The Kiss of Death Ride

This gentler version of the notorious Death Ride in the California Alps only sounds easy.

09/10/2012

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Call me a masochist, but I’ve always wanted to do the aptly named Death Ride, the king of all bike races.
 
The epic dawn-to-dusk bike race is held each July in the California Alps—a region of 8,000-foot-plus passes threading through 10,000-foot peaks just south of Lake Tahoe. Beginning at the crack of dawn in the teensy burb of Markleeville, a living gold rush town spurred by the silver boom of the 1850s, the race goes up and over several lung- and butt-busting mountain passes, climbing over Monitor Pass and Ebbetts Pass before ascending the east side of Carson Pass—scaling a grand total of 16,000 feet in 129 miles. 
 
Unfortunately, in recent years the ride has become so popular, drawing 3,000-plus riders, that it has sold out months in advance. Also, while I live at high altitude and do some recreational cycling near home, I wasn’t confident that I had the legs, butt or stamina to cycle 16,000 feet uphill (that’s higher than Mt. Whitney) in one day’s time (or in this lifetime, to be honest).
 
Kiss of Death bike tour to the rescue!
 
Created in 2003 by Undiscovered Country, located in Mountain View, California, the two-night bike tour promised a kinder, gentler version of the Death Ride. Spread out over three days (with lots of eating, stopping and sleeping in between), it seemed more doable than the Death Ride’s relentless pace—eight to 10 nonstop hours of pedaling, eating and drinking (no sleeping allowed) in the saddle.
 
And instead of battling the Death Ride’s 3,000 cyclists for road space and running the risk of being left for dead on the roadside if I ran out of steam, on the Kiss of Death, I’d be cycling with just 13 others, cruising at my own speed (slow), with a friendly sag wagon at my back to take me in for a rest, ride, refreshments or all three if my legs and/or fanny gave out.
 
 “Hey, how hard could it be?” I asked my husband as I packed my ultra-padded bike shorts, bomb-proof helmet and week’s worth of power bars (you can never be too prepared). Our leisurely pace would allow us to brake for Kodak moments, a gourmet picnic lunch and even a mid-route soak in natural hot springs. Add in the fact that unlike my clunker at home, my “ride” would be the Cadillac of bicycles—a lightweight cycle with 30-plus gears that would let me scale killer hills in a single bound—and hey, how hard could it be? 
 
It’s a long but scenic drive from my home in Kennedy Meadows to Markleeville along Highway 395, a scenic highway that showcases the majesty of the High Sierra. To the west, the mountains rise wall-like from the desert floor, ascending in jagged foothills before ending in spires, peaks and pinnacles that seem to pierce the clouds. A few miles before Topaz Lake at the Nevada border, Highway 89 takes off like a rocket from Highway 395, climbing up and over Monitor Pass (elevation 8,314 feet) before spiraling down to tiny Markleeville (elevation 5,501 feet), the county seat of Alpine County, home to nearly 800 square miles of alpine lakes, meadows, peaks, rivers and forest.
 
As we roller-coastered along the steep two-laner—the road dipped sharply before ascending in earnest up a steep incline and then vanishing (into the horizon, my husband guessed), I got my first glimmer that the so-called “kiss” could be more of a death grip for a recreational cyclist like me.
 
“Hey, how hard could it be?” joked Tom as I reread the tour literature out loud. 
 
It swore (in black and white) that the Kiss was for cyclists seeking “a quieter, more relaxed version of the Death Ride and the exhilaration and challenge of cycling the majestic and peaceful High Sierra of Alpine County—the least populated county in California.” As we soon discovered, at least they got the last part right.
 
By the time we arrived in Markleeville, the moon was shining over the mountains, the town’s 200 inhabitants were evidently getting some shut-eye and wolves were howling from a distant peak. The Markleeville General Store, a.k.a. downtown Markleeville, was shuttered for the night and we were both too pooped to enjoy the frivolity of the Cutthroat Saloon, locally renowned for its early bird opening (7 a.m.) and collection of donated bras that hang from the ceiling. Searching town for something that looked like the J. Marklee Toll Station—our designated digs for the night—we finally realized the “station” was a wee family motel. We checked in, broke out a couple of power bars and called it a night.
 
