About the 10-mile mark of this year's Mammoth High Sierra Fall Century and Gran Fondo, to be exact the junior edition route, my riding partner observed, "At home I may have just made it to Deerfield Park," which is about 3.7 miles from our house, depending on which way you go.
Originally, I'd thought this article might be titled, "Sucking Wind in the High Sierra," but the air was more oxygenated than it's supposed to be. Maybe 7,000 feet is not as bad as I remembered or feared. And maybe the tenor of the ride–from the condition of the roads, to the swarms of welcoming volunteers, and a picture-perfect day– made breathing a second thought.
We'd departed about 20 minutes earlier from the Whitmore Ball Fields station, the start and finish for all the shorter rides and at last R&R spot and the 10-mile-to-go mark for the cyclists chewing the whole century enchilada. In what has to be one of the more civilized approaches to managing an event, the start for the 30, 48 and 60 mile riders was "…between 9:00 and 9:30."
Our early arrival to find parking was not really necessary. There was ample space at the field and along the road (and, unlike most city-oriented rides, there were no "No Parking Tow Away Zone" signs, meters, or $10 lots. You just pulled off the road and parked. Refreshing). We were ready to roll at 8:45.
I asked one of the event's volunteers, Tony Colasardo from sponsor Footloose Sports, if we could start early. He looked at me with a bit of incredulity, and said, "You used to live here. There's no wind. What are you waiting for?" We were off. It was in the mid-60s and the road stretched like a perfect grey ribbon as far as we could see.
Officially, this was the ride's 19th edition, although there have been other less organized "Mammoth Centuries" in the past. The current format is new: the previous rides had all started and ended at Whitmore. According to Randy Fendon and John Armstrong, the event's marketing and race directors, there was a joint effort by the ride's organizers and the Town of Mammoth to get the ski area involved. Mammoth Mountain jumped in without much hesitation, and designated Bill Cockroft to take the lead on its behalf. Cockroft was one of the movers and shakers responsible for developing Mammoth's world class MTB trails and events, and was named to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame for his accomplishments
It was decided that the town should be more a part of the Mammoth High Sierra Fall Century and Gran Fondo. In ways cycling has come full-circle to the boom period of the 1980's. Aside from a strong mountain biking reputation, Mammoth also hosted road events, the most well-known being the Whiskey Creek Stage Race. This year, The Village became the century start, finish and after-ride party central for all riders. The Mammoth High Sierra Century became part of a weeklong series of events for cyclists of all stripes and levels, including a resurrection of the famed Kamikaze downhill. It seems to be embraced by most of the town, judging by the warmth, energy, and enthusiasm of the hundreds of volunteers who kept rides on-track, fed and hydrated.
The morning dawned about as perfect as it gets. Wind patterns that had for days brought tentacles of smoke from the Rim Fire in the Lake Tahoe area shifted and dissipated. The long riders (either doing the timed Gran Fondo or twin century course) had clear ski and open roads as they rolled out of Mammoth at 7:30, escorted by a phalanx of CHP and police patrol cars and shadowed by a helicopter poised for still and video capture. Their clockwise route headed north on Hwy. 395, then east on Hwy. 120 toward Benton. The Black Lake rest stop (the third of their six, all very well stocked and supported) was the point of intersection with the riders on the metric century.
It was the same route back to Whitmore for all the riders, including those who'd turned around at Wildrose (48 miles) and Watterson Summits (30). From Whitmore, the Century and Gran Fondo riders had a challenging 10-miles back to Mammoth, made more difficult by the usual afternoon headwind.
A couple I spoke with at the after-party, Big Bear residents and veterans of many "Rides Around the Bear" centuries, said this was a far tougher ride because of the last 10 miles' constant uphill pitch and the afternoon headwind: it affected the slower riders more than the faster finishers.
According to Fendon, the model for the Mammoth High Sierra Century and Gran Fondo is "Levi's Gran Fondo" in Napa-Sonoma, a ride with an impeccable reputation for organization, scenery, and challenging terrain. And more than 7,500 riders rolling up to the start line.
This year, the Mammoth riders numbered a few over a thousand, split 70/30 in favor of the longer routes. "We hope to see registration grow to 1,500 over the next few years, " Armstrong noted. "and we could probably accommodate a couple of thousand without taxing our resources."
In ways, he continued, the biggest difficulty is planning, because many out-of-town riders procrastinate in registering. (This mirrors a nagging problem for Mammoth in winter and mountain towns everywhere; skiers waiting to see what conditions will be before committing to a trip, to which the locals' response is usually, "Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes.")"This year we had a fee increase after August 23, as an incentive, which helped. But we still allowed riders to sign up the morning of the ride." Will that change? "Possibly. Having a cut-off date or a hard rider number would sure make getting the right amount of materials and supplies to all the remote rest stops easier. This year we had to get over a thousand gallons of water delivered, which is in itself a bit of work."
So, if your dance card is open next year, pencil in the Mammoth High Sierra Century. Hell, use a pen. Ink it in. You'll have a tough time finding a better run and more scenic ride. And the sliver of time between Labor day and the onset of winter is one of the most beautiful and mind-clearing opportunities for an escape to the Eastern Sierra.
"You really should call your article. "'80 Miles, One Stop Sign, Twelve Cars," observed Fendon during our conversation, "once the riders turned off of 395 and onto Hwy. 120 it was open roads and no traffic to Black Lake where your 60-mile route met with them."