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July 19, 2010

2010 Alta Alpina challenge

Filed under: Road cycling — mtbguru @ 8:45 am

Sierra season is on us and my first ride of the season was a road ride (already a few weeks ago). The trails are now finally getting snow-free so soon to ensue is the off-road fun. Meanwhile, here’s a repost of a report on that little road excursion…

I can’t remember exactly what my thought process was when I signed up for the Alta Alpina (it would be my first double century, while my longest road ride so far this year was a 55 mile ride and most of my training consisting of somewhat hard mountain bike rides), but a mix of exuberant irrationality and smug overconfidence sounds about right; the Alpina is supposed to sport over 20K feet of climbing, most of it at altitudes around 8000ft.

Nevertheless, as my riding buddy Jeff (who had also signed up) says, you gotta do what you gotta do. And so, the Alta Alpina 8-pass challenge was on. The event website has some interesting info, history and tidbits which I won’t repeat here, but I will say that the Alta Alpina club did a fabulous job in supporting the event, from stocking all rest stops with plenty of food, beverages, snacks and a bewildering variety of power-gels, gu’s, shots and blocks, to rounding up a multitude of friendly volunteers who didn’t mind standing around for hours and freezing on 8000ft mountain passes at 5 in the morning. You can very easily do this event without bringing any food or drinks of your own (just bring your bottles – and it helps if you like Cliff blocks, as I do).

Early start

Alta Alpina start
Morning glory on Kingsbury.

A 4am start on Saturday implies a short night of sleep or no sleep at all – so my strategy this time was to head home on Friday after work, (try to) sleep a few hours (gulping down a beer did help some), then start to drive up to Markleeville around 11pm. Sounds slightly insane, but the three and a half hour drive was actually very relaxing since there was hardly any other motorist around to annoy me or slow me down – I just had to watch out for unattentive deer on highway 88. I made it in Turtle Rock park around 2.30am so I had time for another power nap. The parking lot was the rendez-vous spot for meeting Jeff (aka TahoeBC) and Peter, a Belgian friend with a rather impressive track record of doubles and triathlons. It was hard to see anything, let alone identify riders, and there wasn’t any cell phone reception either. Jeff was able to correctly identify my Subaru and after injecting some caffeine in our systems we took off in the darkness of the night. No sign of Peter, but I’d figure we would run into him.

The first stretch led us into the Carson Valley, where we would head towards the climb up Kingsbury – a nice 15 mile warm-up stretch and it was surprisingly pleasant and warm on this side of the mountain. Jeff was so excited he took his bike offroad on one occasion – either that or he was catching up on some sleep. The Kingsbury climb then: not too hard when you’re fresh, a nice steady grade and there wasn’t much noteworthy to report, until I spotted some creature jump the road – deer or coyote? – right in front of another rider some hundred yards ahead of us. When we caught up to the rider, he said it was a mountain lion, long tail and all. In all those years mountain biking I haven’t seen any, but now on a road ride? Well, I’ll have to trust the guy, since I couldn’t see enough to identify it myself, so for all practical purposes I will, ahem, remain a cougar-virgin.


After checking in on the summit, it was time for some descending fun – it was still a bit dark so I took it easy, but Jeff didn’t want to hear of it and took off like a missile. It was a fantastic downhill I have to say, I think you didn’t even need to touch your brakes once to get down safely. The descent however revealed a serious flaw in my vestimentary strategy: I had decided to go all “Belgian-knee-warmers”:http://www.fatcyclist.com/2007/05/16/knee-warmers-are-stupid/ on this ride (i.e. without using knee warmers), but now my legs and knees had started to get really, really cold. This didn’t improve much even when we were tackling the next climb, up Woodfords canyon and Luther Pass. And at that point we were enjoying a tailwind highly unusual for that area. Woodfords/Luther isn’t too hard of a climb but unlike on the Nevada side of the mountain, here the temperatures were dropping steadily and the winds were picking up as we gained altitude – it was still only 7am. And when climbing turned into descending, tailwinds into headwinds, my knees, feet and hands felt like they were being frozen over in a refrigerator. More annoyingly, my right knee started to hurt badly when we started to take on the next climb, Carson Pass. With the temperatures and knee pain my morale barometer also dropped from ‘cautiously optimistic’ to ‘prolly not gonna make it’ and I geared back into granny, let Jeff take off and tried to pace myself up Carson while nursing the knee and wondering out loud what the hell I was doing here.

