Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 5: Tahoe Mountain & Fallen Leaf Lake

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 5. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 5. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

Stage 5 of my own, personal “Tour of Lake Tahoe” was another relatively short one. The forecast earlier in the week had called for rain today, and I figured today would be a welcome rest day after yesterday’s epic “Stage 4” (72 miles around Lake Tahoe in under 4 hours). I awoke today, however, to blue skies and temps already near 50 and knew I would have to ride. Nevertheless, tomorrow’s “Stage 6″—the Queen stage of the week—still loomed, so I didn’t want to do anything long or too hard. Despite the amount of riding I’ve done around Lake Tahoe over the years, there still remained a number of roads around the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe that I haven’t ridden yet (or even been on by car). After some quality time with my family touring our favorite spots around Lake Tahoe, I looked at the map and put together a 26-mile route that headed west of town and then veered north towards the lake on several still unexplored roads in the south Lake Tahoe  Basin, including North Upper Truckee Road, Lake Tahoe Blvd., Tahoe Mountain Road, and Fallen Leaf Road.

Forest fire remnants

A burned out area of forest along Tahoe Mountain Road.

The scenery was spectacular, to say the least. Upper Truckee Road took me through serene forest along gentle grades. That all changed after turning on to Lake Tahoe Blvd., which lead into a huge area that destroyed some years back by wildfire. New home construction in the area was booming—I wondered if these were rebuilds of previous residents who lost everything or new construction by newcomers who presumed there was no longer a wildfire risk to worry about (I suspect the former). The burned out area stretched all along the south side of Angora Ridge, and before I began the (relatively easy) climb up Tahoe Mountain Road I paused and was reminded that Mother Nature is boss here.

Fallen Leaf Road

Fallen Leaf Road

Crossing over the ridge to the north side, I stumbled onto an awesome descent down Tahoe Mountain Road that is normally closed during the winter months. However, with the lack of snow this winter and temperatures already spring-like the gate was open and I decided to go for it. I wasn’t completely confident that I wouldn’t eventually run into a dead end, but I figured the worst that could happen was that I would have to turn around and go back—okay. It was an incredible descent—narrow and winding on a surprisingly good asphalt surface, and just steep enough to build speed but not so much that I had to constantly scrub on the brakes. It was an almost perfect descent—all the smoothness and speed of the road combined with the wild solitude of mountain biking.

Only the shadow knows.

Only the shadow knows.

The descent down Tahoe Mountain Road lead to Fallen Leaf Road, and from there it was a 2-mile stretch along equally stunning forest alongside Fallen Leaf Lake, though unlike Tahoe Mountain Road the pavement was very choppy—so much so that I welcomed being dumped back out onto Hwy 89. By that time, the setting sun signaled an end to the day’s ride as I headed back towards the lodge.

Stage 5 covered 26.3 miles in 1:40:22 (avg speed a very leisurely 15.8 mph) with a modest 1,204 ft of climbing. This brings the combined totals for Stages 1–5 to 220.3 miles in 12:42:05 (avg 17.3 mph) with 16,437 ft of ascent. Tomorrow’s ride is Stage 6, the “Queen” stage, and was without doubt one of the hardest rides I have ever attempted—more than 100 miles and more than 10,000 ft of climbing! I survived, obviously, so stay tuned for that story.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 4: Ride around Lake Tahoe

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 4. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 4. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

The marquis ride of every spring break in Lake Tahoe is the “Ride Around the Lake”, and I looked forward to it even more this year after just having my newly rebuilt LOOK 585 with Dura Ace 11-speed components and wheelset. It was a gorgeous day under gorgeous skies, with temps a little coolish (upper 40s) starting out but warming up nicely to the upper 50s during the day with high, thin clouds and winds not too bad.

This is my fourth circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe and third time solo (you can read about my first solo trip here), so I know the route well enough to be comfortable no matter where I am. The first time I rode around the lake (as part of a group) we went counterclockwise—I’m not sure what the rationale was, but on my subsequent solo trips I’ve gone clockwise. This accomplishes two things: 1) it keeps me lakeside so I can safely stop for the many photo opps that present themselves, and 2) it helps me stay a little further away from any potential rockslides that could be a problem if I was riding mountainside (in my previous trip I narrowly escaped a small avalanche at Emerald Bay—had I not been lakeside it might have turned out badly!).

