Pedaling like crazy
Local riders take on the Markleeville Death Ride
The sun is not yet up, but Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is blasting over the pines at Turtle Rock Park in the Sierra Nevada south of Tahoe. Bicyclists pace like panthers in the dark, full of nervous energy. They’ve come to a remote corner of Alpine County to attempt one of the country’s most grueling amateur events: the Markleeville Death Ride, also known as the Tour of the California Alps.
By the close of the day, some will have ridden 129 miles over five steep mountain passes—at an altitude that begins at 5,000 feet—with an accumulated climb of 16,000 feet (Mt. Whitney is 14,494 feet). Others will be defeated by exhaustion or cramps or dehydration or darkness. These riders are not common. They are crazy.
Entry to the Death Ride is by lottery, and those elite riders who complete all five passes earn the Death Ride pin. And for these guys, one pin, though it bears lifetime bragging rights, apparently is not enough.
Two days before the scene above at Turtle Rock Park, Chico residents John Growden, 47, of Northern Star Mills; Eric Gillard, 43, a Paradise high-school teacher; and my own personal lunatic, Gary Fowler, are preparing to go back for further abuse. And they have hoodwinked seven Chico friends into thinking this will be an actual fun thing to do.
It takes a certain personality to attempt an ACE (Altitude Climbing Endurance) event—and if you live with such a personality, you know what I’m talking about. Gary was “Uncle Scary” to small relatives before having his own kids took him down a few notches; the guys on construction jobs he manages call him The Punisher.
No qualms leading up to this year’s race. He’s been there, done that. When we check into a cheap South Lake Tahoe motel, using the AARP discount card I got him for his 50th birthday a few months ago, he’ll tell our kids he has no doubts he will finish. This year he’s going for speed.
Several days a week, the Death Riders are awake well before dawn to cram in a few hours of high-intensity spinning at the Chico Sports Club, having talked instructor Cherie Gamette into adding another hour to their workout. ("Sure, I get up every morning at 4 a.m., too,” says our friend Mr. Smith. “To pee. Then I go back to bed until 7.")
The rest of the week they’re on the road every spare minute: after work, before work, on weekends and holidays. These maniacs ride from Chico to Nevada City—the back way, through Challenge and North San Juan—just for a fun 95-mile day trip. A long lunch means the Double Cohasset (up to the town and down, twice), and they tack on 20 or 30 extra miles to the centuries (100-mile-plus events) they enter.
A distance cycler is an incendiary machine. Mike Cress, who left cycling for a time after a crash tore his rotator cuff, dropped 35 pounds shortly after resuming riding. Rick Turner burns so much energy riding that he wakes up ravenous at 2 most mornings and has to eat a bowl of cereal just to get back to sleep. The ideal hill climbing weight is said to be two pounds for each inch of height. That’s 144 pounds for a 6-footer.
“Where’s Sue?” someone asks over carbolicious giant burritos the night before the ride. Sue is Bill Volpe’s wife. She’s a cyclist herself and often joins Bill on more reasonable distance rides.
“She’s afraid I’m going to hurt myself,” says Bill. “The last thing she said to me this morning was, ‘Make sure you have your Blue Shield card.'”
Bill is 55, a six-foot-four-inch Chico attorney who earned the name “Spider-Man” for his long-armed sneak attacks playing water polo for UC Davis. It’s not the years that worry Sue. “I’m injury prone,” continues Bill. “I’m the person who falls off cliffs. Sue thinks I should rename it the ‘Suicide Ride.’ Am I scared? Yes. But this is a chance to challenge myself, with no excuses. As adults, our goals are so intangible. This ride is something you can get your hands around. You will either succeed or fail.”
Monitor Pass, at 8,314 feet, is rugged and barren high country, just about equal to the timberline. For 20 years, there had been no fatalities or life-threatening injuries on the tour. On the morning of July 13, 2002, a Sacramento oral surgeon, Scott Lambert, an experienced ride participant, began descending the east side of Monitor Pass. He crashed, sustaining serious head injuries. He died at a Reno hospital a week later.
Today’s ride is, thankfully, uneventful. The first riders leave Turtle Rock Park at 5:30 a.m., climb Monitor, descend the other side to Highway 395, then climb back up over the summit, accounting for the first two passes. A legion of 700 volunteers, recruited by the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, staffs 11 rest stops with food, power gel, massages and sprinting youths who grab water bottles from coasting riders and return them full.
Mountain weather can be wildly unpredictable, but today it’s spectacular, clear and in the 70s—a great day to enjoy Ebbets Pass, at 8,730 feet considered by some the most beautiful leg of the ride, although in some parts the grade reaches a steep 12 percent.
“The climb gets really quiet,” says 42-year-old Enloe paramedic Mark Walker. “You’re fighting for every breath.”
Never mind the exertion. The increased breathing rate at high altitude equals greater water loss than at sea level. Riders must be vigilant about water intake. Gary figures he downed four pints of water before heading down from Ebbets to Hermit Valley, then back up over the top.
Only the most tenacious cyclists attack the last climb. At 8,573 feet, Carson Pass is long and relentless labor—riders have already clocked in some 90 miles by this point. Walker, Kim Agur, 51, an Orland school teacher, and her husband, Canyon Oaks manager Mike Cress, 47, make it to the top, wolf down two or three ice cream bars each, then howl down Carson, reaching a speed of 52 miles an hour. Walker develops front wheel wobble, which at such velocity is most assuredly a life-threatening situation. He slows and pulls over. Agur and Cress blaze down the mountain like meteors, yelling to each other at the bottom, “Now that was sex!”
Although the peaks are behind them, it’s still an uphill grind to the finish. Remarkably, every member of this group of Chico riders (MIke Castaldo and Kirby White were also part of the Chico group) completes all five passes and successfully battles that last dispiriting climb to the jubilant end. Arriving hours before the dying of the light, some (Growden, Gillard and Fowler—the only second-timers) have dramatically improved time over last year.
Hughes Ski Hut Manager Pierre Urrutia, who in his early 20s was a serious athlete living in Mammoth and was used to riding three or four days a week at altitude, recalled his Death Ride in 1986: “I was happy just to accomplish three passes. It’s a great ride, but it’s all up and down.
“You’ve got to have a lot of respect for anybody who accomplishes that ride,” Urrutia says. “And if they ride six passes, you kind of look at them cockeyed a bit.”
It turns out that Turner wins Chico’s “Wild Man” award for the 2004 Death Ride. There is a turnoff to another pass—the optional Blue Lakes Road. It’s smell-the-barn time, just a few miles from the finish, where await cheering family members, hot showers, cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, copious food and a place to sit that isn’t a bike seat.
“I had to take the turnoff,” said Turner. “I’d regret it if I didn’t try.” He finished, logging another 1,200 feet of climbing and 24 extra miles, for a total of 153 miles and 17,200 feet of uphill. An extra-big box of Wheaties for you, Tiger!
As our possessed husbands navigate that certain dangerous fullness of years, my sob sister Sue Volpe and I find comfort in the fact that they are in rapturous love with their bikes, not a motorcycle gang, a gin bottle or some little strumpet. Besides, we have our own bikes.
So, from those of us who count our centuries in kilometers, not miles, prefer our roads not stray above the tree line and go screaming down hills at 30 mph, riding our brakes all the way—our ANSI-certified helmets are off to you Chico riders who ACEed the Death Ride. Rage, rage on!