Tour of the California Alps (The Death Ride) Felix Wong

The Death Ride. Just the name conjures images of a gruelling ordeal undertaken by grimacing, surely mad souls suffering under scorching heat over torturous terrain. With 129 miles and 16,000 feet of climbing over 5 passes, it is masochistic for sure. And yet, I had wanted to do this famed ride for the last 3 years, but was denied entry each time due to signing up too late. This includes 2001, in which 2500 spots for the event sold out in 48 hours, underscoring its immense popularity belying its brutal reputation.

For 2002, despite the change to random selection of participants, it seemed as if I would be denied again as I had not been confirmed by the deadline. But a few weeks later, I received a notification email saying, “Congratulations–you have been selected to ride in the 2002 Death Ride!” Apparently, I initially was 26th on the waiting list (as evidenced by my rider number 2526), but made it in as others reneged. Long at last!

Before the Ride

Entry into ride provided me with the motivation to really work on my hill-climbing abilities, which had regressed dramatically in 2002 with lack of training. So after my China trip, I was hitting the hills regularly, and even conjured up the Triple Summit 100 as training just for the Death Ride.

My training came to a point where I was really satisfied with how I was climbing. Now it was just a matter of eating and hydrating well before the ride, and getting to Markleeville.

I accomplished the former by having a nice Italian dinner with my friend Tori beforehand in Dublin. Then it was off to Markleeville in Lina, my Z3. I expected to get there by midnight, but that turned out to be wishful thinking.

This is because just south of Stockton on Interstate 5, a Ford Expedition smashed head-on with another vehicle in my lane just a mile or so ahead of me, prompting the Highway Patrol to shut down all of the northbound lanes of the highway!

Soon I found myself in no-man’s land. The highway was shut down and detoured behind me, so there were almost no cars trailing me. Yet, there were perhaps 5 dozen vehicles in front of me, completely stopped as if in a giant parking lot. It quickly became apparent that we were not going anywhere any soon, and some people, including myself and a guy in a very nice Porsche 996 cabriolet, got out of their cars to stretch, walk around, and try to see what was happening up there. It was like the afternoon before the 1998 Eastern Sierra Double, except that this time I was in the Z3 and not the MG; it was nighttime instead of daytime and I was much more pressed for time; and Yosemite is a much more magical place to be stuck in than a Stockton suburb. Fortunately, I had my latina-music Nicole CD (“Viaje Infinito”) with me that Sarah had just given to me for my b’day. It’s awesome!

Finally, with the Expedition still stuck on the highway and glass everywhere, we were allowed to navigate around it, and it was pretty much smooth sailing from there. But it set back my travel plans by almost an hour, and it was already 1:30am by the time I got to within 8 miles of Markleeville. That was as far as I’d get that night, as I found my eyes getting extremely heavy so I pulled over 50 feet off the highway to doze, just as I had promised Tori I would do in such a case.

After less than 3 hours of sleep I awoke to drive the last 8 miles to the start at Turtle Rock Park.

The Ride

Climb #1: Monitor Pass, Frontside

By the time I was on my bike, it was 5:45 and hundreds of cyclists were already on the road ahead. This was fine as I’d never liked starting out first–it’s more encouraging to pass than to be passed.

The first few miles were all downhill, so after 10 or so pedal strokes, I got in a tight aerodynamic tuck, not doing any work at all for many, many minutes. And yet, I was still passing dozens of people, all who were pedalling! Odd…

Soon it was through a checkpoint, where staff made us show our numbers and Death Ride waterbottles to allow us on the course. The Death Ride, at least over half of it, is completely closed to cars, lending it a (sometimes false) sense of safety and pristineness. This is the only ride I have done so far which cyclists and not motorists ruled the roads, at least for a few hours.

Finally, the first climb of the day: Monitor Pass. It was far from steep, but I knew it would be long. I focused on soft-pedalling in a lower-than-normal gear, hoping to conserve my energy for the 4th and 5th climbs of the day. Still, I was again passing a lot of people, making good time.

An hour or so later: at the top! First pass done, no sweat. The reward was a spectacular descent with high visibility through sweeping curves and smooth, uniform roads, only interrupted by the occasional cattle gate.

“So these are the California Alps,” I thought to myself. A chill ran through my body as I descended easy at speeds of 35-50 mph. A chill not from the weather, which was neither too hot, nor too cold–but from the incredible beauty of this magical land of green pine and Sierra mist. With no cars and only hordes of cyclists among this land that is well-deserving of the aura of L’Alps, it felt like I was in La Vuelta, Il Giro, Le Tour. Never before have I had such an emotion in the other dozens of ultra-marathon cycling rides I have done!

It was not short lived. The descent was long and thrilling. It would be perhaps 20 minutes until I reached the base of the backside of Monitor Pass, where hundreds of cyclists were already congregating.

