After a beautiful drive from Reno via Truckee, my wife and I rolled into Downieville, California, around 7, just in time to pick up my bike from the hosts of the Downieville Classic All-Mountain World Championships, Yuba Expeditions. I had shipped it two days prior and it arrived mostly in one piece. The lid to my bike’s travel case had come open somewhere along the way and thankfully nothing was missing from the case -- oddly enough, I had actually gained a few random Xerox machine small parts bound for a California state agency. Slightly nerved up from this, I wanted to get my bike assembled immediately such that I had more time to address any issues that may arise prior to my pre-ride of the downhill course Thursday afternoon.
The issues with my bike proved to be largely minimal -- my disc brake block slipped free during the trip and my front brake needed some TLC. One of my spare spokes for my Industry Nine wheels was bent, and one of my tires had gone flat. I breathed a sigh of relief. My pre-race neurotic behavior could ease a notch, so we set out in search of dinner. And that’s when reality began to set in.
Yes, I’ve been to Downieville on two previous occasions, but both times had been with groups in which I was the passenger -- along for the ride. Now, I was the driver -- I was the one setting the agenda, and I had already screwed up. As we walked to each of the three restaurants, we discovered that each had closed 10-15 minutes prior --at eight -- or was closed for the calendar year (Grubstake). The town’s grocery store had long since closed at 5:30. We were both very hungry, and perhaps a little bit cranky from the trip. A local gave us a tip that they thought the Buckhorn in Sierraville was open until 8:30 or 9. We had no choice but to jump in the car and hope for the best. We made the 30 minute drive in 20, only to find they had closed the kitchen at 8:30. We managed to sweet talk our way into a few pieces of bread and some incredible homemade chicken vegetable soup -- otherwise it would have been a real long night. Lesson learned.
Thursday began (as did every day) with an early visit to the coffee shop. Shortly after six I’m greeted by a blonde woman in an extremely fitted blue dress and high-heeled shoes. She greets me as if she owns the place despite the fact that she’s standing on my side of the counter. She asks if I’m drinking regular coffee and alerts me to the prices. As an Americano is my brew of choice I’m forced to wait a moment for someone who works there to arrive. She walks back behind the counter and gets herself half-and-half to treat her coffee. We chat for a few before she departs and tells me, ‘Okay, the place is all yours.’ I sat there by myself only briefly before a couple more locals arrived, served themselves and went on with their day. A couple minutes later, the owner, Billy, arrived and greeted me, ‘Welcome to Mayberry!’ That’s when I had a laugh -- things ran a little differently than we were accustomed to here, and it made perfect sense. Frankly, it’s this personality that defines Downieville. Store windows often display business hours as 11-ish to 5-ish. As I watched industry vehicles begin to arrive and the Classic take shape, I had a sudden appreciation of the calm before the storm -- a storm that was welcomed by most, but not all. This gold rush town of ~300 residents nestled in the Sierra Nevadas was about to quadruple in size for a few days.
Thursday was my day to preride the course. While I wanted to do nothing more than ride all day, I wanted to save my legs for Saturday and Sunday, so I needed bang for my buck. I elected to preride the downhill course, as parts of it were featured as part of the cross country course, and was Sunday’s stage. It would also prove to be my last opportunity to check the bike -- be sure that I had everything dialed in properly, and made the proper tire selection based on the day’s ride. Prior to the race, I had my tire selection whittled down to two tires: the Continental Mountain King UST 2.4, as it’s proved to be a great all-around lightweight tire with some bite, and the WTB Weirwolf LT 2.55, a high-volume, low-profile, fast-rolling tread pattern. One thing I knew for sure: I’d run my tires tubeless. I’ve witnessed way too many pinch flats first hand in my two previous visits to Downieville.
So I installed the WTB Weirwolf LT tires Thursday morning for my preride that afternoon. In hindsight, this was a bad idea on many levels, and no fault of the tire itself. 1/ I constantly discuss the merits of tubeless with customers. In the same conversation, I generally recommend against running non-UST tires tubeless as there are too many ‘ifs’ involved. Why didn’t I listen to my own advice? 2/ When trying to do this, always allow the tire/rim combination time -- to seat properly, gel, whatever -- it just needs time. Why did I elect to set these up 3 hours before a ride? The list goes on, and I have no one to blame but myself for what was to come.
