The California Death Ride

Tour of the California Alps

July 12th, 2003



The Death Ride, now in its 22nd year, is one of the most challenging cycling endurance events in California. In includes five mountain passes: Monitor twice, Ebbetts twice, and Carson, in that order. Riders who complete all five passes will have ridden 129 miles, and climbed 16,000ft. In 2003 the event was held Saturday July 12th, the weather was pretty good. It started out surprisingly warm, nothing like as cold as in 2001, but it became rather hot during the day. I saw my cycle computer measure between 44F and 105F during the day. Additionally there was quite a strong breeze, which made some of the climbs, particularly Carson, very difficult.


Two and a half years ago I heard about the Death Ride at that point I decided it was finally time to get a road bike and complete the ride. Four months into riding I attempted the event in 2001, where I completed the first four passes. Since then I increased my training, and this year had followed the Death Ride training guide, including most importantly:

  • Two 10,000ft climbing days, and
  • Two 20,000ft climbing weeks

both in the six weeks prior to the event. The Sierra Double Metric Century, and another Double Metric had put me in position to meet the training goals.

Starting in the Sacramento Valley area there's not much around that can prepare you for the high altitude of the Death Ride, so it's just a matter of training hard and doing lots of hills. The highest climb I've been to since the 2001 Death Ride was 4700ft on the Sierra Century. The Death Ride starts at 6100ft and fluctuates between 5500ft and 8700ft.

Bike Setup

Standard Ultegra Triple 52/42/30, and a 12-27 rear cassette. Two cycle computers. One measuring RPM, Current Gear, and Speed, the other primarily Altitude, Power, Ascent Rate, and Speed. Two water bottles, there's no need for a camel back as the ride is so superbly supported.

Registration & Hotel

This year I was lucky enough to get a hotel in Minden - big thanks to Jenn for being so organized to get the hotel in early March. This meant we had only a 20 minute drive in the morning, and was able to register the evening before.


Pass 1 - Climb up the the West side of Monitor

Rather than deal with the thousands of others trying to park at Turtle Rock I decided to stop short of the start and ride to it. I didn't quite realize I was a full mile an a half from the start when I unpacked the bike - oh well. By the time I made it to Turtle Rock Park it was 6:05am, the same time as I had started in 2001. 

The climb up Monitor was in some respects similar to how I remembered it from 2001, and others different. The road was again glassy smooth making for an easy climb and what would be a fast descent. What seemed different was that the slope of the hill was easier than I remembered, a great sign for the day. Only a very few riders passed me going up the hill, versus the hundreds I passed.

Although my bike computer was showing a temperature as low as 44F it felt tremendously warmer than in 2001, probably the air was less humid and so there was less wind chill.

Pass 2 - Descent to Topaz at the 89/395, and the return up the East side of Monitor

The descent to Topaz Lake is great, some of the smoothest road in all of California, and long fast relatively straight descents. I topped my previous maximum speed, reaching 53.9mph, I think I would easily have gone faster but there was a cluster of about 6 riders in front of me only going 45mph and I couldn't get around them as in the opposing lane there was a wall of hundreds of riders coming up hill.

During the return up from Topaz Lake, obviously going much slower, there were loads of opportunities to get some photographs. If you look closely you can see probably 100 riders just ahead of me going uphill, and someone coming down, probably doing 40-50mph.


  Pass 3 - Descent from Monitor, climb up the East side of Ebbetts

The West side descent from Monitor was again fast, although cranking at top speed I only reached 53.9mph, the same as the descent on the other side of Monitor earlier in the morning.

The third pass, Ebbetts is the most difficult one, it's got grades up to 12% and climbs to the highest point of the day, at 8730ft. I started out continuing to overtake loads of people, but by about half way up Ebbetts I was getting tired and was only passing an equivalent number of people as who were passing me. However, I was feeling a million times better than my last attempt. The picture above is Kinney Reservoir which is about a half mile from the top of Ebbetts.

Pass 4 - Descent from Ebbetts to Hermit Valley, and the climb up the West side of Ebbetts

The road from Ebbetts down to Hermit Valley and then back up to Ebbetts for the fourth pass is the shortest of all the climbs. Only 5.3 miles each way, and 1600ft. However, the road is potholed and windy. Some of the potholes are the same color as the road surface and thus invisible at speed. While climbing back out from Hermit Valley the uphill riders would often shout a warning of "pothole" then, bam! the downhill rider would slam into it. On my downhill I swear I hit the same one as two years ago, it was totally invisible. On my way up I saw another five riders slam into it. Fortunately I didn't see anyone wreck or flat from it.


The fourth pass, climb to Ebbetts, was what killed me on my last Death Ride attempt, where I was dragging myself up the hill at a miserable pace of less than 3mph and it was obviously over. This year I managed to keep the speed generally between 6 and 9 mph and felt great.

Lunch and on to Woodfords.

I left the top of Ebbetts, at around 12:30pm, an hour faster than last time. The ride to lunch was an enjoyable downhill. Lunch was at the 80 mile marker. Following my sandwich and vegetable soup it was on through Markleeville, and past the start line at Turtle Rock Park to get to Woodfords. The "parking" at lunch looks like a bike junk yard with literally hundreds of bikes leaning against every tree available and still hundreds more just laying on the ground..

Pass 5 - Woodfords, Picketts Junction, and Carson Pass

I reached the Woodfords rest stop at about 2:30pm, with a good hour and a half before the 4pm cutoff. The climb from Woodfords to Picketts Junction was awful. The temperature was high, I was getting really worn down. I was having to be very careful to keep my exertion level down so I didn't throw up. My muscles were ready to go 7-8mph, but any time I pushed passed about 6mph on the climb I would cross the physical boundary of just about hurling. The worst part about it was I didn't know how far Picketts Junction was, so it felt like an eternity getting there. Had I known how far it was, only 5 miles from Woodfords, I could have watched the distance tick by and I know I would have felt better.
Anyway I eventually got to Picketts Rest Stop, long before the 5:15pm cutoff. From there it was 9 miles to Carson. The climb to Carson wasn't nearly as bad from Picketts as the first half from Woodfords had been. The final piece around Red Lake is pretty steep, but not that bad.

Descent from Carson and the Finish

The descent from Carson was awesome. It's a 14 mile downhill to Woodfords. It starts with the views of Red Lake, coasting down to Picketts with a little peddling it was easy to keep between 30-45mph most of the way down. On the segment down from Picketts to Woodford I was sitting up, coasting at 45mph, and realized that I could put the "pedal to the metal" and perhaps exceed my top speed again - amazingly I pushed it all the way to 56.2mph - a new record. On the way down I passed a couple of riders who were doing over 30mph but it felt like they were standing still!

I was back at Turtle Rock Park by 5:35pm, 11h30 after starting, and 10h of actual riding. I added my signature to the 5-passes poster; there were already hundreds of names on it, and doubtlessly hundreds still to sign.

The 6000 miles of training had paid off. This has certainly been the hardest endurance event I've ever undertaken, and now I have the mug, jersey, T-shirt, and photographs to prove the success.

Roland Wooster, 2007. All rights reserved.