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DEATH RIDE


[Published in 2008, Death Ride won "Best in Category–Sports and Challenge." The event took place in July of 2001.]

It’s not about your titanium Lightspeed, Ultegra triple, or Mavic rims. It’s not about possessing another gaudy arm patch, or slamming beers at another post-ride party. It’s not about the hundred-mile weeks you’ve logged, or the vertical feet you’ve religiously cranked to expand those tiny air sacs in your lungs. It’s not about the bone-deep chill of pre-dawn air, or the latte pumping caffeine into your veins, or the packets of viscous goo you’ve stash in your Castelli jersey for emergency carbs. It’s not about the reassuring click of your SPDs snapping into cold steel pedals, or the lactic acid stiffening your quads as you move out with the pack, or the din of 5,400 rubber tires on thawing asphalt as the rising sun promises to kick your ass later in the day. It’s not about the shotgun release of endorphins, or the testosterone-charged pace lines, or the agony of interminable up-hill pulls, or the heady rush as you lean into a snaking descent and wonder what happens if another rider goes down hard in front of your wheel.

It’s about death.

It’s about the fact that you are definitely going to die, but delaying that inevitability for one more glorious day on your Terry Dragonfly saddle.

The “Death Ride” was born on Bastille Day, 1981, when a few certifiable residents of Markleeville decided to crank their ten-speeds over Daggett Pass to Lake Tahoe, back into Alpine County over Luther Pass, up one side of Monitor Pass, then grunt to the summit of Ebbetts—and be home for supper.

Within a few years, the grueling bicycle tour earned its mystique as the ultimate road challenge, attracted pro-racing luminaries like Greg LeMond. 21 years later, it represents the single largest source of revenue for Alpine County. The course covers 129 miles, crosses Monitor and Ebbetts twice before the fifth ascent to Carson Pass. At the end of the day, you’ve climbed 16,000 vertical feet, and if you make it back alive, you get bragging rights, a cloisonné pin, a free massage, mediocre food, and expensive beer. It just doesn’t get any cooler than this.

“You in this year?” Billy asked me in April while degreasing his custom Breezer .

“Yeah. How ‘bout you?”

“Goin’ for three.” He was tentative. Last year, Billy’s asthma stopped him half-way through the second pass. I barely made it over three.

“Nancy’s been kicking my butt every weekend on the Seven Sisters,” I told him. “She’s determined to finish in under ten hours.”

“Woman’s a psycho,” Billy shook his head, almost reverently. “I’ll keep the beer cold for you guys.”

“Nancy doesn’t do beer,” I reminded him. “She lives on sweet potatoes and dried salmon jerky. For fun she drinks water with fizz.”

“That’s why she’ll clear five passes in ten hours.”

We all have our reasons for wanting a shot at Death Ride. For Nancy, a personal fitness trainer, it’s street cred. For Billy, it’s a fascination with the machine’s aesthetics. For me, it’s something more pathological. Not exactly a “death wish.” More like a flirtation.

On the morning of July 13th, I never even see Nancy. Five minutes late—you’re history. At 5:40 a.m., I clip in and roll out of Turtle Rock Park. Laggard or not, I look fast—a bumblebee in black and yellow spandex on my titanium steed.

“Nice cross-bike,” calls a twenty-something in a team jersey displaying more sponsor signatures than the Declaration of Independence.

“It’s a climbing machine,” I reply as she spurs her red Quattro Assi racer past me. After training with Nancy, nothing humiliates me. Besides, the DR is about endurance, a day of passing and being passed—over and over again. You pace yourself and try to finish with dignity.

The descent through Markleeville chills me to the bone, but halfway up Monitor, I’m stripping to sleeveless. The climb winds through alpine vistas as the sun ascends with us. Topping the flat summit, I pull into the feeding station, attack mountains of sweating honeydew and cantaloupe, remembering Nancy waxing about the importance of high-water-content foods.

Descending from the summit, Highway 395 is a ribbon of hot macadam bisecting green patches of irrigated farmland reclaimed from the arid Carson Valley 3,000 feet below. A horde of hammer-heads are already grinding up the backside, crossing the pass for a second time. I wrap my fingers loosely around the break levers, and lean into the 15-minute, ten-mile downhill.

It’s only 8:30, already 80 degrees on the desert floor, and my Camelback is half-empty. Ten minutes of stretching, I’m back in the saddle, hunkering down for the longest climb—nearly 3,500 feet. Halfway up, East Fork Paramedics are loading a stretcher into an ambulance, the unfortunate occupant bandaged like Tutankhamun’s mummy. This is not road rash.

I will learn the following week that rider number 1315, Dr. Scott Lambert—father, husband, and DR veteran—crashed on the descent from Monitor Summit to Topaz Lake, and died on July 17th at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, a result of head trauma and a severed brain stem. After 20 years and over 50,000 participants, the Death Ride finally earned its reputation right before my eyes.

Although I don’t know the details, a chill runs through me as I watch the ambulance light flashing and the paramedics securing their injured passenger. I remember how many times I’ve strayed across lanes on a hairpin turn, wonder if I’d feel the impact of an on-coming truck, or just float above the scene of my crumpled, bleeding corpse, waiting for my DNA to rejoin the gene pool.

And then my hamstring begins to cramp and I remember that I’m still very much in this body.