It was the first stop I made, with 4 more passes to go.

Climb #2: Monitor Pass, Backside

I quickly decided that with the hundreds of cyclists already crowding around, I’d only stop long enough to make a bathroom stop and fill up my water bottles. I still had several Clif bars in my rear pockets, so I’d simply eat on the bike.

While filling up my water bottles I thought I spotted someone in a SunSpot jersey, which is the same jersey my friend Adam Paul said he’d be wearing. However, the guy did not look like Adam. (I would find out later, it was him!) But already feeling claustrophobic from the numerous cyclists squeezed together in one area, I didn’t ask, which was regrettable.

Back on the bike. I was still feeling good, though it didn’t seem like I was passing dozens of people by the minute anymore. The more recreational cyclists were presumably now behind, and I was happy, at least briefly, about taking off from the checkpoint when I did.

Service on this ride: partway up the backside of Monitor Pass, some teenagers were taking empty water bottles from riders, then running up the hill to fill them up, and then hand them to the riders. Now this was the best service I had ever seen! I had plenty of water, though, so I didn’t unnecessarily tax their reserves (and legs!)

Farther up, however, was a disturbing sight… a helicopter hovering above, with ride officials motioning cyclists to pull off the road. Accident! Already about 2 dozen had pulled off when I got there, so it couldn’t have occurred too long ago. Apparently, someone had lost control while descending the backside of Monitor, and crashed. That’s all I know, or rather, presume. During the 15 minutes of course closure I stretched my quads and calves just as a preventative measure, but was dismayed by how about how the pack was getting bunched up again. By the time we were to get going again about 100 cyclists were already to this spot! So much for trying to avoid this by leaving the first checkpoint early!

It would be about 20 minutes later that the pack was fairly spread out again and I was near the top. Another wonderful descent was in store, this time the front side of Monitor. Monitor Pass had become one of my all-time favorite roads in the world.

Climb #3: Ebbett’s Pass, Frontside

A narrow, country road with several patches and potholes awaited for us ahead. It was Ebbett’s Pass.

The elevation chart given to us before the race showed that the steepest grades in the ride would be on this pass, but perhaps not exceeding 12%. However, I suspect that some long sections only average 12%, but some short spans within actually exceeded that. There would be a short section which would require decidedly more effort, followed by a more gradual, welcome reprieve. I definitely liked Monitor Pass better.

But at least the scenery, while different with denser areas of trees, was equally stunning. It was warming up, but I was still comfortable. The other cyclists at this point were clearly in better shape than the ones I had encountered earlier in the ride, on Monitor. There was satisfaction of already going up the 3rd of the 5th pass this early in the day.

With sleeves rolled up, wrap-around shades off, and zipper halfway unzipped, I was certainly finding this pass a lot more taxing than the other two. But it was far from impossible. So without much drama, I approached the top of the ride, where again I did not spend much time. 3rd pass down!

Climb #4: Ebbett’s Pass, Backside

The backside of Ebbett’s is considerable shorter than the frontside. It also seemed slightly less steep. Or at least, it seemed easier.

It was here I met another rider who recognized me.

“Hey, I recognize you… don’t you do a lot of double centuries?” he asked. His name was Gary. We had met on some other gruelling rides, in particular the Devil Mountain Double and the Terrible Two in 1999. He remembered the “classic” triple Crown Jersey I used to wear in those plus that he’d keep on seeing me since he’d pass me on the downhills and I’d pass him on the uphills. The latter part made me remember him! I remembered how going down the switchbacks of Mt. Hamilton I was being ultra-conservative, and he (having blown passed me on the downhills for the umpteenth time), jokingly commented, “You need glasses, don’t you!” Hehe!

Anyhow, we then talked about our cycling since those days. “I remember you used to be really into double centuries,” he commented. So true! “Yes, but I haven’t even ridden a single double century this year,” I replied. “Plus I only rode two last year!”

“So what happened?” he asked.

“My interests had diversified, I guess. I started rock climbing a lot more than cycling. It just seemed like after 1999 and doing the triple Crown Stage Race, etc., there just weren’t many more harder rides to do.” It seemed he had felt similarly, too. A feeling of finally accomplishing what we had dreamed of doing, and it was time to move on. With an occassional ultramarathon ride to stay in shape, and recapture a little bit of the glory days.

Our reminiscing was shortly interrupted by a bizzarre, yet oddly comical, scene…

On the right hand side was a cyclist who had momentarily stopped on the hill to regain his breath and/or his senses. As we passed him he decided to start up the hill again, and clipped in to his right pedal. However, he was off balance a little bit too much to the right side, and so… he toppled over. And so I see him do a 360 degree spin, with his bike still attached to him, over the side of the road, which was something of a cliff!