The tires seemed to set up with ease. I had some lunch, then took the shuttle up to the top of Packer Saddle with a few friends. The ride started out great and went south in a hurry. Before we finished Sunrise, I’d lost 30% of the air in my tires forcing a stop at the fire road just prior to Butcher to air up. I over-inflated, hoping to buy myself enough time to get down. Right. By the time we cleaned the water breaks and fire roads and hit the singletrack again, things were already feeling a bit off. I pumped a corner and barely recovered as my balance was thrown off the trail -- at that moment I attributed it to nothing more than me being off my game. I pumped another corner shortly thereafter and ate it when I rolled the tire. Yeah, that’s not exactly what you want to do just prior to the big race. I tore up my arm pretty good, but all in all, I was OK. However, the solution was obvious -- it was time to install tubes trailside. From that point on, the Weirwolf LT’s ripped it, which created my tire dilemma -- run the LT’s (which I now knew handled great) with tubes? Or run a true UST and go back to what I knew.
After a night’s sleep, I elected to do just that. I swapped back to the UST tires. I’d just witnessed too many pinch flats in the past, and to run tubes, meant I had to run more tire pressure -- something I just wasn’t accustomed to. There were plenty that ran the LT’s tubeless, and successfully, but I just didn’t want to roll the dice.
After a day of rest Friday, I was rearing to go for the Saturday start of the XC in Sierraville. After debating myself as to whether to ride the 12-13 miles of false-flat to the start, I ultimately decided just to drive and arrive early enough to get a good warm-up, scout out the start and get my bike weighed-in (all-mountain racers are required to weigh their bike before the start each day to ensure each is using the same component spec/bike as the prior stage). My steed weighed in at a way-too-light 26.13 pounds -- especially given I’d just weighed it without my Garmin Edge 705 at 26.74 pounds days before. Hmmm.
Before I knew it, it was go time. We started at the intersection of Sierra Buttes Road & Butte Street -- on the opening climb. We were jammed in like sardines, and our first crank was uphill and crowded. Some eight miles, 3,000 vertical feet, and 1:05 later I found myself at the top of Packer Saddle. For the most part the climb was steady yet the grade seemed to get more intense as we neared the summit. Of course, that might have just been a sign of fatigue. Showing no signs of fatigue a couple long switchbacks ahead was the Stars and Stripes Giant jersey of Adam Craig, just 30 minutes into the race. Evidence yet again that those guys are on a different playing field.
I was nervous about the climb -- not ridiculously so, but just in the sense that I never knew what was around the next switchback and I didn’t want to blow my reserves too early. Thankfully my friend, Dain, had advised of a false flat near the top stating that, ‘You’ll think you’re there, but you’re not. You’ll big ring for a while before it turns upward for the final push.’ Those proved to be words of wisdom, and words that really helped my psyche as I prepared for the final push. As I crested Packer Saddle, there was little doubt I was ready for the end of the climb. Although I did a good job of riding at a sustainable pace of 180 beats/min, my hamstrings and glutes were feeling it and I was hot.
I hit Sunrise and started passing hardtails pretty regularly -- it was here that the Blur LT Carbon was about to pay dividends. I finished Sunrise and big-ringed the fire roads to Baby Heads, the rock-infested doubletrack descent down to Pauley Creek. It’s been graded since I rode it last June, but it’s still technical and dealt many issues and flats. Mid-way down Pauley, descenders were in full swing, I was passing people and others were passing me as everything began to air out. The race was really opening up. In a particularly twisty/technical section, I was passed by one rider on the outside of a turn when Brian Lopes took the both of us on the inside. It’s about the closest I’ve ever come to riding 4X. I’m still not sure if I liked it, but it gave me a needed jolt of adrenaline at that point, and miraculously nobody went down. From that point on, I methodically picked off almost everyone in my sights -- each serving as my ‘carrot’ to the finish.
