The Ride of the Immortals
Years ago I was listening to Cream bassist Jack Bruce being asked about Eric Clapton’s guitar playing. He drew a comparison between Clapton’s songwriting and soloing and the melodies written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He said that what they both did sounded so simple as to be obvious, but that the choices they made were the result of extraordinary gifts, that their genius made the extraordinary seem inevitable.
Racing is an almost inevitable outcome when two cyclists ride together. That, combined with the sense of open-road adventure that a bicycle engenders when it’s not a routine activity makes audacious rides an almost unavoidable activity.
Many of the world’s great bike races seem to have been created from seemingly obvious choices. Can’t you hear a turn-of-the-century Parisian challenge someone with, “I’ll race you to Roubaix”? The genesis of Liege-Bastogne-Liege seems even more natural: “I’ll race you to Bastogne … and back.”
Some rides, when I hear of them, seem so obvious in their appeal, their adventure, their siren song, that I can’t resist. Five years ago several friends and I traveled to the Sierra for a ride called the Son of the Death Ride.
The route was as simple as simple gets: Ride from the Kern River just north of Kernville (northeast of Bakersfield) in the Sequoia National Forest across the Sierra to Pearsonville, turn around and ride back. The route was estimated to be 138 miles and include 19,000 feet of elevation gain. I’ll spare you the details, but I didn’t manage to finish the ride.
Since that first running the route has been changed slightly. It now starts in Pearsonville and heads to the Kern River before turning around. And while that change may seem academic, it makes a significant difference. It places the high point of the day, 9,200-foot Sherman Pass nearer the midpoint in the day rather than near the beginning and end of the day, meaning the temperature at the top is closer to 60 degrees than 40 degrees. It also means that the day’s fiercest winds blow as tailwinds, though it may not be possible to do the ride without some headwind.
So a big ride through the mountains, right? Well, not so fast. Ordinarily, we think of mountain riding as climb and descend and then climb again and descend again. The elevation profile for the ride reveals that fewer than 30 miles of the ride take place below 6000 feet of elevation. Not a problem for Colorado residents, but for the average sea-level residing Californian, it’s a detail that adds a particularly difficult wrinkle.
These days the ride is called, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger,” borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s due to a little trademark tangle with the folks up north in Markleeville, California. Frankly, the ride would be better off going by another phrase used on the web site, “The Ride of the Immortals.”
In a world of unsurpassable superlatives, there’s always something that’s better, tougher, prettier, longer, higher … and probably even dumber. Though GPS data has brought the total elevation gain back down to just a nick under 17,000 feet, there’s no denying that a 138-mile ride largely completed by sea-level dwelling riders at altitudes above 6000 feet is ridiculously difficult.
Riding through three distinct climatic zones is perhaps the ride’s best selling point. You begin in the wind-scoured desolation of the dessert and climb up to Alpine forest and meadow before descending into temperate forest. We got lucky with the termperatures this year, but last year temperatures were so high that riders were jumping in the Kern River before turning their bikes around.
Navigation is very simple. I believe, technically, you travel over three roads: Nine Mile Canyon, Kennedy Meadows Road and Sherman Pass Road, though you encounter exactly one intersection prior to the turnaround. Traffic on these roads isn’t nonexistent, but it is exceedingly light. I saw as many motorcycles as trucks, and pickups outnumbered cars probably three to one. The drivers were considerate as they passed.
The ride’s two most obvious challenges are the opening climb up Nine Mile Canyon and the turnaround climb, up to Sherman Pass. Nine Mile Canyon is not nine miles, but 15 miles; go figure. Similarly, the climb from the Kern River up to Sherman Pass is 15 miles. The first climb gains 4850 feet of elevation while the second gain roughly 5200. Grades on both climbs can tip upward of 12 and even 15 percent at times. I saw some bigger numbers than those, but I attribute them to lapses in the GPS signal rather than actual cruelty on the part of CalTrans.
And while those two climbs are stunningly difficult—they qualify for hors categorie status—they don’t dominate the ride. After all, combined, they make up less than one-quarter of the ride. The ride includes three Category 2 climbs (for 3500 feet in climbing), the last of which doesn’t come until mile 115.
Maybe that sounds difficult enough to make for a legendary ride. Or maybe not. For me, the ride sounds like a great adventure, at least, on paper. However, what may be one of the ride’s most important features isn’t what I’d call a selling point.
The road ranges between good and very poor condition. Almost every inch of the road that qualifies as good comes in the first 15 miles in Inyokern County. The rest of the ride takes place in Tulare County and some of the smoother stretches of road come in places where the asphalt was removed and hard-packed dirt remains. The good news is that repairs and repaving are taking place in some locations. Given how bad some of the potholed sections are, we began to wonder just how bad the sections of road were that are being repaved.
The upshot of the road quality is that it was impossible to let the bike run on almost every descent. I was bucked into the air by potholes hidden by tree shadows and the repaved sections were covered with a super-fine layer gravel, making the road surprisingly slippery. Even on the final descent down Nine Mile Canyon the winds blowing up out of the dessert were strong enough that some caution was warranted. The loss in momentum and the resulting time penalty this brought can’t be calculated, but the real cost came in riders’ inability to relax on the descents.
I like a good, hard ride in a beautiful locale. This particular ride is unusual because of just how difficult it is and how remote the location is. The surroundings are gorgeous but the poor condition of the road and its impact on the ride’s difficulty would be difficult to overemphasize.
A quote on the ride’s web site claims it is the “Toughest One Day Road Ride in the U.S.” No credit is given for the claim. I don’t know anyone who has a broad-enough frame of reference to make such a sweeping claim stick credibly. I’ve done most of the hardest rides in California and some rides in other states that were reputed to be difficult. Only two other rides I’ve ever attempted were anywhere near this difficult: the Tour of the California Alps (also known as the Markleeville Death Ride) and the Climb to Kaiser. On three occasions in my life I have ridden a bicycle for more than 10 hours—the Climb to Kaiser, the Son of the Death Ride and my previous, aborted, attempt to finish the original Son of the Death Ride.
The challenge of the ride, no matter what it’s called, seems obvious enough. If you want a ride that can test every aspect of your road riding skills and fortitude, this event will test you as deeply you as might wish to go.