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Surviving COVID-19 and the Tamarack Fire

Curtis Fong was asked to come back on board to help rebuild the Death Ride — Tour of the California Alps in time for its 40th Anniversary. Great improvements were made. Last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19. This year’s event drew in over 2,000 registrations.

We recently had a chance to chat with Fong about getting through the pandemic, only to have the Tamarack Fire cancel this year’s ride during the registration expo.

ASJ: Curtis, how long have you been producing events?

I have been directing bicycling events since 1984. As one of the founders and board members of the Alta Alpina Cycling Club, I found myself managing and directing what had come to be one of the “must do” road riding evens in California — the Death Ride – Tour of the California Alps. I started America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride and OATBRAN, 30 years ago in 1991, and I left the Death Ride in 1995 to focus on my Bike the West events. I later added Tour de Tahoe to the list of Bike the West events.

ASJ: You returned as the event producer for the 40th Anniversary of the Death Ride, which was cancelled last year due to the pandemic and this year because of the Tamarack fire. Can you tell us a little bit about how things went down?

Alpine County Chamber of Commerce continued to produced The Death Ride with Alta Alpina Cycling Club up — little had changed or been updated/improved since I left. In anticipation of the 40 year anniversary, the Alpine County Chamber solicited my help to coordinate and rebuild the event. Over the years event participation started to drop off, as there was no change in the course and rider support was diminishing … My goal was to return the Death Ride to a fully supported ride — offering drop bags, rider sag support , etc. Also I saw the need to change the course and to make it more safe. Basically, I found myself recreating an event from start to finish to attract new riders.

It took over a year to change the course and extend it to Lake Alpine towards Bear Valley Resort. The new course offered a six pass challenge and we shortened the mileage from 129 miles to 103 miles. Unfortunately the 2020 event was postponed due to COVID-19.

Curtis Fong Death Ride

Peter Stetina completing the Death Ride Revised 103 mile course in 5 hours 15 minutes.

ASJ: That must have been a big disappointment after the anticipation of the exciting changes you were bringing to the 40th annual event.

Yes, it was but we didn’t let the postponed 2020 event discourage us. Instead we focused on continuing to improve and bring the event back this year.

We further tested the new course with local pro rider, Peter Stetina, who rode the new course to set a FKT (Fastest Know Time) for the 103 mile course that offered just under 14,000 vertical feet of climbing. We set up the major rest stops and he rode the course in 5 hours 15 minutes. We knew we had a great course that was not only proposed to be on mostly closed roadways, but would also be doable for riders to complete within normal day light hours.

Also, as we looked ahead to 2021, we decided to move the event one week later in July so it did not conflict with the traditional end of 4th of July week holiday period.

We continued to put all the elements together for producing the 40th Anniversary Death Ride Resurgence. We worked with all of the agencies, including Caltrans and California Highway Patrol, US Forest Service and different home owners associations and developed an emergency ambulance / medical plan. We met with all the various volunteer groups and set the stage for the fully supported ride.

Nearly 65% of the registered participants were going to be first time riders of the Death Ride. We were met our goal of attracting Century riders and a broader range of cyclists to the Death Ride — not just hard core endurance riders.

Curtis Fong Death Ride

Death Ride Expo .

ASJ: So everything was on track before the Tamarack fire hijacked your event on July 16th.

Oh yes. Things were going so well. We couldn’t have been happier with how things were going. The pre-registered rider check-in procedure was moving smoothly — streamlined with Bike the West’s computerized check-in system. Participants were happy, getting their bib numbers and goodie bags quickly so they could get out to enjoy the Death Ride expo.

The entire course was set with all infrastructure, tents, tables, bike racks, portable toilets, signage, etc for nine different stops. The food trucks with rest stop supplies were organized, loaded, and ready for delivery. The Medical Clinic was set up with all necessary supplies. I had already had meetings with our SAG van drivers and our motorcycle SAG riders. We had assigned I.D. numbers and distributed tubes & tires for them to assist rider.

We tested our start staging area with our 40 foot wide inflatable start arch with no problems. Things were looking good.

We had the Washoe tribe involved, as they are part of the Alpine County culture. A tribal father was scheduled to do a blessing with our formal welcome and start the next morning. Indian Tacos were going to be served at the finish.