I stopped perhaps a dozen times to take photos and refuel (carried all of my food with me this time). The photos below give a good flavor of what riding around Lake Tahoe is like.

Beginning the ride around Lake Tahoe. And so begins today's adventure. This will be my fourth circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe—third time solo.

Beginning the ride around Lake Tahoe after leaving South Lake Tahoe, California.

The first views of the lake after leaving S Lake Tahoe are near the base of Mt. Tallac—one of several peaks surrounding the incredible Emerald Bay.

First lake view on ride. The first views of the lake after leaving S Lake Tahoe are near the base of Mt. Tallac—one of several peaks surrounding the incredible Emerald Bay.

First lake view on ride near the base of Mt. Tallac.

The first climb of the day is actually up the side and then along the spine of a lateral glacial moraine situated between Emerald Bay to the right and Cascade Lake to the left—both left over from the glaciers that scoured the area in the last ice age.

Lateral glacial moraine between Emerald Bay (R) and Cascade Lake. The first climb of the day is actually up the side and then along the spine of a lateral glacial moraine situated between Emerald Bay to the right and Cascade Lake to the left—both left over from the glaciers that scoured the area in the last ice age.

Lateral glacial moraine between Emerald Bay (R) and Cascade Lake.

Nothing compares with the beauty of Emerald Bay and the iconic Fannette Island!

Emerald Bay scenic overlook. Nothing compares with the beauty of Emerald Bay and the iconic Fannette Island!

Emerald Bay scenic overlook.

Emerald Bay is the deepest of the southwestern glacial scours, allowing water at the current Lake Level to connect with the Bay (in past millennia lake levels have been as much as 1,000 ft higher than today’s level!). Fannette Island is a small core of granite within the scour that resisted the scouring action of the glacier, poking above the current water level as Lake Tahoe’s only island.

Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay and Fannette Island.

Heading north from Emerald Bay one encounters the most diverse area of coniferous forest around the lake due to its nice stands of sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). These pines are the among the tallest of all pines in the world and also bear the longest cones of any pine species. They need moister conditions than other pines, and the western shore offers these conditions compared to the drier eastern shore in Nevada, thus the pines are most common in this part of Lake Tahoe. I never tire of seeing their ragged upper crowns soaring into the skies above and in defiant contrast to the symmetrical crowns of the conifers that dominate the area—Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), white fir (Abies concolor), and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), their long, pendulous cones hanging from the tips of their upper branches.

Sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana) I never tire of seeing sugar pines soaring into the skies above the other conifers, their pendulous, longest-in-the-world cones hanging from the tips of upper branches. These pines need moister conditions and, thus, are more common along the moist western shore of Lake Tahoe.

Sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana) at D. L. Bliss State Park, California.

A long, fun descent along the gently sloping, winding, and wildly scenic Hwy 89 leads to a stretch of lakeside riding along the west shore that eventually leads to Tahoe City at the northwest corner of the lake. Riding this stretch I was approaching the halfway point of the ride and needed to refuel. What better place to do so than along the serene rocky west shore at Idlewild?

Lake shore lunch stop at Idlewild. Nearly halfway around and time to refuel. What better place to do so than the serene west shore?

Lake shore lunch stop at Idlewild, California.

Riding to the east along the north shore and just before crossing the border from California into Nevada, I encountered Kings Beach State Recreation Area. I have passed by this beach many times and never stopped, so this time I decided to take a look. I’m glad I did, as next to the sandy beach is a rock area filled with magical rockpiles that have been meticulously built by countless visitors to the beach. Standing like little gnomes amidst a the backdrop of peaks on the southern shore, they are vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and ill-behaved vandals, yet somehow persist.

Rockpile at Kings Beach. A lone rock pile stares across the lake from the north shore to Heavenly Valley in the south.

One of the rockpiles that can be found at Kings Beach, California.

In contrast to the gentle slopes on the south, west and north shores, the east shore is steep and rugged, dropping precipitously into the water’s depths at several points of interest. My favorite is Sand Harbor a few miles south of Incline Village. I’ve learned to skip the main park area with its sandy beach and stop instead at a point about a half-mile north of the beach where the jagged, boulder-strewn shoreline results in incredible shades of blue as the water depth changes dramatically. Here, stunning views can be found, along with the solitude that allow them to be sipped and savored.

View from point just N of Sand Harbor. In contrast to the gentle slopes on the south, west and north shores, the east shore is steep and rugged and drops precipitously into the water's depths.

