Saturday, January 4, 2014

Looking back at the Death Ride

After posting our R-12 write up, one Wascally Weasel sent the following tweet. This inspired me to finish off a ride-report that Emma started 6 months ago! 

Tour of the Californian Alps: The Death Ride 2013 by Tandem

Back in July we took part in a cycling challenge which was a little different to our normal randonneuring fare. For several years Joth had heard about The death ride from work colleagues so a year ago when the entries opened we were on the ball to secure a place, as it sells out very quickly. In that and several other ways this ride is similar to La Marmotte in terrain and length, and was an obvious comparison for us. We hoped that our day would be slightly less eventful than that day however!

The preparation for the ride was less than perfect, as we had yet more mechanical issues. This time it was one of the bearing cartridges in the headset which caused the problem by falling apart. Our favorite bike shop didn’t have a set of bearings in stock, but managed to get the headset back together to the point of being rideable. The steering was a little heavy at low speeds, but wasn’t too bad considering. We also developed problems with the front derailleur, in that we had problems shifting from the middle chainring into granny (the smallest chainring). We could ‘surprise’ it by shifting straight from the biggest chainring into granny though. On occasions this wasn’t possible, we just stopped the bike and manually put the chain on the chainring. Fortunately the elevation profile of the ride meant that we only needed to do this a couple of times.
One of the difference between this type of mass participation ride in the US and those in Europe is the subject of timing. In Europe on this type of ride, everyone has a timing chip and you are timed over the course. Over here in the US, these types of rides are not timed. In contrast, the timings for all the randonnees are provided, whereas they aren’t generally in UK audaxes. This meant that there wasn’t the same ‘race’ mentality at the start of this ride compared to rides like La Marmotte. This was reflected in part by the variety of equipment being ridden. We saw mountain bikes (including at least one which was fixed gear), touring bikes, a recumbent bike, Eliptigos and a cargo bike as well as the standard carbon race bike. There were also five tandems riding, although they didn’t all ride all five passes. The attitude of the other riders to us was also noticeably different to La Marmotte. We had a huge amount of encouragement from other rider, and even a push or two! I think on average more US cyclists have tried tandeming and know what an effort it is on the hills! The main comment though was on the size or our rear disc brake. We quickly lost count of the times we were asked about it.
Our day started in the dark as we left the comfort of our motel room for the 25 mile drive to the start point, at Turtle Rock County Park. The thermometer in the car indicated that we were going to be in for a cold start to the ride, as it showed a temperature in the 30’s for most of the journey. Brrr! It was too cold at 5am to wait for very long, so we missed starting with Joth’s colleagues, but were confident that we’d see them as they passed us on the climbs.
Unlike La Marmotte (and most of our UK rides), the route was a series of 3 out and back legs, with the first two being on closed roads. While there we climbed 5 passes, there were only really 3 in that the first two were climbed from both sides. The ride started with a 5km descent which combined with the low temperatures made for a pair of very cold Things. Rarely have I been so looking forward to starting a climb. Most of the first climb of Monitor pass occurred in the dark, but one of the advantages of the out of back route was that we’d get to see it again on the way back down. Near the top, one of Joth’s colleagues pulled alongside. One of the advantages of the tandem is that it is easy to spot, even in large groups. While we managed to chat to quite a lot of riders (mostly about tandems, or the size of the disk brake), it’s always nice to see someone you know.
We coasted over the top and Joth recognised the layby where we stopped to take photos when we were visiting California in 2011. There was no time to stop to enjoy the view this time though: we had some solo bikes that needed passing on the descent! Riding on closed roads was a very nice change, and apart from the start of Marmotte and PBP not something we’ve done. In contrast the first four climbs (and descents) of Death Ride were on closed roads.
We decided to stop for a few minutes at the bottom of the pass to grab a snack, and make use of the large line of porta potties. One of the advantages of our audax/randonneuring experience is that we don’t need to stop as often as many riders on this type of event do, even though we stopped more often than we would on a normal audax of this length.
While it was still fairly early in the day when we reached the top of Monitor Pass for the second time, we had been on the road for nearly four hours, and it was time to get some food. We had a cunning plan to stop and get some sandwiches at the top, which we could start digesting on the way back down. This was thwarted by there not being any, so it was a quick snack and drink before heading down to the official lunch stop on the road towards Ebbets Pass. Officially, as 5 Pass riders, we should have stopped for lunch on the way back, but we weren’t going to let that stop us! Refuelled, we headed off to Ebbets Pass.
The support on the ride was excellent. We were surprised how many locals and families of other riders were out on course cheering people on. A particular mention must go to ‘The Wild Women of Ebbetts Pass’, who were entertaining the riders near the bottom of the climb in their great costumes. All the volunteers, from those helping at check in to the ones manning the rest stops were excellent. Cheerful, enthusiastic and very helpful; they really made the atmosphere of the event.
Ebbetts Pass itself was the most picturesque of the climbs, narrowly winding up a stream gorge. We were warned it could get fraught climbing here against the flow of faster riders descending. Fortunately we had no problems, although we did get passed by one ambulance going to attend some incident up ahead of us, we never found out what though.
At the turn around point, to head back over Ebbetts from the west, we saw the support stand from Crank2 Performance Tandems (who had fixed the headset a few days before) so we stood and chattered there while refueling.
The return climb seemed to take longer, even though it was actually less height gain than the east side. The hot afternoon sun was in full effect here, and we saw more riders struggling at this point than anywhere else. These were likely the stragglers on the four-pass variant of the ride -- a sensible choice as only the final, fifth pass is on open roads so by doing four you get an entire day of motor traffic free riding.
The run back into Turtle Rock from Ebbetts was a nice run for stretching the legs a little, and we soon picked up a small peloton wanting a tow. We passed the start point and soon after our car, where we stopped for a couple cool drinks from the cool box. While sat we saw another tandem pass by -- turned out this was Will and Lynn von Kaenel, who we’d spoken with online prior to the event. Unfortunately they’d had some mechanical problems and decided to call it a day. We still had one more pass to conquer though, so got back on the road.
The 5-pass ride finishes atop Carson Pass, which is reached via the busy route 88. As we started the ascent we saw a sign that said the cut off time was 5:15, and we were getting worryingly close. For a while we thought we were not going to complete it in time, which made for some nervous pedaling. Happily, this turned out to be the cutoff time at the final reset stop part way up (at the junction with route 89).
The final slog from there to the top ground on, but the view became ever better as we winched our way up past Red Lake and to the summit.

