Ride 100 miles. And then some.
Credit: West World Images

Every July, nearly 3,000 cyclists gather in Northern California's Alpine County in the heart of the Sierra Nevada to test the limits of their training – 129 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing, at altitude. It's called the Death Ride, and tickets, at $120 a pop, routinely sell out moments after online registration opens every winter.

What we are buying is between eight and 12 hours of truly exquisite suffering. About three-quarters of the way through my first Death Ride, I found myself dodging lightning bolts from a late-afternoon thunderstorm that was also pelting me with hail the size of BBs. I was soaked to the skin, my feet cramping, my quads screaming.

I peered ahead into the gloom and barely made out a long line of similarly miserable riders winding far up the hill. It occurred to me that I might be insane, but at least I wasn't alone. This is what endurance cyclists do. And if it doesn't hurt, it isn't worth it.

"Nobody is making you do it, and in theory, it should be fun," says Bill Oetinger, co-chair of the Terrible Two double century in Sebastopol, Calif. But any fun is a by-product, Oetinger admits: "You do it because you're trying to find your limits, learn what you're made of."

It's not just pain and suffering. The Death Ride, like nearly all centuries, offers spectacular scenery – in this case, breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains. And after the climbing, the descents are thrilling and seem to last forever. As you pedal through the town of Markleeville, locals cheer you on with hoots and cowbells – something you won't experience on your average century ride. And there will never be a beer as delicious as the one you quaff after receiving your five-pass finisher pin. Or try these:

Deerfield Dirt-Road Randonnee
The D2R2 gets you off the beaten path, along more than 100 miles of gravel and dirt roads in the woods of western Massachusetts. Make sure you've got a good GPS, because the route isn't marked. On the other hand: almost no cars. [franklinlandtrust.org/d2r2]

Mountain Mama
This Virginia century, considered one of the toughest on the East Coast, takes you up nine mountains – more than 13,000 feet of climbing – in the gorgeous and sparsely populated Allegheny Highlands. [highlandcountyrecreation.org]