The name is an exaggeration, but only just. The Death Ride, which this year will unfold on July 14, is a marathon cycling event for hardcore adventure athletes only. The intense one-day endurance ride covers 129 miles. In the lung-busting process, you cross five mountain passes and travel no less than 16,000 feet.
The ride begins and ends at north of Markleeville Turtle Rock Park, which sounds quaint but takes participants over notoriously tough terrain. On the upside, the ride is set amid the loveliness of the Californian Alps. Entrants get to climb through some of the prettiest roads that wind through California. Think soaring mountain peaks, icy, transparent lakes, gorgeous alpine meadows, titanic evergreen trees and views that seem to roll on to infinity.
Other rides may push cyclists higher or farther, but, despite its morbid name, The Markleeville Death Ride is kind of life-affirming.
Nobody is expected to try and “win,” as just finishing is achievement enough. You just have to get over the ride’s famous five passes, which include: Monitor Pass (8,314′), Ebbetts Pass (8,730′) and Carson Pass (8,573′). Then, you get your five-pass pin and are eligible to buy a five-pass finisher jersey, if that grabs you.
The advice given to entrants is sensible and intermittently applicable to athletes in other fields. For instance, besides being alert and respectful to other riders, entrants are told they should ride single file and to the right at all times. They need to control their speed on the downhill, applying their brakes sparingly and evenly because rims can be toasted by brake pad friction, and keep an eye out for bumps and cattle guards. Bring extra tubes and a pump so they are ready for hazards is always a plus, too. Finally, carrying extra water is always the final recommendation. The trick is to drink before pedaling and drink repeatedly during the journey — riders aim to drink two bottles per hour, minimum.
Just in case you run out of oomph, you should carry extra energy food, especially if you hop into action early when the rest stops might be shut. Eat before hunger hits you. Eat often as you roll over the passes. Snacks keep your internal fuel supply up.
Above all, bring all the optimism you can muster and be prepared to start early – the crack of dawn or before.
“I simply did not think that I could physically do it, given my lack of overall fitness and the utter insanity of the length, elevation gain, and altitude of the ride,” recounts 2007 rider Adam Tow in his blog.
Tow scoured the web for as much information as he could amass on how entrants finish. He learned that eager entrants started ultra-early – sometimes an hour or two before the ride’s official 5:30 am start. Tow realized that if he wanted to even entertain the prospect of doing all five passes, he needed to start at least an hour ahead – yes, 4:30 am or earlier.
Tow’s key finding was simple: there will always be someone faster than you. It helped, however, that he was riding with another entrant who was also on his first Death Ride.
The hardest climb, Tow recounts, was the frontside of Ebbet’s Pass, next to Carson pass.
“My legs were seriously starting to cramp anytime I tried to stretch them out. The only thing that kept them from locking up completely was continuing to pedal one stroke at a time,” he says.
The ride highlight was barreling down the frontside of Ebbet’s Pass: a tricky descent armed with hairpin bends and a section of no-guardrail cliff. Tow was, he admits, boosted by “excess weight.” He flew down the mountain, passing all-comers, screaming, “passing left,” some 20 times.
“It’s funny that I’ve become a better descender now than a climber. Back when I started riding in 1997, I was 15-20 pounds lighter and my forte was climbing. Now that I’m heavier, my climbing has suffered, but my descending has improved. Go figure,” he writes.
Finally, he describes the Death Ride as, “an utterly exhausting physical experience.” He is amazed at how Tour de France riders do Death Ride equivalents day in, day out for three weeks. “One is enough for me,” he concludes.
Last year, 3,500 cyclists embarked on the ride – 2,011 finished.
At the road leading from the final Death Ride pass, the Tour de France-style cheering starts. The riders need encouragement then because all but the elite are in pain and only capable of making it to the end through sheer grit. Even if they have to do a spot of portage and carry their bikes, after getting this far, they are hell-bent on finishing, irrespective of whether they regurgitate lunch, as happens.
As the survivors break toward the finish, they meet family, friends, and cycling nuts on the roadside. Many spectators have waited for hours in motor homes, lawn chairs and car roofs for this moment. As the riders roll by, spectators slam pans, shriek and blow whistles, any method of conveying congratulations to the finishing riders goes.
Finishers feel relieved and ecstatic at their success. They get a free after-ride meal and tons of beer if they want it.