Jul 6, 2011

How to survive Death Ride (for first-time riders)

Remember how excited you were when you clicked “register” in those first four hours before Death Ride was sold out? Or when you felt lucky that you were able to snag a registration from someone who realized they weren’t as nuts as they thought they were was no longer able to make it? If that feeling is still with you, good for you, but something tells me that with the main event only a few short days away, the feeling of excitement is being forced out of your gut with a flutter of butterflies.

As I was once told, “it’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach, as long as you make them fly in formation!” With that in mind, I figured I’d write down a few things that can help a first time Death Rider ease the nerves and be ready to tackle all five passes.

1. Don’t give into the hype

For some reason, cyclists always name hard rides after what seems to be the lowest feeling they have the day they ride it. I don’t know how many people over the years actually died on the Death Ride of over-exhaustion, but I bet the number wouldn’t justify the name. It sounds scary, and ominous, and harder than what you’ve ever done before, but really it’s all about the numbers. And the numbers say that it’s simply a 129-mile ride with 15000 feet of climb in one day. That’s not something to take lightly, but I promise it won’t kill you.

2. Train properly

This is where you’re probably thinking, “thanks Mr. Obvious!” Of course, there is nothing you can really do now, with the ride only a few days away, that will make you ready if you’re not already there. But this is a good time to look back at the training you’ve done getting ready for this event and the improvements you’ve made. After all, this blog isn’t so much on how to train for Death Ride, as it is about making you realize that you’re ready for it (or not).

Here are some questions that will help you gauge whether or not you’re ready to tackle Death Ride. Have you done at least 100 miles in one day in the last month? Have you climbed over 10000 feet in one day in the last two months? Have you been riding consistently and logging decent (100-200 miles) weekly mileage over the last 4-5 months? If the answer to all of those questions is “yes,” you have nothing to worry about; you are physically ready to do all five passes.

The opposite isn’t necessarily true and you may get away with doing less training and still finish the ride. But one thing is for certain, the more you train, the less miserable you’ll be.

3. Pace yourself

It’s a long ride, with a lot of climbing, at altitude and with potential for scorching heat (although it looks like it won’t be too bad this weekend). You will have to pace yourself to avoid an early blow-up on Ebbetts or cramps that will stay with you for the rest of the ride. I find that intimidation forces people to underestimate their own strength and they consistently go out too slowly – this is not a problem. The reason I make a point to mention that is because what will likely occur is that a first timer will start out slowly and continue to slow down in the first part of the ride as the effort becomes more difficult. Then, half way through the ride, the rider will feel that he has more energy left than needed and start pushing harder to the finish, which may result in the above blow-up and cramp combo. In any event, this isn’t proper pacing.

My advice is to fight the temptation to go easy if you all of a sudden feel that the pace you selected is too hard – chances are it isn’t and what you’re feeling is normal. On the other hand, if you all of a sudden see your HR spike, ease off and let it settle in back to your pace. If you’re riding with a power meter, pacing is even easier – you should be at about 60 to 70 percent of your 30-minute max for the whole ride. So if your 30-minute max (a.k.a. CP30) is 300, you want to be averaging about 200 watts for the day. It helps to know how your device tracks your average power, i.e., do the zeros on the descents get factored in or not. If they don’t, take that number up a bit.

Bottom line: Set a pace in the beginning and stick to it, if you end up with excess energy, the 9-mile false flat on Carson Pass is a perfect place to let things fly.

4. Think about fuel

Knowing that you have to eat and drink is not enough. Do some research and think ahead. Typically the sport drink mix of choice on Death Ride is Cytomax – make sure your stomach can handle it. If you’re good with Cytomax, great; if not, perhaps it would be worthwhile to bring a baggie of your own mix (two bottle’s worth should be enough assuming you start with two bottles of the same stuff as well). Stash it in your car perhaps (see below).

Plan on consuming between 150 and 300 calories every hour, depending on how big you are (I tend to stay closer to the 300 side). Much less than that and you risk bonking, eat a lot more and you risk stomach distress, plus your body can’t really process any more calories under stress.

