The Death Ride (Places of the Mind)

Years past in early June, you mailed your Death Ride entry form with your check. Now an on-line lottery determines the Have-rides and the Have-nots. The official name is now the blissful sounding Tour of the California Alps, another name for the Sierra Nevada range in Alpine County. The ride, that begins and ends in the Alpine County seat of Markleeville on the second Saturday in July, is the single most renowned and toughest one day ride in the region. When you do the Death Ride, you find that each of the challenging summits become special locations locked forever in the mind.

The difficulty isn’t the distance of 129 miles but the five roughly nine-mile climbs averaging about 2,500-feet each. For San Francisco Peninsula riders to compare, that’s a little more than doing five Palo Alto rides up and down Page Mill Rd. (a 2,200 foot climb), which would still leave you short by 40 miles and five thousand feet of the Death Ride’s totals.

The Death Ride began as an informal training ride for the to-be-three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond and chums living nearby. The original 143 mile course included the now by-passed Daggett Pass into South Lake Tahoe. The course has since been reduced to a less automobile-busy 129 miles.

Altitude is what separates the Death Ride from a lot of other tough rides. Time cut-offs keep riders moving quickly through well-supported rest stops. Lunch seems to many riders a good place to bail after an exhausting 80 mile, four pass ride. For those pressing on, the ride doesn’t really begin until the last turn is made into the canyon headwinds for the final 14 mile tow-par climb.

For Tour de France comparisons, the famous nine mile, eight percent L’Alpe d’Huez tops out at 6,300 feet above sea level. The five Death Ride climbs also average about eight percent and the highest point is 8,700 feet.

These desolate passes can be ridden any summer weekend, but it is only the Death Ride’s pressure that gives them a unique feel, which the first time rider senses and the repeat rider finds perversely solacing. Beyond the first rest top, riders cruise by the Monitor Pass monument in a cap of birch trees. They soon will bike by again, eyeing the rest stop waiting just head baking in the sun. Hours later, that dreadful steep stretch just before the Ebbetts Pass crest is where exhausted riders pool on the other side.

Down and back you complete your fourth climb with one more pass waiting. That first crest is 40 miles far away, further than riders want to imagine. If all goes well, later in the day they will be plodding uphill alongside that familiar Carson Pass rock wall. Just around the corner awaits the final rest stop with its throng of riders basking in the satisfaction of having pedaled as much as is required.

The experience can be achieved just once a year. I’s an adventure into much heralded territory for the first time entrant and a revisiting of special places in the mind for the repeat rider.

Published Cycle California, July 2004, Vol. 10, #6