Epic. That is the only word I can find to describe this race.
It started 11 years ago. My first mountain bike race was Downieville. I did this race in memory of my Dad and a good friend Andre, whom both had just lost their battles with cancer. I was racing not just for them, but also for myself. I wanted this race to be a milestone, or a turning point in my life, where personal health would become a priority in my life. After training hard, much to my surprise, I finished 2nd in the beginners class, I was stoked and hooked on this sport and there was no turning back. But winning this race has eluded me for 11 years until yesterday.
I mentioned my dad, just as I was leaving Truckee for Sierra City, where there is no cell phone coverage or internet, I received an email from my brother. He had just gotten out of surgery, his right coronary artery was 80% blocked, and the doctors had just successfully implanted a stent. My brother is a healthy guy for the most part and younger, for the doctors to find this on Friday was nothing short of a miracle because he did not suffer a heart attack and there was no damage to his heart muscle. Again, on my drive to Downieville, my thoughts were on health and how blessed we are to have good health and how glad I was to have my brother still with us. This was a Praise God moment and a great way to start a race.
This race starts in Sierra City and is the biggest annual event to happen in this sleepy hamlet and former gold rush town. The finish is in Downieville, 12 miles away via highway 49, but we would be taking a less direct route, up the barren face of the Sierra Buttes to Packer saddle, a 4,000 foot climb in 7 miles, then an extremely technical 5,000 foot, 20 mile descent to Downieville, with a couple short climbs thrown in for good measure. Being a good climber is an absolute must, but with so much descending you also need to be a great bike handler. This year due to my age, I entered the grandmaster division because the expert class only goes up to 45+. Grand master is 55+ and the competition is still incredible. With 425+ racers, there were 4 stage starts on a steep tiny little street packed with anxious racers. The gun sounded and we were off. With so many racers it is hard to know who is in your group, but prior to the race, I introduced myself to all the guys that looked old and had a pretty good idea who was in my age group. I have learned over the years to not go too hard at the beginning so as to not bonk, but to also be aware and not lose sight of your competition. Sure enough a couple guys in my group took off and I immediately put a target on their back and let them go but never lost sight of them. The start and the first 4 miles are pure climbing, and as you climbed the trail just got steeper. I know this course and I know where to pass and where not to, but with the adrenaline running it is hard to hold back. The first part starts on pavement and then turns to dirt in a half mile. As we sorted ourselves out, I passed one of my competitors on the pavement. We hit the dirt and I had one more guy in front. The fire road has basically 2 lines and one line will be smoother and firmer than the other. So everyone naturally migrates to the good line. To pass you need to go in the less desirable line which takes more energy, especially if there are rocks and loose gravel. For me the climb is all about conserving energy. By the time we got to the dirt, there was only one guy in my age group left in front. I was finally able to get on his back tire and decided to stay there for a while and conserve my energy. Looking ahead I could see a spot where the other line was firm and we were coming up on a slower group of people. Since he did not make a move, I did and zoomed past. We were 1.5 miles into the race and I was in the lead. I loved it, now I needed to hang on for another 26 miles! So this guy I passed was breathing hard and kept snorting through his nose. On the one hand, I could tell where he was by listening, but it was rather annoying to have a steam engine chugging right behind you. He immediately got behind me and would not go away. Now imagine a line of riders, wheel to wheel of all abilities stretching out for 3 miles. It is really quite a colorful sight to behold. 2 miles in and I was feeling good. I decided to pick it up and see if I could get away from my competition. In passing people, I was careful to wait for a spot where the passing line was clean with no loose gravel. It required a lot of patience and sometimes I would pass at the last second to make sure that the rider behind me would not get as good a passing line. Sometimes I would pass 3 or 4 riders, but within a few minutes the snorting would pick up again. Every mini attack I launched was met with a counter attack. Man, I could not get rid of this guy. But I did not panic, I just rode my race. I must have passed 50 younger riders by now and about 2/3rds of the way up I got behind a gal who was struggling up one of the steepest sections. In fact some guys had come off their bikes and were walking. Suddenly she stalled, our tires bumped and I was off my bike. The snorting behind me turned to cursing and the whole line was stopped. I quickly ran up the rise and hopped back on. Out of respect to my chaser I did not take off and pass this girl, I hung on to her wheel waiting for my competition to catch up, but after a minute I did not hear anyone behind me, so I took off. That was it, I had cracked him, the elastic was snapped and it was time to put some distance between us. The rest of the climb to Packer Saddle was all about keeping my heart rate just below the red line and using other riders to pull me. Finally we hit the top amidst lots of cheering fans, it was like the Tour with people standing in the road cheering and patting racers on the back, I was able to weave my way through all the fans and passed a few more riders that were refueling and then came the first singletrack descent.
