ASS Does Downieville: Broken bars, busted wheels, bruised egos

Weekend filled with wrecked equipment, stitches, and a big fall off a steep cliff

Opinion Travel
Getting ready to load the shuttle at Yuba Expeditions. Photo by Kevin Egelhoff

Getting ready to load the shuttle at Yuba Expeditions (click to enlarge). Photo by Kevin Egelhoff

“Have you seen my mom?”

The 15 year-old kid had a genuine look of panic on his face as he rode into the Yuba Expeditions parking lot. I recognized him from a few hours earlier when I passed him at the junction of Pauley Creek and Butcher Ranch trails. He was waiting for his mom, dad and younger brother. You know, just a family-friendly outing on the treacherous trails above Downieville.

The kid looked around with as much controlled panic a 15 year-old can muster. I told him that I saw his mom about 20 minutes earlier walking around the parking lot. I asked if everything was okay and he shook his head.

“My dad fell off a cliff and is hurt really bad.”

After the false alarm a month ago that sent a paramedic chopper out for nothing, I asked if the kid was sure his dad was really hurt. The kid said his dad could walk, so at least until he returned to town, the paramedics could wait.

A few minutes later the kid found his mom and they sped off in the car to retrieve dad. An hour later dad was back in town, covered in dirt and a little blood recounting his unforgettable Downieville experience. The kids looked on in awe while mom just seemed glad her husband wasn’t on a stretcher. Dad said he wasn’t even riding when the fall happened. He reached a treacherous spot on First Divide trail and got off to walk when he lost his footing and the tumble began.

He fell about 20 feet and almost rolled to a stop when the cliff got steeper and his tumble continued another 20 feet. He almost stopped again, until the cliff got steeper still, and fell another 20 feet. All told, 60 feet down a cliff and the only thing dad seemed to suffer was a bruised ego and a busted rear wheel. A lucky man for sure.

ParmaJohnny was lucky his broken bar didn’t break his neck. Photo by Kevin Egelhoff

ParmaJohnny was lucky his broken bar didn’t break his neck (click to enlarge). Photo by Kevin Egelhoff

Even luckier of a man was my buddy ParmaJohnny, one of six friends visiting for the weekend from San Diego on a three-day tour of Downieville’s best trails. It was when the group was bombing down the warp-speed singletrack of Third Divide trail for the second time in a day that near disaster struck.

As ParmaJohnny recalls, he went to jump over a blind rise when on the backside of it his front wheel stuffed into a rock. The jarring impact caused the right side of his carbon fiber handlebar to snap clean off, sending him face first into the dirt. The fact that ParmaJohnny emerged from the wreckage with nary a scrape on him was simply astonishing. I haven’t seen a handlebar snap like that in nearly 20 years. It was a scary sight for sure, and a reminder that the trails of Downieville always claim equipment that’s not worthy. And for the record, no, the shifter and brake clamps were not over-tightened. This was simply a case of a handlebar being too thin and too light.

Four slashed sidewalls in three days of riding is pretty standard performance for six guys visiting Downieville.

Four slashed sidewalls in three days of riding is pretty standard performance for six guys visiting Downieville (click to enlarge).

Beside a snapped handlebar, during the three days of riding in Downieville, the San Diego crew suffered a broken pedal, a broken spoke, eight flats and four slashed tires; pretty standard performance in Downieville for a crew of six hard charging riders. Even a 900-gram Maxxis Minion DHF is no match for Downieville, as I managed to put two holes in one by simply trying to ride safely down a jagged rock section of Butcher Ranch. The only tires I’ve managed to not slash yet are the 1100-gram WTB Vigilante and Trail Boss tires with Tough casing. Although they add an extra pound of weight to my bike, the peace of mind is worth it.

If your tires are worthy, your wheels might not be. Only a week before, my new friend Ted Lincoln cracked two brand new carbon fiber no-name Chinese rims on his first ride. The lesson: Don’t come to Downieville with inferior or unproven equipment; it will most likely fail and your body might end up paying the price.

Continue to page 2 for more from Downieville and a photo gallery »

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.

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  • Tom K from VT says:

    Granted, the Downieville trails are rough, but a lack of technical skill is what causes crashes and broken equipment, not the merciless terrain.

    • joey007 says:

      Tom , I agree with you. Sure there is a good line and a terrible line, I’ve ridden DV on rigid SS, I pick my lines.

      Sure follow someone with terrible lines and you too will slice tires, get flats and get bucked off the bike…..

