...unless you're there to race, and you think you have a shot...
Then Downieville will taunt you with the occasional clean run where you were going so fast your eyes were watering and you couldn't see... yet you still hit the lines and floated over the gnar with ease... and you're superman. That would be how I felt on my first trip up there this summer in late June. When I went up again the weekend before the race... something was off. I was on edge, probably because I sensed the Kryptonite that was waiting for us. Between my teammate Ryan and I, we had 5 flats, one broken spoke, a broken chain, a broken derailleur cable, a sliced sidewall on a new tire, and a lost pair of sunglasses. Downieville always has a way of reminding you who's boss. Frustrated with how things had gone the weekend before I really didn't want to go into the race with such a bad taste in my mouth. Since my Tallboy LTc was all put back together and dialed by Eddie at Town Center Bike by Tuesday, I took off work and headed up for one more day of practice on Wednesday. I softened up my suspension a bit and decided I was just going to give it some flow, relax, and give the rocks the respect they demand. It turned out to be a flawless day and I had some of my fastest times... leaving me feeling much better going into the race.
But for me with that confidence comes some self imposed pressure and a big bundle of nerves. I was a mess on Friday... I just wanted to race!!! I worked hard all day at chilling out and by the evening I had finally attained a little racer-zen and told Jen "Eh... it's just a ride on sweet trails with 600 other dudes."
That was the perfectly relaxed attitude I needed to have and that I maintained until I was stopped in road construction traffic on my drive up race morning. Sitting there, going nowhere for 20+ minutes as the clock ticked away I was suppressing some serious internal rage. Once I arrived in Sierra City about 40 minutes later than I'd planned... I still had to pick up my reg kit, weigh the bike and hopefully warm up. But it was out of my control and I could only move so fast. So still in my street clothes I rolled down to the reg area without my phone or garmin (If I can't see the time I can't freak out about how late I am!) to knock out those necessary tasks. People were warming up all over and some even wondered if I was racing since I was rolling around in shorts and a t-shirt. No... I haven't embraced the "Enduro lifestyle" quite to that extent... I'm just late! Eventually I got all my stuff ready to go and I went down to the start line with about twenty minutes to spare. It was already a clustered mass of racers on the narrow road waiting for the start, and I picked my way through and up to the pro start group expecting to be able to warmup ahead of the start line like in years past. But that wasn't allowed this year and I was stuck to ride in 30ft circles in the open area between the pro and expert start groups. The worlds smallest warmup loop! I wasn't warm, I was starting in the back of the pack... oh well. At least it was time to race, finally!
Usually this race starts out at a fairly mellow pace up the road, which I figured would give me time to warm up before really getting into the climb. Not so much though when you have a Pro Tour road rider (Levi Leipheimer) in the mix. In one of the fastest starts I've ever experienced in this race, I was playing catch up from the gun. The group stretched out quickly and I was stuck behind a couple guys joking about the start not mattering and "This is where the race is won or lost." Yadda yadda... move guys... it matters for me! I ended up burning a few matches before I finally made it up to some familiar faces in Jason Moeschler, Kenny Burt, and my teammate Ryan about 10 minutes into the climb. I dialed it back a bit to something a little more sustainable for the 40+ minutes more of climbing and hoped my glutes and low back might loosen up a bit too. We hit the early steep section and my back tire slipped out half way up so I walked the rest and recovered as about three riders passed by. I remounted and caught back up to Jason and Kenny but it wasn't long before they decided it was time to go and put it in another gear. I was not matching that. Whether that was mental weakness or not, I resolved to "diesel mode" and chugged up the climb.
I kept Ryan in sight and was about 20 seconds back from him as we approached the cheering crowds at the top. I had no idea where I was positioned but a friend yelled out that I was 12th. WOW! Since I wasn't able to keep tabs on the front guys from the start, and considering how slow I felt just chugging along, I was STOKED to hear that! I happily took my bottle hand-off from my adopted race family (thanks Morins!!!) and headed in to Sunrise trail a little over 53 minutes into the race, one of my fastest times to the top (on the heaviest bike I've ever raced)!
After clipping my bars on a tree early on Sunrise trail, my focus resumed and I stayed smooth and relaxed, feeling like I was gaining some ground. At least nobody was catching me, which I was expecting. On the traverse over to Baby Heads I multi-tasked and munched down a mini blueberry crisp Clif Bar, chugged a bunch of water, and closed the gap to Ryan. However once I got into Baby Heads section I played it conservative and went into equipment preservation mode. More than anything I really, REALLY wanted to have a clean race without a mechanical problem or flat. Something I don't think I've ever been able to do at Downieville. I was respecting the rocks... so to speak.
