“It’s been outside of the norm of what we’ll usually do. We’re camping, pretty much swimming in lakes to shower. It’s not your usual cross-country race and you’re hanging out in the hotel and you have perfect rest for. It’s fun to go outside of your norm.”
— Troy Wells, Team ClifBar and first-time Downieville Classic racer.
Bright and early, Saturday morning kicks off a weekend of intense racing and outdoor hijinks for the 600 riders and families who have crowded this small, isolated outpost in California’s densely forested northeastern region. For Team Clifbar riders Menso de Jong, Katerina Nash and Troy Wells, that means rolling out of tents, firing up the camp stove for coffee and breakfast, kitting up and then spinning around to wake the legs. Before lining up at the start, the racers have their first official bike weigh in for the All Mountain category.
The day’s XC race–while traversing some distractingly stunning mountain terrain on historic gold-rush trails that date to the 1850s–is no joke. The 29-mile point-to-point course starts in Sierra City and races through old forests and carved river canyons with over 4400 feet of climbing and 5600 feet of descending. Known as the the Trail of Tears, the first eight miles is a patience-testing, leg-pounding climb that gains 3000 feet out of the gate. Racers summit to a thin-air elevation of 7100 feet and follow along a rim trail before starting a fast single-track descent along Pauley Creek Trail. Before a final dash into the Downieville finish, the course covers several other famed local trails, including the lightning fast and flowy Third Way Trail.
This is not Katerina’s or Menso’s first rodeo at Downieville. Both are seasoned veterans of the race and its podium. A former Junior All Mountain Expert winner in 2006 and 2007, Menso has missed only one Downieville Classic in the past 13 years. This race is where he got his start as a professional mountain bike racer. For Nash, a native of the Czech Republic and resident of nearby Tahoe, this race is special. In years past when Nash had conflicting World Cup races, she remained nostalgic for Downieville. Long on his race bucket list, this is Troy Wells’ first time here.
The pros and experts cover today’s course quickly and confidently. In the men’s field, the top 10 all finish in under 2:08. Nash handles the women’s field in 2:16:07, a full nine minutes ahead of her nearest competitor. In earlier years, a dominating time in the XC race may have guaranteed a win of the overall top spot. However, in the current points system, Sunday’s downhill race is still a determining factor for deciding the 2017 All Mountain World Champ title.
Most of Saturday’s race is finished in four hours, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the festival and party for the rest of the day. Racers, friends and families come together for river jump contest. Always a crowd favorite, contestants pull BMX moves off a steep ramp into the river. At night, Downieville closes off its main street for a party that includes a live band.
Words: Bryan Yates
Images: Jordan Haggard/Crystal Haggard