As I was talking to Gary and concentrating on my thoughts, none of what I had just seen really registered in my mind, until Gary suddenly blurted, “Oh my god! Did I just see what I thought I had just seen? Was that guy really so tired that he just fell over?”

And suddenly, realizing that what we had just seen indeed had really happened, he couldn’t stop laughing! Indeed, it was a little funny (but only because the poor soul was able to break his fall and didn’t get seriously hurt), if not potentially tragic, to see it happen right in front of our own eyes. It also underscored the difficulty of this ride: the hills will get you one way or another.

Farther up the road was the top of the hill, followed by the descent of the frontside of Ebbetts. Again, I was being somewhat conservative descending, which probably proved to be a good thing–every year, someone crashes on this road. I heard after the ride from Adam that indeed, yet again, someone had crashed on this road this year, became unconscious, and had to be airlifted out.

Climb #5: Woodfords to Pickett’s Junction, and Carson Pass

One reason for the popularity of the Death Ride is that you don’t have to do it all; you can bail after one, two three, or four passes if you want to, with rather ease. The decision doesn’t even have to be pre-meditated, but can be made at the last minute.

This is underscored by how at Mile 65 or so, the route meanders right by Turtle Rock Park, which was the start of the ride. Here, many people may be too tempted by the site of their car and may very well think “4 out of the 5 passes is enough, let’s go home.” It is perhaps one of the reason over half of the participants quit before finishing all 5 passes; but it also ensures that everyone has fun, and does not needlessly need to suffer regardless of the name, “Death Ride”.

Still feeling good, however, of course I was going to continue on. Encouraged by only having one more pass to do, with the steepest ones already behind me, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would finish the ride. Unbeknownst to me was the last pass, while not particularly steep, is ridiculously long, and would inflict more pain in my body than the 4 other passes combined.

The last pass is called Carson Pass, but not really mentioned in the pre-race hoopla is a 10-mile stretch from Woodfords to Pickett’s Junction, which also is mostly all up. This, when combined with Carson Pass, effectively makes one long climb, and already having 85 or so miles in one’s leg exacerbates the strenuousness of it.

By this point, the more recreational cyclists have been weeded out, and also, considering the fairly decent time I had made up to this point, only the most fit cyclists were here. The result was, in contrast to the first part of the day, the cyclists I did encounter were more likely to be passing me than the other way around. trying to keep up with some of them proved to be futile; though occasionally, I would find a cyclist who was going a spirited, yet reasonable, pace I could maintain for at least a decent while.

I opted to skip the Pickett’s Junction rest stop to prevent myself from losing momentum. This strategy became regrettable further up the hill when I realized that I was going through my entire water supply very quickly, as I started to feel the effects of dehydration, or altitude, or both. The main symptom was a light headache and a thirsty sensation. I had no choice but to start rationing my water supplies while hoping that the top would come soon enough where I could rehydrate.

The top would not come too soon. In addition to the slight dehydration were back pains, a result of the constant pushing and pulling motions of my legs all day. It was just a matter of hanging in there, however, and literally hours later, the top was in sight.

I had made it, and for the first time all day, my body felt like it was truly suffering.

I spent a little bit more time than usual lingering at the top, taking off just before 4:00pm for the highly anticipated super-long descent. Aero time.

On the way down, I spotted my friends Steve and Everitt, sporting tri-Club windbreakers on their way up Carson’s. “Hey!” I shouted out. It turned out they thought they had heard me. In any case, it was good to see them, and was really happy to see they seemed to be climbing well, and were shortly going to have completed all 5 passes for the first time ever, as had been for me.

Shortly thereafter, came the most memorable moment of the my ride.

A truck was descending the hill, which I followed about 100 feet back for a few minutes. As it was hesitant to pass some other cyclists on the course, it was “only” going 45 mph. I noticed that despite not being completely aero, I was slowly encroaching on it. Conservatism then went out the window, and I contorted my body into the tightest aerodynamic tuck imaginable.

Soon Canny and I were like a slingshot going into the wind. Scenes of “Breaking Away” flickered in my mind. I quickly scanned down the long descent for oncoming traffic. No one, except for a few cyclists hugging the left-hand side of the road.

You can imagine what happened next: I pulled into the opposing lane, passed the truck at 50 mph, and then pulled back into the lane, safely ahead of him!

I had now experienced everything a cyclist would dream of in a single ride. The pride from attacking a hill and conquering it. The serenity and beauty of lush, verdant surroundings. The satisfaction of a long, sweeping descent. And now, the adrenaline rush of passing a truck at highway speeds, just as a motorcycle would do, except that it is the human strength and spirit, and not an engine, providing the propulsion.

Storm clouds were starting to move in. Ahead were vengeful flashes of lightning, a clapping of thunder. The last remaining question was: would I make to the finish before the rain did?

