Of all the mountain bike events I’ve had the privilege of participating in over the past 20 years, the Downieville Classic is still number one. There’s something simply magical about this storied hamlet tucked deep into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.
The rich Gold Rush history that originally gave birth to the town in late 1849 makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time more than 150 years. The lack of reliable cell phone coverage makes you escape the constant nagging annoyances of the outside world. The confluence of Lavezzola Creek and the Yuba River in the center of town form a giant swimming hole everyone congregates in post-ride. The upbeat attitude and smiling demeanor of Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship volunteers makes you feel wanted and welcome. And of course the legendary trails carved more than a century ago by gold prospectors deliver a riding experience unlike any other.
Downieville isn’t the rockiest or most technical place you’ll ever ride, but do yourself a favor and bring two extra inner tubes, a patch kit, a tire boot, a chain tool, some duct tape, a little bailing wire and a replaceable derailleur hanger. Why? Because Downieville serves up just the right amount of rocks and breakneck speed to wreak absolute havoc on even the most modern mountain bike equipment. If it can survive Downieville, it can survive anywhere.
Even to a Downieville veteran like myself, there are always hidden surprises just waiting in the dirt. Right when you think you know every little square-edged, razor sharp rock along the 15-mile descent, you hit just the right rock in just the right place at just the right speed to bring an abrupt end to the fun. There is never a moment in nearly an hour of descending where your attention can lapse. The second you start daydreaming or think you have matters handled–BAM!–Downieville shows its gritty teeth and takes a satisfying bite out of your ego, your bike, your body and sometimes all of the above.
The 3000+ foot initial climb takes no prisoners. Photo by Forrest Arakawa
I always tell first-timers to Downieville that there are about five spots on the 15-mile descent where you can potentially double flat in an instant. If you know these five spots and simply back off the throttle to get through them safely, you can have a clean run almost every time…except for when you forget about that sixth spot.
It’s these kinds of wild cards that make Downieville such a legendary race. There’s so much strategy involved. Some riders slay the soul-crushing, eight-mile, 3,200-foot ascent, then just maintain and ride the downhill safely, hoping nobody catches them. Others struggle on the climb only to leave everyone in a towering cloud of dust on the downhill. Downieville is the only race I can think of where a super fit rider can destroy everyone on the climb, only to lose all the time gained and then some on the nearly hour-long downhill.
Bike selection is crucial. Tire selection even more so. Those who decide to run a 500-gram tire at Downieville are playing some seriously steep odds. Those in the know don’t mess around in the rubber department. Eight hundred-gram tires are a starting point. An hour at breakneck speed is a long time to be worrying about your flimsy tire selection.