That granted a little physical recovery as well and once I splashed through the creek and made it up onto Pauley Creek trail I was ready to hammer. I set out to chase down Ryan and ended up passing Alex Wild and Neilson Powless before connecting with Butcher Ranch trail. Knowing I was now in the 10th spot I wanted to preserve that with everything I had... but it would still be nice to catch some more guys. So I danced that fine line between taking risks and protecting the equipment down Butcher, narrowing the gap to Ryan. After the short climb up to Third Divide the gap was down to about five seconds. As I opened up the suspension, lowered the seatpost and dropped into Third Divide a spectator said "Have fun!" Oh yeah baby!!! I quickly got up to speed, but since I was only wearing glasses for the XC and still protecting my bike I grabbed a bit more brake in places... only made it up to 33mph on one of the most fun sections of MTB trail in the country. I think Ryan was going balls out though because I couldn't see him anymore as I went into the final push... First Divide trail. I put my head down and felt the burn... looking over my shoulder wondering when SOMEONE was going to take away my top 10. I just didn't feel fast and it hurt! But I was starting to see some dust... was I catching Ryan? On a long stretch I could see that it wasn't Ryan, but a smaller rider in a black kit. The only guy I knew up ahead fitting that description was Levi. I pushed harder. A few corners later I came around to bike, rider, dirt and rocks flying everywhere! I fish-tailed and avoided the tumbling wheels and yelled "You OK?" as I went by. And when I looked I could tell that it was Levi, and he didn't respond as he got up slowly. I hit the brakes and yelled back again, "Levi... you OK!?" "Yeah..." So I kept going. And at the next road crossing I yelled to the volunteers there that if Levi didn't come down in a minute to go check on him. I hammered down the last bit of First Divide, making sure not to over shoot a few key corners and fall into the river. Eventually I made it to the pavement, ecstatic that I had finally made it through a race here without a problem!
On that final stretch of pavement I kept looking over my shoulder for Levi though, figuring he could take the spot back and pass me with roadie power just like Menso de Jong did two years ago. But I held it out and finished in 9th with my best XC time ever by over five minutes! I high-fived Ryan who had finished up in 8th, almost catching 7th place rider Kenny Burt. And after a little cryo-recovery in the river I started my drive back home, excited to share the news with Jen.
Sunday morning, of course when it didn't matter as much, there was no construction... figures. But it was good to get to the top nice and early. I leisurely got ready, weighed the bike in (just over 28lbs), and pedaled around a while. I felt primed and ready after a 40 minute warmup... and a double espresso Clif Shot! The race crew was pumping some heavy metal tunes and I had some Rage Against The Machine blaring while I was in the start line. I'm not really a fan of theirs... but it worked! I was rockin' out and ready to rip!
I set off and had a very smooth run on Sunrise, then promptly proceeded to almost wash out on the first two corners of the newly re-routed Butcher Ranch fire road. Thankfully I didn't go down and proceeded to have one of my best ever runs down Butcher. I climbed strong up to Third Divide and was gassed as I dropped in. I took a few breaths to recover and missed out on some speed, only getting a little over 35mph on the initial descent. But I was railing all the corners and just loving it! I was starting to get excited, knowing it was going to be a fast time if I could hold on.
I hadn't even hit anything! I was being so smooth! It's smooth trail right here! AAAhhhh!!!! My back tire was immediately flat. I pulled over and had the world's fastest tube change... getting back on the bike not long after a second rider had passed by. But about 100ft later... POW!!! Like a gun shot. There was something else wrong, and my only tube, and only co2 can was done. I inspected the rear tire to find a hole in the bead... dang. A rider tossed me a tube and co2 as he passed, awesome. It was a 26er tube but I stretched it to fit and aired it up. Though I couldn't put much pressure in it with the bulging bead. I limped down the trail but the inevitable happened after just a few hundred yards and it pinch flatted. Well... gotta get down the hill anyway... so lets just see how strong these ENVE hoops really are! I picked my way down the last of third divide and then first divide trail, trying to stay out of the way of racers still hammering and trying to avoid the most jagged rocks.
About six miles later I finally limped across the line. I was last, but at least I finished. And I was impressed that the ENVE AM rim was still straight and without any major damage! Nice!
So my hopes of a problem free Downieville weekend were dashed, as well as a potential top five in the All Mountain. Oh well... 364 days 'til the next try. I'm stoked for Ryan who ended up with a 5th place All Mountain in his first year racing at the pro level! His race report is up as well if you want to check it out here. And actually I ended up 13th in the final All Mountain results, which is my best yet!