Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Downieville Cross Country Mountain Biking Race

[Note: I wrote this report after the race. I posted it both on MTBR and our Biking Forum.]

I can see the finish now. A few hard pedals, I’m there! I probably have let out a scream or two in excitement. The support staff tears off the bottom portion of my bib. It is a great feeling. Always a bookworm growing up, I had never participated in any sports meets or races at school. I remember watching enviously the athletic kids run and jump on the tracks and in the fields. Oh, everyone looked great (back then, I didn’t know the word “sexy”) with that white bib on his/her chest. Now, I can’t believe that I’m actually wearing one (on my bike) with a number that is assigned to ME! Cheesy

It’s bright day light. The Downieville town is full of energy with people everywhere and bikes everywhere. I don’t really know where to go, but I don’t care. I have just done a 28+ mile ride on my mountain bike with a 4,413′ ascent followed by a 5,692′ descent. What a joy ride!

Then I see Strom, Derek (Delbomber), Jeff (Kamikaze), and Jeff’s wife Sharron sitting (Well, Derek is lying flat) on the side walk in the shade of a building. That means Strom, Derek, and Jeff all have returned from the race safely. I let out a few more screams out of joy and joined the happy group. Strom tells me he has started to get a little worried about me while waiting. Well I don’t blame him. Five hours earlier I went on the ride thinking that I might die. Well, I don’t think you will blame me for being so dramatic if you know what I have gone through these months.

See, when I signed up for the Downieville Cross Country (XC) race in April, I had just started riding a little bit and had no idea what any part of that title meant. Downieville? Cross Country? It’s just that Derek, Jeff, and Strom were all in, so I didn’t want to be left out. Of course, I signed up for the Beginner Senior Women (19-34) class. I took the word “Beginner” literally. Only later when I did some research on what Downieville XC was about, I came to realize that it was NOT for beginners. The more I read or heard about it, the more I got worried. I think for a while, I drove Strom nuts by just telling him yet another horror story I have just read or heard. Following are just a few highlights of what I learned about the ride:

  • The ride starts with 8+ miles of climbing and you gain 4000+ feet during the climb. The climb is fully exposed to the sun.
  • Then there is a 20 mile down hill interrupted only by a few hundred yards of steep climb in the middle. Even people who loved downhills feel it is too much on this course.
  • There are one to two miles of baby heads and rock garden — basically a trail littered with rocks of various sizes with the majority in the size of …eh… a baby’s head.
  • People have cramped left and right on this ride.
  • There are stretches of the downhill ride on a steep hill side and at some places, there is a cliff above on one side and a cliff below on the other side.
  • People say on MTBR that you need 2.5″ Weirwolf tires for Downieville’s loose stuff, but I have been running 2.1″ only. I couldn’t even find a 2.5″ tire in the local shops! One mechanic at a shop I visited told me riding a 2.1″ tire at Downieville is like riding without a helmet (did he mean suicidal?).
  • The night before our trip, I read one trip report on MTBR by a guy who did the race last year where he had four flats and two endos.
  • The morning of the race, one nice young fellow came over to our camp site and told us that he had decided to skip the XC race after he pre-rode most of the course the day before. This is how he put it “I’m only loosing sixty five bucks. If I could have paid someone sixty five dollars to take away the pain I experienced pushing my bike uphill miles on end, I would have done that.” I honestly appreciated that he kindly and openly shared his experience with us even though it did not help settle the butterflies in my stomach.

