July 13, 2009


Flashback to August 25, 2002: Long before I became an active cyclist, a friend suggested we sign up for the Tour of Napa Valley. Ride on the road? With cars? And hills? Apprehensive, but conceding that there might be safety in numbers, I agreed.

We hauled ourselves around a short loop (35 miles?) on our sturdy Trek hybrids; still uncomfortable with my clipless pedals, I recall toppling over at a stop sign. Of course, this event included more challenging routes, and thus we were lost in a sea of colorful jerseys at the end-of-ride barbecue.

There were some jerseys that really stood out, though. The ones emblazoned with skeletons. Skeletons? Was it some sort of cult? These dudes were scary. They were skin-and-bones thin. The jerseys commemorated something called The Death Ride, which covered 129 miles over five mountain passes in the Sierras with more than 15,000 feet of climbing. In one day. That's not humanly possible, is it? These guys were monsters.

Fast forward to July 11, 2009: My wheels start rolling at 4:47 a.m., about two hours before my body normally rolls out of a bed. The parking lot is already full; I am half a mile from the official starting point. As I approach, ominous drumbeats echo from the park and I see the blinking red tail lights of my fellow early starters. My legs tell me we're already climbing and my ears tell me we are following the course of a river. Overhead, there are stars in the sky. We are heading for the first climb of the day, Monitor Pass. The 30th Annual Death Ride is underway.

I have heard a lot about this ride over the years. I have heard that I can do it, and today I am here to find out.

Unlike some, I didn't get too obsessive about my training. Lots of climbing. Lots of distance. Long rides with lots of climbing. I am slow and I know this will be a long day. Although it is not a race, riders have to meet prescribed cut-off times at checkpoints along the route to be allowed to continue.

We are riding at altitude, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. As I ascended into the Tahoe area on Friday, my car was clearly slowing on the climbs and I shifted down. On the bike, I am not struggling - but I am slower. This ride is about endurance, and I will ride it at a heart rate I know I can sustain.

The sky brightens as I begin to climb the front side of Monitor Pass, and I soon realize something that no one ever mentioned about this ride: the scenery is spectacular. The ride has an alternate, less intimidating name: The Tour of the California Alps. They're not kidding. Suffering, with a view.

It is hard to get a slot for this ride. I saw bib numbers in the single digits, and some numbers well over 3500; yet, they turn away many riders every year. I was warned that the scariest part of the ride would involve climbing while riders are descending fast in the opposite lane, but what I found most unnerving throughout the day was the congestion at the rest stops.

After refueling at the summit, I start descending the back side of Monitor Pass, and it is crowded. Slow descenders are everywhere, some hugging the center line. The solution comes to me almost immediately: Pick another good descender and follow him. The descent became smooth and fun again, with the rider ahead getting the slow folks to move to the right and leaving a clear path in his wake. Later I would hear that this is a smart tactic in the fast lane on a German autobahn.

Ascending the back side of Monitor Pass, I am spotted by a colleague from work. When he hears that this is my first Death Ride, all the nearby riders get excited.
You're doing great!
Yeah, but you started 40 minutes later than I did, and you're passing me on the second climb.
Remember, it's not a race!
[This from two riders in stylin' black-and-white Rock Racing kits.] Yeah, but I do have to make those cut-off times, and I am already running slower than I expected.

The crowd has thinned somewhat, and I am on my own as I descend the front side of Monitor. I am mindful of those still climbing; I slow and give them plenty of space, but mostly I am free to fly. With the road closed to cars, I can use all of it when no cyclists are ascending. Top speed: 49.3 miles per hour. After turning onto the (relatively) flat approach to Ebbetts Pass, another rider pulls alongside to tell me how beautiful my descent was. I smile and thank him. [I learned from the best. Thank you, Nicole Freedman.]

Still, this is a first - a total stranger sought me out to deliver such praise. Watching me climb, I am sure no one would expect to find me a noteworthy descender. When the road finally kicks uphill toward Ebbetts Pass, it is steep. The lane is full of cyclists, leaving no chance to pick the easiest grade through each switchback. Kinney Reservoir is too scenic to pass without stopping for a photo. The summit is chaotic when I reach it; to save time, I pick my way through the crowd and descend.

This was not the best choice, I would realize all too soon.

I refuel at the bottom and start climbing my fourth pass. The back side of Ebbetts is the shortest climb, but I am behind schedule. And I am not feeling well. I should have refueled at the top, to give my body some time to process the food on the descent. I finish the climb and descend toward the lunch stop without pausing at the top. Barely able to stomach the thought of food, I eat a few pretzels and orange slices. I have to keep moving or I will miss the next cut-off, yet I am not at all sure I can continue.

On the way to the final checkpoints and climb, I pass the starting point (and my car). I have backed off my pace, hoping that a more modest heart rate will facilitate digestion. (Eventually, it does.) I reach the penultimate checkpoint with more than 20 minutes to spare, but I feel awful. If I can't eat, will I bonk?

