Forty Minutes into the Death Ride
Yesterday, by late morning, I was on a high. I had completed my second day of training for a sponsored bike ride later this year, known affectionately as the "Death Ride." The event allows some 3,000 cyclists to enjoy both the camaraderie and the torture of riding 130 miles and climbing 15,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California.
Having signed up for the event a couple of weeks ago, I'd made what I considered my first training ride on Christmas Day, climbing easily up steep Runyon Canyon and nearby Astral Drive in low gears, 15 miles of pavement with a little sandy trail mixed in, some 1,500 feet of climbing, and some fine views out over the City of Angeles under clear skies.
The end of my Saturday afternoon ride - iPhone
That was then. When I staggered into the bathroom this morning, half-awake, I headed for the sink and my toothbrush. First I swished some water around in my mouth. When I spit it out, a fair amount of blood, dried and fresh, turned the white porcelain at the bottom of the sink to red. Walking back into the bedroom, there was a dime-sized amount of blood on the end of my pillow.
Somehow I don't think this would have happened if I were 20, or 30 or 40 or 50 years old. It's another visible symptom of growing older. Or is it? Either way, I'm off to see the doctor later today – thank goodness for my health insurance.
I'm guessing the blood welled up from somewhere in my lungs, the aftermath that second hard ride I made yesterday, in Palm Springs. It might have been one of the toughest 40 minutes on a bike I've experienced, so perhaps there was a connection - maybe I busted a substantial number of capillaries, and the blood contained within them oozed out over the night and worked its way up into my mouth as I slept.
Mirrored Cheetahs lounging at the Living Desert park - Nikon D60, 18-200mm lens
Certainly I felt fine this morning. And I don't seem to be bleeding now, at least not into my mouth.
On Saturday, that anything might be amiss with my physically was a few days in the future. My wife and my daughter and her boyfriend and I were in Palm Springs over the past weekend, visiting with my wonderful Aunt Belle. At 95, she's sharp as that proverbial tack. The landscape around and above Palm Springs was its usual lovely self, with its stark desert terrain smacking up against the massive slopes of Mount San Jacinto, a leviathan rising out of the desert. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, San J is the second highest peak in Southern California. (The tallest peak, San Gorgonio, is located within easy viewing distance to the northwest.)
Giraffe at the Living Desert park - Nikon D60, 18-200mm lens
Although the top of San J isn't visible from my aunt's home, a peek out her front door reveals a view of the mountain that sweeps up about 9,000 feet. While the lower slopes are decorated with sparse desert vegetation, the upper canyons and ridges are covered with pines, and on this past Saturday, there was a fair amount of snow visible, too. The temperature at the top of the mountain, almost 10,000 feet higher than my aunt's home, was perhaps almost 30 degrees cooler than the temperature in Palm Springs.
On Saturday, the previous day, I'd ridden 15 mostly flat miles, finishing up well after the sun had set behind San J. Sunday, we'd all visited the Living Desert, which is part zoo and part botanical garden; I'd only grudgingly joined the party, because I'd wanted to ride my bike from my aunt's home about ten miles to the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Of course I had a great time with my family. Still, I was annoyed at not riding, because Monday was predicted to be cloudy and cool, and Sunday had turned out to be a beautiful day, sunny and cool, perfect for a bike ride.
On Monday we drove from our motel to my aunt's for breakfast. While my aunt stayed home with our dog, my wife and daughter and Lee headed to nearby Taquitz Canyon, maintained by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians.
In the cactus garden shop - iPhone
Meanwhile, I pushed off for the tram station. The first five miles and an easy, almost imperceptible 200+ feet of easy elevation gain took me through downtown Palm Springs, with San J looming above me on my left. The temperature was in the 50s and it was slightly overcast, so I wore leg and arm warmers and a light wind breaker.
At North Palm Canyon Drive I turned left, onto Tramway Road. It was about 9:30 a.m. I pulled over, stripped off my wind breaker, stuffed it into a rear pocket on my jersey, and began the steep ascent that would, over the next 4+ miles, average a 10% grade, which is nothing to sneer at, and bring me up more than 1,900 feet. According to my cyclocomputer, much of the climb was at 8%. Chunks were at 12-14%. Near the top, the reading was briefly at 18%.
