Sean and I left last Tuesday morning for what we planned to be a 5-day tour around the northern Sierras. I got back 4 days later on Friday night after 100 miles in the saddle that day. I was more than tired, my body was done. I haven’t felt that way since my last 24-hr race – Montezuma’s Revenge – 10 years ago. We had just finished 320 miles and 49,730ft of climbing in 4 days by just riding in the daylight hours (except for the last day with ~2 hours in the dark). So why am I calling this a “Tour” and not an ITT or race between two friends? Because the goal was not to make record time but to spend some self-supported time in the mountains, riding a loop that Sean came up with linking trails and roads he hadn’t ridden all-at-once before. We didn’t want to drive anywhere and opted to ride from home, just because we could living at the edge of the Tahoe National Forest. For me, I went to explore the roads and trails that I had never ridden, see parts of the Sierras I’d never seen, and sleep as much as we could each night. Our actual moving time (via GPS) was around 34 hours indicating how much down-time we had along the way. We woke up leisurely, ate breakfast, stopped for photos, stopped for lunch and dinner, and even sat around a fire along the trail one day (more later…). It was the average riding speed that took us that distance and elevation, and eventually put me on my ass halfway up the last climb in the dark eating everything I could find in my pack wondering how I was going to make it home just 4 miles away.
Sean wrote up a great day by day report on his blog HERE. Being new to the area, I was able to take the backseat and let someone else plan AND be the guide on the trail. Sean’s extremely knowledgeable of the area having grown up in Sacramento and living in Foresthill the last 13 years. In Colorado, I’d most times be the guide since I was the guy with the stupid ideas, GPS and maps. But that didn’t exclude me from getting us lost. Strangely, I didn’t even so much as look at the day-by-day splits Sean hoped to ride as we were going without much of a plan, just to ride and be ‘out there’ on the trail.
I’ve learned in the last few months that Sean is a hammer. There’s no two-ways about it. When I met him he said he liked to go out on long rides and ride hard. Sounds good! Unfortunately, my brain still thinks I’m the Whit I was of Y2K whereas my body is 13 years older and much less trained. Even though I’d like to say that I can keep up with him…i’m not even close. When I moved to the little town of 1,500 in the foothills of the Sierras, i thought to myself, “I can probably do just fine here with the local mountain biker.” Well…I was wrong. Not only can he ride the legs off me, he can do it with cracked ribs and a separated shoulder!
The bike I was going to ride on this fall tour never got built so I just used my faithful frame #13 with the Fox F29 I took off my old Trek 69er (c.2007). The bike’s geometry is nothing special really, more XC and with sliders for a Speedhub. Weight of the bike without gear was a whopping 28 lbs (frame weights 4.5lbs). With gear it was circling 45lbs with water. We were not going light. I was going prepared for any weather as snow and cold temperatures were forecasted in the higher elevations. I brought more clothing than I ever have on a tour, but I ended up wearing it all. Booties, short and long sleeve wool jerseys, two chammys, two pairs of socks, leg/arm/knee wamers, winter hat and lobster mits, long underwear, it was the full survivial kit in my bags.
(Mileage and Climbing of each day can be found at Sean’s blog as I don’t want to duplicate efforts here.)
I met Sean at the top of my road on the way out of town at 7am. The first 27 miles climb up a nice lightly-used paved road up to Robinson Flat. Lately the only ‘traffic’ has been Fire trucks and personnel and the logging trucks taking the salvaged logs out of the burn. The American Fire is still not officially “Out” but the road at Deadwood had been opened allowing us to pass and see some of the fire effects on the landscape. Some areas were green and amazingly unaffected – mostly random island patches or along creeks and wetter areas. Others parts of the forest were full of crispy 100ft-plus tall trees, a total moonscape – mostly the steeper hillsides and tops of ridges.
Foresthill road splits at Robinson Flat and turns to dirt. We turned left towards Soda Springs and rode the next 25 miles to Highway 80 the top of Donner Pass. The last 6 miles up to the pass at Royal Gorge Ski Area and Sugar Bowl hurt me. I still hadn’t finished my 80oz. camelback and bottle after 50-ish miles so I’m blaming that. Sean pulled ahead after The Cedars and I spun in a low gear in survival mode. We stopped for some fuel at the Soda Springs Store and crossed under the highway to the start of the first singletrack of the day — the Donner Lake Rim Trail. This is a gem of a singletrack combining slower technical granite-weaving and no-brake bench cuts flying through big trees and falling leaves. Our direction left us climbing several switchbacks leading to Tahoe Donner and then down the Alder Creek Trail where Sean opted for the road because his shoulder and ribs were too painful at the end of the day to ride more singletrack. We finally hit the buffed out Emigrant Trail that crosses Hwy 89 north of Truckee and rode for a couple of miles before stopping for the night. We had planned on hitting Stampede Reservoir after finishing the 12-mile long Emigrant trail but decided it was getting too late and we’d rather set up camp with light to spare at Prosser Creek. Today’s route took us on lots of road with approximately 14 miles of singletrack at the end.
