Saturday, September 06, 2008

Downieville 2008, Brakes-Free

Downieville, and all the trails that lead to it, exert a force on me and all that know about the magic in the rocks & roots. So tall you can't ride over it, so wide you can't ride around it, it will eat your bicycle along with your body & soul; it ate mine. I write now as a shell of a human, the real me endlessly looping those trails, swimming those lakes & creeks, falling rain on mossy rocks, that's me, sunshine leaping across distant peaks.

I arrived in town late last Saturday, after the last shuttle for the day had left, so against the setting sun I raced for Packer Saddle along Fire Road 93 up from Union Flat campground on Highway 49. No matter how hard I raced though, the sun set too fast and I could not lose an ever-growing highly infuriating cloud of gnats. The daylight factor meant that, after climbing from 2,835' to 6,719' I had to ride down the dark fire road instead of bombing the blessed single-tracks. That route presented itself as the only non-suicidal option available given the lights I had with me. It was a long, cold, stressful descent marked by one true fall and one quick unintentional dismount. You see, I could only see the drop-off edge of the trail with my teeny-tiny light, and that only intermittently. The miles past slowly, and I cursed my over-eagerness to just ride rather than pay attention to small details like night and day, warm and cold. I wore only a short-sleeved jersey with no under-shirt, brought no jacket with me, and ran out of food. The running out of food part was particularly smart, since that left me to dine on a tin of mango-flavored Altoid sours and a sack of low-sodium sunflower seeds, in the shell after I rolled into town at 9:45PM, drove 5-miles to my campground, and set up my tent. I awoke to a sore stomach, but happy to know that I had a reservation on the 10:30 AM shuttle to Packer Saddle (7,200'). The thought that I should have my brakes checked/adjusted crossed my mind a couple of times, but 10:30 arrived in no time, so up I went. My rear brakes went out on Sunrise Trail, the first 1/2-mile stretch of single track. I spent awhile trying to fix them, but ended up stripping the little bolt/nut that holds the cable in place, so that was done. Did not take long to decide to limp down with only my lovely 8" front rotor helping me control my velocity on these near-vertical piles of loose baby-head sized cobbles that pass for trails here. The front brake did wonderfully for a few miles, and then I had wee crash that ended up hosing my front brakes completely. I worked on them for some time before sitting down to whimper and snivel, realizing that, with more than 3,000' of wickedly technical trail left to descend, my vehicle could only be ridden by a madman, so I laughed at the water in the corners of my eyes, said hello to the tree friends gathered all around, told my racing heart to calm down, and hopped on my fast fast bicycle. I had already navigated all of Big Boulder Trail at that point, which is the longest way down the mountain from Packer Saddle, and so was near the top of Third Divide. I had to call on my ancient experience as a pre-teen, riding BMX bikes with no brakes - you just stand on the rear wheel with your right foot. Three problems with that: 1) the rear suspension allowed my extremely sharp seat post to gouge my ankle if I bounced my ass on the seat at all, which happened a lot, 2) if you don't pay attention to your left foot, and just let it rest at the bottom of it's range it hits rocks & roots that cause your left ankle to bang your frame (ouch), so you must ride with your foot & pedal half-way up a good part of the time, 3) a rear brake alone is not sufficient to control your speed on the steep parts, so you must be ready to bail off at any time. The ride harrowed me, hurt me, taught me lessons about many things far beyond bicycle mechanics and innovative trail riding methods. It convinced me that these brakes are history; time to move on to hydraulic disc brakes from mechanical disc brakes, seriously. They're Laurent's anyway, long-term loaned to me when he & Quintan built this bike up for me a few year ago.

Pain and cold and hassles aside, Downieville still loves me. When I fall and those big fir roots and stout granite rocks reach up and pound the blood out me, it's with such deep love that I don't even mind it a bit. It's like the mountain she's massaging me, in a very rough way. I could be happy forever with her. The trails demand such utter and devoted attention to avoid death or dismemberment that riding them becomes a meditation, an inevitable concentration spurning speech without action in rocky red dust. Age, gender, & race lose meaning rapidly, along with all those other labels that once defined me, confining boxes that never met Saddleback Mountain, or felt the Milky Way grind their bones to gleaming white, the better to dance you with.

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