Monday, July 16, 2007
To call it a "bicycle ride" sounds so pleasant. It's called the Death Ride for a reason, and "pleasant" doesn't factor into it at all. It's been going on for 25 or more years, designed to be a very hard bike ride for those who like such things. Apparently, I do. And it delivered.
It starts in Markleeville, a tiny mining town on Hwy 89 south of Lake Tahoe. I go through Markleeville on my way to Tuolomne Meadows a few times each year, except in the winter because the 8,350 pass is closed due to snow. It's high elevation. That pass is called Monitor Pass, and it'll factor into this story. Markleeville is where the ride begins, and ends 129 miles later. This ride includes 5 similar high passes, for a total vertical gain of 16,000 feet. That's like going from Sac to Donner Pass, twice, then back up above Auburn. It sounds hard. It is. So those are the stats, 129 miles and 16,000 vertical feet. They're proud of these stats. It's on everything - the shirts, the hats, coffee mugs, the rider numbers. There is also a skull/skeleton logo that appears everywhere too. OK, we get the message.
If you know me well, you know I like this stuff. Hanging out on El Cap for 5 days, going for Half-Dome in a day, and agreeing to run 50 miles with my pal Mark for his 50th birthday, well, these things appeal to me. Probably some latent psychological issues haunting me from my troubled youth. But I'm not savvy on such things so I just go for it and leave the explaining up to Pam's pals. I really don't want to know.
I won't bore you with all the training, well, because it's boring. Pam and Hannah politely kiss me goodbye on Saturday mornings, and I return several hours later, having achieved increasingly longer distances on long, tedious hills. Boring. Suffice it to say I did a lot of repeat laps on Donner Pass Road, and a trip up Tioga Pass Road into Tuolomne Meadows. These are hard rides (still boring), but they are under my belt and helpful in the preparation. I think this is good training - I'm ready . . .
Friday the 13th (my lucky day) is check-in day. I drive up by myself, as it would be painfully boring for Pam and Hannah if they joined me. Actually, I kinda enjoyed this alone time, with the iPod at full volume with Tom Petty singing "I won't back down". As I approach Hwy 89, everybody has a bike rack, and I'm no longer alone. And I'm amazed how many damn ways there are to strap a bicycle to a car. The road there seems rather hilly, but I'll worry about that Saturday. Today, I turn in my release ( I didn't read it but I'm sure it said 129 miles, 16,000 vertical feet, and nothing is their fault) , get my bib and bike numbers, and a bag full of free stuff. But it's really about the ride. I hit my vagabond motel, with Francis and a pack of Virginia Slims running the check-in desk. "Are you one of those bicycle people?", she asks, careful not to drop her ash on the recently swiffer'ed floor.
Sleep comes hard when you're trying, but I set 3 alarm clocks to make sure I'm up at 4:00. I can start riding anytime after 5:30. It doesn't matter when you start because it's not a race - just get on the course and go. Cool! You know, it's dark at 4:00 am. At 5:00am too. I've been busy getting my bike ready, and sorting my clothes. It'll be cool/cold to start, and warm/hot when I finish. I've got an REI's worth of technical clothing in my possession - I'll find the right stuff. Other cars are leaving the motel parking lot, with several thousand dollars worth of fancy bike racks attaching their days ride to the car. Mine too. Headlights on and little traffic, I feel in the company of a lot of friends on the road. I search for Tom Petty again on the iPod - "I won't back down".
You park about anywhere you want on Hwy 89 near the "start". Some poor guy pulled off the road, found a small ditch, and rolled his car onto its side. The bike, on and expensive Yakima roof rack, looked OK. Did he ride, and fix the car later? Hmmmm. I park on the right, after a wide spot on the margin filled with family members in Winnebegos and a bunch of poor people who just set up their tents right on the side of the road. Dedication!
It's about 5:30 now and cyclists are on the road, riding past my parking space. There will be 3,000 cyclists today. And even more who wanted in but weren't lucky in the lottery. It's happening. I get my bike ready, make decisions about clothing, and food, and click in. I set my odometer to zero. There is no fanfare for this start, but the sun is now on the horizon, and my legs are pedaling. It's the Death Ride, and I'm rolling!
I came up alone, and now share the road with 3,000 people I've never met. But we're no strangers. It's easy to start a conversation. It's morning, we're on our way to the first of 5 mountain passes, and everyone, everyone, is psyched. We're all very different people, retired cops, hippies, triathletes, State workers, engineers, and a guy in a Lyon Real Estate shirt (I pass him with conviction up the back side of Monitor Pass). I see old guys with ponytails to their waists, and young women with shaved heads. I see at least 2 riders under 16. There are 3,000 people here, from every walk of life. But today, we share the one unusual trait, of being, well, unusual.
The first pass is hard, but we're all fresh and we're all happy. We're bicycling and watching the sun come up. That's exciting. If you've ever been to the top of Monitor pass, you know how exciting the view to the east is - unless, that is, you have to ride back up it. Geez, that's a long way down (translation: that's a long way up). But this part of the ride is free. I lock the legs in, tuck the arms, and put my head down. It's steep. That means it'll be steep when I come back up. But now, I still have serious business keeping my skinny, little 20 lb bike following a safe line. I rationally decided to keep my speeds under 40, but it would be easy to be doing 55 (mph). I focus on two things - the next 60 feet, and my front wheel. It's 21 mm wide (my wheel), and that's just not a lot of aluminum between me and the pavement, so it's easy to "feather" the brakes as I approach 40mph. Damn, I'm on the brakes and that's still fast. I'm quickly reminded of the immortality of youth, as several younger riders pass me. I want in, but I remind myself it's not a race. Ahhh, the wisdom of age.
I've described the beginning of the ride - and it just continued for many hours. It really didn't change much, so there is not much to write. Some people did 3 passes, some 4, but I was going for the whole enchilada. So I rode long and steep up each pass, then down. It was hard. There were a lot of people like me. I'd talk to someone for awhile, but we'd be at a different pace and it wouldn't last long. I'd pass a lot of people, and a lot of people would pass me. I recognized a lot of people from all that passing, back and forth. I can't explain the excitement that goes with something so tedious. The passes were all steeper than anything I trained on, and the uphills were long and relentless. But through that odd psychology that I enjoy but don't understand, I was right at home, with all my new friends.
I expected to take about 12 hours, and 11 would have been really nice. But I finished in just under 10 hours. I credit that extra hour to the pure joy of being surrounded by people like me, who can do this, and enjoy this, and can grind for hours up a relentless hill and still converse with a spark in their voice. It's called the Death Ride, but the fact is I saw more life, more human energy, from everyday people, people who go to work, and love their families, and who live in anonymity among the masses. It's an incredibly powerful force, and on this day I witnessed it in mass, and it motivated me, and I can't wait for the next opportunity to see what this kind of energy can do to people.