Downieville Classic: Bikes bring gold back to Sierra County
The Downieville Classic mountain bike race weekend has helped create a new summer economy, bringing a season-long influx of mountain bike riders to town, eager to tackle the mountain trails.
Organizers expect 600 riders to show up this summer for the crosscountry race; 200 for the downhill portion of the competition. This year the event’s 11th annual running will be the weekend of July 29 and 30.
“There’s one point with a 500-foot climb,” says rider Jason Moeschler of the downhill race. “It feels like death when you’re riding it because you’re trying so hard to sustain all the speed you had on the downhill run, then you hit the climb. You get to the top and you immediately start going down Third Divide Trail, which probably is the fastest part of the entire downhill. It’s a singletrack trail, only wide enough for one bike. It’s a real steep grade. You’ve just pumped up the climb and you’re just absolutely dying, and all of a sudden you’re going 45 miles an hour downhill.”
The other race, a 28-mile cross country, begins in Sierra City, 15 miles up Highway 49 from Downieville.
“For seven miles you climb from 4,000 feet to 7700 feet,” Moeschler says. “The further you go up this gravel road the steeper it gets. You know when you’re at the top when you get to Packer Saddle. There’s a King of the Mountain prize, a gold nugget, for the first man and first woman to get to the top.”
Moeschler, 26, has survived cramps and fatigue to win the cross country twice as a junior, then in 2002 as a pro. In 2005 he won the cross country and came in second in the downhill race. He became the overall winner, with the shortest time in both races.
At the end of the racing the Downieville Fire Department throws a spaghetti feed for the riders, paid for by the race promoters. Leftover money goes to the all-volunteer fire department. “Our budget is so low we can hardly afford to operate,” says Assistant Fire Chief Dave Wiley. “We buy safety equipment with the proceeds. It’s a good thing for our community.” Last summer the firefighters served between 300 and 400 spaghetti dinners to famished riders.
The benefits to the community of this two-wheeled invasion grow each year.
“I’m sure there are many Downieville businesses that have their biggest weekend during the Classic,” says Tim Beals, Sierra County’s Director of Planning and Transportation.
Wayne Hoffman, an eight-year veteran producer of the Classic, estimates spectators who flood into Downieville at “a couple thousand people in and out of the town on that weekend.”
“We need it,” says County Supervisor Peter Hubner. “It has put Sierra County on the map. I’m 100 percent sold on the Classic. It’s a good event, a good sport, and healthy for our economic survival.”
Mountain bike riders don’t just come for the race weekend, Hubner adds. “They’re here all summer now, and they bring their families and friends.”
“I think from a business standpoint, it’s a heck of a deal!” Beals adds. “There are a lot of people who come back to bike the trails, all summer long, and many bring their families.”
But it hasn’t been all sunshine.
As the hordes of mountain bike riders descended on this small Sierra County community, the residents were skeptical. “They stay in tents and bring their own granola bars,” was heard around town. If it ever was true it certainly isn’t the case now, more than a decade later.
“We could have been selling dishes, it didn’t matter…you tell people you’re bringing that many people to town and it scares them, especially when a lot of the people
moved here to get away from that sort of thing,” Hoffman says. “We’ve gone a long way to minimize the impact. Also, I think people have seen that it’s good for the town. This town has to find a way to survive and get people to come here, and mountain biking is just one of the ways we can get tourists here.”
The Downieville economy, and that of Sierra County, once depended on several resources, like gold and timber harvests, that have vanished.
One of the problems the bike race organizers had to solve was with the Forest Service.
“The race event dramatically increased the use of our trail systems,” says Joe Chavez, U.S. Forest Service public service officer. “Now folks from the Bay area, Sacramento, and all over the country, come to ride.” Because the trails are on federal land, the Forest Service became involved in the growing Classic.
“In 1999 there were 5,500 summer users on Third Divide Trail, and 7,000 on Butcher Ranch Trail, two main components of the downhill race,” Chavez adds. Now each summer sees well above 10,000 mountain bikers on those two trails.
The Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship was formed to help with maintenance on the more impacted trails.
“They’ve adopted many trails in the area,” Chavez says. “That spreads out our ability to do maintenance in other areas. It’s been a real benefit.”
“We’ve adopted 71 miles of trail in the Tahoe National Forest,” says SBTS member and Downieville resident Carl Butz.
“We raise money, repair trails and build new trails to spread the use out over a wider area of the forest, so the impact on each individual trail is lessened,” says organizer Hoffman.
Greg Williams, one of the Classic’s founders, now devotes most of his time to trail stewardship, trying to get funding to keep the trails “…riding real nice. We saw that the government didn’t have any money for trail rehab and the trails were getting beat up,” Williams says.
Today’s economic gold rush, the Mountain Bike Classic, got its start when mountain biking enthusiast Greg Williams began bringing friends to the Downieville area to ride the challenging trails in the Tahoe National Forest. The event’s founders were all mountain bike riders from the Nevada City and Grass Valley area. Many of the original organizers are still involved, and co-founder Hoffman says each year’s event is “like a family reunion.”
From Sacramento travel 36 miles east on Interstate 80 to Auburn. Take Highway 49 past Grass Valley and Nevada City to Downieville, another 70 miles.
For more information on the Classic, call Yuba Expeditions 530-289-3010 or Downieville Outfitters 530-289-3505, the two bike shops in Downieville. http://www.downievilleclassic.com.
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