We woke up to clear skies and thought the storm had skirted north. It was cold at around 35 degrees but we had both slept pretty well having gotten in the sack around 9pm. After a breakfast of oatmeal we started riding the Emigrant trail. Nothing quite like jumping on buff singletrack weaving through the huge Ponderosas first thing! Our hands and toes were cold but it was not snowing or raining. Less than a half-hour later it started to snow…lightly…then the flakes got bigger and bigger. Normally I absolutely love riding in this type of weather — cold and snowing on singletrack, but knowing we were planning to ride all day to Graeagle and beyond was a different story. Keeping dry wasn’t easy and we both got pretty cold after the first 10-miles when we hit Stampede Reservoir.
Everything was closed, as was Robinson Flat, because of the Government Shutdown. We took the 1ft of ‘shelter’ at the campground entrance station’s overhang. After some food and clothing adjustments we decided to continue on as it seemed like there was a break in the clouds. We hit the pavement were instantly wetter than we had been on the trail. The GPS track took us in a direction that just didn’t make any sense and we did a few out-and-backs on the doubletracks below Stampede dam before heading back up to where we started. While Sean was riding up the hill, I was messing with my GPS (iPhone) when the battery suddenly died. I plugged it into the charger and my fingers froze solid having my hands outside gloves for some minutes. After years of commuting by bike from Nederland to Boulder, as well as from backcountry skiing in the windswept tundra of the Front Range…my circulation isn’t so good anymore. Sean saw me flicking my hands to get blood down to the fingers as I was riding up to him and he took the initiative to call it and started a fuel-block fire right in the middle of the double-track. It was classic. First time I’ve ever used one of those small white fire-starter blocks and it was a great thing. We spend the next hour or so by the fire there drying out our gloves and warming up our hands while eating a second breakfast. Eventually, the clouds parted and we made a ride for it after thouroughly dousing the fire in water and pee. Back on track we turned onto Henness Pass Road up through Sardine Valley. This was one of my favorite sections of the tour so far, we were following a creek that had more aspens than I’d seen since moving to California. For someone that’s lived in Colorado for over 20 years, that is a welcome sight and makes you feel at home. We eventually reached Kyburz Flat and found an open restroom that the government shutdown had forgotten to lock. Lucky us, we both had to go! We had another decision point as we hit Hwy 89. We could ride pavement all the way to Graeagle and get to a hotel room sooner, or we could descend to Jackson Meadows and ride the route we had planned to ride.
No matter how I feel, I’ll always choose dirt over pavement so the decision was a quick one. We “descended” the road to Webber Lake passing a mass of sheep and their border collie protectors. Sean stopped to let me catch up and refilled up on water in the Little Truckee Creek. A hunting Cooper’s hawk flew off as I leaned my bike up on the nearest road sign.
Sean suggested a small route-change to cut off more pavement. My knee had started hurting for some reason so I was all for it. We turned right up FS Road 12 leading to Bonta Saddle where we again hooked up with Henness Pass Road. We rode for several miles along the “1001 Ridge” covered with massive fir’s robed with fluorescent green moss. The road eventually dropped 6 miles and 2,000ft into the town of Bassetts, nothing more than a general store and fire house. The store was luckily still open and hot bad coffee never tasted better. It was about 3pm and that was way too late for the first coffee of the day!
From Bassetts we started up the Gold Lake Hwy paralleling Salmon Creek and overlooking the Sierra Buttes. The Buttes are something to see — jagged-edged spires rising above a large “butte” to 8,591ft. It looked like something you’d see in the Rockies but all the lakes and water in Lakes Basin reminded me we were definitely in the Sierras. Time was getting late so we scrapped doing a short but technical section of the singletrack around Lakes Basin and patched into the Graeagle Creek Trail via the Grass Lake Trail which led us down into Graeagle. This was the first section of singletrack since the Emigrant trail out of Truckee and it was an amazing mix of giant firs and their green moss surrounded by gray granite peaks with the sound of waterfalls trail-side. The changing colors of aspen, alder, and shrubs that I’ve yet to learn the names of made my eyes pop and i stopped to take too many pictures once again. We got into Graeagle right before dark and looked for a warm hotel room to dry out our gear. We were touring after all! Although it didn’t snow most of the day, we started out wet and didn’t get much drier with on and off snow and the clouds and temperatures in the 30s to low 40s. Not many places were open being a tweener season (not the government this time) other than the Feather River Park “Resort.” Luckily it also had the only open restaurant in town so we stayed there and got some massive burritos and a pint of suds to end a pretty epic day in the saddle.
