Sunday, 10 July 2011


When I rode Downieville last year my aim (for this year) was to knock 10 minutes off my race time, which was 3 hours 37 mins. Well, the official race results for 2011 aren't in yet, buy by my Garmin friend's reckoning I came in at around 2 hours and 36 minutes. That's a clear ONE HOUR faster than last year! Woo Hoo!! So that's it! That's where this blog post could end.....

..Eeeexcept the race was made shorter this year due to unusually high snowfall. Despite the best efforts of the race organisers (and the efforts were spectacular given they had 30ft snow drifts to clear away to reveal rideable singletrack) parts of the regular XC course had to be bypassed. So, instead of the usual 29 miles or so, we did around 22. However, the dreaded "trail of tears" 3000ft ascent still greeted us soon after leaving the starting line. Last year I felt pretty strong and the climb didn't bother me so much. This year, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd marinated myself in coconut water, electrolytes and slow releases carbs in an effort to stay fueled. Plus, I'd dropped a notch on my belt so my weight was optimal. But I've spent much of this season out of action.... Was I in any shape to climb convincingly and still have enough in the tank to ride the descents well? As the huddled throng left paved road and hit dirt, I was about to find out.

Only my second race this year (out of a total 3 that I'll manage to do) and one of THE highlights of the MTB year meant this race was extremely important to me. So much so, that my adrenaline went into overdrive. Afraid of overcranking at the start and burning out too soon, but knowing the trail was going to get narrow and loose, I raced ahead of as many people as the double track allowed. My heart rate kept dabbing into the 180's with every surge forward. Not a good start, but I felt fine and decided to dial it down once we thinned out and hit the long slog to Packer Saddle. However I kept getting stuck behind one dude or another slowly picking their way up the trail. So I'd surge past them into the loose, rocky crap, overtake and aim again for a "rest" section. A few times I lost control, the front wheel washed out and I ground to a halt. My legs a little more cooked from spinning like a mad man in shale. Over an hour into the climb and my heart rate had yet to drop below 176bpm. Hardly ideal, but I still felt pretty good and pressed on, eventually cresting the first big test of conditioning Downieville throws at you and hitting Packer Saddle. Now, for the downhill!

The XC course normally takes racers down the Sunrise and Pauley Creek trails. A great way to warm up the Kung Fu and the rock garden provides a good way to filter the men from the boys (or at least, those on longer travel full-sussers from those on hardtails.) But right now those trails are better hit with skis than rides, so we went straight into the legendary Butcher Ranch trail. Butcher' starts out lovely and flowey with some great whoops to loosen you up for what lies ahead. Fast and rooty, the trail soon becomes rocky and technical. A few "water features" also added to the fun, cooling our heels (and hubs) and stripping away all the lovingly applied lube and polish from the Nomad. She did a great job though. Feeling dialed and ready, I pointed the bike and it ploughed through Butcher's features. I balked at the waterfall though. This year, it really was a full on waterfall. Not being able to decipher line from razor sharp, wet rocky hell, I hit it too slow and lost momentum. So I walked the rest of it. Looking over my shoulder I saw one guy heroically clean it, another take a hideous face-first fall, and about 20 other dudes doing the same as me. Nothing to be too ashamed of then. But everything else, I cleaned.

Gaining more confidence with every smooth line choice my speed kept increasing. Soon, the race became a blur. Especially when we hit the Third Divide trail. Third' is epic. I remembered it fondly from last year and relished the chance to hit it with another year's worth of riding experience under my wheels. I could feel someone on my heels, and expected a request to let them past at any moment. But as I got lost in the trail I tuned them out. Focussing on picking smooth lines, pumping the track and under no circumstances, dabbing the brakes. Enjoying the thrill of going faster and faster on a trail that was designed to draw such lunacy out of it's riders. Eventually I realised I was alone, having dropped my pursuer through sheer speed!

After the fun of Third Divide, we hit the final stretch of dirt, then paved road back to the streets of Downieville. I was cooked, but felt great. No cramping, but my legs were spent. I'd given it my all and crossed the finish line confident that I'd ridden as hard and as fast as I dared. More importantly, I'd had the best ride of the year. All in all, the perfect Downieville experience :o)

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