Humbled by the Elements at Lake Tahoe

January 20, 2021
62.60 miles
Lake Tahoe
Strava Activity

On Wednesday, I decided to rent a bicycle from Sports Basement1 again. Now well-rested after a week off the bike (although I did get in a few runs during that time), I decided to tackle a slightly more ambitious ride: a circuit of Lake Tahoe, about 70 miles with some nontrivial elevation gain.

I woke up early, ate a carb-heavy breakfast, and set out at the crack of dawn for the four hour drive to Lake Tahoe. Granted, the sun does rise pretty late during the winter, so perhaps that isn’t particularly impressive.

A Beautiful Start to the Day

Lake Tahoe is absolutely gorgeous. After getting out of Tahoe City for a bit, I came across some stunning views of the crystal-clear waters. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to actually go down to the shoreline, since I was wearing clipless cycling shoes, and you don’t want to climb down a rocky slope with cleats on. My only regret about this part of the trip is that the sun somehow ended up on the opposite side of the lake, meaning that all of my bike photos ended up fairly dark.

Bicycle in front of Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe Bicycle in front of Lake Tahoe, angled view
Some nice views of Lake Tahoe. Luckily, there was a suitable stick for propping up my bike nicely, although the angle into the sunlight was not ideal. I’ve found that sticks from pine trees are often not rigid enough to prop up a bike easily. Sadly, most of the trees in the area were pine trees. (full resolution: left, center, right)

I stopped for lunch at a really pretty vista with some nice rocks and a good view of clear waters. I consumed a Nutella sandwich2 and a croissant. I had actually brought another croissant, but I decided to save it for later, which turned out to be a good choice.

Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe Bicycle against bushes in front of Lake Tahoe
My chosen spot for lunch. Yes, I got so lazy that I propped my bike up against a bush! I tried using a stick, but it ended up being too springy to prop it up well. (full resolution: left, center, right)

Okay, at this point, I just want to post pictures. I’m basically just writing this as filler text.

Bicycle in front of fence in front of lake Lake Tahoe Bicycle in front of rocks in front of lake
Here are some more pictures for you. I also have a more social-media inspirational post-style shot with the handlebars framing the lake. (full resolution: left, center, right)

Oh, whatever—since this has become more of a “life blog” merely masquerading as a “cycling blog,” why don’t I throw up a few pictures from previous visits to Lake Tahoe?

One-year old in front of boulder at Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe
Some shots from my 2002 and 2016 trips to Lake Tahoe. I think you can tell which pictures are from which year. Little did I know that I would return to the same place years later! (full resolution: left, center, right)

Some Unexpected Events

Now here’s where things started getting spicy. With my noontime arrival and constant stopping for pictures, adjusting the GoPro,3 etc., I was caught out a little later than I had anticipated. Coming from the Bay Area, I figured that it wasn’t a particularly big deal riding at night a bit; I had packed my bike lights and everything. But Lake Tahoe is at significant elevation (above 7,000 feet), and I was not prepared for the temperatures to drop below freezing at night. I ended up stranded with maybe twenty miles to go and the sun setting.

Sun setting over Lake Tahoe Sun setting over Lake Tahoe Bicycle in front of Lake Tahoe, with sun setting
Some pictures of the attractive effect of the setting sun over Lake Tahoe. (full resolution: left, center, right)

Since I was taking a loop around the lake, at this point the fastest way to get back to my car, which I had parked in Tahoe City on the northwest shore of the lake, was to continue my lap up highway 81. I tried to hurry back as quickly as possible, but I knew that it would take me at least an hour going as fast as I could to get back. It was already a little too cold for the gear that I was wearing, and when the sun set after I reached Emerald Bay, it was only getting even colder.

My gloves were unfortunately only rated for about 45 degree (Fahrenheit) weather. As soon as the sun set, my fingers started freezing; I was genuinely afraid that they’d end up frostbitten. I had to stop a few times to take off my gloves, shove them under my tights to heat up, and then put my fingers underneath my armpits (inside my jacket) to warm them up again.

My core body temperature and legs were doing okay so far because of all the climbing I was doing (there was a significant uphill in that section), but at this point I had already given up on keeping my toes warm. To make matters worse, once it got properly dark and I did a few descents, the windchill caused my legs and body to get colder; my arms were involuntarily shuddering as I gripped the handlebars. Cold and exhausted, I realized that I would not make it back to my car.

