If Mammoth Lakes, California fits into your travel plans, the Eastern Sierra Fall Century ride is a MUST DO to put on your calendar!
One of the most beautiful rides I have ever done. Distance: 95 miles (yes, I know the purists will say this is not a century), 5597 feet elevation gain on a course that runs at high altitude (between 6500 and 8200 feet elevation). The air is thin, but clear, and as always in the mountains, the weather can change on a dime. For all sorts of ride statistics you can visit my Garmin Connect Page. Throughout this post I used some images (click to enlarge), but for the complete set (95 images) you could visit my Picasa Web Album.
If you visited the Album you know that the scenery is spectacular. But, what made this century so special were the many volunteers who support the Sierra Cycling Foundation. I have never met such gracious hospitality and genuine enthusiasm as displayed by these volunteers. Then, there is the food! Talk about fresh home made brownies, proudly displayed and made with sugar or sugar substitute (for our diabetic friends!), Imagine smoked black forest ham, several types of sliced hard cheeses, roasted turkey, fresh baked breads, vegetarian and carnivore wraps, mixed nuts (sweet or salted), guacamole (that was incredible), quinoa salad with blue lake beans, pasta salad and the list goes on. But, it didn’t stop there; if you love power drinks, energy drinks, gels, gums or whatever – it was there (and, at every stop, not just at one)! So, here is a big THANK YOU to Jim DeGraffenreid who managed the pre- and post correspondence and ALL the volunteers at the rest stops and SAG wagons. Please check out the sponsors on the website, and if you are ever in the Mammoth area, check out Footlose Sports Store in Mammoth; you won’t find friendlier and more knowledgeable folks – they did an amazing job with SAG support on this remote mountain ride.
Some of you who regularly visit my blog know that I trained hard in the local Santa Monica mountains to prepare for the Sierra Century. Yet, there is a noticeable difference riding from sea level to say, 2000 – 3000 feet, versus riding above 6000 feet and climbing. With that in mind, we rented our cousins cabin at Gull Lake (sits at the June Lake loop north of Mammoth Lakes) and arrived Tuesday afternoon with plenty of time to acclimate to the altitude. The week leading up to Saturday’s century ride was filled with hiking, fly fishing, reading, napping and watching stars go by at night. I only took the bike out the day before the ride for an easy spin around the June Lake Loop to loosen up my legs.
The Loop ride is really beautiful (map and ride data here). When I crashed in early July I was worried for a while that I would not be able to condition myself enough for this century; But, I felt strong and well prepared while riding the loop. Sue woke me up early on Saturday (around 5 am), with plenty of time for a couple of cups of coffee, my cereal, a whole wheat muffin with PB&J and a big glass of OJ. I packed and checked my gear and bike the night before, so I did not have to worry about that. The start time for the ride was 7:30 am, and I left the cabin right around 6:40 for the 1/2 hour drive down to Benton Crossing. When I turned right on HWY 395 I saw this in my rear view mirror and just had to stop to take a picture.
and a couple of miles later coming around a left turn I saw the source of this magical morning light
As I was nearing the turnoff to Mammoth it was about 7 o’clock and I spotted many cyclists already going the other way. A bit odd, considering the 7:30 start time? However, it is not a race, therefor it does not matter to me. I got to Benton’s Crossing (more specifically Whitemore Ballfield) about 10 minutes later, plenty of time to unload the bike and gear, suit up and leave by 7:30. I love the light this time of the morning. The air was clean and it felt crisp (around the mid 40’s), not enough to make you freeze, but enough to feel a tingle on your skin. As always at the beginning of a Century ride the endorphins are running high in anticipation and help camouflage the chilly air – time to ride!
The ride starts out with a gradual climb until you reach Deadman Summit some 17 miles later (most of the climbing in the last 2 miles). But, just before you have to tackle those last 2 miles you reach the first rest stop, primarily designed as a collection point for some of the warmer clothing you want to shed. Arm and leg warmers, wind breakers and the likes are collected here and all you have to do is clearly mark your name on the bags you toss into the bin and you’ll be able to pick it up at the finish line. I decided to skip this step and just stuff my arm and leg warmers into my back pocket (a move I would appreciate later), but I did have some of the delicious fruit and freshly baked muffin offered at the stop before attacking Deadman Summit.
Once you crest Deadman Summit you are in for a thrilling 15 miles over which you will lose about 1300 feet of elevation. Some of the sections are exhilarating, especially for me, as I reached a new personal top speed of 42.6 mph. You might as well enjoy the help of this topography because there will be downhills later, but none as fast.