View from point just N of Sand Harbor.

While I was on north shore I saw that I was carrying an 18.5 mph average—on pace to beat 4 hours if I continued at that pace (something I’ve not accomplished yet), and by the time I left Sand Harbor I was still in the a few tenths above 18 flat. The up-and-down riding along the east shore, however, isn’t conducive to speed and features the biggest climb of the day up to Spooner Lake. It’s not a hard climb, however, and having done it already a few days ago I knew the grade and distance well enough to optimize my gearing at the outset and get to the top with an average just under 18. If I could get it back over 18 I would be gold to beat 4 hours. I blasted down the descent along Hwy 50—filled with fresh descending mojo from the last several days of riding in the mountains and entered the last 10-mile rolling stretch that leads back into South Lake Tahoe. A few miles from town I encountered Cave Rock, where a tunnel blasted through the rock presents a risk of conflict between any bikes and cars that should happen to find themselves together inside the tunnel. A button emplores cyclists to press a button that turns on warning lights for motorists (assuming they are inclined to pay heed to such), but the stop to do such could put my sub-4 hour goal in jeopardy. Should I stop and press the button, or should I blast through? Ah well, sensible me won out (and good thing it did, as a car ended up overtaking me before I got through the tunnel).

Cyclist light at Cave Rock. Should I stop and press the button, or should I blast through? Ah, sensible me won.

Cyclist light at Cave Rock.

By that point, and with only a few small climbs ahead of me, my average speed had climbed well above 18 mph and was still on the rise as I reached the outskirts of town—I knew I had it! I had just ridden around Lake Tahoe solo in under 4 hours. If you think that is so-so accomplishment, well guess what? I’m closing in on 60 years old, bitches!

Ride around Lake Tahoe stats. Guess what? I just rode around Lake Tahoe solo in under 4 hours. Guess what else? I'm closing in on 60 years old, bitches!

Ride around Lake Tahoe stats.

Stage 4 covered 72.4 miles with 4,593 ft of climbing in 3:54:14 (avg speed 18.5 mph), bringing the combined Stages 1–4 totals to 194.0 miles, 11:01:43 (avg 17.6 mph), and 15,233 ft of ascent. Tomorrow’s ride (Stage 5) will be another short one to recover from today’s ride and freshen the legs up for Stage 6—the “Queen” stage! Despite its relatively short distance, I do a little bit of climbing and discover some gem roads that I didn’t know about despite the amount of riding I’ve done here in the past.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 3: Echo Summit via Old Meyer Grade

Tour

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 3. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

I’d gotten in close to 100 miles in the first two days of riding, and I had a hard ride planned for tomorrow—the classic ride around Lake Tahoe. As a result, for the third day I wanted to do a shorter, not-too-hard of a ride to recover and be fresh for tomorrow’s epic ride. It was cloudy and quite a bit cooler (48F) when I started out, but it sunned up as I was out and turned into a nice day. The plan was to do an out-and-back ride up to Echo Summit on the western side of the Tahoe Basin—under 30 miles and only one climb before turning around and enjoying a fast descent back into town.

Old Meyer Grade

Old Meyer Grade

Rather than climbing to Echo Summit via the heavily traveled Hwy 50, I detoured off at the base and climbed the lower two-thirds on the Old Meyer Grade. This old route up the pass is now closed to traffic, but it still has a good asphalt surface. Climbing just over 1,000 ft in 2.7 miles (the last mile on Hwy 50) with an average gradient of 8% doesn’t sound too bad (especially compared to yesterday’s Kingsbury Grade), but the grades are much steeper on the Old Meyer Grade, whose 1.7-mile stretch averages a rather terrifying 10.5%. I was only the climb only a short distance before resorting to my granny gear (36×25), which I used almost all of the way up until I getting onto Hwy 50. On the way up I passed a few walkers—seniors that appeared to be locals who used the road as their daily workout (good for them!), and near the top at the steepest part before reaching Hwy 50 I even passed an old man walking up with a cane! Good for him! Once the grade ended and dumped me out only Hwy 50, the grade become much milder and I was able to use higher gears and climb the last mile to the summit with relative ease. My total time of 25:24 on the climb translates to only 5.8 mph, but I can assure you that if I lived in the area this is one climb that I would be trying regularly and shooting for ever faster PRs.

