Surviving the 'death ride'

Tim Holt
Tim Holt and fully loaded bike outside his motel in Weaverville.

Last week I completed what I like to call the Weaverville “Death Ride,” a 234-mile roundtrip bike ride between Dunsmuir and Weaverville that includes pedaling over the Gazelle and Scott mountain summits. I rode it on my trusty old Gitane 15-speed, a bike I’ve had for a quarter century that’s seen me through many a long ride, from Dunsmuir to San Francisco down the coast, from Redding to Sacramento down the valley.

I had done this same “Death Ride” 20 years ago, when I turned 50. This time I did it to celebrate my 70th birthday – although “celebrate” may not be quite the right word here.

Twenty years ago I did the first leg of the ride, from Dunsmuir to Weaverville, in one day, on the same old reliable Gitane. After a hundred miles, getting close to Weaverville, I began to experience the dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state that sometimes sets in at the end of a long ride. I felt disoriented, as though I was floating in space, but managed to complete the ride. After a one-day layover in Weaverville, I did the return trip in one day also, but arrived in Dunsmuir in much better shape than on that first day out.

Could I still do the ride at 70? This time, as a concession to age, I decided to do the trip to Weaverville in two days, camping at the top of Scott Mountain (elevation 5,400 feet) on the first night. This, however, required more equipment, a heavier load, and more difficulty getting up the summits – and, as it turned out, a great deal of difficulty getting down one of them.

With the increased load, I had to walk the bike part of the way to the Scott Mountain summit. I got there as dusk was turning to dark, with just enough time to pitch my tent, crawl in as the cold night set in, and dine on cold spaghetti and crackers.

After I packed up the next day I discovered that I had missed the actual campground; tired and anxious to get my tent up before it got dark, I had headed for the first stretch of flat ground I could see. The actual campground, as I discovered in the morning light, was about 100 yards farther down the road.

I began the steep, six-mile-long descent of the mountain. This was where, cycling 20 years ago, I had actually overtaken and passed a slow-moving pickup towing a boat, the only time I’ve ever passed a vehicle on the road. He was driving the switchbacks slowly and carefully, and I whizzed past him.

This time, with the extra weight, I was going even faster, and this led to the most frightening experience I’ve ever had on a bicycle. I hit a short stretch of the road that was unusually steep and led to a hairpin turn. Squeezing the brakes with all my might, I was still unable to slow my descent, and went hurtling into the turn at a dangerous speed. My only hope of making the clockwise turn was to careen into the other traffic lane, with the bike tilting at a perilous angle. “Oh God, oh God, oh God” I yelled as I skirted within inches of the guard rail lining the outside lane. Fortunately, as I pulled out of the turn I managed to get the bike back in the right lane before doing a header with a car coming up in the other direction.

As soon as I could, I stopped the bike and got off. Badly shaken, but grateful to be alive and in one piece, I slowly walked the bike downhill until I could see the road stretching out straight ahead.

The road, Highway 3, was leading to Trinity Lake. The white-knuckled ride down a steep mountain slope was transformed into a calm and pleasant glide through scenery that included broad expanses of the lake and lush meadows.

That evening in Weaverville I comforted myself with a warm shower in a motel on the main street, and a delicious veggie Chinese dinner at the Red Dragon in Weaverville’s Old Town. If you haven’t been to Weaverville lately, it’s worth checking out. A lot of time and energy has gone into preserving its historic district, which features among other things the oldest Chinese temple in California and a museum housing artifacts from Weaverville’s Gold Rush origins. If you do pay a visit, be sure to check out the quirky artwork and photos on the walls at Mama Llama’s, a vintage coffee house and eatery in the historic section.

I started out the next morning with ambitious plans to cycle the whole way back to Dunsmuir, as I had done 20 years before. But as the day wore on it became increasingly obvious that this was not going to happen.

I was struggling back up to the top of Scott Mountain, still some 60 miles from home, as dusk settled in. After the long climb, I was not about to ride all night to get home. So it was another night of camping on the Scott Mountain summit.

This time I was able to enjoy all the amenities of the campground, which consist of a picnic table and a grill (no running water, in fact no water at all, and no toilet).

The ride home the next day was pleasantly uneventful, although by then my rear end was getting pretty sore and serious fatigue was beginning to set in.

When I got home my wife Sandra, much relieved, gave me a warm welcome. After another comforting shower, I scarfed down some serious calories and headed for bed.

Before both of my Weaverville “Death Rides” I’ve invited other cyclists to join me. But for some strange reason no one has ever wanted to take advantage of this wonderful cycling opportunity.