The answer would be yes!, but barely! And so with the downhill I did the last 22 or so miles in 45 minutes, for an astounding average speed of 30 mph. At the finish I received a pin and the privilege of signing the 2002 Death Ride poster, signifying the completion of this classic ride. Long at last!

Epilogue

As I needed to get back to the Bay Area to join my friend Mike for his “Over the Hill” 29th birthday ride (with plenty of more climbing), it was back on the road in short order. Less than 2 miles out and safely in my Z3 with the top up under a now-steady shower, I saw Steve and Everitt coming in. I would also hear from Adam after the race that he too indeed had completed all 5 passes. Congrats to all!

On a more somber note, I have just heard of more details of the first crash–the one on the backside of Monitor Pass. tragically, Scott Lambert–an oral surgeon from Sacramento–sustained severe injuries and did not survive. He was taken off of life support on Wednesday, July 17th–becoming the first real casualty of the Death Ride in its 20+ year history. Sincerest condolences goes out to Scott’s family.

Ride Data

  • 129 mi
  • 5:45am start, 4:45pm finish—11 hours
  • Average Speed: 12.5 mph moving, 11.7 mph overall
  • Max Speed: >50 mph, multiple times
  • Total Climbing: 16,000 feet over 5 passes

Rating

(1=ho hum; 5=best)

  • Scenery: 5+. Aptly dubbed the California Alps, this is the best it gets!
  • Support/Organization: 5
  • Food: 4. Well stocked–even provided Clif bars–but otherwise nothing realy special.
  • Weather: 4-. I had just missed the thunderstorms and didn’t think the heat was unbearable, though for others, it might have been different.
  • Relative Difficulty: 4. Despite all the climbing, nothing is super steep.
  • Overall Rating: 5. Perhaps the finest couse I have ever ridden!

Route Sheet (PDF)

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On the way to Markleeville, my journey was delayed by an hour by an accident.  The highway had turned into a giant parking lot!Felix and Canny", at the start at 5:45am, all readThe first half of the ride was entirely closed to automobiles, so cyclists ruled the road!Going down the backside of Monitor Pass.A waterbottle stop where staff would take water bottles, run up the hill, fill them up, and hand them back.  What great service!A helicopter hovering above at the site of a crash, in which the entire ride would be stopped.  Days later, the victim--Scott Lambert of Sacramento--succumbed to his injuries and was taken off of life support.  My sincerest condolences to his family.Going up Pass #4, the back side of Ebbett's.Last pass of the day: Carson's Pass.  It seemed like it would go on forever!Felix Wong successfully crests the summit of Carson Pass! Photo: WestWorldImages.com.Made it to the top of Pass #5!  Felix Wong and Canny again, with the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra in the background. My 5 stickers for each of the passes I climbed. (The sticker for the 1st pass was given at the end.)

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9 comments on “Tour of the California Alps (The Death Ride)

  1. Comment by Larry Shilkoff

    Great blog on the ride. I’ll be doing it for the first time this year. so your experience was a great peek into what I can expect.

    Larry

  2. Comment by Dennis Mills

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I never thought that I would say this but it is my hope to next year put my name into the lottery to see if I get to be one of the chosen to do the Ride in 2007.

  3. Comment by Mark Central Coast of CA

    I too enjoyed the DR 2007 and plan to ride it again. 3000 riders, roads closed for 4 passes, lots of good food and enthusiasm. I did make a short video of the ride:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7mdyHTbGDw

    We all stay focused and watch out for each other. I heard of one bad accident on Ebbetts and the rider is still not recovered. Does anyone know what happened?

  4. Comment by Dave Wyman

    I’m late to the party – but I’ve enjoyed this blog post, too. I’m 62, and planning on trying first Death Ride – 2010 version – in a little over a week.

    I managed to complete the Climb to Kaiser, twice, in 2001 and 2002, so I’m generally aware of what’s waiting for me; my preparation, such as it’s been, is about what it was for the C2K, the difference being that I’m an old guy, now.

    Thanks for the great report, I think it will help me on my own ride, no matter how many passes I complete.

  5. Comment by Bob gregory

    Nice Death Ride blog Felix. I just completed my second DR in July ’10. As always this ride dishes out plenty of challenges. I was searching for news on some of this year’s crashes. I passed a bad crash on the way up Carson Pass and was wondering how this guy was doing — hopefully he’s on the mend and makes a full recovery. It could have happened to anyone of us out there.

    The Markleeville crowd did a fantastic job supporting this ride as always!

  6. Comment by Brent

    Great ride. Excellent event. Praises to organizers and weathermen 😉

    I also would like updates on this year’s injured. Stopped to help 2 cyclists on Carson’s descent. Anyone have info?

  7. Comment by Casey

    Great blog! I just found out about this ride and I can’t wait! Thanks for the great detail. I’m starting to prepare now for the July 2013 ride.

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