Echo Summit

Echo Summit (7382 ft elevation)

Hwy 50 descent from Echo Summit

Hwy 50 descent from Echo Summit

Hwy 50 descent from Echo Summit

Thanks to the group of Russian tourists for taking my photo at Echo Summit.

I stayed on Hwy 50 for the descent coming back down—at the speed I was going I really didn’t have to worry about traffic passing or even being held up by me. Even though I’d never done this descent before, I quickly found my groove and enjoyed it to the fullest. It was a twisting, turning, long descent with a nice, smooth surface and incredible views of a mountain on one side and the lake basin down below on the other. After completing the descent I turned back to the east on Pioneer Trail—my first time going in that direction—and I can tell you that it is much easier in that direction than going to the west. Overall, it was a nice ride—a good workout without being too hard—and I found myself primed and ready to tackle the next day’s ride around Lake Tahoe.

Stage 3 covered 27.5 miles with 2,143 ft of climbing in 1:35:33 (avg speed 17.3 mph), bringing the combined Stages 1–3 totals to 121.6 miles, 7:07:29 (avg 17.1 mph), and 10,640 ft of ascent.

Stay tuned for the next installment covering the iconic ride around Lake Tahoe. Although it wasn’t the “Queen” stage of this year’s tour (that would come later in the week), the iconic route is epic enough to qualify as such—more than a metric century with nearly a mile of vertical ascent (all between 6,000 and 7,000 ft elevation).

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 2: Luther Pass & Kingsbury Grade

TLT-Stage-2

Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 2. Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

Wow, what a day! Temps again were in the mid 60s in South Lake Tahoe, a bit colder at higher elevations, and warmer down in the valley. Today was definitely not a “big chainring” climbing—the two climbs featured today were big! I headed out of town into stiff headwinds along the Pioneer Trail and its persistent, low-grade climb, then started up Luther Pass along Hwy 89 in earnest. Luther Pass is a Category 2 climb—4.2-mi long with 1,247 ft of ascent with an average gradient of 6%. However, the headwinds directly against me the entire time really sucked the life out of me and made the climb feel much harder, and I ended up using a fairly small gear (36×21) most of the way up.

Luther Pass (7740 ft)

Luther Pass (7740 ft)

Eventually I made it over and then enjoyed a short, wide open descent down to the junction of Hwys 88 & 89 and then a much longer, steeper, and narrower descent down Carson Pass through Cloudburst Canyon and into the valley—a total distance of more than eight miles that dropped me nearly 2,000 ft from the alpine forests above to the desert valley below.

Descent from Luther Pass to Jct Hwy 89/88

Descent from Luther Pass to Jct Hwy 89/88

Descent through Cloudburst Canyon

Descent through Cloudburst Canyon

Near the bottom of the descent I veered onto Emigrant Road, which took through Fredericksburg as part of more long, gentle descending. Although I am an experienced road cyclist that has logged perhaps close to 100,000 miles across the country (and Europe) over the past 15 years, the remoteness of the area and the fact that I’d never been on these roads before—by bike or by car—had me feeling a little like I was flirting with danger, although with a spare tube in my bag, a cell phone in my pocket, and hardly a car to worry about I’m not sure what bad could have actually happened to me.

Cemetery in Fredericksburg, California

Cemetery in Fredericksburg, California

After more gentle descending along Foothill Road I eventually I made it to the base of the Kingsbury Grade—I stood at the junction of Hwys 206 & 207 and looked up at the massive, Category 1 climb—7.9-mi long and gaining 2,520 ft with an average gradient of 6% before ending high up at Daggett Summit. It looked daunting, but I’ve done daunting before (Mt. Rose last year and a number of classic Pyrenean beasts in 2007 and 2010). I had a goal to beat one hour, so I checked the clock and started out. It was not too hard on the lower slopes, especially since I had a tailwind, but once I got into the upper slopes the grade steepened (or so it felt), and the winds at times turned against me. I was in a fairly easy gear (36×21) most of the time and then in the last half mile or so I had to bail and use my lowest gear (36×25)!

Kingsbury Grade, view from bottom

Kingsbury Grade, view from bottom

View from halfway up Kingsbury Grade

View from halfway up Kingsbury Grade

That last couple hundred yards was tough, but I made it, and checking the computer I was elated to see my time up the climb was 59:54—talk about just beating the goal! I took the requisite “summit selfie” and started the descent down into the Lake Tahoe Basin. I did this descent last year so had an idea of what it was like—twisting and turning but not terribly steep. It was also fairly sheltered from wind and had very little traffic, which allowed me to descend a little more aggressively than I did yesterday and get some of my descending mojo back that I haven’t felt like I’ve had lately. I looked forward to more descending during the week to come.

