Words by Andrew Juiliano
Photos by Ethan Lawrence
06:15 a.m. ish
I open my eyes and stare through the mesh tent window. I’m belly up, on the bank of the North Yuba River, six miles upstream from of the tiny town of Downieville, California, the site of the 24th annual, two-day bike race that bears the town’s name. Out of habit, I search for my phone, forgetting that I’d left its worthless carcass in the car. The service had all dried up 30 miles to the east during my drive over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “Good riddance,” I think. I didn’t leave the nearest strip an hour and a half away to droll over a screen.
07:30 a.m. ish
I sip camp stove coffee and say hi to Jeff and his 11-year old son Gabe as they emerge from their camper van. The father-son duo will ride a tandem for the second year in a row since Gabe is still too young to race alone. They’ve set a goal of 4 hours to rid the point-to-point cross country from Sierra City start to Downieville, which tackles 26.5 miles and over 4,000 feet of climbing.
08:40 a.m. ish
Our vanload of racers squeezes into a parking space along the highway that cuts through Sierra City. Of the few actual rules this weekend, we’ve been warned that a thoughtless park job will result in a $900 tow to Nevada City, 70 miles away. “Is the dilapidated snowblower the property line marker?” I wonder out loud? All I get are shrugs.
09:30 a.m. Sharp
While nearly the whole weekend lacks punctuality, this time is non-negotiable. When the clock strikes 9:30 a.m., the pros start the 3,000-foot climb to the crest of the Sierras, with the remaining 700+ races taking off in five-minute intervals thereafter.
10:00 a.m. ish
“Breakfast was a bad choice,” I think while burping up a mouthful peanut butter bile.
10:10 a.m. ish
I hear coughing, coughing, and more coughing, and see a bong, thrust in my direction. I grin at this offering as the spectator yells encouragement between his fits of hacking, high up the climb.
10:45 a.m. ish
“This whole day was a bad choice, ” my right hamstring screams as I sit moaning in a pile of sticks and rocks. It put up with ascending the thousands of feet on exposed loose fire roads and endured the extra climbing that the organizers added last year, upon the completion of the new Gold Valley Rim Trail. They’ve touted it as “More Single Track!” to make the Classic even more epic, but my legs could give two squats about whatever they want to call it. After five minutes of stretching, I limply roll to the aid station and swallow a pickle.
11:35 a.m. ish
Stephan Devoust and Geoff Kabush scream across the line in first and second respectively after racing for two hours and change. Katerina Nash is in the midst of the fast pedally First Divide Trail, about 15 minutes from taking the women’s pro win. Me, I’ve pulled the pickle pin, still far from town, bouncing my way down the drainages. In the time it takes the two fastest men to finish, some riders are still slogging up the climb from Sierra City to Packer Saddle. The beginners have over two hours to make it, but not all of them will.
Main Street has been shut down for almost a day, transformed into a bicycle circus. It’s lined with vendor tents hocking the latest and greatest tech while filthy racers wandering up and down slurping whatever cold beverage they can find. I stumble through the spectacle, which the 90-degree heat has boiled into a bubbling pot of mountain bike stew. I’m redlining as I walk to the confluence of the Downie and North Yuba Rivers, where deep swimming holes and snow melted flows relieve the oppressive heat. I sink deep into the frigid water and my mind and time melt away.
I wander back to Main Street, which normally sports a population just north of 280, to mingle with the nearly 5,000 people who are in town for the weekend. There I spot Jeff and Gabe beaming. They broke their four-hour mark with 25 seconds to spare.
The banks of the river swell with shirtless hordes as kids and adults alike splash in the eddies. People pack the bridge overlooking the main swimming hole, where for the next several hours, the annual river jump contest takes place.
I run into Max and Campbell, good Northern California friends from my cyclocross racing days. We search for some seating on the packed banks. We instead plop down on a steep pumice slope under the bridge. It’s not all that comfy, but it’s in the shade, with prime views of the carcasses launching into the river.
The sun’s set behind the ridges surrounding Downieville and the herds have returned to the town center for the Log Pull, where rider after rider pedals a dilapidated cruiser down Main Street with a log in tow (it’s been the same chunk for two decades), then chugs a beer from the log mounted coozie. The crowd cheers for each chug with an enthusiasm that puts most frat parties to shame. In the end, a broken can tab undoes defending champion Brian Bernard. “Mechanicals happen” he muses with a chuckle as Clint Claasen pulls on the 2019 winner’s jersey.
The illustrious Santa Cruz Dance off will take place any minute, but the golden sneaker will have to wait for another year. My downhill race starts at 10:21 sharp the following morning at the top of Packer Saddle, and I don’t need any of my wits hung up on a hangover whilst bouncing down the trail at 40 miles per hour.
We pile into the car and wind east along Highway 49, past the campsite to retrieve our van from Sierra City. It’s still right next to the sad snow blower where we left it 12 hours earlier.
My body throbs as I climb onto my sleeping pad. I’ve long ago lost track of time, but there’s nothing left to do, but listen to the rushing North Yuba lull me into an exhausted, satisfied sleep.