I first read of Paul Sherwen’s death in another blog I follow, A Dude Abikes. Sherwen, for those who don’t follow bike racing, was what we in the US would refer to as the “color commentator” for BBC and Eurosport TV broadcasts of bike races. Analogous to American football broadcasts, they employed a retired bike racer (Sherwen) to provide inside commentary along with a broadcast journalist (Phil Liggett). Though unlike the usual team, Liggett was also a former bike racer.
Liggett and Sherwen always provided colourful commentary along with sight-seeing opportunities and European history lessons. We could always
count on a shot of the riders in a field of sunflowers during the Tour de France. Since I’ve never had cable or satellite TV, access to their broadcasts was always an adventure.
In 1992 I watched their TdF broadcast from a cafe somewhere near Markleeville, CA., home of the Death Ride. When I first heard of the Death Ride, I thought one had to be nuts to try it. I may still be right. The ride is ~200 km (129 miles) on California highways, climbing 15,000 feet while summiting five mountain passes. The low point of the ride is about 5000 feet and the high point over 8700. The best part is that it’s a closed course for the most hazardous parts.
I changed my mind about the crazy part when I went cross country skiing and camping in the area. As we drove over Carson Pass on our way to the trailhead I was amazed by the beauty, and thought it would look even better on a bike. Over the next few days of backcountry skiing and camping, I began to hatch a plan.
I decided to get my feet wet in 1991 with the “two pass option”, riding about 50 miles and crossing two passes, to find out what riding at altitude was like. I’d never ridden anything higher than the Santa Cruz Mountains, at about 2000 feet.
I learned an important lesson. Arriving the night before the ride I had no time to get used to the thinner air. I was tired and had no appetite. It was hot and dry. It was not my most enjoyable day in the saddle.
In 1992 I arrived in the mountains a week early, hanging out at Co-op Camp Sierra. The camp is at about 4300 feet. After hiking, swimming, and a little bit of riding, we moved north to Markleeville. (Note to self: if you make this drive again, go down to the Central Valley, drive north through the valley, then back up into the mountains – your passengers will thank you for it.)
We stayed at Sorensen’s Resort near Pickett’s Junction. A couple of days before the ride I decided to scope out Ebbetts Pass, the highest point of the ride and the only part I’d never seen. Somewhere along the ride I spotted a cafe with a satellite dish. I saw bikes parked outside and a lot of people wearing funny clothes like mine. I asked the proprietor if we might tune the big screen TV to the BBC. He agreed readily and I spent an enjoyable chunk of the day with strangers, enjoying the Tour de France broadcast with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. (Were you wondering if I’d ever get back to him?)
The morning of the Death Ride I was up before dawn and headed to Turtle Rock State Park, the start point. As the sky got light, the strains of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner reminded anyone who was sleeping in that they’d best get up to start riding soon.
Some folks jumped on their bikes at the first strains, others wandered out as it played or as it ended. Some of us stuck around, waiting for it to get lighter. As the sun came up, The Jefferson Airplane got me on the road:
As we headed toward Monitor Pass, it began to sprinkle lightly. This seemed like a good omen, a little something to keep the heat down and counter the dry desert air on the leeward side of the divide. We went up and over Monitor Pass and down to the Nevada state line, then turned around and went back over the pass in the other direction. So far, so good.
As we turned toward Ebbetts Pass, the earliest riders were coming down. They warned us that it was cold and wet up there. Climbing the pass wasn’t so bad. At the top, no one stood around to rest or enjoy the view. It was time to head down. Employing my modern version of the age-old technique of stuffing newspapers in your jersey for insulation on chilly descents (I used a plastic grocery bag – no ink to run, and waterproof), I was back on my bike after a quick snack and collecting the sticker to prove I’d made it to the top. Collect all five and your receive an enameled pin to prove you did it. We were cautioned that there were corner marshals before all switchbacks, urging us to slow down. I’d seen them going up, when slowing down was not a problem.
Going down was a problem. The brakes needed feathering to scrub off speed as well as to scrub water off the rims so they would actually function as brakes. It was also a way to keep fingers moving so they wouldn’t stiffen up too much to apply the brakes when really needed. Breathing on the fingers for warmth had to be done fast, so the hands could be back on the brake levers before the next switchback.
The lunch stop was welcome this time and we headed back out on the road. Coming down a few thousand feet did not make it warm and dry. The rain had entered the valley and was with us the rest of the day. Sorensen’s Resort was on the way to Luther Pass, so I stopped into our cabin, dried off, changed clothes, ate a banana, hugged my future wife, and got back out. It might have taken all of five minutes. Dry clothes felt great for the next few minutes.
After the last two passes, I showered and changed into dry civilian clothes and signed the commemorative poster as a five pass rider. Since it was still raining, I don’t know if you can read any of the signatures. We used a silver Sharpie so it was somewhat waterproof. After one last great meal at Sorensen’s, we headed back to the Bay Area. I think I’m ready to do it again.