Unlike many bikes, mine is equipped with some extra low gears. There are ten cogs in the back, and three chain rings up front (compared to the normal two). Although this means my bike has 30 gears, there is significant duplication among the various combinations of them. As a result, I have about 17 useable gears. And I opted to stay out of the two easiest gears because – I told myself – I wanted a challenge. I wanted to build some muscle and some character to help me next July, on the Death Ride. Should I need them, though, those two extra bail-out gears were there. So I bounced around, starting out with the 39 chain ring up front, the 21 in the back, switching when the slope steepened to 39x24 and 39x27.
Not only did I not want to use my lowest gears, I also wanted to ride without stopping. About two miles into the ride, though, I pulled over at the top of a small rise to make a quick photograph of the road ahead. It would be my only stop. And there would be only one more downhill, dropping about 15 feet in 50 yards. Otherwise the route let inexorably up, finally reaching into a canyon that contained the tram station and a series of parking lots carved out of the sloping bottom of the canyon.
As the ride wore on, I realized I was in a bit of a fight with myself. I didn't want to drop down into one of those lower gears and I didn't want to stop, but the two concepts seemed to be in strong opposition to each other. This ride, however long it was going to last, was going to be intense.
Lots of cars passed me. The tram is a popular destination; the tram ride is exciting, and beyond the top of the tram there are various hiking and skiing trails into the wilderness. There were no other bikes on the road, although I did pass a couple of hikers. Even with all the cars, I was alone most of the time.
I passed a series of signs as I crawled up the mountain: "3.5 miles to the tram station," 3 miles, 2.5, 2. The road jogged left and a dry wash bordered by mostly leafless cottonwoods appeared around a long bend. With a steep quarter mile to go, my cyclocomputer showing a well-over 10% grade, I passed line of people waiting to board a shuttle bus. By now I was definitely in my 39x27 gear, moving slowly, yet steadily, breathing hard, at a level a little below where I felt I might otherwise blow-up.
Because I was moving with the speed of an arthritic tree sloth, the shuttle bus passed me by, disgorging its load of tourists ahead of my arrival at the tram station. Above the tram building a series of tram towers stretched up the massive canyon and attendant ridges that led to the top of the mountain.
It felt good to stop pedaling after what seemed like the hardest 40 minutes I'd ever spent on a bike. Now at rest, I felt fine, recovering my breath quickly.
My body was warm but I knew it was cool in the canyon and that I could soon be colder than I would want to be. The people moving in and out of the tram station were all insulated at against the cold with coats and hats. I pulled out my windbreaker. Then I found a driveway off the main building that offered a view of the tram as it began to move out of the station toward the first tower.
The tram leaves the station - iPhone
It didn't occur to me to take a break, or to go inside the tram building. There was nothing in there I needed, so I turned my bike toward the floor of the desert, almost 2,000 feet below me. I made a couple of stops for photographs, and thoroughly enjoyed the descent, except that near the bottom of the road I felt a little queasy. I thought it might have been due, not to the ride, but from eating too much food the past couple of days.
The view back down the mountain - iPhone
A half-mile or so from the bottom, just after I felt that tinge of nausea, I passed a cyclist on an old mountain bike, riding up against traffic. He looked to be about 20 years younger than me, and as we approached each other, he gave me a wave. I called out, "Keep going, you're almost there!" and I heard him laugh as I zoomed by.
The almost imperceptible downgrade over those five miles back to my aunt's home made for an effortless ride. I was especially pleased with myself, having climbed 2,200+ feet up a very steep road in about 40 minutes. I felt I'd made a good start on my campaign to survive the Death Ride.
Then came this morning, back home in Los Angeles, with my mouthful of blood. And I'm off to see the doctor.
I'm back from the doctor. After he poked and prodded me a bit, looked at my feet, made me say, "Ahhhh....," and had me take a battery of blood tests, he announced that I most probably suffered a bloody nose on the ride, quite possibly from the amount exertion I'd put out. Instead of running out my nose, like any respectable nose bleed, the blood had filtered backwards, and drained out through my throat over the course of the night. Given that my head was propped up on a pillow, I suppose this makes sense.
And I've decided to give myself a day off from riding. I'll make the Death Ride another day.
Note: Click on the photographs for larger images.