In years past we used to ride down a really fast fire road from the top of Packer Saddle, but last year they changed to course to ride down a single track called Sunset trail. It is narrow, very twisty and no where to pass. Once you are in it you are like on a bobsled run for a mile of very turny and technical single track with lots of big trees on both sides. You just hope the guy in front does not make a mistake. So there is a group of 6 riders and I am in second, I can hear this guy yelling in the back to get out of his way. Yeah right. Eventually we did end up on the fire road and sped our way to Pauley creek. Now came the famous baby head section. Basically for the next mile or so the road was all rock and very steep. You had to go fast or get run over, but you had to be careful because there were plenty of sharp rocks and a flat would have put me out of the race. It was here that I realized my rear shock was losing air. Bouncing off these rocks was really getting to me and I thought my arms were going to fall off. I just kept praying that God would protect me by keeping my vision sharp and alerting me to dangers. Finally we crossed Pauley creek and hit the Pauley creek trail which leveled off somewhat and had less rock but still very twisty and turny. I was so afraid that the guys behind me were going to catch me in this section. I went fast, but was a little conservative because the obstacles here would suddenly appear out of no where and my reactions had to be quick and precise. When you are out riding on a normal ride you would be going much slower and could anticipate the hazards, but when you are racing to win, you have to take chances and hope for the best. It was here that I got behind a pro female rider that was fast but really knew the trail. Her line was perfection, it was like she knew every rock and root and which line to take through them. Yes she was a little slower than some of the guys, I probably got passed by 10 younger guys in this section, but right now I was more concerned about not making a mistake, because one mistake could cost me the podium. I had a couple of scary spots where my rear tire slid out, but was able to hang on and not fall. After we crossed the 3rd bridge, we started another short climb. I felt great, no cramping no burning just a strong spin to the top of this short climb and we were once again off on a very fast single track, called the 3rd divide trail, which was much smoother but very dangerous. There was a steep cliff on the right side, that if you went off, there would be no coming back. Speeds here can reach 35 to 40 mph. There are a few hazards, but I knew where they were and hit them perfectly. Again praying every mile or so. Suddenly a guy passed me and he looked like one of my competitors. I was devastated. I decided that I was riding too conservative so I took off to catch him. He was just way too fast, so I stuck with my game plan. Coming up was this steep rock that is about 10 feet tall almost straight up and very few people can ride it. I heard some guys yell that the group in front got stalled and bottlenecked, if I could clear this I could catch them. I gave it some gas and flew right up and over and sure enough I could now see the guy that had passed me a mile back.
Finally we hit the Empire ranch and strangely enough there was a girl standing there with a bottle of whiskey offering riders a drink. Really? Maybe the riders in the back who are not planning on wining could use one, but whatever. I put my sights on the guy in front and took off after him. I gained a little on the road and then we shot right back onto the 1st divide trail, another single track with the same cliff on the right. This time it was more level like an old flume went through parts of it. This is where I poured it on. My legs felt so strong I just started pushing, caught the guy in front passed him, realized that he was not in my age group, (whew) and then caught a few more riders. I loved this section and knew it well. Back onto a dirt road, I made a sweeping right turn to hit the final single track that would take me to the streets of Downieville. I saw another fast rider about 30 seconds in front. I made a goal of trying to bridge to him to give me more incentive to distance myself from any potential chasers. He made a little mistake and went down briefly and got back up, but I caught him and he let me pass. All of a sudden I heard a lot of yelling and it sounded like he was yelling encouragement to me to go faster which I obliged him by doing. The faster I went, the more my back tire would slid out the more he would yell, it was crazy. It was here that I hit my top speed of 29 mph. We finally get to the pavement and he just takes off trying to get me to chase his tire, but I was too spent. I gave it everything at the finish but could not catch him, but then again I did not need to. Riding into the streets of Downieville with the cheering fans, hands raised high, there is no better feeling to know that all that hard work finally paid off. I finished in 2 hours and 37 minutes, 4 minutes ahead of second place!
11 years ago this race was a turning point for me. Last Friday was a turning point for my brother. Rare in life are those crossroads that can become a turning point. Even rarer it seems are those that are willing to go the distance when we face those challenges. My hope is that we would have the courage to break those chains that bind us and discover what more life has to offer. Whether it is a fitness goal, a work goal or a spiritual goal, I pray that you will have what it takes to change and to have the perseverance to carry it through to completion. For me 11 years is not a long time because my lifestyle has changed for the better and I celebrate every day as a victory! May you also celebrate your accomplishments with great joy!