If the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the ultimate endurance test for Porsche race cars, then the Death Ride is the ultimate endurance test for a Porsche bicycle.
Last fall I set my sights and wanted to be the first person to complete this grueling ride on a Porsche bicycle. The Death Ride is a 129 mile, 15,000 feet evaluation gain bicycle ride that started in 1981 in the small town of Markleeville, California. The Death Ride is more than a clever name, with extremes at every corner. The course rides over five Sierra 8,000 foot mountain passes, starts early in bitter cold, continues into temperatures over 90 degrees, and with treacherous high speed descents.
The ride takes much of the day and is more of an endurance trial than a bike ride. People with Century ride experience would be surprised how much more difficult the Death Ride is.
For all of these reasons, I fully committed myself to this 2017 endeavor last fall, preparing a bike and my conditioning over the winter and into spring for an attempt at finishing the Death Ride in only one try.
All of my previous bicycle riding was completed on the 1998 Porsche Bike S, including the 100-mile world record on a Bike S mountain bike last October. The Death Ride is much better suited for a road bike, so last November I purchased a 2004 Porsche Bike X and spent the winter rebuilding and preparing for this hill climb event.
The Bike X is a "hybrid" bike Porsche commissioned the German bicycle manufacturer Storck to build for an European cycling market. The Bike X is a touring bike, utilizing a lightweight aluminum road bike frame fitted with mountain bike gears, straight commuter bike handbars, front shocks, a suspension seat post and mountain bike-type treaded tires. This bike was built to go anywhere comfortably.
But I didn't want to go anywhere. I wanted to ride straight up mountains quickly and very quickly back down - all day long. The road bike frame and mountain bike gearing were the perfect choice for this type of challenge.
I found a Bike X for sale on the German eBay site. However the seller said he'd only ship within Germany. Armed with Google translation, we emailed back and forth haggling until he agreed to ship this bike to the USA. I've only seen two Bike X for sale on the internet and this one was my size - large. The other Bike X also sold quickly and that seller said only 250 were produced. So this is an ultra rare bike among the rare Porsche bicycles.
The Bike X took over a month to ship from Germany. It sat in customs for sometime before arriving in Truckee, California. After taking the bike for a short cruise, I immediately dismantled all the touring and mountain bike components. The seat, seat post, front shocks, tires, handlebar grips all came off.
To keep the bike as original as possible, I replaced all of those parts with German-made lightweight road bike components. The seat and handlebar grips and bar ends were made by Ergon, the seat post and handbars by Syntace, the front forks were carbon fiber by Quantec and the water bottle cages made by SKS.
After much research I ordered all these German-made components and reassembled the bike during the winter and then started training diligently for the upcoming Death Ride.
I had a good base of high elevation training last year with the 1998 Bike S. Truckee is the ultimate base camp for such efforts. With the rough winter I did have to spend some time riding the stationary bike in the garage though.
But once this spring hit, I was outside riding the purposely rebuilt Bike X up and down the local Tahoe/Truckee mountains to simulate the terrain of the Death Ride.
The Death Ride is in early July each year, so the spring training went by too fast and before I knew it, the time to head to Markleeville snuck up on me. My longest training ride was 85 miles and 11,000 elevation gain. That is an epic ride on its own, but considerably short of the Death Ride stats.
That was the plan.
I did get the early start, heading out from the start line at 5am in the dark. I didn't bring any lights and was planning to wait until sun up, but I was too excited to wait. I followed a couple other riders with lights until I could see on my own. Not the best choice, but at the end of the ride proved very important.
The course headed back through Markleeville and towards the first mountain pass - 8,314 ft Monitor Pass. In the early light, me and over a thousand other riders winded our way south east on Highway 89. At first the road didn't seem too steep and after a short ride I saw a group of cars and people and thought that might even be the summit - oh, was I wrong. The road and ride kept going and getting steeper and steeper. Just about when I thought it was never going to end, I finally crested the summit. That was a hard uphill ride and only the first of five summits.
At the top, a course worker placed my first, of five, summit stickers on my event bib attached to the back of my custom bright yellow Porsche cycling jersey.
Keeping to my short pit stop strategy, I only stopped to add water to my bottles and use the porta potty before starting to head down the backside of Monitor Pass.
Screaming downhill at over 30 miles per hour was so much fun after the slow grind uphill. But my plan again was to cruise the downhills, taking my time, to rest the legs. But at my height and weight I still gather a lot of momentum and passed many people.
Getting to the back side of Monitor which ended almost at Highway 395, only took maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But I could tell at the steep pitch and speed that riding back up this mountain was also going to be tough.
At the bottom, after collecting my second summit sticker, I immediately turned around and started riding back up, bypassing the rest stop since I just refueled minutes ago.
You get the second summit sticker at the bottom, even though you haven't really earned it yet. I suppose that prevents people from only riding a little ways down the hill and turning around.
The ride back up to Monitor Pass was even steeper than the front side - and this is supposed to be the easiest summit! As the sun came up, so did the temperatures. The high was supposed to be in the mid 90s. The earlier forecast of clouds and maybe rain changed to all sun and hot the morning of the event. I started peeling off layers on the second summit attempt.
The switchbacks to the top were steep and slow going. But once to the top, and another very quick stop to remove my leggings, the fast descent back to where I started the Monitor portion of the trip.
At the bottom of Monitor all the riders turned left and started uphill to the infamous Ebbetts Pass summit. At first the grade wasn't too steep. Just a gentle ride along the river. The air temperature was still cool but continued warming slightly.