Here’s my personal strategy that works very well (assuming I actually stick to it). I generally just drink for the first hour, taking in about half a bottle. Obviously that also depends on conditions. If it’s too hot, I drink more to stay hydrated. If it’s on the colder side, I also drink more because your body loses more calories in the cold trying to stay warm. But half a bottle in the first hour is good for these types of rides. I typically have breakfast an hour or two before, so my glycogen is high enough that I don’t feel the need to eat in that first hour.

At the one-hour mark, I begin to consume solid and semi-solid foods every 30 minutes and make sure to take a good gulp every 15 minutes. Again, the amount of liquids I take on varies with temperatures and other conditions, but I usually go through a bottle every 15-20 miles.

Here’s a good tip: Make sure you eat and drink something as you’re approaching the summit of each climb. Don’t linger at the mountaintop rest stops, but instead, start your descent. Chances are, you’ll be going too fast to be reaching for food or bottles, so from the time you crest the top to the time you are at the bottom, you may go 15-20 minutes without putting anything in your mouth and if the last time you ate was 10 minutes before you crested, that’s almost half an hour without eating. This isn’t good because you’ll now have to climb up again with no calories making their way to your muscles for some time (this is assuming you’ll eat at the bottom). The alternative advice is eat on the descent if you can. Personally, when I’m going 52mph on 2.3cm(x2) of rubber (I hope my mom doesn’t read this), I prefer to have both hands on the bars.

Lastly on fuel, never leave a rest stop without food stuffed in your back pocket. Some rest stops will be more than 30 minutes apart and you can’t risk having your sugar drop.

5. Rest stops

Try to keep them to a minimum. If you feel that you need a lot of time to rest, you are probably going too hard and should think about how you want to pace the rest of the ride. Reaching the summit of each climb will be tough, but remember that there will be a long descent, followed by some standing in line for water and some more standing in line for a bio break, so unless you absolutely have to stop at the top, don’t! Keep rolling and make short stops at the bottom. This way your body can get the rest it needs without your muscles cooling off too much. I find that a lot of rest followed by hard efforts on these types of rides tends to cause camps. Slower average moving speed and less time at rest stops is better than high average moving speed and a lot of time at rest stops – you’ll be done sooner the first way.

6. Few miscellaneous items

Gears: You’ve climbed hills, you know what gears you need, this is not the time to say to yourself, “I’ll just leave my 11-23 on there and see what happens.” If you haven’t been climbing hills, stay home!

Mechanicals: They happen! I snapped a spoke in my rear wheel 9 miles into the ride last year. Luckily, Death Ride has awesome SAG support and I actually got a new wheel to finish my ride (as well as a ride on a motorcycle while holding my bike in one hand). Barring such grave mechanicals, be ready to resolve minor problems on your own. Suggested items to have with (as if you didn’t already know this): 2 tubes, 2 CO2 cartridges, tire levers if you need them (I use my hands), and a tool with a chain tool.

Parking: As you’re coming in to do the ride, try to park on the main road leading up to the start area/registration. This way, you’ll pass your car on the way to the final climb of the day and if you wish to change sox, grab an extra bottle of something, mix in that powder you stashed earlier or drop off/pick up a layer, it’s right there for you. Chances are you’ll need all the comfort you can get for the first 5 miles of that climb (before hitting the false flat).

The last three miles: Enjoy yourself at the top of Carson Pass, sign the wall, have your ice cream and be proud of your badge, but don’t forget you’re not done climbing! After the 15-mile descent down Carson Pass, you’ll have to crawl up for another three miles to get back to your car.

Weather: You’ll be riding through the mountains, so keep an eye on the forecast and make sure you have everything you’ll need to finish the ride without heat stroke or hypothermia.

And that’s all, folks! Do what you have to do, and at the end of the day you’ll go home with a 5-pass finisher pin. 


  1. Great summary; all good advice, especially on the rest stops!