Route Scout: “A Taste of Death”

The Death Ride is a Californian tradition, challenging riders to hit five mountain passes in one day. Some of those passes are occasionally traversed by the pro peloton during the Tour of California, and this suggested route gives just a small taste of what to expect, tackling both sides of Monitor Pass. While the pass is closed in winter, now is the perfect time to set your sights on this — or the Death Ride proper — for 2019.

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The view from Monitor.

On May 19, 2016, during Stage Five of the AMGEN Tour of California, the peloton charged up Carson Pass like a stampede of wild horses. They probably didn’t know that it was named after frontiersman, Kit Carson, or that it was part of the Carson Trail — one of the primary routes across the Sierras for settlers joining California’s Gold Rush. But that’s ok. Those facts aren’t the first thing to spring to mind when most Californian cyclists think of Carson Pass, either. Nope, they think of death, for Carson Pass is the final act of the mythical, iconic, and legendary ride that is theDeath Ride.

It’s one day, five mountain passes, 129 miles, 15,000' of gains, and a reward at the summit of Carson Pass that comes in the forms of an ice cream, a celebratory pin, and the satisfaction of having a small colored dot attached to your race number to prove you did it. That little dot is more exhilarating than you can imagine.

This route doesn’t climb Carson Pass, though, opting instead to give you a more measured taste of death — the first two passes on Monitor. If you’re wondering if you’ll have the salt required of the entire Death Ride, this’ll give you a glimpse of how that day will unfold.

The best place to start the route is in the small town of Markleeville, CA. There’s a grocery store and a place to eat after the ride. The actual begins farther out of town at Turtle Rock. It’s tempting to say the passes are the most difficult part of the , but in truth, the most difficult part occurs right there at Turtle Rock. Why? Because to complete the , you need the mental fortitude to begin the fifth pass. And to do that, you must ride past your car.

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There will be no temptation to stop on our ride. Once you set off out of town, you’ll have the chance to warm up the legs on a few little hills, but mostly, it’s steady riding alongside the creek, past campgrounds and trailheads as you head towards the junction of 89 and 4. Be sure to take plenty of water, as Monitor is pretty exposed. In fact, you should also set out early in the morning for the cooler temperatures. This’ll be particularly important when you’re climbing the second pass, as it’s a bit of a cauldron on the other side near the Nevada border.

Just before the five-mile mark, you’ll reach a “T” intersection and turn left to begin your climb. And while none of the climbing is particularly steep on Monitor (this side averages 6.2%), there are some leg stinging sections in these early miles. Walls and rocky crags close in and go out again as you begin your slow grind. Don’t get discouraged, though — it’s not all like this — and very soon you’ll find the view opens up to a more exposed valley with high Sierra views, desert brush, and grassy meadows. Through all of this, you climb, following the line of road up ahead as it stretches out and curls around the hills.

Monitor Pass is not the kind of pass that has a killer view. There’s a long straight section of road before you get to it, where the road yawns out and draws your eyes toward an avenue of birch trees at the top of the rise ahead. As you crest it, there’s a turn out where you can stop and look at the marker. It tells you that you’re at 8,314 feet, so it feels like a little bit of a letdown to not have a “stop you in your tracks” vista. Don’t fret. That’s coming.

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A little after the pass, you meander and descend before heading up a final rise where the valley opens up right in front of you, just past Big Springs Road. Continue downhill for around a mile until you reach a large pull out. Before you will be the long view of the world. We recommend that you stop and savor it.

This descent is fast and requires vigilance, dropping 3,274' in eight miles. There are some of harsh corners — including a couple of large hairpins — that can sneak up on you if you don’t control your speed. Overall, it’s super fun, particularly if you love traveling in the mid- to high-40mph range.

Part of the reason this ride is a good out and back is the opportunity to refill water at the intersection of the 89 and 395, which is the turn-around point for this ride. To the left of the intersection is a restroom at the end of a dirt lot, as well as a spigot to refill bottles. Once refilled and refreshed, it’s time to head back from whence you came. This side of the pass is more exposed and hotter, and it’s slightly more difficult than the other side, with an average grade of 6.7%. From this direction, the climb to the summit is 9.5 miles, with the steepest pitch ending at the Alpine County Line sign before becoming a little more reasonable. It can feel pretty brutal, but once again, it’s worth it. After all, the feeling of conquering is what climbing’s all about, right?

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You’ll go past the official “Monitor Pass” landmark, once again, before heading down the straight. Then it’s another climb, a rewarding descent back to the bottom, and and a right turn at the T-intersection before heading back to Markleeville. It should be noted that, if you were doing the proper, you would instead turn left here to tackle both sides of Ebbett’s Pass before continuing on to Carson. Once back in Markleeville, sit in the shade and treat yourself to an ice cream. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s this: vanilla fudge swirl always trumps the taste of death.

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Notes: An out-and-back climb that gives you not just a taste of the , but a taste of Alpine County and the high Sierras. The Death Ride happens in July, and the road over Monitor is closed in the winter, so plan accordingly.

Distance: 44.8 miles (72.2 kilometers)

Elevation gain: +6626 feet (+2020 meters)

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