The second day makes or breaks the tour I’m told. This day saw me threatening to bail at least twice (that Sean knows about). Partly just to stop slowing him down (I have guilt issues) and partly because my left knee had developed a sharp pain with each pedal stroke. It’s something I’ve never had to deal with before and the slight ache I’ve been having after rides all summer turned into something a lot more painful. I don’t even know if it’s related or new, but it hurt like hell. My right leg was doing most the work up and over the passes and I was having doubts on whether I’d be able to physically finish the tour. I just kept saying, “make it to the next stop and re-evaluate.” It’s funny how the mind likes to forget the body’s pain when it really wants to finish what it started.
We woke up warm inside the cozy hotel room and stepped into a humid 30 degrees. We rolled down main street to the only open breakfast joint in town – the Graeagle Restaurant. A big round table of old-timers were the only other patrons and we got that typical look you get when you walk into a small-town eatery in bike clothing. Aliens.
Up and out after french toast and hash-browns and more cups of coffee than I can recall ever drinking, we quickly began the climb up Johnsonville Road. The road took us through a controlled burn in the Plumas-Eureka State Park and eventually up a masterpiece of a bench-cut dirt road alongside Jamison Creek. We made our way up and over to the “A-Tree” — a drop-off point for mail at the junction of stage line roads during the Gold Rush. The only thing that got me through this long climb, other than sheer stubborness, was drugs. I have never taken “Vitamin I” before and have always felt that if I needed pain-relievers to finish a ride I should just stop riding. More harm than good right? But in the context of a tour you can’t really stop. How would I get home? My car’s at home 100 miles away! I could send out a Spot help signal to my wife but nothing was broken, i was just in pain! At the Plumas-Eureka Park HQ Sean gave me two Alleve’s and that pretty much saved my tour. I felt like I could ride again, pushing the pedals with BOTH legs instead of one. The knee pain had all but gone away.
The PCT crosses this junction at the A-Tree but we dropped into the Lavezolla Creek Trail and then the 1st Divide Trail for the 14-mile and ~4,000ft descent into Downieville. This was definitely another highlight of the tour, not just the amazing trail and scenery but seeing Downieville after not having been there in 20 years. Last I was there, there was no race and no shuttle service, there were no places to eat other than the General Store. It seemed like a ghost town, but maybe that’s just how I like to remember it. It’s become an incredible mountain bike destination with TWO shuttle services that take riders up to the top of the trail network at Packers Saddle and beyond. They’ve done a lot of great work on the trails and expanded the network so I can see why this is such a mecca.
We couldn’t find any place to eat ironically in town that was (1) Open, or (2) Didn’t have an hour wait to get even a menu. There was only one open place and it was packed so we hit the store and gas station for some of the worst food selection I’ve ever had to choose from being only a plant-eater. Potato chips, nuts, bars, that’s what i subsisted on mostly each day. After ‘lunch’ we headed out to the 5-mile long North Yuba Trail to Goodyears Bar. This trail is incredible and keeps on going downstream for a few more miles. I hear there are plans to connect the network here to Forest City, Bullards Bar, etc. Once at Goodyears Bar, we headed up a very nice but difficult 6-mile 2,000ft climb on Mountain House Road to Old Mountain House and descended into Forest City. Sean rode ahead at his own pace and I settled into my spinner pace taking as much pressure off my left knee as I could. The Alleve I had taken this morning had worn off. Up at the top of the hill at Old Mountain House we crossed Henness Pass Road again. This road was the main supply route from Virginia City, NV to Marysville, CA back in the Gold Rush days and followed the high ridgelines connecting those two big supply cities. There’s a reason they didn’t make the road go in & out of the river canyons (like we were doing…). We filtered at an iron-colored stream below Forest City and sadly had to pass by their sweet trail network in an effort to get closer to a good camp spot. We arrived just before dusk at Footes Crossing on the Middle Yuba River where we slept between river rocks on the sandbar.
