Journal

Shuttling Up to Downieville

If you haven't raced it, participated in it, or already added the Downieville Classic to your bucket list, you are missing out on a slice of some of the most entrenched roots in mountain biking — not only here in the West, but in much of the United States.

In its most literal sense, "Downieville" is a small mining town pocketed deep in the Northwest sector of the Tahoe National Forest, and a town whose population easily triples several times over during a single week in August. It also delineates the Downieville Classic — one of the first enduro mountain bike events ever held on US soil, now nearing its 20th iteration. But "Downieville" also represents a way of life, and a nod to the sport's frontier past. An escape from digital and physical noise, a connection to Tahoe dust, rock, and to the friends at the trailhead. From the quiet mountain breeze to the lazy amble of the Yuba River's North Fork, things are just slower here — of course with obvious exception to the screaming upper portions of the Butcher Ranch Trail.

Downieville is also just as much a rite of passage as it is a cultural phenomenon in the world of mountain biking. Obviously riding takes precedence over the course of its four-day weekend, but to call Downieville just a 'race' would be doing a disservice to its traditions which include the raucous live music, free pancakes and fajitas from Chris King, and of course the legendary river jump. We knew back in January of this year that our attendance would be a priority, but only if we were able to lend a tradition of our own to the event that has largely helped define the enduro riding scene here in California.

"Downieville" the extended weekend begins with three solid days of demo bikes and rides shuttled by the local outfitter Yuba Expeditions. This is the very best time to experience the incredible riding the area has to offer, because in only 96 hours, each trail's fast, rocky veneer would be torn asunder by nearly one thousand riders chasing enduro glory. The Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship is proudly in charge of (quite literally) moving mountains to manage these trails; doing so with a passion and artistic savvy we've yet to experience this side of the Rockies. It didn't hurt that they have access to explosives for much of the work, but that's a conversation for another time. While things that go 'boom' certainly go a long ways towards creating an amazing ride experience, the x-factor in the greater Downieville conversation remains with its leadership and vast breadth of experience across the Stewardship.

Downieville doesn't necessarily bring anything new to what you could experience on other trails in the West. However, uniqueness is found in the sheer buffet of variety that you're promised in the 5000 feet of vertical loss across a dozen miles from the area's marquee shuttled run. Here, you can delight in sampling everything from sweeping banked turns and naturally-occuring kickers, to tight switchbacks that transition into long, steep straightaways with clear sightlines. Speeds here are only limited by your desire to break the sound barrier, and how much of your deductible will cover a helicopter ride. Even still, Downieville's most prominent signature is the rocks. Outstretched, razor-sharp and damn-near omnipresent crags punctuate every square inch of the local experience, separating wheat from chaff for better or worse. Better if you clean the infamous waterfall rock garden at speed, worse if you exit the mountain with a broken rear mech and forearms and sidewalls in ribbons. Thankfully, the majority of the trail networks funnel conveniently back down into the upper part of Main Street, where one can find plenty of ways to relax after getting punished on the pre-ride above town. Most of the aforementioned ways involve a milkshake or the Yuba River and a few beers.

Amazing riding and local distractions aside, the Enduro event remains the crux of the Downieville Classic, and the initial draw that helped put the event on the map. The overall All-Mountain title is divided and decided across the weekend, with the grueling cross-country race on Saturday and the white-knuckle downhill race on Sunday — the latter of which is best known for being the longest downhill MTB race in the nation. In true enduro style, riders are allowed only a single weapon of choice for both days, thereby carefully weighing pucker factor verses suffer factor.

Rather than ride up or hop a photo moto to witness the pro categories tackle some of the choice parts on course, we opted to spend more time around the epicenter of Downieville, reveling in the soul of this special event. Lots more of these photos can be found here, on our Flickr page. But if you'd prefer to get a more complete sense of the scale of the race itself, you can find some unsurprisingly spectacular on-course race photography from our friends at MTBR here.

It wouldn't be "Downieville" without any one of the weekend's many special facets, but one of these traditions far outweighs the others, and that of course is the Yuba river jump. Held immediately adjacent to Main Street, the premise behind this event is much simpler — its gratification instant and visceral, and its explanation probably better left to still imagery.

There isn't a single aspect of the Downieville Classic that makes it worth missing. Hell, even Outside Magazine placed it on a list of the very best mountain bike festivals in the United States, and we couldn't possibly agree more. If you're also already making plans for next August, you can stake your claim when registration opens just after the New Year, but bear in mind that all 200 slots of the 2013 All-Mountain competition filled in less than twenty minutes. 2014 will undoubtedly fill that much quicker.

The Kitsbow Sprinter is currently recharging its batteries in our Marin port of call, but will soon be embarking for our longest road trip yet. You can learn more about this forthcoming tour and follow along by liking us on Facebook or following us here on Twitter. We'll see you out there. [zp]