A friend that rode this event before told me this summit pass wasn't too bad. Pretty easy until some short switchbacks. So I cruised along and when I got to some switchbacks I thought this one is easy. But again, I was wrong. The road kept going and going. Getting steeper and steeper. Warmer and warmer.
Ebbetts Pass is 8,730 ft. high and I felt every foot. Other riders were telling me, "the top is just around the corner," only to be wrong. I started seeing riders hiding in the shade resting. Some laying down, some walking their bikes. The steep climb and increasing heat was starting to takes its toll - and this was only the third of five summits. But I knew this was coming and I had a strategy. I brought two water bottles. One to drink from and other to pour on my head and back to cool down. So while others bonked, I poured water on myself and kept going.
However the steep riding and heat still took a lot out of me. Finally reaching the top, a way harder climb than I was told and even Monitor Pass, I was wiped out. I collected my third summit pass sticker and doubted I could ride any further. I seriously thought my ride was over. I was done. Hot, tired and miserable I thought the Death Ride claimed another victim.
But then I abandoned my quick-stop strategy and got some food, ice water and sat down, thinking "I'm not going anywhere." The guy next to me was eating a cup of chicken noodle soup. Asking about it, he said the carbs and salt were most helpful. So I got one for myself. It was yummy. The best styrofoam cup of chicken noodle soup I have ever had.
Resting, refueling and cooling down, I started feeling better. So I was at a crossroads. Head back downhill to the starting line and quit or continue down the backside of Ebbetts for another sticker - knowing I would be forced to ride back up another summit. After hearing the descent and return trip was only 5 or 6 miles down and then back up, I thought could make that since I refueled and cooled down.
Getting to the top and quickly refilled the bottles with ice water and started downhill. I remember thinking that resting again didn't matter much if at the bottom of this mountain I just quit. I could ride down coasting to my lodge room in Markleeville and call it a day with four stickers. 85 miles and four mountain passes is pretty good, right?
Well, flying down the long front side of Ebbetts Pass a funny thing happened, the steep and fast descent cooled me down and my legs loosened up. Arriving in Markleeville I thought I might be able to make it to the top of the fifth summit, the 8,580 ft. Carson Pass. I really doubted I could complete the entire 129 miles, but five mountain passes would be awesome. So I rode by my 2006 Porsche Cayenne S and continued uphill waving at all the cheering roadside spectators. This was also said to be an easier climb. But now in the hottest part of the day, the long uphill was miserable. More and more riders were stranded on the roadside and I kept pouring water on my sweating head and swallowing the electrolyte pills.
The day was wearing on. The course has a cut off. Get behind and they won't let you continue. At first I was fine. Monitor passes one and two and Ebbetts one, I was ahead of the cut off. Ebbetts number two the crowd was thinning. But when I arrived at the Picketts Junction rest stop on the way to the final Carson summit it was about 4:30pm. The cutoff was 5:15pm. I was again totally spent. So I sat there, drinking Gatorade and eating potato chips trying to cool down in the shade.
At 5:05pm I thought I'll make the attempt to get to the top of Carson Pass. I had until 8pm before they close the course. I thought I'll go for it knowing I could always turn around and coast back down if I bonked. I really thought there was no way I'd finish the total 129 miles.
Riding a relatively flat stretch followed by a big uphill again was hard. But this time the sun was getting lower and it was starting to cool down a bit. The final switchbacks again a rider incorrectly said, "the summit is just around the corner." Finally getting to the top and achieving my fifth and finally summit sticker I was out of gas. I drank some water and had the celebratory ice cream and felt good about riding 105 miles up five mountain passes. I hung out there for awhile.
Then I realized I'm stuck there. Unless I ride back down the mountain until I can get cell service to call a ride. So I rode up the short uphill to start the long descent.
And once again a funny thing happened. The fast downhill in the cooling evening I started feeling better again. Fueled on ice cream and my final electrolyte pills, I jammed down the Carson Pass. I was averaging over 30 miles per hour easy. At 7:09pm I started to do the math in my head that I could get back to the finish line before the 8pm cut off.
The fast and cool downhill felt good and provided motivation, but I knew there was another short uphill to the finish line. Hoping for the best I pressed on.
That's when I noticed with all the trouble I was, and others were, having the 2004 Porsche Bike X didn't miss a beat. The ride was comfortable, not one slipped gear, brakes worked great on the descents, handling was phenomenal and not even one flat tire (I saw plenty of riders fixing flats). The Bike X worked amazing. A great bike and all the preparation paid off.
Screaming downhill toward the finish, I kept running the numbers in my head - I could finish the entire 129 mile route within the time limit. It would be close, but doable.
I gave that last little hill everything I had, pushing hard to the end. Just like over the entire course, people were cheering me on at the end. I rode through to the finish with 10 minutes to spare. I was glad I started a few minutes early in the dark at this point.
After spending almost 15 hours attempting to complete the Death Ride, neither me nor the bike looked very good. Both covered in sweat, suntan lotion, water, Gatorade and dirt, both man and machine looked like a Porsche race team that just completed the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
I walked my bike to the finisher's gathering area, showed my bib with all five summit pass stickers and collected my five pass finishers pin - the object of all the training effort and challenge on this hot day.
Does it feel good to complete the Death Ride? Yes. Did it feel good riding the Death Ride. No! But I proved two points. One, I could complete this most challenging ride on my first try. And second, Porsche makes a sturdy and reliable bicycle that can complete one of the most grueling rides in the world. Since I have never read about anyone completing anything like this on a Porsche bike, I'm calling this a new world record for a Porsche bicycle. 129 miles up 15,000 ft in one day. Mission accomplished.