I considered hitchhiking or even knocking on the door of a random house and seeking shelter, but given the coronavirus pandemic right now, I wanted to keep that as a last resort. Checking the map, I found that three miles ahead was the little town of Tahoma, with a cafe that was still open. I made it my goal to at least get to the cafe, get a warm drink, and figure out my next move there.

The next three miles were incredibly cold and miserable. I said some prayers, talked to myself for motivation, and briefly wondered if I’d even make it. To keep up my spirits, I ate half of the croissant that I had left over from my lunch. Before this, I had always underestimated mother nature during the wintertime. I used to ski a lot and play in the snow when younger, but I was always wrapped up in a warm winter jacket, snow pants, and boots, and I was only a few minutes away from a warm place. I had never actually been in much danger of freezing to death—after this experience, I have a lot more respect for just how harsh the elements can be.

Once, when I took a sip of water when stopped, I missed the water bottle cage on my bike when putting the bottle back (hey, my hands were frozen and it was dark out, okay?). The bottle ended up tumbling down a snowy slope at the side of the road, although luckily a tree stopped it before it got too far away. It was not fun trudging through the snow to retrieve it.

Eventually, I made it to Tahoma. Before I got to the cafe, I saw a small plaza. Very desperate, I turned into the plaza to see if there was any open business. As luck would have it, there was a small post office whose lobby was open 24/7.4 Grateful for the turn of good fortune, I headed inside to defrost my extremities. It wasn’t particularly warm in the lobby, but it was a whole lot better than it was outside.

At this point, it was about 6:30 pm. I ended up staying in that post office until 9:00 pm warming up, talking to my family, and trying to work out my options for getting back to my car. Tahoma is about nine miles south of where I parked my car in Tahoe City, and I knew that I would not make it back by bicycle (at this point, the outside temperature was already below freezing). At first, I thought that I was in luck, since there was a bus scheduled to leave at 7:00 pm for Tahoe City from just outside the post office. But 7:00 pm came and went, and I did not see the bus. My next thought was to bike about a quarter mile to the fire department and beg for a ride. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like anyone was there, and when I called the non-emergency number for the fire department and multiple local police agencies, none of them picked up.

Being a somewhat remote area, there were no Uber or Lyft rides available. My uncle called AAA, but they said that they couldn’t help unless the member (my uncle) was there himself with his card. He called the towing company, but they told us that they’d have to charge us about $400, and it’d take them a while to get here. Eventually, I found a local taxi service that offered 24/7 service. I called them, but they were apparently quite far away (Lake Tahoe is pretty big), and they suggested that I call another taxi service. Finally, when I called them, they confirmed that they could give me a ride to Tahoe City.

I’d like to give a massive thank-you to Rodney from Tahoe Checker Taxi for saving me from having to spend the night in the post office.5 He was a really awesome driver (and a mountain biker), and the company charged an incredibly reasonable rate. When I told them about the bike, Rodney even brought a blanket to protect it in the trunk! At last, at around 9:30 pm, I got back to my car.

I warmed up a bit, ate half a Clif Bar and the remaining half of a croissant that was left over from my lunch, and set off for home. Technically, with an eight hour round-trip, I did more driving than cycling. Since I was driving home so late, I actually started to get sleepy behind the wheel. Not wanting to crash,6 I stopped by the side of the road and took a nap. When I stopped for gas, I also bought a Snapple. The caffeine and sugar kept me fully alert for the rest of the ride back.

I eventually got home at about 3:00 am. My uncle actually stayed up to welcome me with a warm meal, which I’m really thankful for.7

Thoughts on the Overall Ride

Overall, the day didn’t go the way I had intended (although I did get a nice story to tell), but I did enounter several strokes of luck.