  • The Angry Singlespeeder says:

    Tom K from VT – Come on out to Downieville and I’ll show you how wrong you are.


  • Joe says:

    I know exactly where that handlebar cracked. I cased that same backside on a rented Tallboy LT a few years ago when I started taking bigger risks due to the confidence it was giving me. I couldn’t believe the wheel/fork/bars/frame took that impact undamaged. Instead they gave all that energy right back to me and threw me farther than I’ve ever been throw from a bike. My Camelbak took the brunt of it, but my helmet did not survive.

  • TahoeSteve says:

    When I went there I would leave my SS at home and rent a bike, haha!

  • oldmtb says:

    Have to partially agree with Tom K from VT. Skill does wonders for crash prevention, but speed is the biggest factor. Skill and not “blasting” it even when you’re tempted to can give you a 100% no crash rate… if you can resist

  • Jim says:

    I’ve ridden Downieville several times with no problems, I ‘ve done both Butcher Ranch and Pauley Creek, I’ve never crashed there. BUT I don’t fly down the mountain either , a 67 year old guy doesn’t heal that fast.

  • CW says:

    I finally spent an extended group weekend riding Downieville a month ago.
    After reading many posts like this over the years, I was expecting at least some carnage, but not one of the six riders in my group had any mechanicals or tire issues, despite our well above average speeds bombing down all of the most challenging trails.
    In fact, four out of six riders in our group were riding hardtails. My bike is a modern XC bike with 100mm rear travel and 120mm front, with a more ‘Enduro’ build and cockpit. I was running light XC tires, Maxxis Ikons, front and rear, the tires were 7 months old. I was charging hard on every inch of trail and didn’t have one gear issue the whole trip.
    Clearly, Downieville is a place where a rider can easily get severely injured, but I just wanted to mention my experience as a contrast to the usual lore of blood and broken bikes.
    If you are a highly skilled + fit rider and your bike is in solid working order, you can have at least a 50/50 shot of making it out unscathed.
    Then a few weeks later, riding my ‘everyday trails’ near my house, I witnessed my friend, a skilled rider, break his neck on a simple trail element. After surgery, he is on the road to recovery, but we really cannot predict where and when something scary might happen.
    We always need to be alert and on our game in this sport.

    • dr.zeek says:

      Funny how it’s always the trails close to home that cause the most serious accidents. I fell and completely stuffed two of my fingers on a trail near my house that I’ve ridden dozens of times.
      Simply put, I wasn’t giving the (fairly simple) trail the respect it deserved and I paid the price.

  • JimmyDee says:

    Looks like that handlebar is snapped clean. That’s almost always an indicator that the bolt has indeed been overtightened. This is because it creates a tight spot on the carbon which flexes just a tiny bit and over time creates micro-fractures in the carbon fiber, which snaps clean off when given a bit of a jolt.

    Carbon that breaks when it is correctly tightened usually tears with jagged edges with lots of bits of carbon that have broken in different parts along the length of the fiber.

    But I agree that carbon really isn’t the wisest choice for a hardcore trail when injury is just a fall away. I save that for my ultra-light multi-purpose XC bike and stick to quality aluminum for the gnarly stuff.

  • randycpu says:


    I rode Downieville with the shuttle several years back with me on my new Intense Uzzi and my brother on his old FS Kona. He got three flats, and I had no troubles. I could pick any line because I had so much control.
    Recently I’ve followed your “advice” and moved to wider (ibis 741) wheels and lower pressure.

    My question: Are you still using the wider rims with lower pressure in DV? Could the low pressure be why you get flats?

  • st santa clarita says:

    Jamis Dakar… DV classic… 1 flat tire for not lifting my ass end over the foot bridge lip. was riding mythos 2.1’s on richey rims…nothing special… It was a race…so I was
    I wasn’t just floating down the hill either. If you don’t flat a lot, take your normal back ups. You gotta hit these trails if you’re an experienced rider… awesome. Take ur beater to launch in the river !

  • Art says:

    OK guys, as much as this downhill run is fun it must be acknowledged twice as much in my opinion how dangerous it is and how quickly it can get from ecstasy to agony, especially for those who have not done it yet. I was on my way down to a 150 ft drop after falling off the bike with nothing to hold on to, the only thing that saved me was a rope that someone from Yuba tied between two small trees. It was a vertical drop with no slope and the rope saved my life, plus I wasn’t even going fast. Please be careful!

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