I shared a shuttle van to Packer Saddle with the teens and about eight other guys, our bikes strapped to the roof rack. On the way up, everyone agrees to give a Times photographer and me a five-minute head start so we can find a good vantage point to shoot photos. But once the riders get on their bikes, they blow us off -- all of them -- leaving us in the dust
The relaxed atmosphere that permeates Main Street doesn't extend to the trails. Up here, it's ride fast or get out of the way.
I strap on my helmet and let gravity take control.
Aqua-blue alpine lakes flash in the corner of my eyes. The blur overhead is a canopy of white and red fir, tamarack and Jeffrey pine. A wooden footbridge launches me over a deep pool at the base of towering waterfalls. Weren't those broad-leafed mule's ear filling that meadow with yellow flowers? It's all moving so fast. At a tiny stream crossing, hordes of painted lady butterflies scatter as I splash through, filling the sky with fluttering wings.
But the trails also flirt with deadly cliffs, slick shale and granite boulders that rise up in sharp, scary angles. Knotted tree roots spring from the route like speed bumps. Rocks the size of a man's fist litter the shoulder-width path.
My inner voice becomes shrill: Slow down! Look out! Look at that cliff!
Despite my caution, I wipe out three times, landing twice on hard gravel and once sliding down an embankment of poison oak and broken tree branches. Each time the culprit is something seemingly innocuous: a dirt-filled gully, a slick rock or a jutting root.
At another footbridge, I'm overtaken by a group of six female riders, including twins from Colorado.
"Nothing compares to Boulder, but this place is not bad," says Elise Jones as her twin, Suzanne, pulls up. Elise tells me that she's the head of the Colorado Environmental Coalition and that Suzanne is a regional director for the Wilderness Society.
As they speed away, the environmentalist in me starts feeling better about the sport I love. How bad can mountain biking be if these Colorado tree huggers are doing it?
I roll into Downieville a couple of hours later and meet a group of riders from the Bay Area standing in front of a bike shop, comparing injuries. I proudly show them my bloody knee, and they invite me over for drinks.
A couple of hours later I'm part of Downieville's second-most popular pastime: the post-ride bull session. About 20 of us -- including executive headhunters, lawyers, security experts and winemakers -- sit on lawn chairs behind the Carriage House Inn, overlooking the Downie River, drinking wine, beer and tequila shots. We talk about our rides, our falls, our families and our work back home. I stagger back to my hotel room, feeling no pain from my earlier spills.
YOU CAN BE TOO CAREFUL
My bike is rattling like a maraca as I speed down a mountain trail known to locals as "baby heads," because the path is sprinkled with rocks the size of, well, you can guess. It's my second day riding the Downieville trails, and this time I'm joined by Greg Long, a longtime biker and owner of Downieville Outfitters.
"If you can ride Downieville, you can ride anywhere," he tells me before we start our ride. Long is an athletic, 44-year-old former salesman who moved here in 1996 from Ohio to make a living doing what he loves best.
Now I have a veteran rider at my side to explain why my first day on the trails was so painful. Long is sympathetic, telling me about his gnarly biking injuries, including a shattered leg bone.
The bike, he warns me, tends to veer to the focus of your eyes. Concentrate on the trail and not the hellish cliff near the edge and you'll be fine, he says.
Now I'm rolling over the baby heads and gaining speed. That shrill voice in my head tells me to clamp on the brake until I remember another tip from Long: When in doubt, find a line in the trail, speed up and shoot through. It proves to be good advice, as I fly over the baby heads without a spill. In fact, the advice keeps me accident-free for the rest of the ride. It's a strange lesson to learn. When I got to Downieville, I assumed that fear and caution would keep me safe. It turns out I should have been relying on speed and confidence.
A couple of hours later, I roll into Main Street again, bug-eyed, mud-caked and crowing, just like the rest of the dirt-smeared bike mob.
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