Mono Lake Century 2000

Mono Lake Century 2000
(High Sierra Century)

This ride is sponsored by the Save Mono Lake Committee. Streams feeding Mono Lake are what the Los Angeles water district has been draining for decades, much to the environmental disaster of a very ecologically fragile lake on the eastern side of the Sierras. In 1994, after years of court battle, it was decided that Los Angeles could no longer guzzle water from those creeks and rivers. It was a wonder that the judgment was in favor of the Committee and against the politically strong LA Power/Water District!

The Mono Lake area is an environmental jewel, and a fascinating place to spend time. One or two weekends a year isn't enough, but better than none. The birding there is incredible as it is a major migration route for land, shore and water birds. ( )

The ride is described as: "...takes you through miles of sagebrush, [Jeffrey and Lodgepole] pine forests, and aspen groves, at the base of the Sierra Nevada's snow capped peaks. All rides [there were 30 and 48 mile options as well] boast spectacular scenery, one stop sign, and not a single stop light." [Translation: there is very little of anything but sagebrush, trees and sand.]

Getting from here to there involves a drive through Yosemite's high Tuolomne Meadows along the Tioga Pass road (9980') if the pass is open (snow free). I usually stay in Lee Vining, a small town on the edge of Mono Lake, and the ride begins about 35 miles south on US Hwy. 395, near Mammoth Lakes, a popular ski area for southern Californians (here's an opportunity to get out your Atlas. <grin>). The ride route heads north mostly on 395 for 27 miles (with a slight jog off the highway for scenery sake, or something), a right turn on state highway 120 for 39 miles, and back on "Benton Crossing Road" (Cty. Road 1517) for 30 miles. (You're right, it's not quite 100 miles. Only 96. Details....)

So much for history and logistics.

Arriving at Lee Vining about 6 p.m., I noticed what one might charitably call a whipping wind coming from the west. The temperatures were hot for that time of day, still in the 70's, and forecast to be record heat (90's) on Saturday, ride day. Not a good sign.

As we left Lee Vining (6300') at 6:30 a.m. to drive to the start (no, I didn't have grits for breakfast <grin>, but rather had my standard "ride breakfast": 2 pancakes, egg over medium, bacon, o.j. and lots of water), the OAT (outside air temperature...not shorthand for "oatmeal") was 59 F. As we drove south, and up, the temps dropped dropped dropped to 44 deg. And then down to 38 deg. at 7100'. Brrr. I was glad that I had warm clothing to put on (and a small pannier to put them in as I warmed up).

Starting the ride with my yellow Burley jacket, royal purple fleece thing, "mineral blue" long sleeved riding shirt which you all have seen all too often, liner gloves, riding gloves, and tights, I was ready to RIDE (and stay warm). Other riders were wearing wool hoods under their helmets, long wool sox, and heavy gloves. In fact, I watched one rider take off her helmet, put on a wool cap, and put her helmet back on, all while riding fast down the road. Incredible!

The first ten miles were windless and chilly as the sun rose over the White Mountains to the east, lighting up the stark granite and snowy peaks of the Sierras just along the west of the lightly traveled highway. Lots of rock and not many trees up there - a geologist's dream research area.

Gradually it warmed a bit - or I warmed a bit, and shed my jacket, thinking, "this is wind." The first section of the route goes up Deadman Pass (makes you wonder why they call it that) to 8032'. Not a steep climb, just one of those western on-going climbs. Partially up the hill, the temperature went from 44 deg. to 59 deg. in about one minute. Suddenly there was a fantastic tail wind. YeeHaw! I was flying UPHILL at 15, 16, 17 mph. (No, my recent spinning practice wasn't reaping such benefits.) Hey, I could handle the warming temps if it came with a raging tailwind.

Up and over Deadman Pass - a flying downhill - I had a near-record maximum speed - 44.8mph. YeeHaw! And then a soft touch on the brakes. My chicken instincts usually come into play long before reaching this speed.

But there is no free lunch. Ever. And this lunch turned out to be expensive indeed; Mobil 4-star Paris restaurant expensive.

The right turn off the highway, to travel east and south along Mono Lake began the payback. For 69 miles, 200 century riders paid dearly for their early fast 27 miles. The temperature pegged at 92 deg. from 10 a.m. through the end of the ride; the wind blew an American flag perfectly perpendicular to its pole.

The heavy odor of sagebrush was pervasive throughout the day. The wind and heat stirred up those herbal oils and we were bathed in the sagey aroma from start to finish.

Trailers-full of riders/bikes were abandoning the ride to get sagged over the three steep(!) passes after the 2nd rest stop. They abandoned all of the rolling "whoop dee doos" leading up to each of those passes. They abandoned the "you have to pedal downhill" downhills after the passes. They abandoned their riding companions who were grousing about "raging and unrelenting headwinds." They couldn't abandon the heat; nor the altitude (up and down from 7000' to 8000' a bunch of times).

The route was headwinds the rest of the way. Rarely a crosswind. It was a head-down, lower-the-gears, grind-it-out ride. The passes were, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can (ride, not walk)." Some walked. (For me, it was a toss-up...was I going to get to the top first, or was I going to have a combination coronary/cerebral bleed first?)

A small wizened male rider, looking to be about 60 but in reality probably in his 40's, trudged along on his mt. bike. I passed, and cheerily panted "Hi." He stared at me grimly. Never said a word, never broke his stride. I wondered why he was there. He sure didn't look happy. I didn't have the heart to be so uncharitable as to ask him, "Are we having fun yet?" But I thought it.

One couple, a dad and his 13 year old son, were riding together, Dad on his road bike, Guy on his mt. bike. Dad has seen me on the Death Valley rides and recognized...yup, Rufus, and we talked about upcoming rides. This was Guy's first-ever century and first-ever ride over 40 miles. Beginner's bad luck, I guess, to have picked this particular century on this particular day.

I didn't see them until after lunch, when they came up behind me as we worked our way through a pine forest of rollers. We chatted a bit, and they pulled away. Damn! Bested by a skinny 13 year old kid! That's tough on the ego! All the way through the rollers, I couldn't catch them (but didn't try too hard). Guy just spun along on his mt. bike. But Guy didn't pedal any faster on the flats and downhills than he did on the uphills. Hah. An easy mark. Whoosh. Passed them. Until the next hill.

On the worst climb of the day, Waterson summit, the groups of hot tired riders broke down markedly. Single riders sat alongside the road, panting, drinking, staring stupidly up the hill, hoping, I guess, for divine intervention. I could relate. I was right there with them.

I didn't walk that hill two years ago; I wasn't going to walk it this time! At the last 1/2 mile, the very steep section (10% grade or so), into that hot wind, as I contemplated joining a young woman who was hiking her bike, a gasping rider inched by mumbling, "I think I can, I think I can." Sounded good to me, and I joined, silently, his mantra. And I could!

You would think that with a "loop" ride, eventually we would get a tailwind. No such luck. With the particular route, and the changing winds from morning (east/south/east) (love having a working compass on my bike!) to afternoon (west/south/west), there was no escaping it.

The last 15 miles, some downhill, much of it flat, a few hills, should have been a piece of cake. As it was, it was a continuation of the day's grind.


Beautiful scenery! Great camaraderie (misery loves company). Plenty of outstanding food - even a catered ("free") lunch - at multitudinous rest stops. Approximately 5500' of climbing. A completed ride. 10 hrs. to the minute...quite a bit off my best of 8 hrs. (I never did see when Dad and Guy got in...they were far behind me after the last summit.)


(c) Judy Colwell, 2000
Updated: September 19. 2000