The Band was scheduled and all of the after ride activities were coordinated.

Most Volunteer groups and HAM Communications teams were excited to continue to support the Death Ride and were already setting up to camp at their rest stop locations to await their supplies and be ready for the 5:30am start the next morning.

Our production team had done a great job and the ride participants were excited to test themselves on the new course.

Curtis Fong Death Ride

Tamarack Fire Air Attack: July 16 @ 6:08pm.

ASJ: It sounds like you had dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s. Everything was set and people were ready to ride. Then what happened?

That afternoon a plume of smoke sprouted up and filled the skies to the southwest of Turtle Rock Park. We met with the Fire Chief who reported that the Hot Shots were being deployed and an air attack was ordered. This was a fire that started by lightening on the 4th of July. to which the agency responsible for suppression decided to let it burn itself out. Sadly around 6:35pm, 11 hours before our planned start time, the Fire Chief came back and reported that the Tamarack Fire was out of control and we had to cancel the ride and evacuate Turtle Rock Park, immediately.

For those that had checked-in that day and were parked to camp that evening, personally witnessed what was going on and recognized the immediate danger. We were able to evacuate the entire facility that evening.

ASJ: Wow, I can only imagine how disappointing that must have been. How did everyone react?

Of course, we were extremely disappointed. Our teams that worked on preparing every aspect of the ride were in tears. All we could do was hug and console each other and turn our attention to shutting down the event check-in and evacuate all of the expo vendors and riders that were on site. Luckily everyone came together and cooperated for the safety of all.

We posted the event cancellation on the Death Ride website to alert those that hadn’t already checked-in.

With all of our disappointment, we also recognized that we were so happy that the Death Ride was cancelled the evening prior to the ride, because IF this flare up had happened 24 hours later it would have been extremely difficult to safely evacuate our 300+ volunteers and the  2200+ bicyclists who were spread out over the 103-mile course.

ASJ: Once you knew everyone was evacuated, what did you next week.

Oh, this story didn’t end on July 16th. It continued for the next week. Our dedicated team was able to secure and retrieve equipment from the course and we were able to donate rest stop food & supplies to the local fire fighting teams and to all of the Markleeville residents who were evacuated to the Douglas County Community Center that was set up in nearby Gardnerville, NV.

At the end of the day it felt good to be able to give back to those who were displaced.

Curtis Fong Death Ride

Mike & Marie Foster – Myself – Cheryl & Tom Millham with Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra, pose with the 40th Anniversary Death Ride Resurgence Poster.

ASJ: With all that has happened, what is the future for the Death Ride?

Only time will tell, as the community of Markleeville is still waiting for telephone lines and internet to be reinstalled.  And our post cancellation work continues. The Alpine County Chamber is sending out goodie bags and preordered merchandise to those that did not check in on July 16.  The Campgrounds at Turtle Rock Park as well as across the road at Indian Creek were totally destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. The Markleeville and Carson River Resort were miraculously saved and it may take a while for all of Alpine County to recover from the Tamarack Fire.

The threat of fire is no stranger to the Lake Tahoe Basin. I have worked as a radio and television reporter and covered the Angora Fire and Gondola Fire with live reports. Now the Caldor Fire is bearing down on Lake Tahoe and mandatory evacuation orders are in place for South Lake Tahoe as well as the Douglas County side of Stateline Lake Tahoe.

We recently had to make the call on August 28 to postpone our scheduled make up combined ride, America’s Most Beautiful Tour de Tahoe, that was set for September 12. It’s been a challenging two years in attempting to produce our Bike the West signature events and we are committed to continue into 2022.

ASJ: As someone who has participated in races and expos, I see how much work goes into producing an event. I also recognize how much these events help boost the local economy. Do you have any suggestions to ASJ readers and event participants in how they can help support Alpine County and the after effects of a cancelled event and a fire?

Once it is safe to travel, consider making plans to visit and volunteer in the communities that have been hit hard by the wildfires.

Also, the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce organized the Tamarack Assistance Fund to help evacuees and local businesses that are impacted by the Tamarack Fire. Donations can be made here: https://gofund.me/e3f2b2de