(July 10, 2010) DOWNIEVILLE, CA – Words by Michael Riepe; Photos by Rocky Arroyo, Nanci Ivis, and Michael Riepe
The day dawned hot and dry in Sierra City, the start of the 2010 Downieville Classic cross country race. Two weeks before, while pre-riding the course in 80 degree weather, we had encountered multiple sections of hike-a-bike through incongruous 6 foot deep snow drifts, and the entire Sunrise Trail section had been closed due to deep snow and fallen trees. It had been a big snow year in the Sierra Nevadas, and we’d been praying for continued good weather to dry out the course. Mother nature, and the dedicated trail crews, didn’t disappoint, as the trail was clear and tacky and fast just in time for race day. And there was cold Fat Tire Ale and an icy swimming hole waiting for us at the end of the trail.
Downieville is an old gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains about an hour north of Lake Tahoe. Among other things, Downieville has the dubious distinction of being the site of the only female lynching in California history. These days, the gold rush is over and lynchings are out of style, so the town has transformed itself into a Mecca for rafting, kayaking, off-roading, and mountain biking. The area boasts over 30 trails lovingly maintained by a very active local nonprofit, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.
The Downieville Classic consists of 3 races. The point-to-point Cross Country race begins in Sierra City (elevation 4,090 feet) climbs 3,000 feet in 8 exposed miles to Packer Saddle, then descend to Downieville through 19 miles of luscious downhill fire roads and single track trails with names like Baby Heads, Sunrise, and Pauley Creek. The Downievile Downhill racers drive to Packer Saddle, skipping the 3,000 feet of “Uppyville”, and bomb through a similar downhill course as the XC race, adding on the much more technical Butcher Ranch trail with its famous waterfall drop. There is also a limited enrollment All Mountain category, in which riders must use the same bike (verified by an official gear check and weigh-in) on both the Downhill and XC course, for the lowest combined time. Bike choice can be critical in the AM race. Do you go with a large travel big-hit downhill bike on Friday that you’ll have to lug up Packer Saddle on Saturday, or do you go with a light weight carbon race bike and take your beatings like a drunk miner-49er on the downhill?
I started with my buddies Jason and Tracy in the 2nd wave of Sport men and women, 5 minutes behind the pros and experts. The trail winds upward for a mile on paved roads before turning onto dirt at the town dump. At that point you can see a good portion of the first 5 mile climb stretching above you. What I saw in front of me was a long line of riders, mostly single file, kicking up an endless rooster tail of dry dust. The trail consists of a gravel fire road, very loose and rocky, typically with only a single good line cut by previous riders. I tend to start slowly, and pick up speed as I get warmed up, which meant that there were a lot of slow bikes in front of me in that conga-line. I asked myself WWJD? (What Would John [Tomac] Do?) He’d start passing people. I got myself into a good rhythm, jumping out into the rough to pass 5-10 bikes, then jumping back into line to catch my breath and rest. I hit packer saddle in about an hour and a half, cruised through the fast swoopy technical joy of the Sunrise Trail, and made my way over the longest section of fire road to the top of the Pauley Creek Trail. It begins with a few miles of trail named “Baby Heads”, a rough 4x4 track covered with loose rocks the size of you-know-what. Inner tube retailers made a lot of money that day, but I managed to clear it unscathed.
The rest of my memories of the downhill course are a blur, consisting mostly of other riders yelling out “passing left” from behind me. The Third Divide trail stands out as an especially fun section of immaculately groomed swoopy single track where you can build up gut-wrenching speeds. There is also the First Divide trail, which looks like it was blasted out of the face of the cliff, sometimes 100 feet of vertigo inducing height over the rushing river below. It was on this trail, two weeks before, that we stopped to help a couple of motorcycle riders pull up a 300 pound dirt bike that they’d hucked right off the cliff (miraculously without getting hurt.)
The race ends with a one mile spin down Main Street into Downieville to the finishing chute, which funnels you right past free beer on tap from New Belgium Brewing, free tacos cooked up by the folks from Chris King, and tents from the other sponsors such as Ibis Bikes, Santa Cruz Bikes, MTB, Clif Bar, and Camelback. Racers then make their way down to the river, which boasts a fantastic swirling swimming hole perfect for washing off the trail dirt. Later in the day, this swimming hole is transformed into Ron’s House of Big Air, the self described River Jump World Championships, an event which makes for much better photographs than the cross country race itself.
If you are ever in the Lake Tahoe area, the trails of Downieville are not to be missed, and this classic race should be on everyone’s calendar.
Official results follow. The pro podiums were the same for the XC and All Mountain events. Apparently it’s difficult to make up enough time on the downhill to compensate for slower climbing on the XC course. Take note when making your bike choice!
Pro Women’s Downhill podium: Katerina Nash (49:46.8) , Kelli Emmett, Lizzy English, Karla Kingsley.
Pro Men’s Downhille podium: Mark Weir (44:01.5), 2008 defending All Mountain champion Ross Schnell, Adam Craig, Nathan Riddle.
Pro women’s XC podium: 2009 3rd place All Mountain winner Kelli Emmett (2:08:56.0), 2009 defending champion Katerina Nash (3 minutes back), Lizzy English, Sarah Maile.
Pro Men’s XC podium: Carl Decker (1:50:50.3), 2009 All Mountain defending champion Adam Craig (6 minuts back), Jason Moeschler, and Tim Olson.
One Speed Men XC podium: 2009 2nd place winner Paul Janney (2:21:16.7), Keith Marchando (7 minutes back), Matt Chappell, Kurt Gensheimer.
The Expert Senior Women's category was won by 14 year old W15-16 National Champion Kate Courtney in 2:35:54. Second was 17 year old Sofia Hamilton (second at Nationals in W17-18), about 3 ½ minutes back. Both ride for Whole Athlete, a sponsor with a fantastic junior development squad. I think we can expect great things from these women in the future.
For the record, I was 41st of 99 among Sport Veteran Men, in 2:59:47.7. My friend Jason was 2 seconds behind me (to be fair, he was cramping) and Tracy stood on the podium with 3rd place in Sport Veteran Women with a time of 3:17:00.5.
For more photos see:
For more information about the Downieville Classic Mountain Bike race please visit the official website: