Staying Alive on the Death Ride

For this Adventure of the Week post we hear from Pam Lefrancois of Kings Beach, California. A longtime mountain biker, the road bike newbie only did her first Century, the Tahoe Sierra Century, this past September. Here’s how she survived the infamous Death Ride.

WHO: Pam Lefrancois, with Mike Lefrancois and Will Stelter

WHAT: The Death Ride

WHERE: Markleeville, CA

WHEN: July 10, 2010

GEAR: Reef sandals for taking those bike shoes off, Patagonia Lithia Skirt to let things breathe after taking off the “diaper,” Klean Kanteen with cold water waiting in the cooler when we got back to the car, GU Energy Gel and Cytomax drink mixes – to power me through this ride!!


The Death Ride: 129 miles, 5 passes, 15,000 feet of climbing. I’d been hearing about this epic road bike ride ever since I moved to Tahoe 13 years ago, but I was a mountain biker. A few years ago it was time to remodel our house so we bought road bikes for “quick” rides in between pounding nails, to commute to work and for early-season riding before the trails melted out. It took me a couple years before I was able to embrace things like spandex and bright colored jerseys, but after snagging my mountain bike shorts on the saddle while racing down Brockway Summit and realizing that those bright clothes are to help drivers see you, I learned the value of the “roadie” clothing.

In December, my husband announced that he and his friend were going to do the Death Ride. I figured I might as well jump on the bandwagon, too. In the weeks and months leading up to the ride, people looked at me like I was crazy when I said that was my goal for the year. Sarcastic comments like, “The Death Ride, now THAT sounds like a lot of FUN,” were typical replies.

Spring training consisted of travel, to Chico, Auburn, Nevada City, Reno, Carson City, Sacramento and San Franciso, since winter wouldn’t stop here in Tahoe. We weren’t training for a race; the Death Ride is “just” a ride, so my goal with training was to work towards being back to the car less than 12 hours after I left it, including all my stops.

On Friday July 9, it was finally time, and we headed to Markleeville…

When we pulled into the parking lot at Turtle Rock Park, it was like a huge road bike party: a band was playing, spaghetti dinner was going on, vendors were showing off gear and people were doing the last bit of tuning up their bikes. There were bikes in that parking lot I’d never even heard of!  We checked in, grabbed our numbers and registration packets, and headed for our camping spot along the river to eat and try to get to bed by 9 pm for our 3:45 am alarm. After dinner, and of course a beer or two for a little extra carb-loading and sleep induction, we crawled into the VW for some shut-eye.

I woke up at 3:45 surprised to have slept so well. I looked out the window of the bus and was surprised again to see a fairly continuous stream of riders with lights on pedaling down the road. While the official start time for the ride is 5:30 am, I had read and heard that many people start earlier with lights on their bikes, some to give them extra time and others to avoid the heat of the day. While it wasn’t cold, I’m glad I wasn’t getting ready to get on the bike just yet.

We headed back to Turtle Rock Park for breakfast, a fundraiser for the Alpine County Search and Rescue Team. We are members of Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, and my husband had spent some time down in the area on a search in the fall, so we decided to support our fellow SAR team and avoid having to cook breakfast at 4 am!

We left the car at 5:45 am, wished each other “good luck” and “have fun,” because I didn’t figure I’d see Mike and Will again until the end, except passing each other as one was going up and the other down, and off we pedaled toward Monitor Pass. It was a bit surreal to be pedaling up a road empty of anything but bikes at 5:30 am. While it’s definitely light enough to ride, the sun is just starting to come over the mountains. Because it’s early and people haven’t had much coffee, they weren’t super talkative so I just heard the sounds of gears shifting and wheels on pavement as we crawled slowly up Monitor Pass. The views are amazing as you look out toward Ebbett’s Pass, Bear Valley and all those beautiful mountains behind you. I got to the top more quickly than I expected and collected my first sticker of the day. If you finish all 5 passes you are eligible to purchase a “5 Pass Finisher” jersey so those stickers are valuable!

The 3,300-foot decent from the top of Monitor down to Highway 395 is amazing. The road surface is pretty new, no one on the road but other bikes, wildflowers were in full bloom after our late spring and the landscape around you is amazingly beautiful. As I headed down the pass, I passed hundreds, if not a thousand or two people, climbing back up the hill.  Damn, it was a long way down. I got to 395, collected my second sticker of the day (you get this one and the second Ebbett’s sticker at the bottom since they know the only way you’re getting back up is to ride the climb), turned around and started climbing. I felt really good and chatted with a variety of folks on my way up the hill. Over the course of the ride, I met people from Arizona, all over California, Washington, Oregon and even a fellow Ohio State Buckeye that now lives in the Bay Area.

