As I descended a narrow road from Ebbetts Pass, elevation 8,736 feet about 50 miles south of Lake Tahoe, another cyclist whipped past. I immediately realized she wasn't going to make the next turn.
It all seemed to unfold in slow motion. She tried to correct as her bike slipped onto the dirt shoulder. Her back wheel slid out from underneath and she went splaying back across the pavement, upending the next rider. She was in bad shape; he seemed OK.
Some of us stopped. A few went back up the hill, shouting to slow down the next wave and prevent a massive pileup. Many riders passed carefully; but some were going so fast they couldn't stop and had to dodge the fallen cyclists.
It reinforced my belief that the cycling community must adopt a stronger culture of safety.
We were among more than 3,000 participants last weekend in the 32nd annual Death Ride. The ominous marketing name emphasizes the physical challenge of the beautiful 129-mile route, which includes 15,000 feet of elevation gain over five mountain passes in thin High Sierra air.
Most properly trained and were ready for the climbing. But we couldn't prepare for the reckless small minority of riders who seemed to think they could defy physics with no consequences and endangered all of us in the process.
They rode at excessive speeds; passed without calling out; even went around on the right side. To be sure, they were the exceptions, not the rule. But there were too
We all know cycling comes with risks. We ride on thin tires prone to flats. Our bikes are harder to stop than automobiles. We have nothing to protect our bodies other than a helmet and common sense.
"On a bicycle," says Roland Gaebert, Mount Diablo State Park superintendent and former cycling instructor, "you can be dead right: You do everything right and you're still dead."
As I continued down from Ebbetts in search of help, and as an ambulance, already alerted, passed in the opposite direction, I reflected on a cyclist I'd recently helped on Mount Diablo who had also taken a turn too fast. Sitting by the side of the road when we came upon her, she'd cracked her helmet, and, we later learned, had suffered a concussion.
Automobile drivers undergo training before we give them licenses. But there's no mandatory cycling education. In the 1970s, Gaebert was one of the early instructors. Today, age 66 and still pedaling strong, he worries about speeding cyclists and oblivious drivers mixing on his mountain.
The most common hazard: A car driver headed uphill carelessly passes a slower cyclist while approaching a blind turn, around which another cyclist is coming downhill. "With the math of a 3,500-pound car and a 17-pound bike," Gaebert says, "usually it's the rider who ends up being carted off."
In addition to frequently riding Mount Diablo, my Death Ride preparation included a Sierra training program. We learned how best to breathe at high altitude, to conserve our legs on long climbs and to keep our bodies well-hydrated and fueled by calorie intake.
Coach Rob Panzera, a former competitive cyclist, also emphasized safety: How to lean in turns, the importance of anticipating what might lie ahead, and controlling speed through blind turns.
"I believe in defensive cycling," he wrote me last week. "I believe event directors should make safety and the concepts of safety the highest priority. I believe safety needs to come from the top down through cycling leaders."
About 6 p.m., 14 hours after I started the Death Ride in the dark, I reached the top of Carson Pass, the last climb of the day. Following seven months of training, it was a special moment I'll always remember.
As I celebrated with friends, I recalled the woman who had crashed earlier that day. There were others.
"All of our injured riders are recovering nicely," a race organizer wrote me a few days later, adding she couldn't discuss specific cases. "Unfortunately no matter what we put in print with regard to safety concerns, some riders just don't read."