Looking back and comparing it to La Marmotte, the differences that come to mind
  • DR is less of a ‘race’ atmosphere, staggered start, lack of timing chips and no official result leaderboard lends it a more festive feel
  • DR is mostly on closed roads, and generally nicer (leafy, shady) cycling conditions. On the other hand the open climbs of La Marmotte rewards with much grander views over snow-capped Alps.
  • DR has the more predictable weather conditions, I would imagine. French Alps can swing from hail to sunshine to storm in hours.
  • Both rides were equally well supported, although there were numerous small differences in the way the support was supplied partly due to the topology of the route (e.g. Marmotte provides a SAG bus and stationary mechanic stations, vs. a support motorbike but no SAG on DR)
  • The Marmotte route follows a circuit which appeals far more to me, lending a journey/tour feel to event in comparison to the spidery web of out-and-backs that make up DR.
  • The Cols of Marmotte are just more magnificent, from the overpowering grandeur of Galibier to the deep sense of history on finishing atop the Alpe d’Huez, it’s an epic ride. It’s hard to imagine this planet will ever host a more glorious 174km of paved road.

We wanted to include some official photos, hence the original hold up, but they all came out poorly, certainly not worth the $25. You can search for Bib 37 over here if interested! (Unselect "Partial Bib Numbers")