  1. When I was shopping for cycling clothing at REI, I decided to buy thermal tights rather than regular tights, even though the regular ones fit me better. Partly this is because the thermal ones were cheaper (REI’s own brand rather than Pearl Izumi—I own enough Pearl Izumi cycling clothing already), and partly this is because I liked the pockets. Either way, I am very grateful for the extra insulation.
  2. I was not sure how warmly to dress when leaving my car and starting the ride. I was at first going to go with a thin base layer, plus a short-sleeved jersey, plus a super thin wind jacket; I eventually decided against this and put on a thicker jacket underneath.
  3. Sort of on a whim, I decided to keep my phone charging on the car ride there (I had brought a charging pack), so I had plenty of battery life left. If my phone had died at that time, I would have been in a proper pickle.
  4. The road conditions when driving on the way back were excellent; at this time of year, snow and ice are real concerns when driving around Lake Tahoe.

Interestingly, Apple’s workout tracker computed 62.60 miles and 3,770 feet of elevation gain, whereas Strava computed a slightly more impressive-sounding 66.17 miles and 4,106 feet of elevation gain. Apple Workouts and Strava usually have slightly different numbers, but I don’t think they’ve ever been off by nearly four miles before! Either way, it’s at least 100 km of distance and 1 km of elevation gain, which is not too shabby.8 On the ride statistics front, I just found out that Strava also estimates your max speed. Mine was apparently 40.5 miles per hour, which is faster than I expected. It also tracks max heart rate, which reached 180 beats per minute. I’m not sure how seriously to take that, because I have noticed irregularities with the Apple Watch heart rate data before.

Interestingly, from the data, it looks like I actually would have made it back to my car before sunset if I had not stopped so frequently along the way. There was about a two-hour gap between my moving time (time spent in the saddle) and total elapsed time. Even keeping an hour-long buffer for eating lunch, bathroom breaks, etc., I certainly could have made the final nine miles in the remaining hour.

If you’d like to attempt this ride yourself, I think the clockwise loop is the right way to go; keep Lake Tahoe on the right for better views, and also one sketchy section of 50 mph highway9 is better tackled downhill.

I’m still stitching together the GoPro footage that I have of the trip and hope to have it posted somewhere online at some point in the future. If you’d like, you can send me background music suggestions.

  1. I never thought I’d say this, but they’re like an even better, local REI. Definitely check them out if you’re in the Bay Area and into any outdoors activities. Actually, if you’re willing to make the trip to San Francisco, they actually do monthly road bike rentals for just $180! I would have done this if I had known about it at the beginning of my trip. Don’t worry, I still love you, REI.↩︎

  2. I also took a picture of the sandwich, but decided against posting it here. I do have standards, after all. I run a “blog,” not an Instagram page!↩︎

  3. Unforunately, I did run out of spare batteries, so I don’t have any footage of the “fun” part of my adventure.↩︎

  4. I should really make a massive donation to the United States Postal Service now, for keeping me alive. Just one of the many great things that the US Postal Service has done for cycling, right?↩︎

  5. Well, that’s a little over-dramatic; our worst-case backup plan was to have my uncle’s friend, who lives on the other side of Lake Tahoe in Incline Village, give me a ride, although it would have taken him a few hours to get to Tahoma. But for a brief moment, I did seriously contemplate just using my helmet as a pillow and spending the night in the post office.↩︎

  6. Actually, even though the road conditions were fine, I saw two pretty bad crashes on the way back.↩︎

  7. Cf. my dad, whose advice was to find some newspaper to stuff into my clothes for insulation. Actually, I at one point very nearly lined my gloves with the leftover tinfoil that I had used to pack my lunch, and I was eyeing the empty Clif Bar wrappers in my jersey pocket as a potential means of insulation.↩︎

  8. Also, if I get the chance to come back, I’m bringing a 50/34 compact chainset. The rental bike was equipped with a 52/36 chainset and an 11-28 cassette. It’s certainly enough—there was only one hill that could reasonably be called “steep”—but I think easier gearing would make the ride just a little more pleasant, given my relative lack of fitness.↩︎

  9. The highway is somewhat sketchy because (1) it’s pretty wide, which encourages cars to exceed the posted 50 mph speed limit, (2) there are some trucks, which kick up a lot of dust for some reason, and (3) the shoulder is super narrow in some places, so you have to take the lane. I actually had to pull over and put on my glasses because there was so much dust in the air. The bright side is that there’s a gorgeous view of the lake, and you’re traveling at a fairly high fraction of the speed limit—I’m pretty sure this is where I exceeded 40 mph.↩︎