Daggett Summit (7334 ft)

Daggett Summit (7334 ft)

Stage 2 ended at 51.4 miles in 3:14:49 (avg speed a somewhat sluggish 15.9 mph) with 4,910 ft of climbing, bringing the combined Stages 1–2 totals to 94.1 miles, 5:31:56 (avg 17.0 mph), and 8,497 ft of ascent.

Monday’s Stage 3 is a relatively short stage (due to a planned “epic” Stage 4 the following day), but it does feature one of the steepest climbs in the area—the Old Meyer Grade leading up to Echo Summit.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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Tour of Lake Tahoe – Stage 1: South Lake Tahoe to Spooner Summit & Sand Harbor

TLT-Stage-1

Click map to see full map and ride stats on Strava.

We returned to Lake Tahoe for Spring Break this year—as we have done for the past eight years. Unlike past years, however, conditions were not good for skiing—California is now in its fourth year of an extended drought, and the snow pack in the mountains is down to 12% (12%!!!) of normal. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and what is not good for skiing is great for road cycling. I have done a fair bit of cycling around Lake Tahoe in past years, but snow and the desire to ski have always conspired to keep me from cycling to my heart’s content. Not this year! The lack of snow made it difficult to justify spending the money on lift tickets, and a weather forecast calling for sunny skies and high temperatures in the upper 50s to low 60s for the duration of our stay had me thinking this might be the year that I do my own personal “Tour of Lake Tahoe”—seven straight days of road riding through magnificent scenery and iconic climbs! Having my LOOK 585 Pro Team—newly rebuilt with Dura Ace 11-speed components and wheels and optimized for climbing—sealed the deal.

We arrived at the lodge in South Lake Tahoe on Saturday at mid-afternoon, and within an hour of checking in I was ready to ride. With temp in the low 60sF it was also a perfect opportunity to break out my new Strava Everest Climbing Challenge kit for its maiden voyage. The first day’s ride at Lake Tahoe is always about just getting reacquainted with the mountains, and starting as late in the day as I did I had to resist the temptation to do an ‘epic’ ride. I decided to take Hwy 50 up to Spooner Summit and back, which would be about a 25-mile ride. At 7150 ft, Spooner Summit is not the hardest climb around (although it definitely lets you know you are in the mountains!). I’d had a good week of training the week before, however, and with a full day of rest from the drive out here I had no trouble making it all the way up in one of the easier big chainring combos (52×23).

Spooner Summit

Spooner Summit (elev. 7150′)

At that point I had only ridden ~45 minutes, and I wasn’t quite ready to just turn around and go back. Instead, I decided to take Hwy 28 up north for the über-scenic descent to Sand Harbor State Park, then turned around and climbed back up to Spooner Lake. The climb to Spooner Lake on Hwy 28 is also not terribly difficult—a triple-step with two relatively easy steps bracketing a somewhat longer and harder middle step. I felt fine on that climb as well and was happy I’d decided to work another climb into the ride. The day, however, was growing short, and it was time to make a beeline back towards South Lake Tahoe before darkness made things too dangerous (I’d not thought to attach my headlight before the ride).

View across Lake Tahoe from Sand Harbor

View across the lake from just south of Sand Harbor State Park

I’ve never been very comfortable on the Hwy 50 descent from Spooner Summit—traffic is heavy and fast, and even though there are four lanes, allowing me to take a full lane without worrying about blocking traffic, the winds coming up from the lake always seem to blow me around more than I’m comfortable with. This time was no exception, so I was a little more cautious than I like to be in some spots, but I hoped that after a week in the mountains I would find my descending nerve and be back to descending all out. Darkness descended quickly during the last part of the ride, so I got a pretty good workout keeping my speed up all the way back to the lodge. Stage 1 ended at 42.7 miles in 2:17:07 (avg speed 18.7 mph) with 3591 ft of climbing.

Tomorrow’s Stage 2 features more miles and two much harder climbs, neither of which I have done before—Luther Pass on Hwy 89 and the very difficult Kingsbury Grade on Hwy 207 back up and into the Lake Tahoe Basin!

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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