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THE WINNER'S CIRCLE AT DOWNIEVILLE CLASSIC

You could say that mountain biking put Downieville on the map. Over the past quarter century, this sleepy mountain town in a remote zone of California's Sierra Nevada range has hosted an event that’s nothing short of legendary.
 
The Downieville Classic is an annual two-day event combining an old-school, point-to-point XC race and a white-knuckle DH race that plunges 5000 vertical feet in 15 miles. Put them together, and you have the All-Mountain World Championships. It’s not sanctioned by the UCI, or anyone else for that matter, but mountain bikers know: This is the ultimate test to determine the best all-around rider.
 
For the past decade plus, Giant Factory Off-Road Team riders have been regulars on the podium. Adam Craig, Carl Decker and Stephan Davoust have won 7 of the last 11 editions. Due to the pandemic, the Downieville Classic has been dormant since 2019. But this year it’s back. So, it seemed like a good time for Adam, Carl and Stephan to get together and reminisce. Here’s the story, told by five-time Downieville All-Mountain Champ Carl Decker. 

Carl Decker, 5-time winner of the Downieville Classic

Downieville holds a special place in the heart of 5-time winner Carl Decker. John Reynolds photo

Competitors in Downieville's “All Mountain World Championships” need to be good at only four things: Descending, Climbing, Bike Setup, and Games of Chance. To lack any one of these four elements on a day is to leave disappointed or broken. And it can happen to the very best of men.
 
Like Jerome Clementz, who foundered at Downieville despite being the Best Enduro Racer on Earth. Or Greg Minnaar, The Greatest DHer of All Time, who mustered only 12th in the long and decidedly not-all-downhill Downieville DH. Or Levi Leipheimer, the hopped-up Grand Tour Guy, who led the XC by five minutes at the top of the first climb, but couldn’t keep air in his tires all the way to the finish.

At the Downieville Classic, it’s difficult to win the XC on Saturday or the DH on Sunday. But it’s exceedingly difficult to win both. And that’s a unique thing that Adam Craig, Stephan Davoust and I have in common—we’ve all done the “Downieville Double.”

Adam and Stephan could both be described as Jacks of All Trades. Not just on two wheels, but in life in general. Both have won a Marathon MTB National Championship. Both have great bike handling skills and make big power (yet neither uses a power meter). They both have casual, natural and unpretentiously playful speed. Adam’s was developed first as a ski racer in Maine, and Steve’s by the legendary Durango Devo program. Both are currently building homes for themselves with their own two hands. Both drive dusty, un-lifted Dodge trucks.

I can’t think of a better pair than these two for poking around the Lost Sierra. And what finer place to explore than a place you’ve already been to 15 times but have never found time to deviate from the path of least resistance? New trails. New views. New swimming holes. Old riding buddies. The twice-burned-to-the-ground, gold-rush town of Downieville. What a prospect.

What’s Downieville like to ride? There’s too much to absorb. And it’s a challenge to describe. I’ve never liked writing about this place. I hold it in such regard that I feel intimidated by the job of using my cheap and ordinary words to convey its character.
 
But I will try...

Giant Factory Off-Road Team rider Carl Decker, 2012 Downieville All-Mountain winner

Carl en route to his third straight Downieville title in 2012. Jake Orness photo

It’s remote and it’s pretty. The landscape is so pristine, the ground cover so tidy in places that it seems almost manicured. Most American Wildernesses are lackluster by comparison. It’s special enough in places that at times it feels illicit riding a bike through it. Indeed, walking would offer more opportunity to drink everything in.
 
But the trails here beg more pace. Historic mining paths and purpose-built MTB/moto trails combine to create monumentally fun riding. Buff sections of trail are punctuated by chunder. Rarely slow and picky, Downieville demands only intermediate skill levels from a rider. But at pace, things escalate quickly—in places the sheer speed is almost overwhelming.

Like the top of Third Divide, where the light filters through a towering old growth fir canopy, creating a strobe effect on your sunglasses on a dark northern slope. It takes all your courage to stay off the brakes for any time at all as you plummet through a hint of long-hanging dust. The strobing gets quicker and the alarming sound of your tires whistling over dirt gets higher and louder every moment you’re successful at staying off the binders.

