Festival Report 2007
At first I could still see, a little bit. I knew the house was just up ahead, kind of. The truth is I had no idea where I was because all of a sudden it got really, really dark, really, really fast and all I could tell was that I was definitely not in the middle of the road anymore. I knew this because I could feel gravel under my tires where there had been smooth pavement before and now there was some kind of bush scratching my left leg.
So as far as the little half-fence goes, I really had no chance of seeing that either but when I first hit it I thought I might just be able to sort of careen off it and back out into the road. Instead, I struck it sideways and flipped over the fence and down like a pro wrestler getting tossed out of the ring. I still couldn’t see anything but I didn’t really need to because I could hear Cap’n laughing uncontrollably above me somewhere in the dark. And for some reason all I could think next was, “I must not be hurt if he’s laughing that hard. . .” To that point I had mostly survived my second night of the Downieville Classic, but laying there in the weeds, still clutching the handlebars as though I just might somehow “save it,” I slowly realized I still had a long way to go.
By now Downieville, California is pretty well known in most mountainbike circles, either first-hand or through pounds of glossy print. If you’ve ridden there you want to go back, and if you haven’t, it’s on your list. And living just 45 miles due south of Downieville in Nevada City (itself not too shabby a place to ride bikes. . .), I’m one of the luckier ones who gets to ride there quite a bit. So, in a sense, the Classic (the big race weekend of the year, the time when the town of 300 wells into a few thousand), becomes sort of like The Prom; most everyone you know will be there—try not to embarrass yourself.
In other words, whether you look forward to it or dread it, you can pretty much count on a few things happening: a) you’re probably going to get drunk. You can embrace it or somehow try to delay it, but it’s going to happen. Resistance is futile. b) Because of stipulation “a,” you’re going to see some ridiculous and/or embarrassing things. Not the least of which will be the river jump, pixie cross-racing, your friends wrestling half-naked and covered in baby powder in the middle of the pool table, the band, fire-dancing, magnum-sized beer-bonging, or anything happening in the bar after 12am on any given night (the after-party Sunday night, for instance, will be difficult to convey with mere language. . .). c) You’re going to do some mountain-biking. Sure it’s a race and all, maybe you even “trained” for it, but by the time you get off the mountain, by the time your friends tell you with virtually no sarcasm at all that “you look like hell,” you’ll get that same feeling mountain-bikers all get at the end of the day: a peculiar exhaustion blended with a simple question: “When can I do that again?”
It could be the most valuable moment of any mountain-bike ride, the instant we realize how necessary that day just was. So what I want to argue here is not just that Downieville is a great place to ride, there are lots of great places to ride, but that what makes it great goes way beyond just miles of singletrack. It’s that feeling we get when we recognize what a good time is; when we hit an event that didn’t just let us in, it included us and made us a part of the story. And it’s easy to see in a big race weekend just how many stories there are to be a part of. Without getting all squishy here and overly sentimental, I think it’s fair to say the crew at Yuba Expeditions, the dedicated few who put the whole race on, year after year, kick ass. They want you to have a good time; they want you to have an adventure. When you come to Downieville it’s likely that these guys will be the ones driving you up the hill; they’ll be the ones putting the tri-tip on the BBQ at ten o’clock at night for you because nothing else is open; and they most certainly will be the first ones to share a beer with you and listen to how much goddamned fun you had on the hill today, even though they were stuck in the shop wrenching while you were out playing.
That’s what I’m talking about. At the end of the day, it really isn’t about them, it’s about you and how much fun you can have in one weekend. And they don’t treat you like “you’re on the list;” they treat you like there is no list to begin with. Everyone is welcome and that attitude goes a long way towards making the Classic the ridiculously fun trip it is—every year.
There’s the cross-country course, to begin; one the few remaining point to point races left in the mountain-bike circuit—your basic 4,500’ climb, 5000’ descent, a ride I won’t try to describe here—it’s big; it’s fun; it never gets old. And the the downhill. . . well, what can I say? It’s fun, too—in the “wow-are-those-guys-really-that-much-faster-than-me?” sort of way. And the answer is. . .Yes. Yes they are. They’re dumb fast. They do things on bikes that are making me cringe just typing this. And even worse, they’re fit, too. I’ve been unfortunate enough to ride with local Nevada City boy Moschler for several years now, and I can easily say that chasing his ass on a bike is silly—up, down, sideways, whatever. Most of us locals were overjoyed to learn he had teamed up with Weir and might just get bored with making fun of us and leave us all alone for awhile. . .
