This was clearly the hardest day's cycling I've ever done. Though mental preparation and determination were all in order, the lack of training surely took its toll. Scott wrote "5 or Die" on our planner at work, expressing our resolve to do all 5 passes.
The day started at 3.30am with a drive to the start line. A few wrong turns meant I got there a little later than planned but soon enough found the weirdest heavy traffic you could imagine - it's odd seeing hundreds of cars in a line at 4am on usually deserted mountain roads.
Parked up, got bike out, added number and lights, ate 2 bananas (on top of the cereal I'd already had) and set off up the hill to the start line. This isn't really a race, more of an audax style event, which is a long distance event but is not a timed race. So, although the official start time was 5.30am, people really started when they liked, subject to the California Highway Patrol (CHiPs?) deeming their lights suitable. So, I managed to get away about 5.05am (already light enough to see by), a bit over half an hour later than planned (I would later regret that delay!).5.05am
- We set off from the start line towards Monitor Pass to do the "Front side of Monitor" - in this event you went up one side of the mountain, down to the bottom, turned right around and went back up again ("the Back side of monitor") . Psychologically I found that quite hard since I generally like to travel by bike, which for me means going from A to B! However, I was pretty determined so didn't let it bother me too much.
The road up Monitor is pretty open so you can see where you are heading but the whole thing was much more gradual than you might expect looking at the race profiling. Quite a nice ride really but I pretty soon noticed I was going to have trouble with my saddle that day and began regretting that I didn't bring my old one from the UK. Early on during the climb an guy from work, Dennis (in his 50s), powered past me on the climb like a machine - another one of those awesomely fit people.6.30am
- Getting near the top of Monitor we began to get some great views. And some nice passer by on a flash tri bike offered to take my picture (as he could see i was snapping going along). I wish he hadn't - I seem to have done my lack of cool extreme justice that morning, I really must get some new glasses, I can see why Gary gave them away (they are impossible to lose too), must add that to birthday present list. Actually the gear may be surprising but it was pretty cold during the morning, and especially on the descents - I kept the blue top on nearly all day. And from the photo I can already see the start of my knee problems - seat too low (disastrous - a common cause of cycling knee problems!).
After the plod up Monitor and some amazing early morning views, came the descent, which, despite knowing that I'd be cycling back up this way within 30 minutes, was indeed exhilarating. Mostly I was doing over 40mph, with a top speed over 48.9, with people beside me doing approximately the same speeds, leading to some interesting overtaking (sadly, throughout the day several people came off doing that kind of thing). Interestingly, there were very few bikes coming back up by this point so I was near the start of the field! This perhaps put me in the wrong frame of mind, thinking I was ahead of the game.8.45
Finally made it up the back side of monitor to the pass, already quite tired. People had warned me that the back side of monitor catches the sun first thing, and indeed it was hot coming up there even at 8:15 when I checked my watch, amazed it was hot so early. Fortunately though, we were blessed with a cloudy day, which did a splendid job of keeping the heat reasonable all day (below 80) - very unusual for the Death Ride I'm told.
Took another rest stop to eat and drink at the top, perhaps lingered a bit too long but was mindful of the race instructions to "eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty", they actually said you should drink so that you are "sloshing" before you start the event! Eating is never a problem for me, so this part of the event was quite easy, though I got a bit tired of the food by the end of the day - very sweet.
Heading to the bottom of Monitor (the descent took about 15 minutes) I found Big Daddy down there as part of the support crew and gave him some of my stuff, lights, leggings and suchlike - at the last minute I decided to hang on to my pertex windproof top and was later glad that I did.9.15am
Began the trudge up the tough pass - Ebberts. Pretty steep. Someone warned me of the false summits, which make you think you are there when you are not, and there were a couple of these but no big deal. A tough climb though and by now was having to stop every so often to give my backside a rest from the seat. Another tack was to stand on the pedals on the steep sections, which was blessed respite from that damned saddle (I was cursing Specialized when I thought about it - my old Body Geometry saddle from them went straight on my old bike and I immediately did 1,000 miles on it without problems. This new design was appalling. It's a personal thing though I guess).
Lots of locals stationed themselves at points along the route to bang pans and make encouraging noises. Of the most wild were a bunch of girls stationed outside their house (?) on the way up Ebberts, dressed in what can only be described as Halloween costumes and wishing us well for "Ye Old Death Ride". I wish I'd taken a photo but they we're a little scary.
Ebberts Pass was a bit higher and I was quite cheered to see patches of snow by the side of the road still, highlighting how high we were and giving me a hint that we must be near the top. I was tempted to stop and play in the snow but there was serious business afoot so I instead took a photo (and gave my behind a rest).Noon
At the top of Ebberts I needed a rest, so took some time out for more food and water. I had planned to rest at the bottom but was too knackered from the climb. Photo shows something of the mayhem of bikes passing through the rest stop, people hanging about everywhere and of course confirmation of the height, which seemed important on the day.