Here, at Third, Mark Weir is rumored to have once upon a time not touched his brakes for 40 seconds. I feel shame every time I tap mine in the shallowly bermed cliffside left-hander only 6 seconds down. Further down toward town, the speeds get more reasonable, but the exposure gets even more menacing: there are places where a mistake could mean an unintended dip in a river. Eighty feet below.
 
Mistakes can’t be made. Close calls alone are a cause for night sweats. My readiest DV memories are snapshots of alarming speed beside considerable exposure. Crystal clear water cascading over a remote waterfall? An aquamarine alpine lake abutted by a Yosemite-esque dome of granite? In the tunnel vision of quick trail riding, you might not even notice them. At speed, the stunning scenery is very often just a blur in your periphery—admire it at your peril.

Giant Factory Off-Road Team riders Adam Craig and Carl Decker

Adam (left) and Carl at the 2016 Downieville Classic. Teammates, friends, competitors.

Right. It’s fast and sometimes scary. So best to ride a bike with some margin of safety, but what goes down must go up at The Classic, and Saturday’s XC bike cannot be changed prior to Sunday morning’s DH. Bikes are weighed, tires marked, pictures taken. Which leaves every rider in a bit of a quandary: something efficient for the pedally stuff—or something more substantial to cushion the gnar of the Babyheads section? 
 
For Giant Factory riders, it has always boiled down to two options: Anthem or Trance. 
 
When Adam arrived on the scene in 2009, he was on the first test mule of the bike we now call Trance. ALLUX alloy, 26” wheels, and with 120mm of travel from a custom Fox DHX coil shock, it was Giant’s big move into the burgeoning “trail” category, and he was quick enough to do the double on it straight away.
 
The next year, everybody was on a Trance. Giant used the event to launch the production bike and media members each had an opportunity to race their own Trance. I was supposed to as well, but I went another direction: the first Anthem 29 mule. With 100mm of XC travel, an XTR triple chainring, and no seat dropper, it seemed an unlikely foil to the trail-bike status quo, but I surprised everyone (myself most of all) when I won the overall convincingly.  
 
Since then, the event has served as important testing grounds—for everything from frame geometry and suspension tuning, to tires, brakes and clothing. At the last edition of the Classic in 2019, I was on a wild prototype Trance—and was summarily spanked by Stephan on a lightly modified Anthem 29er. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This trip was all Stephen’s idea. The three of us would come ride and explore and swap stories. We’d camp, eat sausages, and smell like burning wood. Probably sleep like shit, and not worry about any of it.
 
Adam, Stephan and I live in three different time zones and follow our own frenetic calendars, seldom seeing each other despite being co-workers and friends. With spring thaw reaching into July here, and winter weather often arriving in October, the “Downieville Window” is frustratingly tight. It took two years to finally make it happen.

When we arrived in the fall, the wind trailed off and the sun shined for four days straight. Even at night it was warm. We rode and laughed and took time to breathe it all in. And with the help of John Reynolds and Wiley Kaupas, we created a film that endeavors to capture what it all means to us. It’s the most interesting video project I’ve ever been involved in making.
 
We couldn’t help but build a strong kinship with John and Wiley as they camped and worked with us out there. We talked about locations and light. And history, and the distilled spirit of a place, and what all of Wiley's 16mm film might look like—if it came out at all. Each of us contributed little bits of texture. All unscripted, and often by accident. I really like how the project turned out. It’s a fitting homage to a place that we all hold dear, even more so after this trip. 
 
After four perfect days of riding, shooting and reconnecting with each other and this place, we all scattered back across the map—to next events, necessary appearances, and everyday obligations. Our time there was fleeting, but it was worthwhile.

A few days later, it snowed on the Sierra Buttes.

Giant riders Adam Craig, Carl Decker and Stephen Davoust riding in Downieville, California.

Thanks for coming along with us.

Sincerely, 
Carl Decker, Adam Craig, and Stephan Davoust

Our Thanks to the many people at Giant who have taken us where we are in life and sport. The three of us have a combined 50 years of experience at Giant. And this year, Giant Group continues to celebrate its 50-year anniversary. So thank you, Giant, and Happy Anniversary!

And a special thanks to the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, without whom the Downieville Classic would be naught, and the Lost Sierra would truly be lost to most of us.