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Julian Death March Endurance Mountain Bike Ride

April 10th, 2010

When people think of Julian, CA, they normally think of apple pie, not mountain biking. For those of us who mountain bike--in addition to eating apple pie--there are some great trails around this little town in east San Diego County.

Residing at about 4,000 feet elevation, Julian lacks the alpine zone of say, the San Gabriel mountains, but makes up for it in picturesque mountain meadows and nearby desert scenery.

I first visited Julian exactly one year ago for my first Julian Death March (JDM). I remember browsing online for some longer local socal mountain bike events that didn't involve lap riding (not my thing) and not finding much really going on aside from the VQ. Then I came across the JDM website with a huge picture of skull and cross bones.

As if you need a reason to sign up for an event with such a cool logo.

Well, I got what I asked for...

After a visit to the ER I vowed to return to Julian the next year and settle the score.

Fast Forward to 2010

The Julian Death March has varying course lengths that you can pick out the day of the ride from 40 to 80+ miles. There are two main out and back loops starting and ending at the park. The first out and back being the longest and having options of 40, 50, or 64 miles with 5,100, 7,700, 9,000, and 12,000 feet of climbing respectively. The second loop is 22 miles and reserved for only the fastest endurance riders (not me) who can make the 3:30PM cutoff.

Rich, the even organizer, changes the course a little bit each year. For example, this year the last few miles back to Frank Lane Park from the 2nd aid station in Banner was via a tough 3 mile singletrack climb instead of a paved road ascent.

At a conservative 8:00 AM I set off with my friend Calvin and 80 other riders, mostly locals from San Diego. The weather and temperature was perfect--a trend that would last the entire day--for just shorts and a t-shirt.

Calvin "Quest" Mulder (photo by Rich)

The ride starts out with 12 miles of paved and graded road downhills to the front-side side of Julian (as you're coming in from HWY 78). The first taste of real dirt begins with a four mile climb up Cedar Creek road (double track). At this first climb, Calvin, much like the elusive bigfoot, quickly disappeared from sight as he blasted up the trail never to be seen again.

Calvin in the distance

After the climb up Cedar Creek, you jump back onto a graded fire road and everything is going great. In fact, this ride is mostly graded fire road and paved road for the next 14 miles. Of course, there's a bit of elevation gain, but by now you're 28 miles into the ride and thinking how over rated the whole "Death March" part of the name is. Its all about chillin' and enjoying the socal weather and good company along for the ride. The whole day is going to be like this right?

Lee from the Julian riding club and myself. Lee was a very cool guy and a fit rider who I rode with Lee most of the day. (Photo by Rich)

After a brief 2 mile ride along HWY79 the pavement and friendly graded roads come to an end, and the picturesque meadow singletrack/double track and begins. Soapstone trail, a sweet 5 mile doubletrack/single track trail with minor elevation change, winds itself through meadows for a few miles to a short downhill and climb up a canyon.

The entire course is marked with cones or paper signs so it is fairly straightforward to navigate. However after the second aid station riders begin to space out a little farther apart from one another, so it's important to keep your eyes open. After all, there are about as many riders as there are miles.

Lee riding up soapstone fire road

My favorite meadow

Soapstone looking back (on the climb)

Soapstone looking up (on the climb)

The climb up Soapstone is not steep but it does have some rocks at the beginning to challenge you. The last section of singletrack before the aid station is my favorite: it is a sweepy, very gradual downhill for about a mile and a half, giving you the chance to pedal just enough to pick up speed and fly to the second aid station at Fages Monument. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of this section of the trail as I was having too much fun riding it to stop and take a photo.

By this time I was in high spirits. I'd never felt so good at a 35 mile marker and I was happy I brought along my cyclocross bike.

Having a donut and a soda at Aid station #2. I filled up my 100oz backpack with water and half a bottle and burned through all of it before getting to station #3, so make sure you fill up if you drink a lot.

The singletrack right after the 2nd aid station

A few more miles of beautiful meadow singletrack go by and all is well. That is until you reach the Mason Valley Gate. This gate should really be renamed Hell's Gate, for what lies below is naught but a vast desert of deceivingly slick and rutted jeep roads, sandy washes, and 10 miles later, the infamous Oriflame trail, aka "the trail that the devil carved with his own two hands."

Last year I didn't make it to Oriflame. I crashed going down Chariot at speed on an off-camber section with a washed out rut in the road. After talking with some of the event volunteers, it turns out Chariot has more than its fair share of downed riders. It is deceptively easy to go too fast down this section, not to mention you have to ride it twice if you are doing the 64-mile loop.

Hell's Gate

Before Rodriguez you have to go down Chariot (shown above).

The whole course was well marked (photo by Rich). Right goes to Rodriquez Canyon and Oriflame.

Rodriquez Canyon

Further down Rodriquez Canyon after lots of sand comes the fun rock gardens

This year when I made the right hand turn onto Oriflame at mile 49 I knew the ride was really about to start. Everything up to this trail was a warm up. I went into the furnace that was Oriflame from the fast and furious Rodriquez Canyon trail.

The first thing I noticed about this 3.5 mile climb with 2,000 ft elevation gain is how rocky it was. Small softball sized rocks were everywhere. Slowly the trail got steeper as it wound itself up the canyon walls to a point I could not see. A few modified trucks/jeeps would pass me up this trail, some of which would turn around and call it quits, others I'd see a half hour later throwing up huge clouds of dust and dirt as they attempted to crawl up the trail.

I gave this trail everything I had, trying to clean each section and restarting over and over when I had to unclip or rest from exhaustion. At one rock garden I had to restart three or four times. After making it up about half way to the first super steep right hand switchback, I turned the corner and glanced upwards. My heart sank and I gave up right there. I put my bike down and sat on a boulder on the side of the road. Gasping for air, I spotted Lee who cleaned the trail just a few days before. He caught up with me and proceeded to attack Oriflame with vigor. Watching him spin up the trail encouraged me to stand up and start hiking. But Oriflame showed even Lee no mercy, and we hiked together up the rest of the trail, riding small sections here but mostly walking.


Oriflame near the top...are we there yet?

After Oriflame came the de-ja-vu blast down Chariot leading to the third aid station at Banner. Next up was a 3.5 mile climb up Waynes Trail/Banner Toll Road, a single track trail leading up to Julian. This trail has challenging and even hike-a-bike sections, yet it is not too steep. Overall I really enjoyed this trail, it was a good finishing touch of single track to a long ride, and I think it was a good addition to the course.

Looking down to banner

On the way up back to Julian

At the top of the trail you're dropped out onto a paved road which takes you back to HWY 78. After a mile or so on the road I was back to Julian for some apple pie!

More Info: Checkout the 2010 Writeup from the official JDM website.

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