41st Death Ride Reflections Written By Bill Condrashoff, Amador County
It’s been 3 years since I rode the Death Ride and I missed it. I was in my 50s last time. So I thought I’d see if could still do it in my 60s. I wasn’t planning to better my best or even go for a fast time. I was just going to try to finish. I mentally prepared myself for being passed by the young riders and to just let it go. I’d be happy enough just being out there enjoying what I like to do. Then I got a call from my riding friend Kevin, who was going to come out and enjoy the festivities for old times’ sake. He wanted to know when I would be riding through Markleeville. I told him I would come through between 3 and 4PM. He couldn’t accept that for an answer and convinced me I would be there by 3PM for sure. So he was going to look for me between 2:30 and 3:30PM.
I didn’t know anyone else riding it this year. It was going to be a hot one. I was ready to ride at 5AM but ended up starting at 5:04 or so. Close enough. With the hot weather predicted for later, I knew I had to get in and out of the back side of Monitor Pass as quickly as possible so as not to get fried in the desert. Each side is about 3,000 ft of climbing.
When I started, it was about 65 degrees and my legs felt good. I was pedaling up Monitor in a matter of minutes. Most people knew it would be hot and started when I did. I was in a sea of riders just before sunrise. It was calm and all you could hear was the sound of heavy breathing, tires rolling over the pavement and an occasional conversation. Then the grade got steep and the sound of hundreds of bikes downshifting filled the rocky canyon. I was in my lowest gear but not too bad off. As we went up, I could see the sunshine start to cover the mountains around Ebbetts Pass. It looked a long way off and later the ride was going 15 miles beyond Ebbetts before riders would turn around. Of course, at this moment, I was headed AWAY from that pass. Then I realized I needed to get my head in a good place to be able to succeed. That meant having some fun along the way and paying attention to how my legs were feeling.
Before I knew it, I was over the first pass and it was time to have some fun. I gulped some salt tabs and chased them with fluid then started to pass some riders before the unthinkable happened. Some dude passed me going downhill! It was still shallow near the top for a while, but I decided it was time to have some of that “fun along the way”. So, I chased. I might seem like a thin man, but for a cyclist on the Death Ride, I’m a big boy (gravity is my friend on descents). I was up to him pretty quick and I got by him just before the grade got steeper and the spectacular view of the desert appeared. I could see his shadow racing mine on the pavement. He wasn’t just going to let me go ahead. I focused on my line and how to avoid the hundreds of bikes around us. He stayed with me in the twisties and that impressed me because I know the road very well. A couple of times I saw what looked like his shadow riding off the road over the cliff. But, it would always come back where I could see it. Left, right, left, right, pass 12 riders at a time, left, right, left, right, pass 12 more. Then after we came around a righty, and just before a lefty I saw something that scared me. It was guy with a camera standing on the double yellow center line taking photos at the apex of the turn! I could go left or right of him. Both options seemed bad at the speed I was going. So, I braked and went right of him (on the slower line) and the rider making the shadow passed me. I thought “Ok, it’s still a long way down and I have gravity on my side.” After a slower turn, I got back up to him and made a slingshot pass using his draft. It was pretty straight after that so the bigger boy wins, and that was me. At the bottom he was as jacked as I was. We averaged 42 for 7.5 miles with a max of 50mph. We talked about it halfway back up the climb out of the desert before he went ahead of me.
It was quite a bit warmer on Monitor Pass the second time over. But, it wasn’t too bad. I still had a good attitude. I pretty much had the second descent to myself and it is less fun to go fast without traffic. So, I decided not to push my luck and conserve energy (and blood). As I started up Ebbetts Pass, Shadow Rider passed me and we discussed how he got behind me. He had taken a nature break. We rode a little while then we both stopped at Wolf Creek for my first water stop. 5 miles up the road he passed me again on the steep stuff. By then the bike traffic was thinning a lot. This told me that I was doing well. It was like the good old days of the 2010s. I kept trying to extrapolate the time I would get to Markleeville because I knew I would be slowing down as I rode. It seemed like I would get there before Kevin left.
I got to the top of Ebbetts feeling pretty worked over. I thought “If I ride over the top, will I be able to climb out of there?” And that’s not the worst of it. Pacific Grade Pass is new to the Death Ride this year. After you go down the back of Ebbetts, you go up Pacific Grade’s 24% slopes. This was sure to lessen my chances of getting back out of the hole I was about to ride into. Against my better judgement, I went for it and Pacific Grade felt steeper than ever. That road tests you at the start with some short 20% grades followed by shallower grades. Then back to steep, then not so steep. Just when you think you’re past the worst of it, the road seems to disappear in front of you. The first right hand switchback is so steep and sharp that it looks like the end of the road. But, it just turns so sharp that it looks like a dead end. Too bad it wasn’t. I would have been happy to turn around at that point. Standing in my lowest gear, wishing I had three more, I could feel the last of my legs slowly being left on the road. On the steep grade, each time I thought I would need to stop, the slope would ease off just enough to keep me from quitting. Before I knew it, it was over and I was at Mosquito Lake on Pacific Grade Pass.