I cannot force down another drop of my trusty electrolyte drink; I pour out a bottle to refill with plain water. It isn't really hot, but I get hosed down anyway. That seems to help, and I am not giving up without a fight.

Along the way, a guy behind me announces:
We have 50 minutes to go four miles. We can do that.
Approaching the final checkpoint, the wind is gusting and dark clouds are hanging over Carson Pass. The first raindrops are falling. There are weak flashes of lightning. It was so warm at the start that I left my vest (and jacket) in the car. It has been dry for days, with no rain in the forecast; I left the free rain poncho at the cabin. I have reached the final checkpoint well before the cut-off time, and they have already given away their last trash bag. I am so close! The rain is cold. The descent will be freezing, and slippery. I want to finish.

I remember my friend Tammy's words to her brother last year. I realize they must have been at this same checkpoint when the hail started falling, and he wanted to throw in the towel.
Look at it this way. You can either do 9 miles now, or 129 miles next year.
I pull up my arm warmers and head up the hill. With little hope, I ask some spectators cheering us from an SUV if they might happen to have a rain poncho.
No, but I have a trash bag!
She jumps out of the car and helps me don it with all the speed of a pro mechanic in the Tour de France. Elated by her enthusiasm and my blessed layer of white plastic, I begin to believe that I really will make it up that fifth pass! A big guy trailing me tells me that I am his inspiration; he has seen me on and off all day. The rain shower passes and we are rewarded with a brilliant rainbow so wide I couldn't capture the whole arc in a single frame. I start to feel hungry again.

And then . . . I made it! I finished all five passes! I really did it!

It was cold and windy atop Carson Pass, but I was determined to visit the ice cream truck anyway. I signed the poster (another tradition I hadn't heard about) and flew back down the hill. The trash bag impaired my aerodynamics and the crosswinds made the descent challenging, but we were supposed to be off the course by 8 p.m. I managed to accelerate to 50.3 mph and get back to the park at 7:55 p.m. I collected my 5-pass finisher pin, ran into some friends, had dinner (they were still serving! yay!), and more ice cream. Having burned some 5500 calories, I was still calorie-negative for the day.

More climbing, more miles, than I have ever done in one day. More than I once imagined possible.

Climbing well is all about power-to-weight ratio, and my engine is undersized.

On Sunday, I celebrated with the ultimate recovery ride.

Think ... more carbon fiber.

And ... a really big engine.

A friend of mine picked up his new car on Friday and was eager for some quality driving. We headed for the south shore of Lake Tahoe and carved a scenic loop past Mono Lake into Nevada, along the Walker River to Walker Lake, returning over Monitor Pass and then up Ebbetts to Kinney Reservoir and the summit for good measure. That rocket-engine-inside-a-slick-car-body accelerates like nothing else. But I can still outrun it on a twisty descent.


  1. Wow! Impressive right--and great photos. Congrats!

  2. Awesome! I must admit that I didn't think you'd make all five, not because you lacked determination but because of the time cut-off. You not only rode far and climbed high, but you went reasonably fast and paced yourself well! I can scarcely imagine how difficult this achievement was. I was so engrossed reading your report, standing in the parking lot this morning, that I was late for my class.

  3. Bravo and congratulations. Nothing lowkey about the Death Ride.

  4. Congrats! Saw you arrived alive and well. We'd been chugging beers for while at the stand waiting for mr Keller to show up. I wasn't out for the interesting weather, sounds like a well-rounded experience!
    Gonna do it again? ;-) I might, when the jersey looks less fruity.

  5. Pat, that's awesome!!!! And very, very inspirational! Well done!!!
    BTW, most really GOOD descenders (unless they are pros) are not super great climbers. We become good descenders to make up time on the good climbers after they drop us on the climbs... :o)

  6. Congratulations!!! You are awesome!! And what a captivating account of the ride.

  7. Congratulations Pat! I was looking for you because I heard from Alison that you would be there, but I missed you. Wow, what an experience! I had to pause from eating my breakfast while reading about your Carson climb and could only resume when you rhave eached the top! Way to go, Pat!

  8. You ROCK, Pat!

    As another rider who descends well to make up for her less than zippy climbing, I'm so glad you crossed that 50 mph mark. I would have been so disappointed to see 49.3!

  9. Pat! I'm so proud of you! I knew you could do it and now you do too. Congratulations.

  10. Congrats on finishing all 5 passes! Dang, I wish I could've taken a recovery ride in your friend's car! :-)

  11. Nicely done!! Now you're ready to come back to NJ and do one of the local rides. I'm guessing our version of the Death Ride might be a bit more literal...

  12. Cool Pat! I'm so proud of you. Are you up for the Devil's double next year?