The weather ranges from snow, freezing rain, and tennis ball–sized hailstones to 100°F (38°C) of searing heat in just a few hours. Participants climb more than 15,000 feet (4,500m). The total course is 129 miles (208km) of lung-busting, leg-burning asphalt so brutal that about a third of those entering the race don’t finish it. True to its name, death is not unheard of. And otherwise rational people choose to do this.
It’s the California Death Ride (sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Tour of the California Alps), and each year thousands of people trek to remote Alpine County in northern California to spend an entire day beating their bodies and brains to a pulp to finish one of America’s most brutal endurance events. The ride leaves from Turtle Rock Park outside Markleeville and heads over five mountain passes and through two national forests (Toiyabe and Stanislaus) before it ends.
Don’t expect to just show up with a bike: The ride has a limited number of entrants (recently capped at 3,500 riders), so those interested should buy tickets well in advance. Training is also required, because even experienced cyclists cramp up on the event, and the ticket lottery gives preference to athletes who have completed other long-distance, high-altitude rides.
Preparation is the key to surviving the ride. Thin mountain air is a serious consideration for an event that begins at 5,500 feet (1,650m) above sea level and goes up from there. Even the downhill portions of the ride have their risks: At speeds exceeding 50 mph (81kmph), wheel wobble is a life-threatening risk, and there are unexpected obstacles like livestock. One cyclist in the early days of the ride was killed from injuries sustained when he and several other riders hit a cow.
But it isn’t all sweat and blood. The ride passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, with snow-capped peaks and fields of wildflowers throughout the course. And entrants are treated to a number of great benefits, like snacks, fruit, energy drinks, bike mechanics, and massage therapists along the route—which almost makes it seem worth it.