At the rest stop on the summit I tried to take Jeff’s advice to heart – ‘full recovery is only one descent away’ – and though I was still pretty cold and miserable, flying down a mountain at 40 miles an hour always constitutes a healthy amount of fun. Blue Lakes road then, which was a bit shorter than planned because it wasn’t clear of snow all the way. This is a spectacularly beautiful road, nice pavement and primo Hope Valley-scenery, but I still had to deal with that stinging knee pain on even the slightest of inclines, so I switched back into granny mode and paced myself up. One thing I learned from doing these things is that good and bad times will alternate like a bad case of bipolar disorder, without much logic or reason – so I figured I’ll stick it out until lunch at least (which was scheduled around mile 110 or so) and hope things would improve.

Halfway there

And improve, they did! To make up for the shortened Blue Lakes climb we were asked to do a little out-and-back section on Airport road, right before Turtle Rock park. This featured a short but somewhat nasty climb, and perhaps due to the increasing temperatures at the approaching noon hour my knee got finally defrosted and started to work properly again.

halfway Alta Alpina
Our heroes are still fully capable of generating forced smiles.

Just about when we finished lunch in Turtle Rock park, I spotted Peter riding in. We exchanged pleasanteries, then carried on, as I was sure he’d catch up on us later. The biggest climbs of the day were still ahead of us, and at this point it was pretty hard to resist the siren song of the car and its luring comforts. But we were on a mission, and the morale barometer had now passed ‘cautiously optimistic’ to ‘unwarranted elation’. On Ebbetts Pass I felt really strong, and so relieved that the knee pain was gone that I started to hammer it. This was probably my favorite climb of the day, great scenery (snowcapped peaks, icey lakes), with steep stretches alternated by short plateaus that allow you to recover a bit before attacking the next wall. The descent into Hermit valley was great fun and I really started to get the hang of it. I enjoyed the climb back up as well (1700ft) and was finally getting convinced I had it in the bag. Jeff and I had a surprisingly similar pace throughout the day, and he caught up with me on the descent, heading towards the frontside of Monitor.

Alta Alpina: Ebbett's
There’s still lots of the white fluffy stuff around Ebbett’s Pass.

Right after he passed me, I suddenly felt the familiar and dreadful effects of the rear tire losing pressure… a flat. After launching into a curse tirade I replaced the tube and inflated it with a CO2 canister – all very mundane actions, but they felt a lot more difficult with 150 miles under the belt. The final two climbs of the day were the morale-crunching double ascent (front and back) of Monitor Pass. The frontside has some heinous grades but the worst part of it is that it’s consistent (no plateaus), and you can see rather far ahead, deep into the horrors that await you. I caught up with Jeff again but now started to feel pretty worn out. Monitor’s frontside was a real soul-sucker, but we were still hoping that full recovery was only one downhill away. On Monitor’s summit we were finally joined by Peter, and we took on the thrilling descent into Topaz.

The end

After making the U-turn, the final climb awaited us, a gut-wrenching 9 miles at a near-constant 7% grade (in normal conditions rather pleasant, but these weren’t normal ones) and I was in a world of pain. But at least I wasn’t alone, Jeff had various issues of his own (stomach, back) and also Peter mentioned he had been suffering throughout the day. I don’t know how, but the three of us made it in a snail pace back onto the summit, and Peter even still had an acceleration in him close to the top. And at the summit rest stop, it was finally party time! It is surprising how quickly the mind can process ordeals like this – full recovery has indeed been one descent away.

Alta Alpina: Monitor
The summit of Monitor, always a welcome sight.

Another fantastic descent by the way, and I felt weightless and truly in sync with my surroundings flying down this beautiful mountain near sunset. We wrapped up the last rolling ten mile stretch in twilight and darkness, and even though there was a nasty little climb to scale right before Turtle Park it didn’t upset anyone and we finished our 200 miler together, in about 17 hours and change. The pain of the day was soon forgotten but I could hardly eat anything or recover a bit before I succumbed to overwhelming and sweet fatigue. Unfortunately of the type that doesn’t lead to a good night of sleep, but I didn’t care; we got it done. More pics and stats