After cresting Monitor for the second time, I stopped at the rest area and reloaded on water, Cytomax and GU products and descended Monitor the way I’d climbed it the first time that morning, to make my way to Ebbett’s Pass. I knew that staying hydrated, fed and keeping my electrolytes up was critical to completing this ride. Two down, three to go and I still felt great.

If you haven’t been over Ebbett’s Pass, even driving it in a car is an adventure. The road is no wider than one car width in places, and even in my Toyota truck I’ve had to drop it into first to get around some of the steep switchbacks. It’s also the highest pass of the day at 8,750 feet. What a beautiful scene Ebbett’s is from a bike with all the rocks and ruggedness that makes this part of the Sierra so beautiful.  And, like all the passes on this ride, the wildflowers were incredible!  I got to the top, collected my sticker and commenced the downhill to Hermit Valley, the next rest stop/turnaround point. Another fun downhill, rest stop for supplies, collected my fourth sticker down in Hermit Valley and turned around and started back up.

This side of Ebbett’s isn’t as steep as the “front” side but it’s consistent. It’s becoming mid-day at this point, so the sun is out and shining brightly. I’d heard so many stories about the rain, hail, cold, snow that can happen on this ride I was fine with temperatures in the 80s. Although that’s “hot” to some of my Tahoe brethren, having spent two weeks on the East Coast training with temperatures in the 90s and humidity in the 90-percent range, this was not hot to me!  While this climb hurt a little more than the past three, I was still feeling good with plenty of spring in my legs for passing people as I headed back to the top. I was happy to get there, but best of all I was so excited and surprised to find Mike and Will waiting for me!  We compared notes on our day so far and rode down to our lunch stop to eat together.

We stopped for nearly an hour for lunch and then all headed out together for the relatively “flat” ride over to Carson Pass. Once we got to the bottom, Mike and Will took off at their climbing pace and I stuck to mine… definitely slower than theirs!

Carson is the only pass that we ride with the cars; Ebbett’s and Monitor are both closed to vehicles. There’s not much of a shoulder on the bottom part, it’s relatively steep (about 7%) and you already have about 92 miles under your belt when you start climbing. I caught the wheel of a guy going about the same speed as me to have someone to pace with up that first part. Being a girl on this ride is interesting because out of about 3,000 riders, only about 400 to 500 of them are women. It’s not easy to find a guy willing to trade off “pulling” with a girl so I ended up riding alone a good portion of the ride. Carson was definitely a mental challenge for me. You climb that first long steep section and then hit the rolling uphill “flats” by Pickett’s Junction before the road turns upward again for the last 4 or 5 miles. Those last 4 or 5 miles were definitely where I had to get into my own head and just keep pedaling. I was still feeling better than I ever thought I’d feel at that point in the ride, the pedals were still turning over pretty easily, but the sun was shining, I was tired of being on my bike and I just wanted to be done!  I was ready for a cold beer! I came around a corner and finally saw the crest of the summit maybe a mile ahead. I put my head down and just powered through the last bit of climbing. People were stopped on the side of the road and resting, but my goal on all the passes was to just keep spinning and not stop until I got to the top. It felt so good to finally get to the top of Carson, collect my fifth and final sticker, get some well deserved ice cream, sign the poster to show I’d been there, drink cold water in the shade and get ready for the 9-mile descent to Woodfords.

As much as I wanted to just turn around and go, I gathered my head and lowered my body temperature because while the descents are fun, you really need to be on your game. And as good as I felt, I knew my brain capacity wasn’t 100 percent at mile 100+! There’d be cars to contend with on this downhill, and lying a road bike down at speed on pavement was not how I wanted to end a great day!  I’d seen a number of ambulances and taco’d wheels over the course of the day and didn’t want to end my ride that way. The descent was a great time but when I got to Woodfords and turned the corner to go to Turtle Rock, there was one last small hill to conquer to get to the car. Luckily I had a goal to make so I had to put my head down and powered up that last little hill to make my 12 hour cut-off. I’m sure most of those folks I passed thought I was insane. Most people were slowly spinning home in their little rings and taking it easy, and here’s this crazy chick with mountain bike shoes on standing up and hammering back to the car as hard as she could. But, I made it back to the car 11 hours and 55 minutes after I had left it, including all my stops, and that was all I wanted!

I think with training anyone could do this ride, but it does take some dedication and commitment to putting a lot of time in on the bike. As much time as I spent on the bike in the spring and on Nordic skis in the winter, I also spent quite a bit of time in the gym training, and I have Travis and Myles from Crossfit Avalanche to thank for helping me get ready!  I know that their program played a huge part in my success. This was my first “big” long distance ride, and I’m looking forward to finding some other ones to challenge myself. The best part about these big, long rides is getting to see new areas by bike, which is always better than seeing them by car!

Each week, Tahoe Mountain Sports takes a walk (or hike, bike, ski, surf, climb) in someone else’s shoes, from pro athletes to local Tahoe adventurers. Let us know if you’ve got an adventure to share.

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