At around mile 27, just as Mono Lake comes into view, you will turn right on Hwy 120 turning into the Mono hills, leaving Mono Lake to your left for several miles. The next 4 miles are still easy and give plenty of time to enjoy the views of this incredible lake. Nothing prepares you for the wakeup call that lies ahead. Without warning around a right turn the road starts to climb and climb. For the next 6 miles you will add 1200 feet in elevation. On average the grade is around 6%, but you will see stretches of up to 13% (none of them long though, but then again the altitude factor).
About 4 miles below Sagehen Summit at around 7800′ elevation, you will find a very welcome rest stop. I can’t say enough about the positive and friendly attitude of the volunteers, the refreshment quality, as well as technical support. Thankfully I never required support throughout the ride, but I saw many others and the Footloose SAG wagons (yes, plural) really had it covered. One of the food items I loved at this spot were celery stick halves filled with peanut butter. In addition they had a good sliced Swiss cheese, so I would take slices of that, wrap it around the celery and PB – delicious!!
Leaving the stop was bitter sweet as the next 2 miles immediately climb another 500 feet to Sagehen Summit and the legs started to feel just a tad heavy. Once over the pass the ride continues in a series of downhills of varying grades and the first taste of these back country roads. When you look closer at the image below you see dark horizontal markings running across the road. What you can’t see from this photo is that the markings are actually gaps in the road (between 2 to 6 inches wide). As you ride mile after mile over them, they become very irritating, because it is like hitting a pot hole time after time after time with no chance of avoiding them. I can only imagine what Roubaix must feel like, not something I actually care to experience.
At around mile 53 you will reach the lunch stop and you are back down to a 6600 feet elevation. As with all the other stops, the food was remarkable (see comments at the beginning of this story). There were plenty of volunteers at hand which made moving through the lines a breeze and I was back in the saddle no more than 15 minutes later. The ride up to this point was not very strenuous; granted there were some sections you had to push hard, but with plenty of recovery time in between. Leaving the lunch point this was about to change quickly. The second part of the ride is much more difficult in my opinion.
As you make the right turn out of the sheltered lunch spot you are greeted by a fierce SSW wind. As I learned from other riders who have done this ride many times, the wind here is always present (and it will stay all the way to the end). With very few exceptions where a hillside might shelter you a bit, the wind will be in your face to the end. I was told that we had about 12 mph sustained wind with gusts up to 25 mph. Things got really interesting when I cam upon this sign.
It said: Dips – it should have said: get into your granny gears quickly for the next 5 miles. Some of these rollers had a 16% grade up and 6% gradual grade down in the direction we traveled. The nice thing was that the steep up part was sheltered from the wind , but the down part was not steep enough with the strong wind blowing to just cruise and recover from the climb. This was a hard stretch to ride; combine the steep climbs and pushing hard on the decent into the wind with the cracks in the road, and I was really tested.
This was also the place where I could see for the first time that storm clouds were forming due South, and we were heading directly for them. Around mile 67 the ‘Dips’ were finally behind us and this place also marked the lowest point of the course. Two more summits were ahead of us: Wildrose Summit and Waterson divide.
Wildrose Summit is a steep and steady climb, 1100 feet in less than 5 miles, then drop again quickly by 800 feet and start the second climb to Waterson to regain the 800 feet on the next 4 miles. Both of these climbs had several double digit grades and at this point everything feels amplified. Fatigue is setting in, the wind is getting stronger, thunder rolls, the temperature dropped much, the saddle doesn’t feel so comfortable any more, yet cresting Waterson you are at 80 miles into the ride. All of a sudden you don’t just smell the rain in the air, you also can smell the finish.
Before heading down Waterson I put my leg- and arm warmers on and was glad I did so. During the day the temperature was mostly in the high 70’s but dropped within the last hour into the low 60’s. During the descend I felt the first heavy drops of rain and further south mother nature put on a brilliant lightning show. Thankfully it stayed fairly dry during the downhill part and thus made for a safer and faster ride. However, with about 8 miles to go the sky opened up with a series of loud booms, some bright white flashes (one hitting into a meadow to the left of me) and then the rain started. I stopped, took out the rolled up trash bag I always carry with me, poked some holes in it, and put on my home made poncho, lowered my head, upped the cadence and counted the yards to the finish line.
I heard about this ride from a good friend of mine years ago, but never was in the physical shape to do it until now. Schedule permitting I will be back to repeat this ride as many times as I can.