Well, none of these might have sounded scary to an average mountain biker, but I’m no average — I’m a total beginner! I have been biking only for a few months. Only three months ago, I was still crashing right in front of our neighbor’s little son every time I saw him just because I couldn’t unclip (talk about embarrassing). I then had a bad crash on a perfectly flat fire road and had the first set of stitches in my life. I can’t do a single wheelie. I am always scared of speed. I can’t do a track stand. Actually, I can’t do anything technical. I have a new set of brakes and wheels that are only one week old and still need to be broken in. I have a brand new rear tire I have never ridden before. I could go on and on. The bottom line is on the race day, I was no where ready for Downieville! But being a miser, I was not willing to easily give up my sixty five dollar registration fee either. I set a few goals for myself before the race:

  • Come back alive
  • Come back in one piece
  • Come back before dark because I did not pack a headlamp

Did you notice that I didn’t even mention the word “finish”? I wanted to post my goals on the forum but I was so paranoid that spelling them out might jinx it, so I kept them to myself. I even thought about writing down all our bank and insurance information for Strom just in case anything happens to me. That’s how scared I was.

But boy, am I happy that I did it! Not only that, I had fun too! Here is why:

  • While waiting behind the starting line, I chatted with this guy from Marin. His name is Noah and it later turned out he won his class in the race. One piece of advice he gave me was take it easy at the start because the climb only gets steeper and steeper. Having taken that advice to heart, I felt great on the climb. There were a few sections I pushed either because of the difficulties or the crowd on the trail, but it was never painful. Plus, the view along the climb was very scenery.
  • Strom convinced me to stick to what I had on my bike: a 2.3″ tire in the front and a 2.1″ in the back. His reason is I’m light and I don’t ride aggressively. It worked great. I’m happy that I didn’t have to haul two fat and heavy tires up the mountain. Guess sometimes, you just need to give your husband that trust he always deserves. Wink
  • While going down hill, I rode very conservatively. I never hesitated to get off my bike. For that reason, it was never that scary. I enjoyed both the riding part, which was still challenging and fun, as well as the hiking part because I knew I was protecting myself from potential injuries and my bike from potential mechanical problems. I did pass a few people fixing flats on the side of the trail.
  • I have had a habit of wearing a black skirt outside of my black tights. And today, anticipating a warm weather, I wore a red tank top (not the professionally looking jersey that everyone else was wearing) with a bandanna tied to the front for wiping sweat and possibly tears. At one aid station, one guy yelled out to me, “you win the title for being the most fashionable rider!” Cheesy
  • There was one short steep section on the uphill that many people pushed when I arrived there. Seeing that it was not very technical, I charged and managed to ride up it. This guy squadding by the fire road taking pictures yelled out to me “I like your kerchief. And you scored too!” Cheesy
  • My brand new rear brake started rubbing really bad shortly after the climb started. It got especially bad when I got off bike to push. Usually in those sections, every one was having a hard time and got frustrated easily. I saw some guy 50 feet in front of me turning around with a disgusted look searching for the source of the high-pitched screeching sound. But some people took it well. One kid said to me “you saved me the trouble of bringing my iPod.” Another guy I passed asked “are you carrying a giant mosquito?” to which I answered “yep, my pet mosquito.”
  • Somewhere downhill, I was riding at a leisurely pace when a guy rode by. He turned and looked at me for a second and my bike for a second, and then said, “I saw your website.” I started laughing thinking it was really funny to hear such a comment totally unexpectedly. When he pulled away, he said, “nice job!” That left me wondering “did he mean nice job on my website, or did he mean nice job on getting to where I was on the ride?” Hey, that stranger, if you see this post, holler up. I need you to solve my mystery.
  • I probably have pulled over two dozen times to let the fast descenders go by. I believe in karma. A few people I let pass earlier made way for me too later when I passed them on the uphill section after the Third Devide (the third bridge?). I was quite proud of myself that I cleared that climb. Of course, many of them passed me back later on the downhill part further down. Tongue
  • There is a beautiful meadow on top that is filled with purple wild flowers.

It took me one hour and forty minutes to do the climb and three hours to do the downhill. I know, I was berry berry slow Embarrassed, but I had fun on the entire course. What can beat that?! Grin

P.S The guy who was taking pictures on the trail and cheered me turned out to be Photo John. Following picture of me was taken by him: