I had this whole racing plan for the year, everything marked on the calendar, training plan aligned for peaking at the right times, etc…and then a couple buddies of mine signed up for the Death Ride, so the training/racing plan changed to achieve maximum type 2 fun. The Death Ride (Tour of the California Alps) is a 130 mile bike ride that starts in Markleville, CA on the very southern edge of Lake Tahoe and crosses 5 mountain passes for a total elevation gain of 15,000 ft.
My dad completed the Death Ride a few times in the early 2000s and it’s been on my bucket list ever since, it’s one of the things that inspired me to start cycling in the first place so with a solid group of friends registered this seemed like the year to throw out the training plan and start climbing. To that point, having never done this before I asked Timber how to train for it. He told me to ride uphill for like 4 hours per ride….so that’s what I attempted to do!
I really started training in March when the invite came out and I had a descent base built up on TrainerRoad through the winter, but hadn’t been planning on this length of ride or amount of climbing, I was nervous about that so I started training right away. My goal was to average the distance, 130 miles, and elevation, 15,000 feet, in a week that I would be doing the day of the event. I was mostly able to stick to this goal.
The weekend before the race I did a 50 mile ride with 4,000 ft elevation on Saturday, and felt terrible, then Sunday I did another 50 miles and 4,000 feet and felt phenomenal. I decided that maybe I just trained so much that I needed 50 miles to feel warmed up hahaha. I texted my dad those rides and he said, “You’re ready”. That made me feel good.
We drove down the day before from Reno, regged, and started carb loading on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Basque food (excellent choice) then headed to bed early for a 5:30 start time.
The start of the Death Ride is kind of surreal, since it’s not a race, you can start anytime you want really, you just have to make the time cuts at each pass. This means that even though there’s 2,500 cyclists, there’s no mass start, you just roll from your car when you’re ready, like a Saturday coffee ride (except there’s no coffee and it’ll last like 10 hours).
My goal in my head was to finish in about 9 hours, but I also planned on staying with the friends and knew that not everyone had put in quite as much training time as I had. We set off at about 5:30 am with two bottles of champagne in Timber’s pockets and a bunch of food. Like Ben said on his Tahoe 50 miler report, a race this long is really just a 9 hour banquet that happens to be on a bike!!
The climbing pretty much starts right away with the two hardest climbs of the day, the front side of Monitor Pass, then the back side of it. The front side is 8.2 miles and 2,500 feet up, we did that in an hour, conversation pace and I felt great at the top. We regrouped at the aid station, then cracked the first bottle of champagne cause why not? It’s 7 am and you’ve already done 20 miles and 2,500 ft!!
Dropping down the backside of Monitor was super fun!! Maybe the best part about the Death Ride is that all the roads are closed to cars except for the last pass, so you don’t have to worry about them and can just let it fly on the downhills (while watching out for your fellow cyclists that may or may not be going anywhere near the speed you are). The only bad thing about the downhill is that little voice inside the back of your mind telling you this must be pretty steep if you’re going 55mph and not trying, and that you have to climb back up that, yay!
We made the U-turn at the bottom of Monitor and started the long slog back up what we just flew down, I know which direction is more fun. The backside of Monitor is infamous in the Death Ride for being HOT, and even though it was only 8:30am, it was hot. There’s absolutely no shade, the sun is on your back, and it also kindly reflects off the rocks in front of you, so you get it from all sides. I remarked to Timber 2 miles up that my eyes were sweating…then we quickly downed a couple water bottles. I felt pretty bad for the first half of this climb, then we turned a corner and the legs came roaring back. We stopped for a picture at the lookout, and then Jordan and I hammered it to the top of the climb. During this section, I remember thinking, “you’ll pay for that effort later” BUT my philosophy on long efforts is you go when you feel good, so we did.
Mountain 2 in the books, 10 miles and 3,100 feet all before 9:30. Though 5 of us felt good so far, we waited a descent amount of time for the other members of the group at the top of this one, about 35 minutes.
Again, a roaring descent with no cars!! We averaged 40mph on that one, super fun!
On the Ebbetts, the most famous climb on the ride. This was the only climb of the day I’d done before so I knew what to expect, stair steps! Ebbetts is hard and you hear horror stories about it, but it will kick up to 18%+ grade for 200 yards and then mellow out again. I felt great at this point so Jordan and I took off at the bottom. The whole way up I was passing a lot of people who were starting to do the weave, where they go back and forth across the road using their back to pedal and balance, this was only a problem because the road is narrow, and people were already speeding down, not a good mix. I tried to encourage people to keep to the right while climbing, and slow down descending, all the while also offering real encouragement.
My favorite moment on Ebbetts was when Tyler caught up to me about a mile from the top and told me he was feeling terrible. I was like, “well chill out then!” He did. Silly Tyler. P
Pass 3 in the books, 13 miles and 2,800 feet.
At this point in the ride we were doing a fair bit of waiting for our other 2 riders and we were getting closer than we wanted to the time cuts, so once number 6 got to the top we let them know the 5 of us were going to press on.
We dropped down the backside, didn’t stop at the bottom, and immediately started the climb back up. On the elevation profile, the backside of Ebbetts kind of looks like a “freebie”, it’s only 5 miles and 1,700 feet you tell yourself. Which is true. But it hurts.
Top of pass 4, it took 37 minutes and we were ready for lunch!! It was about 1 pm now. The only thing about pass 4 is that you’re still only at mile 65…many miles to go! Champagne bottle number 2!! We flew down the descent in the rain, which was nice and cool, and man was that a fun descent. The great part about the waiting we had done is that now there weren’t people coming up so we really let it go on the downhill.
We got to the lunch stop at the bottom of Ebbetts and found out the bad news about waiting…they were pretty much out of lunch, like a couple pieces of turkey and some watermelon, not ideal.
The next section is the only “flat” part of the ride. Jordan and Timber felt good so they lead the paceline to the bottom of Carson, about 20 miles in between. I started to feel terrible about halfway through that, and you pass your car on the way, at about mile 85, knowing you can just stop now and not do 40 more miles and another 5k of climbing. I pushed that thought from my mind but we did lose someone at the cars.
Thankfully, the aid station at the bottom or Carson pass had real food!! We ate several uncrustables and started the slog up Carson. At this point we had caught a lot of riders, and the road up Carson was open to traffic and had a very narrow bike lane. This made it super difficult because you want to climb in your own rhythm and pace but have to slow down to the people’s speed in front of you until it’s safe-ish to pass them, then spin back up to your speed. We made it to the aid station halfway up and I was still feeling terrible and getting pre-cramp cramps in my calves. I ate a bunch of pickles at the aid station and that did the trick!! We made it to the top and the ice cream!!!!
Last climb was 9 miles and took 54 minutes, ouch.
We took some pictures at the top and then heard thunder, decided we should try and rip the descent before that reached us. We did rip the descent, but not before the storm hit. We hit 60mph in the pouring rain, what a rush!
Short pedal back to the car. Moving time 8 hours and 38 minutes, 121 miles, and 15,000 feet of climbing, 2 bottle of champagne, 132 Gu, 310 pieces of watermelon, 48 water bottles, 5 real good friends. Count it.