This was my chance to rest on the easy pedal to the turnaround at Lake Alpine. Shadow Rider passed me here again and when he did he asked me how long I thought my ride was going to take. I said “If all goes well, 10 hours. If all goes not so good, 11 hours.” I saw him again at the turnaround and spent too much time talking and not enough time drinking. Rolling out of the rest stop, I could tell I was starting to lose power. But I told myself “just get over Ebbetts one more time and you can coast for 30 minutes.”
It wasn’t much of a ride back to Mosquito Lake. But boy I felt it. After the lake, the drop down Pacific Grade is so steep that you have to get your weight behind your saddle, like on a mountain bike, or you can easily go over your bars when you try to slow for the hairpin turns. I needed to stall because I was so fried. So, I just went slow this time and kept all my blood on the inside by not falling.
The last pass was Ebbetts and I was ready for a struggle and that’s exactly what I got. The pass isn’t that long or steep. What makes it so difficult is all the other climbs before it. Shadow Rider passed me for the last time and I never saw him again. I was crawling (at best) up the hill and just looking for a reason to stop when a guy on the side of the road asked me if I had a CO2 tire filler and if he could use it. That was my excuse! So I stopped with enthusiasm to help him. We got him going quicker than I wanted. Once I started rolling again I felt better. It was only about 500 ft of vertical up to the top from there. When I rolled over the top it was like standing on Everest to me. I was going to make it. My stomach was upset and, due to dehydration I wasn’t sweating anymore. But now it was all downhill for a long time. I filled all bottles for weight and for makeshift perspiration. I drank all I could and poured the rest over my head, front and back as I mostly coasted down towards where I started the day. The cooling plan was working pretty well for a while. But then the temperature started really going up when I dropped below about 7000ft elevation. All the gains I made the first 10 minutes of coasting were getting erased by the heat.
The 5 miles of road along the canyon that leads to Markleeville were so hot and dry that I would get cotton mouth just 30 seconds after a swig of water. And now, my legs were starting to cramp. Through all of this, I realized I had a shot of finishing the ride in under 9 hours. Remember, 10 hours was my best case scenario. Imagine my surprise! The only obstacle between me and a 9 hour time was the last 20 to 30 minute climb, in nearly 100 degree heat with cramping legs and only about a pint of warm water.
I rolled into Markleeville and looked for Kevin (hopefully with tons of cold water). But, I was an hour ahead of my best predicted time and he wasn’t there yet. In order to beat 9 hours, I had 25 minutes to get up the last hill and figured I’d just see what happened. A woman standing in the street offered me a cold Gatorade. I stupidly said “no thanks” and rode by her. Just past her, I reconsidered and turned around and stopped next to her. She had just ridden both Monitor Passes and had a sense of how I felt. I poured the cold Gatorade into my bike bottle, thanked her and rode off. 50 feet from there, I saw Kevin just as he yelled my name. He had just gotten there and he was prepared. He had ice, cold water, and pantyhose to put ice into and hang around my neck as I rode. He knew all the tricks to beat the heat. Now it’s only 20 minutes to my 9 hour goal! I asked him if he thought I could get up that last hill in 20 minutes and he said “NO”. I still wanted to try, and told him I didn’t want to bother with the panty hose trick. He decided I could use a splash of cold water and poured what felt like an Ice Bucket Challenge cooler full of water over my head. I was yelling “heart attack, heart attack” without breathing out. It was so cold. I was freezing now. I thanked him and took off with 17 minutes to get up the hill. At first I still felt pretty drained so I just went at a pace I thought I could do and drank the Gatorade as fast as I could before it got warm. About halfway up the hill I could see the top. I still had 9 minutes. Then a guy about 50 feet ahead of me turned around and said “tailwind”. There was a tailwind, and it was a good one too. I still had goose bumps on my legs from the icing incident. I thought “I’m going for it.” I picked it up a notch, and seeing how the road got steeper at the end, I timed a last ditch effort to the finish. I watched the time get closer and closer to 9:00:00 on my Garmin. For the last 15 minutes I’d been telling myself not to ride for 9 hours and pull up a couple minutes over 9. So I grabbed a gear and really made sure. 8:58:05!
This was about my 12th Death Ride. I’ve been trying to beat 9 hours and have never been able to do it before this ride. The new route is about an hour shorter than the old one. But still, I can now say that I did the Death Ride in under 9 hours! My rolling time was 8:38:XX. So I spent about 20 minutes not moving. The ride was 103.3 miles with 13,999 ft of climb. I averaged 11.9 MPH, maxed 51.3 MPH, averaged 156 watts for a total 1.4 kWHr of energy output. Now your electric bill of $0.60/kWHr doesn’t seem like such a high price, does it? My average heart rate was 133 BPM and max was 150 BPM. According to Strava, I was about the 50th finisher of all six passes. I signed my name on the big Death Ride poster over the forehead of the skull, as usual. I burned about 5,000 calories, and I got it all back in the breakfast Benita made for me on Sunday morning.