The next morning I met my 13 comrades in the breakfast room, where they were devouring a towering pile of pancakes and heaping sides of hash browns, shoveling it in like they hadn’t eaten in days. (For the uninitiated, this is called “carbo-loading.”) Many of the guys were so thin they practically disappeared when viewed sideways. As for the women, several boasted calves of steel and muscular-looking thunder thighs that bulged from their bike shorts. At 90 pounds soaking wet, it was clear I’d be no match for them going up or down.
 
After breakfast, the group gathered by the general store to start the tour, the real cyclists poised as if waiting for a gun. Before I could complete one rotation of my pedals, they were off like a speeding bullet, apparently racing instead of touring. By the time I pedaled through town (about two blocks), they were a blur on the horizon. More than a day passed before I met up with the entire posse again.
 
The first few miles of the tour were lovely, the road heaving and sighing past tinkling brooks, green pastures with moo-cows and fields of wildflowers. A few miles later, I passed a woman perched on a stool near a pine tree, capturing the scene on her easel. Figuring the group was already miles ahead of me and the sag wagon hopefully still behind me, I decided to brake for a few minutes to chat with her and admire her watercolor painting.
 
In less than an hour, the friendly hills and dales gave way to not-so-friendly foothills dotted with patches of snow, and the evergreens made a quantum leap in height, going from tall to towering. Even in mid-June, winter was still unraveling in the high country, with snowmelt from the peaks engorging the rushing streams and streamlets meandering through green meadows that would soon erupt in lupine and corn lilies. 
 
After pedaling up to Pacific Grade Summit (elevation 8,050 feet) my legs felt like they were on fire. A couple of women who had taken a long photo break offered to pose with me—to prove I had actually made it this far. But the ride was only beginning. In the distance, Ebbetts Pass loomed—8,700 feet and every inch of it straight up.
 
Approaching the steep climb, I switched into the lowest gear and started to pedal, warding off panic by trying to keep things in perspective. Ebbetts Pass was the first pass of the Kiss, but the third pass on the Death Ride. That meant Death Ride participants had climbed two 8,000-plus-foot passes plus Ebbetts Pass before lunch.
 
Meanwhile, I was beginning to see that the Kiss could put a death grip on the wrong cyclist. About a fourth of the way up, my legs started to tremble. A third of the way up and my knees started to buckle. Halfway up, I said to myself, “This is ridiculous! I could walk faster.” Being a sensible girl, I got off my bike and started pushing.
 
Waiting for me at the top was the sag wagon and Tom, who was riding along with the driver. 
 
“This is a piece of cake,” he joked.
 
As it turned out, the literature was partly right: From the sag wagon, the ride really was a quieter, more relaxed version of the Death Ride, and the scenery was as majestic and peaceful from that vantage point as it had been from my bike. After showing us the day’s route, the driver supplied us with a nice picnic lunch and deposited us back in Markleeville. We wolfed it down and drove to Grover Hot Springs State Park, where we spent the afternoon soaking in natural hot springs. By the time the other cyclists arrived back at the motel, I was long gone, having collapsed in bed at 8 p.m.
 
The next day, I was so sore I couldn’t walk. After riding the second day of tour in the car, we headed back to the inn for the farewell dinner. The cyclists, looking no worse for wear, regaled us with tales of their journey. One guy had mended a flat tire with a $10 bill. Another guy said he had just missed plowing into a cow on the downside of a summit. One of the thunder-thigh women said she had “kissed off” nine pounds.
 
When Tom told the group I had pushed my bike to the top of Ebbetts Pass without even getting winded, everyone cheered.
 
“Hey,” I said. “How hard can it be?”  

Undiscovered Country bike tours offers private three-night Kiss of Death tours for groups of six or more. The cost is $675 per person, double occupancy, and includes meals, lodging and guide service. Call (877) 322-1667 or visit udctours.com.

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