Words and photos by Ambassador Ryan Gardner.
It’s been a long time since I started showing up to my first ever cross-country races on my early-2000’s Kona Stuff. Back then I raced in skate shoes, a bucket helmet, and baggies, and my bike was a conglomerate of borrowed parts. Yet, it was those early local races and barely functioning bikes that hooked me on the buzz of racing and the good fun you can have on two wheels. These days bikes like my Process 153 are made of space plastic, have brakes that work, and suspension that makes all but the rowdiest trails feel like a bike path. Don’t get me wrong, I really like having bikes that make going fast easy. It’s downright awesome and kind of the point of racing. Maybe it’s the pace of life right now, or maybe nostalgia, but coming into the Downieville Classic this year I was suddenly struck with the urge to turn back the clock and kick it old school. I wasn’t quite ready to kick all the way back to skate shoes and flat pedals, but my no-nonsense, all-aluminum Honzo that’s usually relegated to after-work rides seemed like the perfect time machine to bring me back to the early days.
Similarly, Downieville is the perfect destination for heading into the past. The rocky trails of the classic were once cut by industrious gold miners and the town hasn’t changed all that much since. A great bike, a favorite destination, and a classic race, the stoke was at an all-time high.
Now, Downieville isn’t a standard XC race. The “XC” starts with a 40-something minute climb from Sierra City to Packer Saddle. The hardtail shined out of the gate and as the pre-race jitters worked their way out and I worked my way through the crowd I congratulated myself on how awesome an idea it was to race the Honzo! Fast! Responsive! Awesome.
These feelings continued even as the sun beat down and the arduous climb sapped the power from my legs. This was all to be expected. It’s Downieville after all. But as the trail left fire road and entered singletrack, I realized that the areas where I usually rest now took a lot of energy. Rocks and braking bumps continued to wear me down until I found myself thinking that it was an absolutely terrible idea to race Downieville on a hardtail. I pushed on, and after hitting some of the smoother faster sections of the course, my morale improved, but the beating continued. Turns out, there is a reason most people don’t race hardtails anymore, especially at Downieville. By the end, I started thinking about an old friend who wore a kidney belt when he was riding and that I sort of wished I had one. Crossing the finish line and collapsing into a folding chair was a thing of beauty. I may not have put down my fastest time, but I held my own and even passed some fancy space-plasticky-fully-suspended bikes in the process.
After the race ends, everyone convenes at the confluence of those once gold-filled streams, cracks open a beer and settles in for some much-needed leg icing and river jump spectating.
That leg icing is absolutely key because that’s just day 1! The next day was the downhill and another 50 minutes of kidney rattling. Making it through the weekend with no mechanicals, no cramping, solid finishes, and heaps of type 2 fun was exactly the result I was hoping for. I even had some extra time for a few meditative casts and hooking up with a few small Yuba trout, about the only shiny thing I’ve yet to see in these rivers. My trip on the Honzo time machine was, in all honesty, a little rougher than expected, but the destination was exactly what I hoped for—a trip back to simpler time amidst a seeming ever more complex world. It’s nice to know that type of escape still exists and its always just a few pedal strokes away.