Touring the California Alps sounds pleasant enough, calling to mind visions of biking through tree-shrouded hills or pedaling past meadows brimming with wildflowers.
This may all be well and true, but don’t expect cyclists to soak up every detail Saturday en route to climbing five mountain passes for a total of 15,000 vertical feet and 129 miles in the blistering summer heat. These are the stats that earned the grueling bicycle tour a nickname of Death Ride somewhere along the way.
On Saturday, cyclists will ride again in the 33rd annual Death Ride through Alpine County, and those who made it past registration are holding one hot ticket.
“It’s kind of a cult event,” said Mark Phillips, member of the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce board. “Some people, for whatever reason, maybe they get caught up with work when registration opens, and they’ll call or go online within a few hours and they can’t get in.”
Yes, the Death Ride sells out every year, and it sells out quickly. Despite those staggering climbs, exhausting miles and the intimidating nickname, about 3,500 cyclists registered in less than three hours this year. Hundreds of those cyclists are from the Lake Tahoe Basin and the surrounding area. Still hundreds more will trek in from all corners of the country. A few will even come from Europe, Australia and Asia because like Phillips said, the Death Ride is a cult event. The extreme physical and mental challenge appeals to a certain type of athlete.
“It’s those adrenaline junkies, the ones who don’t seem to care what fame or fortune is bestowed upon them for their activities,” Phillips said. “They just end up doing these kind of things. It’s bragging rights or maybe a badge of courage. These people just like to challenge themselves.”
Evan Muchmore of South Lake Tahoe is one of those people. He completed his first Death Ride last year, and now he’s back for more.
“(Endurance events) force you to push past barriers that your mind puts in front of you,” Muchmore said. “Everyone can do more physically and psychologically than they think they can. Events like the Death Ride allow you to discover what you’re actually capable of achieving.”
As the day wears on, and cyclists get farther and farther into the 129 miles, exhaustion starts to set in.
“That’s really the challenging part of the event. Just like a marathon runner hits ‘the wall’ around mile 20, I too hit a wall last year,” Muchmore said.
Muchmore’s proverbial wall was a climb from Woodfords Station to Picketts Junction. That particular stretch of road is exposed and has some deceptively steep climbs that amount to 1,500 feet. Muchmore had gotten a late start that morning and was reaching the time cutoffs right as they were closing down the aid stations. He was one of the last cyclists on the road.
“It was hot. I was alone. I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was get off my bike and sit down in the shade. In fact, I actually passed one or two people who were doing just that,” Muchmore said. “But I just kept going, one pedal stroke at a time. You have to set small goals. At that point, it’s just a test. Can you get to the next station before it closes? Can you get to the next bend in the road? Can you get to the next tree along the side of the road?”
Muchmore kept pushing and eventually reached Picketts Junction just before the volunteers started clearing the roads.
“I started popping ClifShots like it was my job, and I took off,” Muchmore said. “I must have passed 100 people on the climb up Carson Pass, and I felt great when I got to the top.”
There was a communal atmosphere at the top of that final climb. Everyone was chatting and commiserating about the day, and Muchmore soaked up the company. He looked around in awe of the people wearing jerseys from past prestigious events, like the Furnace Creek 508.
“I stayed at the top to recover for 30 minutes or so. I wrote my name on the big poster that the five-pass finishers get to sign and then I practically flew back downhill to Markleeville,” Muchmore said. “I don’t have stats for the ride, but I must have gotten back to Markleeville in around 45 minutes.”
Markleeville, or Turtle Rock Park to be specific, is where the Death Tour starts and ends. After a 5 a.m. start at Markleeville, riders make their way toward the first climb up Monitor Pass. The pass will force riders to climb from 5,501 feet to 8,314 before dropping them to Highway 395. Once they hit Highway 395, cyclists will turn around and repeat the process.
Ebbetts Pass is the same story. The course spits riders up, down, and then back up and over the 8,730-foot pass again.
Cyclists will finally bring it home over the 8,580-foot Carson Pass. All riders must be back by the 8 p.m. cutoff time.
“It’s amazing how many people do at least three of these passes, which is incredibly challenging, let alone five,” Phillips said.
Check out deathride.com for more Death Ride or road closure info.
“It was hot. I was alone. I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was get off my bike and sit down in the shade. In fact, I actually passed one or two people who were doing just that. But I just kept going, one pedal stroke at a time.”
Evan Muchmore, Death Rider