As I round the final switchback of the climb, the road grade tilts upward yet again. My fingers nudge my shifter, trying to retreat to a lower gear, but I’m already on my final cog; it’s up to just my legs now to get me to my first destination of the day.
About 30 hard pedal strokes later, I coast into the Emerald Bay scenic vista, my reward for hundreds of feet of climbing that cool spring morning. I lean my bike against a sign and stare down upon the beautiful blue lake below. Had I seen this same image on a travel brochure, I’d swear it was photoshopped, but it’s here in front of me, in living color brighter than any Kodachrome image I’ve ever seen.
If you’re calling a bike ride “America’s Most Beautiful,” the scenery had better deliver. Luckily for the organizers of this 100-mile jaunt around Lake Tahoe and the surrounding countryside, it does … and then some. I’ve ridden these roads multiple times over the past three years, and the lake continues to take my breath away nearly every time I see it.Two Lake Tahoe centuries are offered by ride promoters each year – America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride in June and the Tour de Tahoe in September – but it’s simple enough to create your own epic ride. Although the lake’s circumference is only 72 miles, a 28-mile out-and-back excursion on Highway 89 to the nearby town of Truckee will give you the mileage you need to crack 100 miles on your cyclocomputer.
To ride the 72-mile loop, just keep the lake on your right side and pedal. There are more than a few convenience stores offering Gatorade and granola bars along the route, as well as plenty of mom-and-pop diners, delis and bakeries to grab lunch during the ride. Be sure to stop in Tahoe House Bakery & Gourmet, which bakes the best coconut macaroons my buddy Ross has ever tasted. I’m partial to the Denver omelet at the Driftwood Café, and I’ve also heard great things about Café Fiore in South Lake Tahoe.
You don’t need to be a super-fit rider to finish the route, nor do you need an expensive $6,000 racing bike. I passed several folks who were stretching the limits of their XL cycling jerseys, but still managed to make it up every hill and mountain. Throughout the ride, I came across several riders who earned my admiration and respect – a New Jersey cyclist riding a heavy steel single-speed, a woman on a tiny folding bike with 20-inch wheels and multiple riders atop heavy old-school mountain bikes.
That said, be ready for between 3,500 and 4,000 feet of climbing on the route. There are two major climbs – the 800-foot climb up to the 6,900-foot Emerald Bay summit, which features multiple switchbacks and a steep kicker toward the end, and the 7,100-foot Spooner Lake summit climb, which rises 1,000 vertical feet over eight miles. After Spooner, just when you think the climbing’s over, you’re faced with seven demoralizing rolling hills. More than a few riders say those climbs are the toughest of the day.
My Cannondale Supersix was armed with a standard Ultegra crank and an 11-28 rear cassette, and I never felt in jeopardy of going backwards on a climb. For the less-vertically inclined, a compact or triple chainring will allow you to spend more time in the saddle rather than standing on the pedals.
Dedicated bike lanes and wide shoulders for most of the route allow more nervous riders an extra degree of security. Because Tahoe is a popular destination for road cyclists, local motorists are used to riders and typically give them a wide berth. Nevada’s new 3-foot passing law helps as well.
You can ride in either direction, but I’d recommend most riders stick to navigating the roads in a clockwise direction; going counter-clockwise, you’re stuck pedaling up Spooner on a busy multiple-lane highway for nearly 8 miles. Better to safely descend on that same road, where your speed will nearly match the automobile traffic. Because of the occasionally twisty nature of the highway, stick to the center of the right-hand lane; the shoulder is too narrow to safely navigate at speed.
But the biggest dangers to cyclists aren’t drivers, but themselves. The route offers at least two screaming downhills, and less experienced riders must resist the temptation to break the sound barrier descending. During my most recent trip, I rounded a blind corner to come across two ambulances in the center of the road tending to injured cyclists. I squeezed my brakes, causing my rear wheel to fishtail slightly as I came to a stop. Had I been going faster, I might have joined the riders on the pavement.
Being a popular tourist destination means plenty of lodging options around the lake. I usually use Harvey’s, a casino hotel straddling the edge of California and Nevada as my base of operations, although there are literally hundreds of other options nearby.
Ironically, visitors will see photos of the area’s immense natural beauty throughout the casino, but many won’t venture outside the gambling parlors. In the early-morning hours before day one of riding, I stumble out of bed and find myself in the casino. On my way to breakfast, I’m forced to weave through hordes of heavy-lidded gamblers wearing last night’s party clothes. Walking toward the escalator to the restaurant, I noticed a man nursing a half-empty Corona at the bar, holding a cigarette burned down nearly to the filter with one hand and sullenly punching the buttons of a video poker machine with the other. Forty minutes later – and nearly as many cups of coffee later — I saw him again, in the same spot, holding his head in his hands.
Beware the mountainous region’s notoriously unpredictable weather – three years ago organizers of the Amgen Tour of California canceled two stages of the race after a heavy blizzard made the roads nearly impassable. A week later, I rode the route and was pelted by rain and hail as the mercury struggled to pass 45 degrees for most of the day. When the temperatures rose, so did the condensation — as the water on the roads evaporated, the roads were blanketed with a thick vapor making it nearly impossible to see more than 10 feet in front of you. However the last two years have been nearly perfect, with the chilly morning temperatures in the upper 40s giving way to highs in the 70s later in the day.
I’ve ridden all over the U.S., in some of the most incredibly scenic places that human eyes have come across. Are the roads surrounding Lake Tahoe truly America’s Most Beautiful? That’s hard to say, but I can promise you won’t be disappointed.