At Highway 4, I turn south through luminescent aspen groves lining the banks of Silver Creek, where bikini-clad locals sun themselves like plump salamanders atop boulders and cheer the riders on to the steepest climb of the day. Rattling across a cattle guard, I ascend the 12-mile, 12-percent-grade toward Ebbetts Pass through stands of Piñon and Lodgepole pine. A few miles below the summit, a familiar Shebeest halter-top appears around a curve ahead.

“Rider up!” A determined jaw, monstrous quads, and ripped lats bullet downhill toward me on a red Serrota.

“Nancy!” I yell, at the passing blur. She’s already bagged four passes, and I’m still crawling toward the third, wheezing beneath a dusting of pollen and salty sweat. Nancy hoots encouragement and disappears. “Great to see you,” I whimper into the uncaring granite basin ahead.

Mid-afternoon, I stretch my quadriceps and replenish electrolytes in Hermit Valley. Two passes and 65 miles to go. Grinding back up toward Ebbetts, those leg cramps get serious. Deep stretching, super-hydration, potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium—nothing stops them. The muscles knot and excruciating electrical spasms jolt my quads and hamstrings. I push through the pain and will those screaming limbs to keep moving, coax the beleaguered mind to believe it’s still in control.

But what really controls the body? What amino acids tells you one moment that you can’t possibly crank another revolution, and the next erases that message, replaces it with a certainty that you can keep going forever? Just as I notice the cramps have subsided, the summit station comes into sight.

Four down, and one mother to go.

The drop from Ebbetts is DR’s most challenging. Brakes burn, necks stiffen and backs knot negotiating steep hairpin turns. There’s another rider down a few miles below the summit, and I begin to worry about a friction blowout. It happened to me once before—mercifully on a straightaway—but I’ve seen a few riders leave blood on hot asphalt as a result.

Back at Silver Creek, I spot Billy adjusting his derailleur. He’s completed three passes, and doesn’t even care about the gathering cumulus auguring a thunderstorm. Unlike me, Billy is a man who knows when to mentally downshift.

“Nancy blew past me on Highway 4,” Billy grins.

“Saw her.” I pull off my helmet and wring out a soaking headband.

“Still going for five?”

I’m feeling pounded, ambivalent. But there’s that control thing. Food helps. And a few Fig Newtons.

Back in the saddle, we tuck into a pace line, but even drafting doesn’t help me warm to the prospect of another fifty miles and the grueling ascent to Carson. I overhear a woman telling Billy the CHP is cutting off riders who don’t reach Pickett’s Junction by 5:30. Her announcement is punctuated by a deafening crack of thunder in the valley behind us as lightning rips the charcoal sky to glowing shreds.

Sweet. Factor in the possibility of getting fried by God’s own cattle prod.

Decision time. Something in me accelerates, causes the adrenaline to kicks in. I pull out of line and jump the lead. As I pass Billy, he cheers me on, “Keep that rubber side down, bro!”

On the windy climb from Woodfords to the Hope Valley, I’m running on a very lean mixture. At Pickett’s Junction, the road is still open, and the storm still below us in Markleeville. I gulp cold Cytomax and fight the continual urge to cramp. Ten minutes before the cutoff, I begin the nine-mile climb up Highway 88. Trucks blast by, horns blaring, and dog-tired riders descend into the darkening sky behind me.

I’m manic now, convinced I’m going to make all five this time. But two miles beneath Carson summit, my legs stop working and my lungs feel lined with glass shards—exercise-induced asthma. Slumping against a stone embankment, I chew beef jerky and suck cloying raspberry goo, shivering, half out of my body.

So, this is what it’s like to bonk.

For the past three hours, I’ve been asking myself: Why am I torturing myself at age 50? Is this an ego trip or a spiritual quest? Is what we believe really our only physical limitation? I wonder what an enlightened man would do after he’d broken through his mental and physical barriers? Reached his fifth and final summit? He wouldn’t need some cheesy cloisonné pin to prove he rocks. He’d probably be content just knowing he had achieved his goal. And I’ll bet a truly enlightened man could even stop short of that final summit—maybe two miles or so—look up and say: I don’t really need to go there.

Yeah, that’s what a truly enlightened man would do…

So, I get back on the bike and keep peddling uphill.

At 6:30, I celebrate with hot soup before descending from Carson Pass. The rain dissipates, the sky softens, Woodfords rolls by, and Turtle Rock Park hangs in the twilight. Billy’s waiting at the finish. He claps me on the back, hands me a beer and his mobile phone.

“Call Nancy. She’s in Minden, showered and ready for dinner.”

“Dude, you did it!” Nancy shrieks into my ear.

“Yeah—in only 14 hours,” I pant, lungs rasping like a rusty gate.

Nancy admits she was the sixth woman to cross the finish line.

“Next year, we start training in March,” she says. “Get your time down by at least two hours.”

I try to tell Nancy it’s not about my time, or the five-pass pin on my salt-stained jersey. I tell her something happened to me out there—an epiphany, a taste of satori, ego dissolution. And no, it’s not because I’m mineral depleted, oxygen deprived, hypoglycemic, or high from the victory beer I’m slamming. It’s about pushing that psychological envelope way beyond postal regulations, about staring the grim reaper square in the eye and laughing because there’s no one looking back. It’s about flat-out knowing for sure that your body is getting used up, and it’s okay because you’re not that. It’s about dropping your chamois-lined spandex tights with total abandon and flashing a grinning full moon at the fiction of death!

“O-kay,” Nancy replies slowly. “Maybe we’ll wait until April.”

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© 2020 by Tom Joyce