Downieville California is an eight hour drive from Bend Oregon. A drive I’d only done once, when I carpooled with “Crazy Mike” to the Singlespeed World Championships there in 2002. Mike’s old Range Rover had a “Follow Me To Certain Death” bumper-sticker. And Mike had plenty of time on the drive to explain his rationale for not having insurance, nor a driver’s license, for the prior eight years. After 8 hours of swaying with the winds at 90mph across the desert, with increasing numbers of fingers, and eventually toes crossed and wondering if a trip to Downieville was worth dying for, we drove into that sleepy little town. As soon as we had arrived, I knew Downieville was worth a little risk.
Last week, I was lucky enough to return to Downieville. This time for the Downieville Classic: a two day stage race consisting of a 2 hour XC loop and a 45 minute downhill run to the same finish line in downtown D-ville. The Classic is limited to 800 XC racers and 200 “All Mountain World Championship” riders who do both stages for a combined time. The races sell out in minutes, and for good reason: Downieville has at least a mile of raucous singletrack and two good swimming holes for every man, woman and child who call it home. Adam, Kelli, and Joe had such a good time last year that they convinced Giant to sponsor the event, and bring the whole family along.
In addition to our entire XC and DH teams and staff, we also had five magazine editors along to ride Giants that were equipped with Shimano’s new Dynasis 10-speed drivetrains. These guys, all fine riders who were right at home on the Classic’s burly trails, would be part of the team for the weekend. It was fun having some new blood with us at the breakfast table, and practicing on the trails. After 3 days of D-ville acclimatizing and hundreds of miles of combined practice runs on some of the fastest, rowdiest, and potentially most dangerous trails around, our group of 12+ racers were all in surprisingly race-ready condition. There were some cuts and bruises and quite a few tires that had died for the cause, but the bikes were standing up to the extreme punishment (did I mention the 30’x2’ river crossing? Did I mention the rocky 50mph Cliffside trails?) And nobody had landed on their faces. Not hard enough to go to the hospital, anyway… success! It was time to race.
Saturday dawned sunny and warm, and our caravan of Giant riders rolled into the XC start in Sierra City with a mixture of excitement and mildly veiled dread. The Classic’s XC course has something for everybody to worry about. If you’re a gravity guy on a 6” bike, it’s the initial climb of 3000 feet at a nice, steady 6%-18% grade with no shade. If you’re really into lettuce and powermeters, or if your bike lacks anything that might be referred to as a “pivot”, the big descent will give you nightmares and possibly a sphincter muscle capable of cutting medium-sized rebar. The beauty and tragedy of Downieville is the All Mountain bike rule: the bike you ride on Saturday cannot change before the downhill on Sunday. Bikes are weighed. Pictures are taken. Tires are marked. Compromises are made, strategies are hatched, the plot thickens.
For the Giant contingent, the Trance X was the bike of choice, and though it was a good one, I decided to take a chance and run what I was most used to; the Anthem X TwentyNine Prototype. Though it was short on travel and long on, uh, length, I figured I’d make up what I lost on the rodeo-ing through baby-heads parts on the kinder, gentler parts of the course. Bottom line: I’d probably need 3 minutes on AC to hold off his charge on the long descent. Hmmm.
The gun cracked, 800 people clipped their second cleats into their pedals, and 50 minutes later, I had a 4 minute gap at the feed zone. I did not know this, however, so I pedaled real hard and gave the occasional frightened glance over my shoulder. When the descent came, I was riding better than I had all week. I was jumping and drifting and sprinting and still looking over my shoulder. When I crossed the line, I had nearly 6 minutes on AC and a new course record (1:50:50) for my troubles. I guess a 29er can be competitive at D-ville… AC was second, Jason M. was third, a couple minutes back. Kelli won the ladies race convincingly as well, with a 3 minute margin. None of the downhillers on the team melted on the climb (Riffle was fast!) and none of the magazine guys crashed their brains out or had their bikes stolen by sasquatch. Success!
Sunday’s downhill was a time trial, led out by last years champion, downhill record holder, no.“1” plate, and co-driver extraordinaire, Adam Craig. After AC had chased the deer off the course, we all had our go, at one-minute intervals. Here, start position is granted not by XC placing, but by last year’s downhill results, so I was starting 37th, and hopefully wouldn’t have too many dawdlers to pass on my way into town.
After a good warm-up, I was on course and riding pretty fast. Another 20 minutes and I had made no mistakes and had caught exactly zero people. Where were all the dawdlers? AC had passed something like 6 people to win this event last year, so I was unimpressed with myself. Then came a big bridge to cross to my salvation: the biggest climb on the course, maybe 4 minutes long. I accelerated across the bridge, swung wide for maximum exit speed into the ascent, and, well, kinda ate colossal shit. Guess I swung a little too wide on the bridge and my wheel went off the boards. I landed on the rock that, coincidentally, a day earlier was the roost for a 6’ chicken with an airhorn during the XC. Turns out, my bike was still rideable, and after some wimpering and sniveling and pedaling with one leg for a while, I was okay too. So I finished a couple minutes down from the pointy end, where Weir had given the business to Ross and AC by 9 and 18 seconds. But I’d kept my All Mountain lead, and so had Kelli (just!) over a charging Katerina Nash. Success! (last time. Promise.) Two All Mountain World Championships for the Giant family.
Great races in a great place with heaps of fun people. I think this one goes on my short list for “best weekend of the year.” If you have the chance to go to Downieville and race your bike or just eat a blue-cheese burger and sit in the river, I’d say do it! But please, don’t let Crazy Mike drive.
Thanks for coming along for the ride,