The rather large descent into Foote’s Crossing the previous day meant we had a bit of climbing right off the bat today. Not as bad as we thought since we were generally heading downhill, if that makes any sense. Around Columbia Hill and past some seriously huge mine tailings off Grizzly Hill Road, we ended up many miles later at the South Yuba Trailhead. This began some of the nicest but challenging singletrack, especially with bikepacking gear adding 20lbs to the bike.
The South Yuba trail goes approximately 16 miles up the Yuba River eventually putting you out in the town of Washington. It was hard for me not to burn all my matches on this trail as it makes you work for it each pedal stroke. You feel the need to stand up and crank on the pedals on the many short rises. A great singlespeed ride Sean says, he and some other hammer named Todd cleared the trail some years ago on their singles. Hard to believe but I’m not surprised after riding with him on this tour.
Once at Washington we hit the General Store. This place is awesome. It had a good food selection and even some healthy items! Kicking in front of the store stuffing our faces with our takings, we watched several dogs looking like they owned the place. A couple loose pitbulls with their people walking down the middle of the street carrying partially full 12-packs to their next destination at 1pm, and a guy in overalls missing some teeth claiming he used to ride 90-mile loops up and around Mt. Diablo on his $10 (stolen) Cannondale DH bike before he bailed on his druggie girlfriend cause “she was all messed up.” She proceeded to give his bike to her new boyfriend. Washington must be the sister city to Ward, Colorado (and if you know what I’m talking about you now understand Washington, CA). In a word: CLASSIC. Not many places like this left and that’s a bad thing in my opinion.
The climb out of Washington made me wonder, ‘how does that crazy little town have such a sweet road leading to it?’ Four miles later we were ridge-top on Hwy 20 and quickly linked on to the Pioneer Trail that led us all the way via some fun swoopy singletrack to the Harmony Ridge store where we again feasted on the best selection of food yet. I even had a double-espresso. This was indeed a tour.
Across the street we dived into the new Scott’s Flat trail with it’s newly bermed turns and other fun features. This trail was completed this spring so still needs to be ridden-in but wow, what a great trail. It did make us pedal more than we thought right off the start though, making us wonder if we were on the right trail, “i thought this was supposed to go DOWNHILL?!”
Once at Scotts Flat Reservoir where the campground was closed down, we decided we should just get home to our beds. This was my first mistake but I’m glad I made it. I felt good after 50 or so miles because of the good food and espresso but there was at least another 40 miles to go if we continued home. It was mostly dirt and paved road though so seemed like we could make good time. We went for it. The suburban-assault was great, the Cascade Canal through the upper reaches of Nevada City was great and seeing so many people out with their dogs was culture shock having not seen many people in 3 days. The country roads were taking us down in elevation but had plenty of hills to tax what was left in my legs. Sean made me go first since my tail-light left something to be desired (i.e., to be seen) so I didn’t even get to draft. Safety on these roads at dusk was a high priority. Somewhere later we stopped for a snack and put on our lights, mine a Black Diamond Storm velcro-strapped to my helmet, Sean with a sweet Gemini 900 lumen light on his bars. With that we were able to go safely along Placer Hills Road and down the dirt Canyon Road to the bridge crossing the American River where the start of the climb up Yankee Jims began.
Yankee Jims is one of the classic Foresthill climbs, it’s a gentle grade, narrow dirt road for the first 2/3rds of the ride where it turns to pavement. It climbs up along Shirtail Creek before a few switchbacks that bring you to the old town of Yankee Jims. I started to get woozy just before the turnoff to Shirtail Creek which is only a couple of miles up from the bottom. It’s harder to tell you’re bonking in the dark since you can’t see your surroundings but the light-headedness gives it away. I had to sit down at the turnoff. Sean’s a good riding partner and once I had eaten the rest of my food stayed with me the whole way up pretending to be also near death, but I knew better. The food kicked in towards the top and I was able to make it home without falling into a ditch to never be seen again.
I knew it was a long day in the saddle but now knowing it was a 102 mile/15,000ft of climbing day makes me less embarrassed about bonking. This tour was tough, but they all are in one way or another. I love riding slow and taking my time, but I also like riding fast and covering a lot of ground. You see more in a shorter time period, and when you don’t have a month off to explore, your days off have to be maximized. Even with riding so much we slept well, had enough food and resupply spots were placed well, the riding was excellent, the history and towns unique and interesting, and we didn’t have one mechanical or flat tire. Most of all for me I got to see a part of the Sierras that I had never seen before. That is definitely worth the knee pain and bonk that will fade away and leave just the memories of beautiful scenery, trails, and the one-of-a-kind cross-country experience that is only found by touring on two wheels.