From the outside looking in, it is probably hard to imagine a California beyond its iconic coastal megalopolises. Even for the residents it’s hard to fathom parts of the state so remote that their formal name could include the adjective “Lost.” Yet, Downieville–home to the famed Downieville Classic Mountain Bike race–sits in the heart of California’s Lost Sierra. At an hour north of the northern edge of Lake Tahoe, Downieville is indeed remote terrain.
It sprang to life in September 1849 when Francis Anderson struck gold at the confluence of the North Fork of the Yuba and Downie Rivers. Named for its founder William Downie, a Scottish expeditionary miner, Downieville sits in the Northern Mines route of California’s famed 19th century gold rush. Those mines, and their once thriving towns and camps, have long since disappeared, leaving behind a few ghost towns and lots of wild backcountry.
A rush of gold brought with it the inevitable rush of people and ancillary businesses to the area. By 1850, this mining camp had 15 hotels, multiple bakeries and butcher shops, and several saloons. As with many mining town stories, Downieville is not without some notoriety of a checkered past. In 1851, a mob lynched and hanged Josefa “Juanita” Loazia. Suspected of killing a miner, Josefa was the first woman hanged in the state of California. The town is purportedly also home to California’s oldest weekly newspaper, the Mountain Messenger.
In its heyday, in 1852, Downieville boasted a population of 5,000. By 1865, that number was in fast decline. The 2010 U.S. Census estimated Downieville’s population at 282. That, however, does not include the 600 or so mountain bike fanatics who crowd Downieville one weekend each summer for the Downieville Classic.
Founded by Greg Williams, the Downieville Classic, now in its 22nd year, has earned that “classic” title. Combining elements of XC and enduro, the race is hosted by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, whose mission is the restoration and preservation of trails throughout the Lost Sierras. Downieville Classic is part of the Lost Sierra Triple crown series, which also includes Grinduro and the Lost and Found gravel race.
This is a unique and renowned bucket-list mountain bike race. Riders return to it time and again. That’s why Menso de Jong, Katarina Nash and Troy Wells–three Team ClifBar pros–are here.
Words: Bryan Yates
Images: Jordan Haggard/Crystal Haggard