"Have you seen my mom?"
The 15 year-old kid had a genuine look of panic on his face as he rode into the Yuba Expeditions parking lot. I recognized him from a few hours earlier when I passed him at the junction of Pauley Creek and Butcher Ranch trails. He was waiting for his mom, dad and younger brother. You know, just a family-friendly outing on the treacherous trails above Downieville.
The kid looked around with as much controlled panic a 15 year-old can muster. I told him that I saw his mom about 20 minutes earlier walking around the parking lot. I asked if everything was okay and he shook his head.
"My dad fell off a cliff and is hurt really bad."
After the false alarm a month ago that sent a paramedic chopper out for nothing, I asked if the kid was sure his dad was really hurt. The kid said his dad could walk, so at least until he returned to town, the paramedics could wait.
A few minutes later the kid found his mom and they sped off in the car to retrieve dad. An hour later dad was back in town, covered in dirt and a little blood recounting his unforgettable Downieville experience. The kids looked on in awe while mom just seemed glad her husband wasn't on a stretcher. Dad said he wasn't even riding when the fall happened. He reached a treacherous spot on First Divide trail and got off to walk when he lost his footing and the tumble began.
He fell about 20 feet and almost rolled to a stop when the cliff got steeper and his tumble continued another 20 feet. He almost stopped again, until the cliff got steeper still, and fell another 20 feet. All told, 60 feet down a cliff and the only thing dad seemed to suffer was a bruised ego and a busted rear wheel. A lucky man for sure.
ParmaJohnny was lucky his broken bar didn't break his neck (click to enlarge). Photo by Kevin Egelhoff
Even luckier of a man was my buddy ParmaJohnny, one of six friends visiting for the weekend from San Diego on a three-day tour of Downieville's best trails. It was when the group was bombing down the warp-speed singletrack of Third Divide trail for the second time in a day that near disaster struck.
As ParmaJohnny recalls, he went to jump over a blind rise when on the backside of it his front wheel stuffed into a rock. The jarring impact caused the right side of his carbon fiber handlebar to snap clean off, sending him face first into the dirt. The fact that ParmaJohnny emerged from the wreckage with nary a scrape on him was simply astonishing. I haven't seen a handlebar snap like that in nearly 20 years. It was a scary sight for sure, and a reminder that the trails of Downieville always claim equipment that's not worthy. And for the record, no, the shifter and brake clamps were not over-tightened. This was simply a case of a handlebar being too thin and too light.
Four slashed sidewalls in three days of riding is pretty standard performance for six guys visiting Downieville (click to enlarge).
Beside a snapped handlebar, during the three days of riding in Downieville, the San Diego crew suffered a broken pedal, a broken spoke, eight flats and four slashed tires; pretty standard performance in Downieville for a crew of six hard charging riders. Even a 900-gram Maxxis Minion DHF is no match for Downieville, as I managed to put two holes in one by simply trying to ride safely down a jagged rock section of Butcher Ranch. The only tires I've managed to not slash yet are the 1100-gram WTB Vigilante and Trail Boss tires with Tough casing. Although they add an extra pound of weight to my bike, the peace of mind is worth it.
If your tires are worthy, your wheels might not be. Only a week before, my new friend Ted Lincoln cracked two brand new carbon fiber no-name Chinese rims on his first ride. The lesson: Don't come to Downieville with inferior or unproven equipment; it will most likely fail and your body might end up paying the price.
Continue to page 2 for more from Downieville and a photo gallery »
Even if you're not riding a bike, the razor sharp rocks above Downieville can slice flesh with ease. My co-worker Jake, aka Biscuit, was out on a four wheeling adventure near Poker Flat when he got out of the truck to scope a trail. While scurrying down a rocky slope, he lost his footing and fell backward on his hand on a razor sharp piece of shale. Jake's hand was fileted wide open, requiring 10 stitches to close up.
Despite the perils of Downieville, every weekend we shuttle folks to the top of the mountain with no clue of what they're getting into. Take for instance two guys I dropped off at the top of Packer Saddle dressed in tank top T-shirts, no gloves and helmets that looked nearly 10 years old. Not only did they not know the 15-mile route back to Downieville, but I also noticed they had half-empty water bottles, no packs, no saddle bags or any gear to get them out of trouble.
When I asked if they had extra tubes, they shook their heads. I turned to grab a couple tubes out of the van when I asked if they had a pump. One of the guys shook his head and just said, "No man, we're just gonna wing it." Wing it, he said. I laughed out loud at his naivety and responded, "Well, if you don't have a pump, you don't need any tubes, so good luck," and left them to deal with fate.
Aussie Bob saved the day when two Downieville neophytes neglected to bring any extra tubes or a pump (click to enlarge).
Three hours later I bumped into my buddy Aussie Bob. I asked him how his ride was and he said it was great, that is until he encountered two guys with four flat tires between them and zero tubes, no pump or anything else. Like a true good Samaritan, Aussie Bob babysat the two Downieville neophytes all the way to the bottom of the mountain.
There's good reason why bike industry companies such as Santa Cruz and WTB have made Downieville their second home for two decades; the trails above town push the limits of tires, wheels, suspension and frame materials of all types. The combination of warp speed and baby head-size rocks that last for more than 15 miles make Downieville the ultimate R&D testing ground. And those who show up to Downieville unprepared are in for a rough go.
Editor's Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt's previous columns.