At mile 92, Death Ride veteran Chuck Wiltens dismounts his $5,000 race bike, takes two or three numbed-footsteps before his normal gait returns and walks over to the Hawaiian rest stop.
"You guys are always my favorite," he says, removing his cycling gloves and flashing an endorphin-widened smile at the flowered-shirt and lei-wearing volunteers from Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
Despite being near the front of the pack before stopping, Wiltens isn't sweating. He looks over the high-carb spread of cookies, energy gels, pretzels and drinks on the well-staffed lanai while steel drum music lazes through the air from a boombox. What he really wants is a turkey sandwich.
Amazingly, the group has one in stock.
"This is by far the best-supported ride anywhere," he says, taking a bite from the prize. "The volunteers are always so great."
One of more than 6,000 applicants who won one of the 2,500 spots and paid the $80 entry fee to pedal in the silver anniversary of The Death Ride, Wiltens says that while most everyone goes out of their way to insist that the grueling 129-mile exercise in alpine masochism is not a race, he's a little more realistic.
Across the street, a pack of three cyclists come breezing down the long descent at speeds of close to 60 mph. The cyclist in front tucks forward over his handlebars while the others follow in a tight draft. The wind in their spokes make the sound of whipped elastic strings as they sweep by.
"I guess it really is a race for some people," says Wiltens. "But I come for the camaraderie. If I try to think of it as a race, it feels too much like work."
The Californian says he commutes from his home in Hayward to his job in Alameda three times a week.
Pat Scully sits by the side of the road with her camera and waits for her 70-year-old boyfriend, Dan Telep, to pass.
The couple flew out from Philadelphia, Penn., just for the event.
She says Telep was anxious to get started and was one of several dozen who were off and pedaling in the dark, just after 4 a.m.
"He's in great shape," says Scully. "You know 70 is the new 25," she laughs.
After making his climb to the summit of the 8,573-foot Carson Pass, a lone rider sits on a rock and listens the Carson River to wreak havoc on the rocks below while two fly fisherman in waders pop out of the bushes.
Ask 30 riders what The Death Ride is about and you'll hear 30 different answers -- that it's about finding your breaking point high in the Californian Alps, enjoying the high meadows and their mosaics of wildflowers, lunch at Centerville Flat, collecting all five skeleton stickers or speeding down long winding mountain passes following a 129 ribbon of white line trying not to get flattened by swerving motorists.
Surprisingly, The Death Ride has only claimed one casualty, an oral surgeon from Sacramento five years ago.
Death Ride manager and veteran cyclist, Joe Marzocco, says the ride supports a lot of local organizations, from the library to the fire department.
Markleeville postmaster, Margaret Daniels, says despite the event's macabre name, it brings life to the community.
"Do you know how many bake sales we'd have to have in order to raise this kind of money?" she said with a laugh.
n Contact reporter Peter Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1215.