After the race you can look forward to meeting your friends over your free post-race beer, dunking yourself in the North Yuba river or hosing down at the fire house with the geyser they put up in the middle of town. Then there’s more beer and the pasta feed, followed shortly by the afternoon competition: the Ron Williams Memorial River Jump.
Anytime you plunk down by the river with your bros and a few beers is a good time. But if you can do it while crazed teenagers charge down a ramp and launch twenty feet of air off a four-foot kicker into the middle of a river, all the while surrounded by hundreds of jeering spectators, now you’ve got something special. The chopper-bike entry this year definitely upped the ante, though, sadly, much of the gratuitousness of years past was curtailed by local law enforcement. Indeed, even Marty, the perennial emcee (who lends his voice and his own colorful commentary to the entire weekend) could scarcely contain his contempt, and was nearly drowned out with boos, as he stiffly declared to the crowd that “there [would] be no nudity this year during the river jump.” Definitely not something these people wanted to hear, not right now, anyway.
Because what’s happening right now, all around me, as I look up onto the bridge lined with adrenalin junkies, and west towards the shore, where people have spilled over the deck at the pizza place and down into the water, is something that almost has to be felt to be appreciated. It’s the collective sigh of a group that’s come to relax at the river, to put sunglasses on and stick their feet in the water and talk about that section that they almost blew in the middle of baby heads. . . I hear it like the chorus in a play I know well. . . “. . .I know man, that climb damn near killed me. . . so much dust, couldn’t see the guy in front of me. . .got to the top of the Pauley climb and couldn’t breathe for the first two minutes down Third. . . don’t know how Weir does it. . . finally passed him and he caught me on First. . .”
It’s the sound of a group telling its story, and everywhere people are laughing in recognition or flat-out heckling in derision. Somehow we each know we’re a part of this kooky event and the buzz comes from the participation; suddenly we realize we belong here. And its not even dark yet. . . you’ve still got some awards coming, a huge raffle with tons of free shwag to boot, a little pixie-cross racing (new this year and very well-received. . . this correspondent did four laps that easily felt like twelve. . .), and then there’s the band, and a little fire-juggling just for fun. . .
And maybe that’s the element that at first seems so obvious and later so critical: we’re all in it for the long haul here. We’re not necessarily a captive audience as much as a captivated audience; leave now? Why? Because unlike the dozen or so other races/events you might have been involved in besides this one, there’s just no need to rinse off your bike and crawl into your car right away. The folks at Yuba love biking and they put on a great race, but they go out of their way to host this event. The Classic, then, is really just a concentrated dose of the overall Downieville experience: long days on the bike, lots of good friends and good-natured heckling, and lots of beer. So stick around, eat some food, talk to your friends, meet Mark and Jason from WTB and ask them just what’s wrong with them, and then make sure you know where you’re going to put your sleeping bag—your night might end abruptly, with or without your consent. . .
Which basically brings me back to that small crash I described earlier, the one where my friend Cap’n from Sacramento Brewing Co. has a very good laugh at my expense. Now the rules typically state that “you’re not allowed to laugh at your friends until you’re fairly confident they’re not hurt. . . ;” what I didn’t mention before was that I was laughing most of the way home and I certainly didn’t stop the minute I flipped over that fence. In fact, I bet if you asked Cap’n about his weekend, he would most likely roll right into his impression of me getting tossed to the ground, complete with soundtrack of same--a sort of prolonged, kind-of panicked stutter, that abruptly ends with me shrieking “like a pteradactyl” and thumping the weeds. And, like most of our best times and, perversely, our best crashes, they wouldn’t be quite as memorable if they weren’t shared. . . at least it’s nice to know that our little, private embarrassments might have gone a long way to making someone’s day.