I had excess baggage on the brain when planning last year's cycle show for Ground Effect in London. Flying through the USA with its more generous piece allowance was the obvious choice. I calculated that I'd be fried after two weeks standing, talking 100 miles an hour, visiting media contacts and the occasional bike ride fuelled by a pint of the local best bitter. So an inspired moment saw me swap transit and a quick retina scan through LA for a long weekend in San Francisco. I was last there ten years ago competing in the Sea Otter Classic and Napa Valley World Cup. I did ok so Northern California held good vibes for me.
San Francisco is the birthplace of critical mass bike rides, the Grateful Dead and really big suspension bridges. Golden Gate is only a short hop from downtown and provides pedestrian and cycle friendly access to the green spaces of Marin County and Mt Tamalpais State Park. Scrubby hillsides rise into the smog and somewhere up there is Mt Tam itself, widely revered for the famous 'Repack' Downhill - so named as the founding fathers had to repack their coaster-brake hubs with grease after each run. Much of the riding on Mt Tam is on fire roads and the early adopters didn't take long to work out that the area's singletrack was a lot more fun. Sadly user conflict followed and mountain bike access is now severely restricted, making it more of a spiritual visit to our sport's roots rather than a great riding destination. If you're after singletrack though, nearby China Camp and Camp Tamarancho will satisfy.
My host in California was all-mountain poster-boy Mark Weir. We did a kiwi road trip a couple of years ago, got on well and stayed in touch. His many toys include a pump track in the backyard. Clocking close to 400,000 views on YouTube, the clip of Mark building and riding the track is a minor sensation. I was amped to have a go but got rained out. Mark rates the pump track for strength and skill development but assured me that real trailsare still where it's at for him.
We packed the pickup and charged inland to Downieville to catch the end of year bash for the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS). This extraordinary volunteer driven non-profit organisation was formed as an all-inclusive trail building and maintenance group to assist maintaining and growing the trail network in the Sierra and Plumas Counties. From its inception the purpose was to include and cater for all recreational groups - walkers, mountain bikers, motorcyclists and equestrians. By any measure it's been a raging success. They now have more miles of trail under construction than anywhere else in the country. SBTS also runs the Downieville Classic, earning over US$35K and helping to employ full time staff.
Mark is sponsored by Wilderness Trail Bikes. Our invitation to join the party was courtesy of WTB as an industry supporter of SBTS, along with Fox Forks, Ibis and Santa Cruz. Wayno, SBTS President and owner of Yuba Expeditions, kindly placed a newish Santa Cruz Nomad at my disposal. Nice. Once a mining town, mountain biking is now the mainstay of Downieville's economy. The town overflows with visitors in the peak summer months. October was the shoulder season so the shuttles were only running part loads. The 45 minute trip takes riders to the top of an extensive trail network. The average downhill run takes most riders two or three hours.
Proceedings kicked off with an orientation group ride. Starting en masse on the Firs Divide trails, the 'rock stars' with me in tow peeled off to climb a benched track for an hour and a half. It was all grunt and no finesse, even a bit of walking as we topped out in the dry air at over 7000 feet. Then a traverse around the tops to Chimney Rock, a quick photo shoot and bite to eat before returning to the valley floor. The lads were predictably hot riders and most of the time I struggled to stay in touch. They ride seriously fast down very tricky terrain. Our final descent was on Rattlesnake, an as yet unimproved trail. It was quite rough and tumble - more like what I'm used to at home - so I was more able to foot it with the pros. Respite for my pride but I was well thrashed as we arrived at Grayeagle Lodge - home base for the next couple of days.
Friday night was the big party. As the Margaritas flowed, I chatted with NZ born journalist, and now Santa Cruz marketing manager, Mike Ferrentino. He'd like to spend some time riding the new trails around Nelson. A curious twist had Scott Nicol, founder of Ibis bikes, on the same couch. The Ibis Mojo was developed during a three year restraint of trade on Scott's business partner after he sold his Santa Cruz shares to buy into Ibis. With more than a passing resemblance to Santa Cruz's Blur you'd expect a little niggle. But all was cosy on the couch. Scott was also keen to do some riding down our way. A late night ensued and it was a slow start the following morning, but with little loss of ride time given that the trails were literally on our doorstep.
Summit fever once again dominated, Mt Elwell our victim. Another couple of WTB pro-riders joined our group. The left-overs from the previous night's party took their hangovers on a less aggressive agenda while the 'Pros' (I exclude myself at this stage) got to earn their keep in front of the camera. The riding was spectacular with singletrack snaking through old-growth Redwoods. As we ascended I was able to appreciate the quality of work SBTS does, having converted the former fall-line track into a sustainable climb. A not quite so sustainable descent followed with an ample duff layer roosting off our tyres. The volume of leaf litter was phenomenal and the trails get a good rest over winter, so my conscience was clear.
Sunday was our last day and started with a delightful 40 minute singletrack downhill into the town of Grayeagle and its local diner. I scored an 'Only in America' moment as my riding mates all ordered variations of everything imaginable, except what was actually on the menu. Bottomless coffees were left cold on the table as we caught our final shuttle to the 'lakes', a flowing landscape of old moraine and gold tailings laced with loops for all abilities and fitness levels.
It was time to return my bike to Yuba Expeditions but we prolonged the weekend just a little longer by taking the long route via the Downieville Classic. The mostly downhill race takes the winner over 40 minutes. My guides all run at the front of the field come race day so there was little time for taking in the scenery. I stayed off the brakes and held on quite literally for my life. A quick dip in the Yuba River and a beer from the workshop keg finished me nicely. The bike had taken a hammering and I felt twinges of guilt as I dropped it and fled.
I was winging my way home the next day and happily slept through the in-flight entertainment. Excess baggage machismo was buoyed with a sparkling new Santa Cruz frame stashed in the hold. So much for fiscal self-restraint.