As I was resting I noticed a couple of things which began to nag at me. A cut-off time for the checkpoint of 1.30 (it was now 12ish), which was a little sooner than I expected. I also noticed quite a few riders had by now got 4 stickers on their race number, meaning the had finished 4 passes, ie. they had also done the backside of Ebberts. I was clearly beginning to fall behind. I soon scooted down to the bottom of Ebberts ready to climb again. At the bottom I got my sticker and did an immediate U-turn and headed back up, no more resting for a while.
A bum numbingly hard but shorter climb up Ebberts again, over the pass and, "oh just another 10 miles to the lunch stop". Ten miles, downhill at 40mph+ is not any kind of hardship. Mind you, a couple of riders on the way down very nearly took me out from failing to be aware of bikes plummeting downhill at 40mph+. One guy just casually crossed the road in front of me, oblivious to the fact that I was indeed plummeting. And another guy, even more outrageous, lost the plot somewhat coming up the hill and wiggled right across the road, so much so that I had to go past him on the left (people drive on the right around here), somewhat shook up I continued my descent (plummeting). It's pretty crazy to be unaware of the physics involved in bikes coming down hill at that speed, I certainly would not like to run into anyone like that. Sadly there were several accidents like that during the day, I hope those people are ok.2pm
- The lunch spot was heaving with big queues for food. Proper sandwiches, made to your specification and loads of coleslaw, fruit and suchlike. I'd planned a 45 minute rest there and was pleased to see so many riders still around who seemed quite like minded. Then i began re-reading the race notes and map and realized that the checkpoint ahead, Woodfords, some 14 miles away, closed at 16:00 and involved some climbing. And the one after, Pickets Junction, was another 5 miles on from that, straight up, climbing 1,500ft, and that closed at 17:15. It slowly dawned on me that my fellow riders, lounging around and having lunch were not actually going to do the 5th pass at all. As the realization dawned I got my act together, filled up my water and Cytromax bottles and got on with it. Several people had the same idea and it soon seemed we were the last group to be heading for the Carson Pass.15:50
Arrived in Woodfords after a surprisingly tough ride against the clock. Didn't go to the rest stop but continued on and up. The next five miles were at 7.5% climb, not too hard under normal circumstances but I was very tired by now. On the way I got to meet a few people in a similar state to me, and we took turns at being last on the course as we went. We'd decided that they were unlikely to turn us back at Pickets if we didn't make the cut off time but I pushed on regardless, though it was extremely hard and by now my left knee had started to play up, almost making me forget my backside.17.05
Arrived at Picket's and as we did we were warned that the California Highway Patrol were shutting the route in 5 minutes. Got some water, a bit of food, some pain killers for the knee (and I secretly hoped for some relief for my backside too), went to the toilet. Dashed out, leapt on the bike and just made it past the CHP before they shut the event down. The last thing we heard was a bit depressing, after the long hard haul to Pickets, "only 9.2 miles to the top". Riding 9 miles up hill is not fun, though I was very relieved that some of these were at a very shallow gradient. On one such gradient I noticed my knees were quite bunched up and i was pretty despondent to realised my seat post had slipped down. Wondering how long it had been like that as I had been plodding on trance-like, was a little depressing. A low seat height means inefficiency and stress on the joints especially the knees. At this point I diagnosed the cause of my, not unfamiliar, knee problem (several of us had similar problems doing the UK coast-to-coast offroad, which I think was partly due to cleat boots and partly overdoing it).
Despite the pain from knee and backside, it was impossible to ignore the beauty of the mountains we were amongst, using the excuse for a photo (backside) break. Looking at the mountains I was also mindful of the enormity of the task ahead, 9 more miles up to the snow line again.
I'd chatted with one of the other guys struggling to the top, during a backside break, and he told me the top few miles were steep and that you could see the pass from a way away and that although it looked near, it would take 45 minutes. He was quite right!
Things got hard about 3 miles from the top. The pain from the knee had erased the pain from the backside and pedalling with the left leg was very painful. From about 2 miles to the top I was ready to quit. As I stopped, stretched and rested the knee, things felt fine and walking was pain free. Back on the bike was excruciating painful, much worse after I'd stopped. I decided to unclip my left foot from the pedal and rest it there and push the last 2 miles on my right leg, which was totally pain free. But any kind of pedalling movement on the left knee was extremely painful. I looked for an easy way to immobalize my left leg, perhaps rest it on something, but that seemed quite dangerous as I was very tired and the roads were now open to traffic. Much of the traffic consisted of tired cyclists heading home in their cars, honking horns in support. It somewhat baffles me why people do that, the last thing I want as I struggle uphill is a huge truck honking at me with occupants shouting from the windows!
