This was a ride that I’ve had on the schedule for most of the year – and one I’ve very much been looking forward to. The Tour de Tahoe – presented by Bike the West - is a clockwise loop around Lake Tahoe, covering over 70 miles of road and (depending on who’s data you look at) either 2,100, 3,700 or 6,000 feet of climbing. I managed to bang it out with 4:42:15 of actual pedaling time (plus 32 minutes of time spent munching at rest stops) for a total elapsed time of about 5 hours and 15 minutes from start to finish.
The day was absolutely beautiful for the ride. OK, well, it was actually cold as hell at the 6:45am start. Fingers were stinging by the time I hit the first significant climb – the “switchbacks” that lead up the Emerald Bay. However, I warmed up nicely climbing the roughly 500 feet that can approach 20% grade in some short sections. Truth be told, though, this actually turned out to be a heck of a lot easier than I anticipated. When I crested the top and saw the Emerald Bay rest stop in the distance – after a downgrade – I was very surprised that that part of the ride was already completed.
I dropped off the leg warmers and the long fingered gloves with the staff at the first rest stop. The provided plastic bags to package stuff you didn’t want to take with you on the rest of the trip that they transported to the finish line. A nice touch – and my first experience with the logistics of what turned out to be a very very organized ride. And I’ve got high standards from previous rides I’ve taken.
For any folks planning on doing this ride in the future – I’ll give you a little tip. If you are someone prone to getting cold, or that would rather be slightly warm instead of slightly cold, think carefully about shedding layers at the Emerald Bay rest stop! As you move down along the lake over the next 15-20 miles, you’ll go through a couple of areas that are out of the sun and seem to hold the cold air. Or, said another way, I found myself freezing my arse off between the first and second rest stop. I probably would have been fine had I held onto the leg warmers just one rest stop longer. On the other hand, the areas in the sun were warming up nicely, so I might have been too hot too. Kinda hard to know for sure after the fact.
You follow some rollers (and some neat descents!) around the rest of the west and north side of the lake. I’m guessing there was something of a tail wind through there, as it was a really fast section for me, and I was all alone without someone to share pulls with. And that brings me to my next tip for future rides – beware of the third rest stop!
The problem is, it is in a great place to take a little extra time at a rest stop, grab lunch and hang out of a few. What I found out though is that there is a steep climb just a couple of blocks distance from the rest stop. It is not terribly long, but it is enough that it cause my muscles to really tighten up – having cooled down too much after hanging out at the rest stop. So my advice is to not spend too terribly long at the third rest stop. Or, just accept that you might be a little tight and uncomfortable on that first climb after the stop.
More rollers and you’ll find yourself through Incline Village. This is the approach to the final set of climbs – and in my opinion the hardest part of the ride – the climb to Spooner Lake.
You’re looking at about 1,000 feet of climbing, with about 400 feet of descent mixed in there. It is a long, grinding climb. According to RideWithGPS, the average gradient over the whole climb is 7.2%, with max gradients over 28%. To be honest, I don’t remember anything (even very short patches) anywhere near that steep. The good news, however, is that once you make it up you’re treated to about 4 miles of pure downhill, followed by some “mostly downhill” rollers to the finish line. This part of the ride is a little bit sketchy for those not accustomed to being amongst cars. You’re riding on highway 50, and there is absolutely no shoulder. There are, however, two lanes and I never felt particularly threatened by the traffic. This probably has a lot to do with the fantastic job of putting up ample signage alerting drivers of all of the cyclists.
And my final tip: you will approach a tunnel, and just before that tunnel is a sign with lights that says “Cyclists in the tunnel.” If you pause for just a second at this sign, you’ll see there is a button not unlike what is on crosswalks for pedestrians to trigger lights. This switch will activate the flashing lights on the “Cyclists in tunnel” sign. I highly recommend hitting it. The tunnel is extremely narrow with no shoulder, and drivers may not see you as the move from bright sunlight to the darkness of the tunnel. The tunnel is short, but I definitely felt better with the lights flashing.
And there you have it. It really was an amazing ride. I’ve driven this route in a car a couple of times and marveled at the scenery. Seeing it from the saddle of a bike is completely different, however. The reduced speed and lack of a glass and steel cage surrounding you puts you in the scenery instead of looking out at it. My only regret from this ride is that I didn’t capture more photos and perhaps some video. Next time!
And I have a theory regarding the large discrepancy in the different elevation gain numbers. The 2100 feet advertised by Bike the West seems to be about the difference between the lowest and highest of the major climbs, while the 6000+ reported by RideWithGPS seems to take into account each and every couple of feet of elevation gain through the rollers. The practicaly “what does it feel like” is probably something like 3000-3500.