The Downieville Classic is one of those races that every mountain biker wants to do, the kind of race that means as much to hundreds who show up just to conquer the course and share war stories around the campfire as it does to the guys at the pointy end of the bunch, fighting to shave seconds in the nearly three hours of racing over two days.
This year marked my second time racing Downieville in as many years, which is really a surprise considering just how awesome the trails are and how much I've loved the trails here for the last 5+ years. Last year I was a dark-horse podium finisher, getting 4th in the XC event behind three big names - Leipheimer, Moeschler, and Decker. This year, I had earned a coveted entry into the All-Mountain race: XC the first day (+3600, -5500), DH the next (+400, -5500), doing both on the same bike (tires and all). It's a true test of man and machine - the fitness demanded on the hour-long climb and the nearly hour of descending are very different, and your bike setup must be light enough to dance up the climb yet burly enough to withstand some serious punishment on the fast, loose descent littered with sharp rocks.
This year's field was stacked, with 5-time AM winner Carl Decker and local hero / multi-time AM winner Jason Moeschler headlining the list, along with a few of the Kona pros and some well-known NorCal strongmen. My bike choice was a little heavier-duty than last year's. I opted for my new '16 S-Works Stumpjumper 29er with 140mm travel, versus last year's Camber Evo with 120mm. I've been blown away by just how well the Stumpy climbs, and the extra travel would be an advantage on the descents. I rounded out the setup with Control SL wheels, a Grid 2.1 rear tire and a Control 2.4 up front. Good rubber is super important at D-Vill - skimp on that and the seconds you saved up the hill will turn to minutes as you repair a flat.
The gun went and it was a fast start - paces were not indicative of the nearly 40 minutes of uninterrupted climbing ahead (65 until the very 'top'). The group shattered within a minute to just 5 or 6, and then just 3 of us within a few more minutes. Alex Wild, Barry Wicks, and myself separated when we hit the dirt, and we got a sizable advantage. We took turns pulling, having settled into a more manageable pace, and soon Alex and I had dropped Wicks. Things got interesting about 25 minutes in when I had let Alex distance me a bit on the steepest part, maintaining my diesel pace, but could see Carl Decker (the tortoise chasing the hares) gaining on us alone, as quickly as he had caught and passed Menso DeJong and Wicks. I kicked it up a notch, caught and passed Alex, then settled into a pace that would leave something in the tanks for the descent (although it's 45+ min mostly downhill, it's very physical). Decker caught me about five minutes after Death Metal Corner (40 min into the race), and we worked together on the 5 min traverse to the feed zone, gaining considerable time over the rest of the field.
I attacked through the feed (after warning Decker I'd do so) to get a slight advantage into Sunrise, the first singletrack descent of the day. When I came out the other end and Decker hadn't caught me like I thought he might, I soft-pedaled to let him catch on and we worked together on the next fireroad traverse over to Babyheads. From there, I tailed him on all the descent sections, never letting him get more than a few bike lengths while trying to rest as much as possible, both mentally and physically. The Stumpy was definitely proving to be the right choice - I was at the very front of the race after the grueling climb, and I felt faster and more relaxed on the descent than ever. Things were great for the next 20 minutes, until a short climb at the end of Pauley Creek trail and onto Butcher, where my legs absolutely froze up - the exact same spot as they had last year! I think it has something to do with the nearly 1 hour of TT-like effort up the climb, followed by 20 minutes of a nearly static squat (rough descending), which freezes the legs when you have to start pedaling again.
As soon as I got the cramping under control, Decker was out of sight, but I didn't panic. I had been in this same situation the year before, except fighting for 3rd and not for the win. I knew the trails suited me, and I had a feeling I could gain back some time with smooth descending and all-out pedaling in the flat-ish last 10 minutes of the course. Fast forward a few minutes, and I'm climbing Third Divide, a solid 3 minutes of suffering before the last miles of descent. Decker was in sight and I managed to bring the gap down from ~30s to about 15, frustrated that I had fuel in the tanks but legs that were barely able to turn the pedals over for fear of locking up. I had no idea how close the chasers were, so I kept on the gas for the entirety of First Divide and absolutely buried myself on the last 2 minutes of pavement before the finish. I didn't manage to catch Decker, but was pretty stoked to finish only 20.5' down on the five-time winner, and over 4 minutes up on the next best behind us - Jason Moeschler.
The next day was the Downhill race, which I was equal parts stoked and nervous for. Having never raced both days, I was super excited to give it a go. However I'd only ridden Butcher, the top half of the course, a handful of times, and I was nervous about pushing too hard and crashing before a planned 3-week Europe vacation the next week. I also didn't want to go too slow and lose the chance at an All Mountain overall podium (scored like an omnium, with points for places 1-20 each day). The day started out with a few warmup laps down Sunrise trail (one of my favorites ever - and in great condition after the thunderstorms the night before) with my buddy Menso, and because I was wearing the #3 plate, I started after only 2 racers, Decker and Moeschler. The run started out great - I was on a flyer on Sunrise, kept it smooth through Butcher even though I felt like I was riding it blind, and then passed Decker just before Pauley Creek, where he'd apparently flatted. My first instinct was 'shit, that really sucks for him...,' then 'I hope he doesn't catch back up to me after he repairs it,' and finally 'hey, this could be one place higher for me in the DH and possibly one place higher in the AM podium.' I kept on the gas, only to be derailed about 5 minutes later by the same fate. I was charging down one of the fastest, loosest rocky sections on the whole descent and succumbed to a gash in my front tire - looked like I hit a very sharp, rather large rock right between the treads. I went into survival mode, throwing a tube in and airing it up (had to pump b/c my CO2 wasn't working), trying to salvage a half-descent placing at the chance at an AM podium. About 30 seconds after Menso, who had started 4 riders behind me, passed me, I was back on the bike and up to speed. I set a mental goal of catching him, a formidable task considering his giant TT motor from his pro roadie days, and his trail riding skills from years of pro MTB racing. Nonetheless, he was in my sights in the last couple miles of singletrack after Lavezolla road, and I managed to make the catch just before we got spat out onto the pavement. Having seen my plight, he was happy to drag me down the final 2 minutes, hitting the finish in 52:xx, good enough for 20th place of 42 riders, and putting me 6th in the AM overall. I was off the podium for Sundays races, but still happy with my weekend and with the knowledge that my moving time Sunday, 46:26, would have put me third in the DH behind Moeschler and Scott Chapin, two of the strongest descenders around.