E-mail #6, sent 7/3/98:

Monday, the day after the Fairfax/Mt. Tam/Bolinas/Pt. Reyes/Fairfax ride I rode Greyhound up to Chico in order to stay with friends in Paradise, CA. On the bus my knees felt very uncomfortable. The right knee had developed inflammation where the Quads attach to the patella—I’d strained it by favoring the left knee. In a Chico natural food store I spent over $200 on supplements and began a course of taking mega doses several times a day. Tuesday the knees were better but when walking around the left knee felt very weak. My brothers and I had plans to ride on Thursday in the mountains. Wednesday morning, taking Greyhound back to the Bay Area, I was favoring baling out. Got back mid afternoon, entered my folks home, and there’s a note waiting: we’re leaving 3:00 that afternoon from Michael’s house. I ate a sandwich with my folks and then called him. They’d chosen a new route, an out and back in Yosemite Park climbing to Tioga pass, specifically taking into account my need to be able to bail out and roll back to the car if my knee acted up. I threw gear together and in short order was again on the roads of California—spent that whole day in transit.

On for this ride were Pat, Mike, Patrick’s wife, Vivian and her twin sister, Wanda. We camped overnight in a campground outside of Yosemite Park. 4:00am we got up in the dark, had breakfast, and then drove up into Yosemite on Highway 120 which runs just north of Yosemite Valley. We parked at a pullout 40 miles west of Tioga Pass and at 7:05am were on our way. At first we rolled through scented evergreen forests with lots of snow on the ground. Tioga Pass had just opened the day before—rather late in the season—due to record snowfall last winter. We were bundled up with arm and leg warmers and shells. Our route took us over a series of rises, with climbs and descents—like several mini passes—that didn’t fit with what I’d expected. I rode away from the others on the early climbs. Mike, Pat and Wanda have “triples”—cranks with three chainwheels, the innermost of which is a small diameter chainwheel offering a much lower, easier gear. The Somec has a double (being a classic Italian racing machine, I can’t bear the thought of putting a Granny gear on it). In order to save my knee I have to keep a certain fast cadence, and I also need to stay seated (“in the saddle”), for standing on the pedals puts forces on the knee that have the potential to strain it. When we hit significant grades I shifted to the easiest gear and spun the cranks, muscling out the correct cadence which left the others, with their triples, behind. Vivian has a double with gearing very similar to mine, but she was standing on the pedals a lot, letting her body weight become a force on the pedals, which makes for a slower cadence. The road, for a cyclist, was gorgeous, with a smooth surface (meaning no pot holes), curves graded in the right direction and no hairpin turns.

We moved from heavily forested areas to the glaciated granite peaks for which the Yosemite region is famous. This is one of the most scenic rides I’ve ever been on. Just before reaching Tioga Pass we entered the fabled Tuolumne Meadows. I say “fabled” because it is a revered landmark of the Sierras. A large, long meadow high (at about 8,400') above Yosemite Valley, it’s a refreshing sight with brooks snaking wildly through the lush green. A fallen tree here, a granite outcropping there, make it very scenic. It was also the one truly flat part of the ride. The climb to Tioga Pass from the west was gradual and very comfortable. Pat was there first with me right behind. No strain on the knee, some twinges that kept me in the saddle and spinning conservatively, but I was prepared to continue. I’ve since found out that Tioga Pass, at 9,945', is the highest pass in the Sierra Nevada. That’s over 1,200' higher than the highest pass of the Death Ride. The next part of the ride was to descent down the other side 13 miles to the town of Lee Vining, which overlooks Mono Lake. From a resort a mile down from the pass we could see the road descending steeply down into a rather bleak valley of broken red stone—none of the granite magnificence of Yosemite—this is the east side of the Sierras, close to Nevada. I looked at the descent with trepidation for it seemed severe. Anything we went down we’d have to climb back up.

Pat was persuasively dismissive. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said as he shoved off. I later learned that it has an 8% grade for six miles. From Tioga Pass (9,945') to Lee Vining (about 6,800') involves an elevation drop of 3,200' over 13 miles, most of that drop occurring during the first miles.

It was a howler.

Pat and Mike dropped like bullets, out of sight. Later Pat told me he wanted to see what Max Speed he could record on his cycling computer: 52 mph (which is faster than I’ve ever been on a bicycle). I sat back behind Vivian and Wanda, riding the brakes. There were gusts of wind buffeting us. With my weight and the low speed we were traveling it was no problem for me, but I watched poor Vivian, smaller and slighter than Wanda, skittishly holding on.

Lee Vining is in the desert at the base of the Sierra. Mono lake is awesomely beautiful with water of an unreal blue. The town was hot and dry. Off came the tights and arm warmers. We had lunch, loaded up on water, slathered ourselves with sunscreen and then headed back for the pass. I was concerned about making it to the top for the grade is steeper than anything else on the ride. About a third of the way up Pat yelled from behind and I stopped and waited. He offered to trade bicycles so I could benefit from the Granny gear. I accepted. So that’s how I saved my knees. Even grinding away in the lowest gear it was a brutal, hot climb. I focused on drinking lots of water the whole way up. Switched bicycles at the pass and then Pat and I rode a good deal of the rest of the ride together. The rolling rises we’d taken in stride earlier in the day seemed nearly insurmountable coming back. The last one went on for miles. I kept climbing with the belief that around the next bend I’d see the top, but no, the road just continued going up. Keeping the proscribed cadence I rode away from Pat and did the last twenty miles alone. The others finished 10 minutes behind me at 7:30pm. The stats: 108.9 miles; 10,380 feet of climbing; 12.8 mph average (which is none to shabby). The knees? Were no worse off at the end of the ride than at the beginning. At least that’s how it felt in the car riding home. Michael was reviewing the route we’d done and exclaimed how “those rises,” the bulk of the route, are at an elevation that is as high as the passes of the Death Ride. This was what accounted for the shortness of breath experienced late in the ride. The highest Death Ride pass is 8,730. Much of our ride had been not much lower. During the Death Ride I try not to spend much time on the passes. Better to get down out of the thinner air and rest in the valleys.

Today the left knee is weak and I expect it to get a bit worse tonight, but it all seems manageable. The nutrients and anti-inflamitories I’ve been taking seem to be doing their stuff. No rides for a few days. And nothing arduous until the Death Ride. I’m ready.