The All-Mountain World Championships took place at Downieville CA last weekend and I was over the moon to be in the mix. The famous Downieville Classic draws some of the most famous names in mountain biking to test their all-around bike prowess over two days of grueling racing. Day one is a mass start cross country course (XC) with a leg searing and lung busting eight mile climb on loose terrain to start the morning, followed by descending a pinball chute of round river rocks (“baby heads”) and through deep creek crossings, then finishing with a sprint down Main St. of the mining town. Day two is a downhill course (DH) where riders start at thirty second intervals to rally features with names like “The Dip” and “The Waterfall” while descending 4000 ft over fourteen miles in less than an hour. The All-Mountain Champion is determined by riders results from both days. I have wanted to be a part of this race since I first heard of it, and hoped my fitness and technical skills were up to the task.
Unique to this race is using the same bike for each day of racing. Mountain bikes come in many flavors to support a rider’s style and terrain choice. An XC bike will be a light and twitchy climbing machine, but unforgiving on rough and technical terrain making for a slower descent. A DH bike will be a bit heavy and inefficient to pedal uphill, but will float over obstacles and gobble up terrain as it flies down the mountain. Bike choice is clutch. Bikes are weighed and components recorded each day to ensure racers are on the same bike. I chose my XC race bike, a Trek Top Fuel , that is an aggressive climbing beast and has full suspension to soften the descent. I gave it some downhill boost with a 9points8 dropper seat post so I could get behind my saddle for drops and rock gardens and put a wide DH tire on the front to hold onto the loose corners but kept a narrow fast rolling tire on the rear to keep me fast. I was entirely confident with my bike choice until the first bike weigh-in where the crew laughed at my bike and said it was the lightest they had seen. Too late to rethink it now!
The XC start was a combined pro men and women affair. Five time Olympian Katerina Nash took off like a rocket and the women chassed. Except me. I know Katerina’s pace is superhuman and will explode my legs in a few miles. Since this race would take over two hours, I settled into my steady climbing pace. As I expected, the chasing women were popping off the pace left and right. I slowly passed one rider after another all the way to the top. One woman got excited about me passing her in eyesight of the top and elbowed me off the gravel road. Instead of dampening my day, it fueled me to get back on my bike and zoom by her right before the single-track descent began to cheers of spectators who saw the incident.
Pauly’s Trail, aka pinball alley, loomed and I was with a great group of pro men. I stayed with this group confidently as I hovered over my bike as she moved through the choss like a possessed serpent. I rode perfectly and even the men I was riding with gave me accolades. As town loomed a group of spectators hollered that I was the second woman to pass. I figured they had just not noticed some of the women ahead of me. The field was star studded and I knew I was strong, but second place seemed unlikely. Another cheering squad and another remark that I was in second. At the finish, it was official, I came in second to Katerina. Holy cow! Now to recover for tomorrow.
I always seem to have some drama during a race. You would think that with all this disaster management I would have calm nerves when things don’t go as expected, but when I sliced my rear tire less than twenty minutes before my DH start I came unglued. I shouldered my bike and ran a mile (not sure when I ran a mile last) to the neutral mechanic at the start for help. He was a pro. He grabbed by bike and told me to go sit in the shade and her would get my bike fixed with time to spare. And he did. With gratitude I took the start.
I was followed 30 seconds by Tracy Moseley, Enduro World Champion from the U.K., and Katerina 30 seconds behind her. I knew both women would be faster than me on the DH, but was excited to try and follow their wheel when they passed me. It felt like only thirty seconds, though statistically it could not have been, when Tracey literally flew by me. The only reason I knew the blur was her was because in a British accent she said, “pardon me, might I pass?” I held her wheel for a millisecond. Katerina caught me too, but further into the run than I expected. I was able to hold her line, but it was at the top end of where I can pilot my bike. She rides direct and light as air. What a learning experience that was. We hit a climb and she disappeared. At the Dip, Tracey flatted. The rocks in the bottom were sharp and luck did not smile on her. I delicately rode the feature and pedaled on. Of course she passed me again, but this time the terrain was not as gnarly and I held here wheel for about ten seconds. Wow, that woman can ride a bike! I got to work and rode my race taking the time to ride obstacles clean. The last few miles on the DH are pedally (smooth, relatively strait, and have some climbing). I caught Tracy. In disbelief, I put my head down and gritted it out to the finish. I finished ahead of her, but with the time gap she placed ahead of me. She is exactly the role model I dream of. She hugged me at the finish and shared with me that she was exhausted when I caught her, but it motivated her to pick it up to the finish knowing she only had thirty seconds on me. I put pressure on her!
With staggered starts and many women in the field with impressive DH resumes, I assumed I finished middle of the pack. I hoped my good DH time would keep me on the podium for the All-Mountain competition, but was so happy with my riding that it didn’t really matter. I had raced the DH to the best of my ability and not got caught up in going too fast and making errors; what I have often done when racing heady terrain. While cooling down, a friend congratulated me on my third-place finish. I was stoked to learn I stayed on the podium. He said, “No, you placed third in the DH. You finished second over-all!” Pinch me! Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up on the podium between Katerina and Tracy. I’m not going to lie, it was really fun to “be a big deal.”