I thought about walking the last 2 miles but it seemed so much like cheating that I couldn't face it. Loads of people coming down shouted "almost there" but that "almost" seemed to last forever. Crying out at every rotation of the pedal I realized I'd overdone it today and needed to have trained more for something like this, however determined my mind can be. I wondered how on earth I would get back. Down the Carson Pass would be fine but it was another 6 miles, mostly uphill (500ft) to the finish, and I needed to be there by 20.30pm to be in before the course closed. I started goal-setting like Joe Simpson talked about in 'Touching the Void'. 70 pedal rotations were about 0.1 of a mile, though as I got slower this increased. Over the last 2 miles I was doing 3mph, so it didn't take Einstein to figure out that I was still a long way from the top.
Finally the guy who was last overtook me and though I'd said I didn't mind being last (it wasn't a race), part of my motivation had been to not be at the back holding up the people trying to close the event.19.30
Finally rounded the bend and saw some parked cars outside a hut thinking, 'that must be it'. It wasn't but over the smallest of rises (still painful) and a gentle descent I found the last rest stop and got my 5th sticker and coveted 5 pass pin. The rest stop was all but packed up but I was issued with the promised ice cream, and one of the volunteers sorted me out more pain killers. A bit of food and some water and we were encouraged to be on our way, so the stragglers set off (I just had time to snap a quick photo from the top - you can't avoid the beauty of a place like this). We were only about a minute apart but I didn't see them all the way down. I hurtled down Carson Pass at over 40mph mostly. I shot past Picket's but regretted my rudeness to the volunteers, one of whom had dashed across the road to hold out some water for me, and I missed the shouts of the Motorcycle support rider too. Eventually got to Woodfords and shot past that one too, again volunteers shouting something at me (I think I should have gone through that checkpoint instead of around it). I did have time to notice one of my companions was sitting relaxed at Woodfords, seemly having finished, though there were 6 miles to go. So I was on my own for the last 6 miles.
The 6 miles were not as painful as I expected but I was against the clock and could see I was unlikely to make the last 6 miles in time to be off the course by 20.30. So I had to push on. At this point the motorcycle support rider began to get a bit more conspicuous, at once following me in the cycle lane, then pulling ahead and waiting up. Eventually I pulled over for a chat with him. He was quite concerned about it getting dark and was keen to get me off the track. Another support car pulled up too and the bearded guy who had dashed across the road at Pickets was driving. He was great, after saying I looked "punked" and asking me whether I'd been eating, he urged me to finish and shoved a pile of Pringles in my hand (salt is quite important on events like this). Marshals who know what to do to make you finish, and understand the need to finish are fantastic, and he was one of them. I eventually got to my car, which was a bit before the finish line and called it a day (I explained to the support guys that this was where I'd started from that morning, so I'd done the distance). They were happy for me to finish and get off the course and both shook my hand. The bearded guy remembered me from when I registered (not so many Brits around) so it was kind of nice for him to congratulate me on finishing!
Pretty keen to get a 'finishers' cycle top I drove to the event HQ. The store closed at 20.30 and I was a little late getting there but I managed to procure one after a bit of haggling (they aren't really available until the results are all checked) and after showing my 5 stickers. I think vanity must have partially motivated my speed near the end, I was keen to get a shirt! Though if wearing it implies that this is the sort of thing I do for fun, I think I'll hide it somewhere.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the day, was the enthusiasm, professionalism and staying power of the volunteers and there were many of them, none grumpy. They stood around all day doing hard jobs, serving big crowds of sweaty cyclists, in the heat. Among them were the very best of those who know how to read tired faces, know when enough is enough, know when you've got a bit more in you yet, empathize with how important it is to finish and can do some small but important things to get you there - like giving you a handful of pringles a big smile and telling you that you look "punked" (whatever that means), even driving behind you to the finish. ALL, very much appreciated.
I was last to finish but that really doesn't make any difference - I rode 129 miles and 16,000ft in a day for the first time ever. The knee is ok already (until I pedal) but I have a BSA!Some Statistics
(from dubious bike computer)Total Duration (with breaks):
15 hours 20 minutes (5:05-20:25)Total Pedalling Time:
12 hours 24 minutesAverage Speed:
10.6 mphMaximum Speed:
48.9 mphTotal Distance:
Cereal, Bananas, Fig Rolls, Crisps, Sandwiches, Cliff Bars, Melon, Cytromax drink (5 Litres?), Water (5 Litres?); Sandwich, Fruit, Biscuits, Pain Killers