As I finished the singletrack, I hit the pavement with a head of steam and a parched mouth. Damn, it’s dry and dusty on that course! I could see another rider 50-100 yards up the road, and I was determined to track him down. I hammered down and closed the gap. When I did, we began to sprint one another, rocking our respective bikes heading for the finish. That’s when things got a bit scary -- each of us thought the finish line was a few hundred yards away -- when we crested a small rise in the road we saw the hay bales lining the snake-like chute of the finish line before us. Thankfully we both locked up our brakes and found our way safely through the chute. Others were not so lucky, as there were a couple of gnarly accidents. At 2:24 I finished about 6 minutes ahead of my expected time.
I’ve never considered myself a downhiller. I still don’t. While the second stage of the Downieville Classic is the DH, it’s probably more accurately described as something between a Super-D and a DH. You see very few full face helmets, and even less body armor. Most wear their usual shorts and jersey and hope for the best. Prior to the event, I asked a friend whether I should consider some armor, and he told me with a grin, ‘Nope – there’s too much pedaling. Skip it and be sure you don’t crash.’ As that was my gut instinct to begin with, that’s what I did.
The morning of the DH, I was a bit nervous -- not crazy nervous, but definitely some butterflies. While I’d ridden the course numerous times in past visits, I’d never raced it. For that matter, I’d never done a DH event before. I didn’t know what to expect. We were started atop Packer Saddle in one minute gaps beginning at 9:30. Windy and cold, I tried to warm up by riding up and down the upper sections of the previous day’s climb. The warm up did wonders to soothe my nerves, and before I knew it, I was in the starting tent watching the digital clock for my start.
Never has a minute passed so quickly -- it seemed like I barely had time to choose my gearing for the start, clip into a pedal, and start my Garmin. I hit it hard out of the gate -- probably too hard in hindsight as I clipped a pedal in a corner in the first 100 feet. My heart raced as a tried to get started on the false flat before me. I mashed the big gear I started in through the twists and turns of Sunrise until I could get my cadence back to a comfortable place. Within a couple minutes I was in a groove. I was feeling the flow -- anticipating every turn, jump and drop Sunrise threw at me. By the time I hit the second section, Butcher Ranch, it was on.
A couple minutes into that section, I caught the rider that started a minute ahead of me – a very motivating moment. I was charged and ready to take on the world, and before I knew it I was on my ass. Descending a rock ‘waterfall’ around a corner, the rocks grabbed my front wheel and threw me over. Yeah, it was humbling, but my adrenaline was pumping and I popped right back up before I realized I was bleeding from my right elbow and knee -- not that it mattered. I knew I had to keep hammering to compete, and before the pain and stiffness set in. Within seconds, I had scrambled back to my bike, run down the rocks, and I was back in the zone carving the switchbacks descending to the bridge across the creek. I caught another rider before the creek and two more on the ~ 4 minute climb afterwards. I was fired up, and entering the home stretch. When I crested the climb I threw it into my big ring (did I mention how much I love the crisp shifts courtesy of the direct mount front derailleur?) and I hammered home.
I finished the 17-mile course in 51:46 good for a 4th place podium spot on the day -- just 30 seconds off the first place pace and seven minutes better than my best practice run last fall. The what-ifs were jumping in my mind -- what if I hadn’t clipped my pedal? What if I hadn’t crashed? It’s only natural to have those thoughts, but the fact of the matter is that’s racing. It’s all part of it, and that’s why we do it.
Once the dust had settled Sunday afternoon, the all-mountain results were posted. Adam Craig had effortlessly set course records for both the XC and DH. My 6th place XC finish and 4th place downhill finish (3:16 combined) earned me an unexpected 4th place podium spot for overall all-mountain Expert 35-44, some 14 minutes better than my hopes. Wow. I’m still elated, and I feel like I nailed my bike specifications. But there’s one little problem: now I can taste the top spot and I’m going to have to come back to do it again. I know where I can make the time up if I can run a clean race and if I can come in with similar or better fitness. There go those ifs again …
One thing for sure -- I have no plans to compete in either the River Jump World Championships, or the Pixie Cross World Championships. Watch the videos, and you’ll understand why.
One other note: this event, and the incredible trails in/around Downieville are largely a result of the massive efforts organized by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a model organization for any trail advocacy group, and Yuba Expeditions, THE place to go in Downieville for demos and trail shuttles. If you haven’t been, you need to put Downieville on your list. Thanks guys.