The California Death Ride, at 129 miles and 15,000 ft. of climbing at high elevation, is widely regarded as one of the most challenging bike rides in the country. When my friends Nick, Alice, and Ben signed up for it, I was terribly jealous because I would be out of the country on the day of the ride. So to make up for a lost opportunity, I signed up for the Devil Mountain Double Century. At 206 miles and 20,000 ft. of climbing, it makes the Death Ride look like a warm-up.
The Devil Mountain Double follows a great route in the San Francisco Bay Area: three enormous climbs up Mt. Diablo, Mt. Hamilton, and Sierra Road. As a grad student at UC-Berkeley, I was familiar with these climbs, but I had never done all of them at once. This ride would be the culmination of my entire athletic career.
Nick and I started our ride at 5am, when it was pitch dark. I was a little nervous, especially considering how long the ride would be, but once we reached Mt. Diablo, I settled down and began to enjoy myself. The air was perfectly still and unusually warm, making for a surreal experience as we climbed the 3,800 ft. mountain. Coming around a turn, we had a beautiful view of the sunrise, and I felt that all was well.
After a nice, long descent, we worked hard to catch a pack of riders that could shield us from the wind. One of the guys in this group, named Steve, was riding a fixed gear. Since these bikes can’t coast, he had to work just as hard on the downhills as the uphills. He was very likeable, but we thought he was completely crazy for his choice of equipment.
We rode with the group at very fast pace up Morgan Territory, Altamont Pass, and Patterson Pass. Though I got pretty tired and dehydrated at this speed, it was nice to knock out a lot of miles in the early going. After reaching Patterson, Nick and I decided to ride on our own and save our energy for later. The last section before lunch was Mines Road, a long, hot, undulating road. Having sweat so much already, I began to feel out of whack, and I slowed to a crawl. Nick went on ahead of me, and we agreed to regroup at lunch.
While I was lumbering along at a snail’s pace, feeling sorry for myself, a guy named Curtis came by. He was a former Triple Crown Champion, which means that of the people who completed three double centuries in one year, he had the fastest overall time in all of California. Having started an hour after me, he had already overtaken me, but he was looking pretty cooked at this point. He was kind enough to let me draft off him, and after 45 minutes, he and I caught up with Nick. All of us limped in to lunch looking like we had spent a couple of hours in the sauna.
The lunch stop was rejuvenating, and although we had already done 115 miles, we were ready to go again. As we were approaching the 4,400 ft. Mt. Hamilton, Nick and I were joined by another rider. When we turned to see who it was, we were surprised to meet a 75 year-old retired Berkeley professor. He was looking good out there, despite the fact that he was older than Nick and I combined.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Hamilton was fairly tolerable, but we were looking forward to a rest stop. Once we finally got there, I was pretty exhausted. I ate about 70 tortilla chips to replace all the salt I had lost, and declared myself fit to ride again. The next challenge would be Sierra Road, an 1800 ft. climb in just over 3 miles (11% avg. grade), made harder by the fact that we had biked 155 miles already. I was confident that I could do it, as I had low gearing with my compact crankset (36-25), but I thought that this would prove to be Nick’s demise, since his lowest gear was 39-23.
The sun was beating on my back as we went up, and it got so hot that I could feel sweat literally streaming down my legs, leaving long white salt streaks. During the last five minutes of the climb, I was pleading with God to get me to the top before I exploded. At last I reached the crest, where I pulled to the side and crumpled into a heap, fighting the compulsion to throw up. To my utter shock, Nick arrived several minutes later, looking pretty good. He asked me, “What do you want to do?” Now that we had gone this far together, I simply said, “Let’s finish this thing.”
From there on out, we rode at a blistering pace, thinking only of the finish line as the sunlight was waning. We didn’t really have adequate lighting for riding by ourselves, so I figured that if we went fast enough, we would catch somebody who had more foresight than we did. Luckily, just as we crested Palomares Road, we found two nice guys that agreed to lead us through the darkness. Though we went slower than Nick and I would ordinarily go, it made the last 15 miles really pleasant, kind of like a cool-down after a long day in the saddle.
We finished at 9:30pm, which was 16.5 hours, 206 miles, and 20,000 ft. of climbing after we had started. We sat down for a nice plate of lasagna and congratulated each other on a job well done.
I’m very grateful that I completed this ride when I did because only one month later I would break my back in a terrible accident and suffer a spinal cord injury. It would be a year before I could ride a bike again, and two years before I could get on a road bike. Now, three years after my accident, I am enjoying road rides again, but with the spinal cord injury, my legs are still weak and wobbly. Now I am simply a recreational rider and a bike commuter, but it’s a thousand times better than being confined to the wheelchair l had in 2007. Having this experience, I now have the utmost respect for disabled athletes. They tackle challenges every day that an Olympic athlete would not muster. Next time you see a young person in a wheelchair, remember that they are real champions.