass. The next 20 miles was more or less flat by Death Ride standards, but we hit it pretty fast. Luckily, I had both Herb and Mark to draft off, because from this point on, we had nothing but heat, and strong headwinds. I felt a bit re-energized after eating, and felt good about being able to keep a pretty fast pace, but that feeling didn’t last long.
About 10 miles into this “flat” stretch, we approached the gates of Hell, and I had a snowball’s chance of surviving. It was easily 100 degrees, and we were on a long exposed straightaway road headed back through Markleeville. The flat stretch turned into a slight climb, and riders started dropping like flies. People found what little shade they could, just to cool down for a second. Every fiber in me wanted to quit. But what other choice did I have? If I stopped, I’d still be just as hot. I just kept telling myself the human body is capable of enduring a lot more than you may think. Just take a sip of water, and take it one pedal stroke at a time. My perseverance paid off with more gusty headwinds just as we approached the next rest stop.
After a nice hose down and a brief break at the rest stop, we moved on. I still wanted to quit. The next 7 miles is straight up hill with gusty headwinds, and we’ll be passing our campsite. I can just stop off and end it there. Well, either way, I have to pedal up the hill, even if I do decide to quit. The headwind riding uphill was brutal, but it was slowly getting cooler as we worked our way up the hill. I slowly got my groove back, drafted whenever I could, and chugged up the hill. I even started passing people again. The farther up the hill I got, the more encouragement I felt creeping back into my feeble mind. Then we got a really nice surprise. As we passed the entrance to the campsite, there was Herb’s family patiently waiting for us to cheer us on! Go! Go! Go!
Finally, this was it! We made it to the last rest stop with plenty of time to spare. With about 10 more miles and 1000 ft. to the top of Carson’s Pass, the 5th and final pass, I said screw it! I’m making it up there if I have to crawl! Of course, after that, there’s still 20 miles back to our starting point to complete the ride, but I can’t think about that now. First priority is hauling my butt up to the top of Carson’s Pass. Mark’s knee was bothering him, so he decided to rest a bit longer, and head up on his own. We’d see him back at the finish. Herb and I took off, and Herb set an awesome pace. As we passed people, we picked up more riders, and before we knew it, we were pace lining up Hwy 88. As the hill got steeper, one of the stronger guys in back pulled to the front, and took over. None of us said a word, none of us made any hand signals, we just understood. Watch for cars, pass riders safely, keep a slow and steady pace up that hill. Before I knew it, there was more cheering, “Great Job! Just 1/2 more mile around the corner! You got it!” We finally made it to the top! It was a great feeling. Plus, they rewarded us with ice cream and popsicles (best frickin’ Missile Pop ever!) and the coveted “5 Pass Pin”.
Now I figure I’ve made it this far, I might as well truly complete the ride by finishing the last 20 miles with Herb. We stop off at the campsite to see if Paige returned. It turns out she still completed 4 passes! As bad as she felt, she still completed ~90 miles with ~10,000 ft. of climbing! Herb and I head off to finish the ride. And it only took us 13 hours and 40 minutes.