(The Death Ride Experience)
July 9, 2011, 5 a.m., Markleeville.
Sixty-one years old, registered and readying my bike for 129 miles and 16,000 vertical feet over five Sierra roads, cresting at 8,000 feet plus.
Well, good god almighty, which way do I steer?
Remember that far old man Rooster Cogburn in the original True Grit? Nineteen sixty-nine, I was 19 then and he was old—John Wayne was 61, yep, my age now. In the last scene, Kim Darby asked if he was too old to be jumping fences. My first Death Ride was 20 years earlier and then it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
A few years before age 40, I bought a $400 steel frame racing bike. Not have bicycled since getting a driver’s license, I had no idea what a racing bike was. I quickly found out. No age groupings on open roads—let it rip.
I was still athletic then, playing adult league soccer, still capable of a sub-40 minute 10K as well as doing short-course triathlons. My new-found biking buddies mentioned this insanely difficult little-known ride in remote Markleeville, nestled in the mountains south of Lake Tahoe. Best of all, it was called the Death Ride.
In 1991 when I first signed up, 30-year-old Greg Lemond was the defending Tour de France winner and made road biking popular.
A couple weeks after my 41st birthday, in the dark of my campground tent at 4 a.m. I awoke to the incredibly loud broadcast of a railroad crossing bell, a wolf howl and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, all emanating from the busy Turtle Rock mess hall a few hundred dark yards away. Inside, I found tables of cereal-munching, adrenaline-pumped Death Riders. Hours later nearing dusk, I joyfully returned up the hill to pick up my fifth pass pin earned 20 miles back at Carson Pass.
I thought it was one and done but was back the following year along with Kristen, my new woman, who without any biking background, joined in training toward this great event I heralded. That year, she managed three passes in the rain and then next year, two passes in the scorching heat, which I dug deep to complete five passes each time, barely. In our third year together, we married in July and went to Hawaii instead. Family vacations with my teenage daughter replaced the Death Ride for the following four years.
One fall, my biking buddies, both my vintage pal and the one who inherited Kristen’s rented bike, started thinking about the Death Ride, which I of course had praised as the ultimate test. I was now 48 and riding a new steel bike. The three of us entered the ride in 1999, the year 27-year-old Lance Armstrong returned to the tour.
Hard as it was, with the final ascent one agonizing pedal stroke after another, we finished, gloriously dazed. Sometime over the rainy winter, we convinced ourselves to repeat. Markleeville became an annual rite.
My front two chain rings got me up all five passes at age 50. That Christmas, with the Devil Mountain Double in April also lined up, I treated myself to a carbon-fiber with three front rings on which I did that double century and four more years of Markleevilles. Worn out mentally as well as being grouchy above having to submit to a lottery just to enter, at 54, I determined that was the last time, as did my other two accomplices.
Meanwhile riding continued: 5,5000 miles at age 56 including the Climb to Kaiser, a 9,200 foot ascent out of the summer oven known as Fresno.
Just before turning 57, I suffered a broken collarbone, shoulder, and ribs, all form a single wheel-to-wheel touch. A year later other peers broke bones in biking accidents—even Lance broke his collarbone. Was time catching up?
At age 59, working a new job with less free time, I took up mountain biking with an old high school friend, Brian, recently slimmed down and new to biking. The following winter, with trails washed out, we switched to road biking. At age 60, overweight and undertrained, I was far removed from my biking past but enjoyed combing over past routes with Brian.
Over that winter, he expressed wanting to check out at least a couple passes of the Death Ride and to do so as registered riders to feel the morning’s excitement. Soon I had a real live entry, but deep inside I wondered, what about five passes once more?
Seeing my angst, Kristen enrolled me in a diet program that offered fixed portions of processed food almost as tasty as depicted on the packets. I knew I needed to lose major weight, maybe not to the 55 ponds ago at age 41, but more than 30 pounds to where I was at age 50.
She also purchased memberships in a gym with spin classes. Veteran outdoor biker, little did I know there would be more thigh-burning standing than sitting. The hour’s workout provided weekday conditioning that I wouldn’t get otherwise. Twenty pounds went away during March.
Brian and I began doing more difficult, longer rides but not the full distances that I used to prescribe for Markleeville training. But I didn’t have yet the inclination, leg strength or time to put in the mileage to complete five passes.
I needed one more big bat in the line-up and got it for my 61st birthday in June: a new carbon fiber bike. It cost 10 times what my steel fame cost 20 years earlier and weighted six pounds less. Though only marginally lighter than my 10-yar-old carbon-fiber, equipped with newer components, it made a big difference.
By the end of June, I had the new bike, the conditioned legs and had lost 40 pounds. Still, for me to do all five passes, luck would have to keep away the often present withering heat and desiccating headwinds. As for acclimatizing above 8,000 feet now that I was over 60, I wouldn’t know until I got there.
Twenty years after my first Death Ride, instead of being single I was 17 years remarried; my then eight-year-old daughter was now a working adult; I’d switched careers, moved four times and was on my fourth road bicycle. With Death Ride rookie Brian alongside, we joined the stream of bike lights under the stars on a chilly July Sierra dawn.
As it turned out, the weather in 2011 was beautifully cool all morning and tolerable warm in the afternoon. At his own pace, Brian did Monitor Pass both sides as wall as achieving Ebbetts Pass. We met at the top as I road up the other side, four passes down and one Carson Pass to go.
So, how did it turn out for this 61-year-old on his first Death Ride in seven years? As Rooster Cogburn said at the end of True Grit, “Well come see a fat old man sometime.” Make that a formerly fat old man.