Agony and ecstacy: Cyclists feel pain, pleasure of finishing Death Ride | SierraSun.com

Agony and ecstacy: Cyclists feel pain, pleasure of finishing Death Ride

Mike Houser
Sun News Service

Mathew Sessions had just completed the 129-mile, five-pass Death Ride. He sat cross-legged on the sun-baked asphalt with his eyes squeezed shut. When his face wasn’t buried in his hands, it was twisted into a grimace of the damned.

“I’m glad to be done,” said the 36-year-old Sessions, a salesman from Mill Valley. “It’s hard to balance food and liquids. If you get too much, you get bloated. If you don’t get enough, you bonk. I think I bonked.”

Reactions ran the gamut on Saturday between agony and ecstasy ” usually both ” for many of the nearly 3,000 bicycle riders who tested the course, which had a cumulative 16,000 feet of vertical gain.

For several of the riders ” all of whom were selected from a lottery pool of 5,000 ” the challenge was every bit as much internal as external.

“It was a hard day,” said Sessions, who was surrounded by cans and bottles filled with various fluids as well as a concerned friend in Dennis George, a health care manager also from Mill Valley. “You can train so much for it, but it’s just really, really hard.”

Sessions yelped in agony as he tried to straighten out his body and lie flat.

“I had no choice. I was going to make it no matter what,” he said, his resolve still evident. “I’m just glad it’s done.”

It was Sessions’ third Death Ride and George’s second. Last year, the 46-year-old George came up just more than nine miles short of the finish line. This year, an increased training regimen and a different approach got him all the way through the event.

“I trained for 10 weeks and started earlier (in the day),” George said. “Last year, I waited on friends. This time, I went at my own pace.”

The event, which is organized annually by the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, is not an official competition, but some were able to complete the course in highly competitive times.

Lasse Bjerga crossed the finish line first in 7 hours, 23 seconds, followed by Ken Calendar, in 7:28. No hometowns for the top 10 placers were provided by event organizers.

John Clark, an oil and gas engineer from Canada, made his first pilgrimage to the Death Ride.

“I’d heard about it 10 years ago, and I’ve always wanted to come,” said Clark, who was among a party of three to make the journey and who began to feel his doubts near the finish line. “I was thinking they don’t give these stickers away easily (to those who complete the course). It’s a top event. It far exceeded my expectations.

“That last bit, looking up and seeing cars that far above you, seeing that very deep switchback ” you don’t know where the finish is. After 129 miles, it’s tough.”

Clark said switching to lower gears on his bike ultimately saved him.

He also said he saw some beautiful scenery, a lot of pavement and a good share of daredevils.

“I saw some crazy behavior on the descents,” he said. “They were fearless and the speeds they reached coming down was mind-boggling. I was smelling smoke from my brakes all the way down.”

Todd Berlier, a 40-year-old vet student from Fort Collins, Colo., said he encountered no surprises in his second Death Ride.

“Same pain, same fun, same hot,” Berlier said. “It’s just a matter of eating enough food and drinking enough water to get through the whole thing. My legs hurt more than my lungs.”

The riders all benefited from an improvement in the smoky conditions that have been plaguing the area, but many who didn’t finish early enough were hard hit by hail and a vicious rainstorm.

“All in all, it was a good day,” said Mark Labouff, a 49-year-old engineer from Las Vegas who was participating in his fifth Death Ride. He said he trained between 100 and 200 miles per week before this race.

“All rides you go through questioning yourself. You’re elated when you start because you’re excited. Then you’re fatigued and begin to doubt. At the finish, you’re elated again.”