Saturday, September 22, 2012

Trip Report: Downieville

This year I resurrected one of my ancient traditions: the birthday trip! In recent years, that practice fell into disuse because when you work and have limited vacation time and your favorite place is the Alps, you tend to spend your vacation days in the high summer instead of during the Indian Summer.
Downieville
This year, my choice was Downieville. Alex had done an expedition several years ago, and highly recommended Downieville Outfitters. I called them, arranged bike rentals for XiaoQin and I, an instructor for XiaoQin, and lodging. Mike Samuel, who had joined me on many previous Tours found out that the trip coincided with one of his rare visits to the Bay Area, and like the champ he is, signed up for it right away. Having committed to the trip, I was suddenly terrified that my mountain biking skills (which were nothing much to speak of) had deteriorated over the years to the point where the baby hills would destroy me, let alone a 4000' single track descent, so Eva, Tom and I went to Wilder Ranch and rode every single track trail we could find. It felt mostly natural by the time I was done, so I still felt chicken. We showed up at the outfitter with pedals, helmets, gloves and cycling attire. They rented us Specialized Enduros, which are fully suspended bike that are very light at 28 pounds each. But it was both our first time on fully suspended bikes and the first time you sit on a bike and it sinks below you is pretty disconcerting. Even with the seat set at the max height, it still felt like we were pedaling bikes that were just a few inches too small for us. This is apparently what it's like when you're pedaling a downhill bike: you're not expected to climb that much.
From Downieville
We got dropped off at the top of the Sunshine trail, and after adjustment, we headed down the hill. I expect descending to be less effort than climbing, but the first few switchbacks had me panting, not from pedaling, but from the sheer effort of wrestling the bike and fighting my instincts, not to mention the terror of falling. After a while I got used to the bike and got a little aggressive, and promptly fell, skinning my knee by just a couple of hairs. This was OK.
From Downieville
Mike was also having trouble getting used to mountain biking again after a 10 year hiatus, so we comforted each other and didn't push --- on anything too questionable, we would stop and walk it. Even being chickenshit, however, our skills noticeably improved by the end of the ride, and we were doing 2-3 foot drops with the seat coming up to my chest a few times without too much panic. We were even getting better about knowing when to stop to raise the saddle and when to drop it.
From Downieville
Who got back to town at about 1:30pm after a 3 hour 40 minute journey. XiaoQin had long since been back to town from her ride with her instructor/guide, and she had had fun though she was also a little freaked out by her first single-track descent. She didn't want to do any more climbing, so Mike and I went in for a second run at Downieville.
From Downieville
From Downieville
What a difference practice makes. This time, both Mike and I made it down Sunshine and Butcher Ranch relatively fast. We could make corners, and could even relax and look at the scenery. We had big smiles at the end of each segment, and could even contemplate doing this as a break from serious road biking. We could begin to see why many downhill mountain bikers were gravitationally challenged --- once you learn to relax on the bike, you can go faster and not spend all your energy fighting the bike. We could even ride some of the sharp rocks that freaked us out, though we still walked far more than all the other cyclists on the trail.
From Downieville
We finished the second run at 5:30pm, returned the bikes, got our pedals back, and had a beer before Mike took off for the Bay Area.
From Downieville
The next day, XiaoQin and I drove up to hike a bit of the Pacific Crest Trail. We didn't go far because it was hot, and we suffered from Europhile syndrome --- once you've seen the Alps, the Sierra just doesn't pretty.
From Downieville
We headed back from the Bay Area pretty happy, and I'll ask XiaoQin if she wants to do any more mountain biking in the future. In any case, I now had a better understanding of what makes downhill mountain biking special, and why people do it. Recommended

Update: Video:

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