On July 8, 2006 I rode in the Death Ride with my boyfriend Eric, who was out visiting from New Jersey. The Death Ride is a ride that takes place every year in Markleeville, California, just outside of South Lake Tahoe. It's also known as the Tour of California Alps. Why? Because the ride is 129 miles with over 16.000 feet of climbing! Gulp. After a great week of riding and hanging out around SF, Eric and I drove up to Markleeville. [Side-story: My mom and I always butt heads because she's kind of an anal-retentive planner, whereas I like to go with the flow. But admittedly (Mom, are you listening?) I probably should have planned our trip a little better.] We left the city, got stuck in traffic, stopped to eat, stopped to grocery stop, stopped to eat again (we needed fuel for the next day!) and then finally arrived in Markleeville just as registration was about to close. Bib numbers in hand and each $100 poorer (entry fee), we headed back to the car to go find my friend Dave’s trailer. Dave had been the one who told me all about the Death Ride. He’d done it a few years in a row now and this year brought a trailer up to stay in. Minor problem: I’m the idiot who didn’t write down the directions to the trailer park, figuring I’d just listen to the voicemail Dave had left me, forgetting the fact that there is zero cell service out there. Long story short: we had no place to stay at 10 p.m. and had to be up and ready to ride 129 miles in approximately 7 hours. I thought briefly of sleeping in my car, but I drive a Jetta and trust me, a 6’5” man (Eric) would not fit in there comfortably. So we drove back out to South Lake Tahoe and stopped at the first motel with a vacancy sign.
At 5 a.m. the alarm went off, not so fun. But we dragged ourselves out of bed, loaded up and headed to Markleeville. Race participants can officially start anytime between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. So we got there at 6:15 thinking we would have plenty of time. Little did we know, most people are on their bikes around 5, so oh well, we started late. But then as we are riding to the start line, I hear the dreaded hissing sound of a tire going flat. Bummer! I had just got a flat a few days before back in the city. Something must be wrong. I dragged my bike up to the mechanic, waited patiently in line, and then learned that there was a very large piece of glass stuck in my tire. Typically a flat is fairly easy to fix: the tube (or tire inserts as I once wrongly called them, which my cycling team in college found incredibly hilarious) just gets changed and the tire fits right back on. But a hole in the tire requires and entire new tire. Luckily, this mechanic had a spare tire. He saved the day; otherwise I would not have been able to ride. I sent him a nice thank-you note and check a few days later!
So finally we’re on the road. The ride is 5 hill climbs: Monitor Pass up and down then back up and down again, Ebbits Pass up and down then back up and down again, and Carson pass just up and down. Eric ditches me at the beginning of the Monitor (which was fine, he’s way faster then me and I definitely didn’t want to hold him up!) But I must admit I was rather lonely. I did meet some people along the way, except it gets hard to hold a conversation climbing a mountain with a 12% grade! Finally reaching the peak of Monitor I began to see thousands of cyclists ahead of me. They were coming back up as I was going down. I began wishing I had set that alarm for 4 am instead. I saw Eric coming back up Monitor. We said hi and kept going. On my way back up Monitor a lady in front of me, pulled over to the side of the road, told me to move over because there was a bear in the bushes. That certainly got me moving! Four seconds later I hear pounding feet behind me and turn around to see a baby bear (when I say baby, I’d guess maybe 300 pounds, so not so baby-like) running right across where I had been!
The rest of the climb continued without much excitement. In fact, most of the ride, I was in somewhat of a trance-like state, just kind of going. So I make it back up to the summit of Monitor, start the descent, which was very fast and scary! Then I’m on my way to the second pass, Ebbits. Word on the street was Ebbits was, and I quote ‘Not as hard as Monitor.’ NOT. Ebbits was grueling. On my way up I passed a dad and his daughter, who was probably 12. She was crying. I felt like crying too. But I congratulated her for making it as far as she did and told her to keep going. I bet she wanted to punch me. I was about 3 km from the summit when I passed this very tan man pulled over on the side. I asked him if he was alright (just to be sure) and in the most macho voice he could muster, he replied yes and he would see me soon (meaning he would be passing me soon). I shrugged and kept going, taking note of the fact that he was decked out in expensive gear, which does not always translate into being a good cyclist. Sure enough I beat him to the top, although when I say beat, he must have been going really, really slow as I was surely climbing at about 4 or 5 miles per hour. Sitting at the rest stop at the summit I debated going down and climbing back up to complete the fourth pass. At this point I knew I would not be getting to the fifth pass, it was getting late and they would have to open the roads soon. I think about how great a Hefeweizen at the bar back in Markleeville would be right about now.
But alas, I decide to commit to the fourth climb and start making my way down. On my way down, I pass Eric on his way back up. This time our “hellos”are not quite as cheerful. At the bottom, I take another break, sitting in the shade of a tree, resting my head between my knees. I dozed off for about 5 minutes and then hear this woman next to me asking if I was OK. I looked up. It was a medic. Yes, I replied, I’m fine. Slightly embarrassed that I caused her alarm, I decide that it’s definitely time to leave and climb back up Ebbits. Luckily the backside was not nearly as bad as the front. I make it to the summit, grab some more Gatorade and water and then hope back on for the descent. The descent can get kind of scary when you’re tired. Your reactions seem slower and you really, really don’t want to go careening off the cliff (obviously). So I took it slow and kept thinking about Hefeweizen. Reaching the bottom, I feel like I’m almost done but then remember I have about another 20 miles to go before I get back into Markleeville. Fortunately, the wind is my friend and pushes me along a bit. The sky was getting dark and a few raindrops plopped down on me as I made my way back to the car. Feeling disappointed that I didn’t finish but glad to be off the bike, I changed and waited for Eric to return.
About 20 minutes later, the sky opened up: lightening, thunder, rain and then hail. The hail on my windshield was about the size of a hazelnut. I started to feel really bad for Eric out there in the elements. I waited and waited, watching all the cyclists come in, looking for Eric’s red helmet and blue jersey. Finally, he arrived, soaking wet and exhausted, but he finished all 5 peaks for a grand total of 129 miles. As a Death Ride finisher he got to sign a poster and buy a special jersey. I felt bad that I didn’t finish, but I had completed 4 out of 5 and rode about 90 miles total. And finally, finally, finally I was able to get that Hefeweizen!
Needless to say, we were both silent on the drive back to my parents in Reno. I think we went to bed at 9 and pretty much passed out cold. Four days later I was back on the bike: I’m determined to be survive/complete next year’s Death Ride!