Father-daughter team takes Death Ride challenge
Team Willits will reach new heights this weekend.
Take Kevin Willitts’ 10-year-old daughter, Casey, who’s accompanying him on a tandem road bike Saturday on the Death Ride, Lake Tahoe’s most challenging sporting event.
The 24th annual Death Ride, known as Tour of the California Alps, is scheduled on Saturday – the Willitts team’s first attempt together. It starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends at Turtle Rock Park outside Markleeville. In between, cyclists will test their will and strength climbing up to five mountain passes equaling an elevation gain of more than 16,000 feet in 129 miles.
Despite its grueling nature, the ride fills up within days of opening its registration.
“It’s like the Death Ride going in and out of the house,” joked father Willitts, whose family lives on Hekpa Drive in Tahoe Paradise. Steep hills flank the house from both sides.
The duo has an ongoing training regimen, with rides on their list including the Sierra Century – a 100-mile route weaving through the spine of California.
Kevin and Casey will go out for five to seven hours on their training runs, now averaging about 100 miles a week on their 24-speed Santana.
They talk about a variety of topics, let their minds wander, remind each other to drink enough water, play games like counting squirrels and track statistics on a computer mounted to the back of the bike.
Sometimes she snickers when Dad turns around to catch her taking a break from peddling.
“She giggles ’cause she’s not pedaling hard enough,” he said.
For turns, Casey has labeled herself “the blinker” – making the arm gestures that notify motorists of their intentions.
Like father, like daughter – they both enjoy soaring in the wind on the downhill slopes. They’ve clocked 56 mph as their fastest time.
“You scream with joy,” the veterinarian said to his daughter.
“We don’t pass many people going uphill. It’s downhill we pass,” the girl said.
Casey, who stands under 4 feet high and weighs 60 pounds, started riding with her father four years ago. He’s been cycling since the 1980s, when he replaced team sports with the activity because he “got fat and lazy.”
No chance of that happening anytime soon.
Casey said she plans to continue to ride, even though her friends seem unimpressed with her long-distance, weekend rides that would exhaust most adults.
Cycling has other challenges – like last week’s thunderstorms.
“It just started dumping on us on Luther Pass. My jacket was drenched. It’s supposed to be waterproof,” she said.
That’s just part of the experience, though, to this team.
Casey shares time between parents with opposite schedules. “If I’m not with Mom, I’m with Dad,” Casey said.
But Saturday, Mom plans to be a part of the action. A therapist, Sonja Willitts will situate her massage table at Picketts Junction to relieve the riders along the way.
Kevin said he’s not overly concerned about his daughter’s well being on such an ambitious ride.
“It’s probably the safest time to do that route. The roads are closed and there’s support. If you get hurt on the back side of Monitor (Pass) at 7 in the morning on any other day, it may be a while before someone comes along,” he said.
– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at email@example.com