Kurt Gensheimer: Building Trails, Building Communities
In the pantheon of endurance sports, mountain biking is unique in the high frequency with which it reminds its mid-level practitioners how bad they suck. Such is the case for mortals who attempt to stay on the wheel of Kurt Gensheimer, the eponymous ASS (Angry Singlespeeder), as he navigates the long, techy, high-elevation trails of Northern California’s Lost Sierra. While he’s leading out epic climbs around the Lakes Basin and above Downieville like Lance Armstrong on a fresh EPO infusion, you can only hope he’ll wait at the summit. It’s 90 degrees, and this is a one water bottle day.For more than a decade these mountains north of Lake Tahoe have been Gensheimer’s home turf, part of the draw when he escaped Southern California and moved to trail-adjacent Reno. The 44-year-old lifelong mountain biker and former racer of all disciplines, has made bike evangelism his life’s work, through his writing, event promotion and trail-building. Readers of his columns in this publication under the “Angry Singlespeeder” moniker, or his writing using the “Trail Whisperer” handle, might identify Gensheimer as a mischievous antagonist in the bicycle culture wars, but that caricature belies his true nature. For Kurt it’s not important how you play in the mountains, it’s just important that you do.
“I am not on this planet to judge how somebody has a good time,” says Gensheimer. “People should do anything they want to do to have a good time. We all take the outdoors in differently. As long as you’re being responsible, and courteous, you’re doing it right.”
It’s a curious position for fans of Gensheimer’s writing, whose agitated alter ego was born from single-speed mountain biking culture, perhaps the second most insufferable of recreational cohorts (the first being fixed-gear aficionados). Despite the ASS’s curated curmudgeonly persona, in the real world Gensheimer is driven by a deeper ethos: a more global vision of trail development as community reclamation.
To this end, three years ago Gensheimer and a group of investors, including several bicycle industry heavyweights, bought The Lure, a then-dilapidated resort property located one bend of the North Yuba River from downtown Downieville. The idea was to contribute to and build on the economic ecosystem supported by hundreds of miles of local trails. Since the group made the purchase, Gensheimer has applied his inexhaustible work ethic and jack-of-all-trades construction and problem-solving skills to transform the cabins and property.
Building trails builds community Kurt Gensheimer
Today, with significant investment of capital and sweat equity, The Lure and its 70 acres of wooded paradise is a beacon for visitors to this part of California’s Gold Country, whether they are coming for the best-in-the-west shuttle-served downhill mountain biking, or just to hang out on the porch, read a book and occasionally cool down in the river.
Gensheimer has lived on site part-time and put himself to work reviving the once-tired cabins, and doing project after project, from rebuilding a spring-fed water system to clearing acres of overgrown brush. It’s been a lot of work. “You won’t believe what I have to deal with today,” an exasperated Gensheimer said earlier this summer during a phone call. “The fucking dumpster is in the river. This is the second time.” In the mountains, dumpsters shouldn’t have wheels. Thankfully, Gensheimer’s truck has a winch.
Chris McNamara, a mountain biker, rock climber, author, and pioneering wingsuit jumper who calls Lake Tahoe home, came in as an investor. He believed in Gensheimer’s vision of building a place that has character, but is also operated with integrity to benefit the adjacent mountain town communities racked by economic turmoil. The Lure is a thriving business, but it’s also jobs, and it’s affordable housing.
“It’s just been great being a part of it,” McNamara says. In addition to its riverfront cabins, The Lure has an extended property that includes a barn and two houses. The houses are perfect for local families on a budget, while the barn and pasture have become a magnet for the property’s owners, friends and families to come, unwind and celebrate the community. “Just meeting the people who have been such a big part of this area is part of the experience.”
McNamara sees Gensheimer as a connector. “At the heart of all these things, it’s about getting all the right people aligned,” he says. “Now there’s this great cast of characters, going [to The Lure] and actually doing work and creating the sweat equity.”
Modern-day Downieville is proof that trails can help sustain a community. If you believe the magazines and YouTube videos it’s easy to credit the boom in mountain bike popularity to advances in technology that have made bikes lighter, more efficient, and even motorized. But, trails are the central character in this story.
For decades after the last of the gold rush’s riches were mined from the hills around Downieville, the town subsisted on a mix of other resource extraction industries and eventually developed an economy as a recreation destination, mainly for gold dredgers and anglers. But, in the modern era, it has been remade as California’s epicenter of mountain biking, thanks in part to the attention created by the Downieville Classic (formerly the Coyote Classic) bike race and the prolific efforts of the region’s flagship trailbuilding non-profit, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), and its visionary leader Greg Williams.
Building on its success, SBTS is in the midst of an expansion of its charter with a large-scale trailbuilding and economic development project called “Connected Communities.” The plan is to develop and promote hundreds of miles of multi-use crisscrossing trails while bringing fresh economic opportunities to the larger Lost Sierra community.
“That dude’s a hero,” Gensheimer says. Williams showed that trails can be the key to unlocking a community’s potential. Understanding that power reprioritized Gensheimer. “I’ve been outside my whole life. Always outside, always in the woods. Trails have always been an integral part. And I’ve always raced.
“Racing is fun and all, but ultimately it’s kind of selfish and kind of vapid. But trails, they’re self-serving, but they’re also selfless. They’re an asset for the community that can live forever.”
Bringing a Nevada trail back to life
Outside the Great Basin town of Austin, Nevada, rising above the sunbaked desert valley floor, a renovated trail of epic proportions is coming to life. Gensheimer’s latest obsession is a 32-mile stretch of the Toiyabe Crest. For three years he has spearheaded a renovation of what he claims will be “one of the greatest single-day epics in North America,” a project that embraces the spirit of building community through building trails.
Although the trail has a historic pedigree, it has suffered from decades of disuse and neglect. Gensheimer, volunteers, and a crew of grant-funded trailworkers have been hard at work buffing out trail, cutting back overgrowth, rerouting lines and dialing drainage in an effort to transform a great trail into a masterpiece … still technical and rowdy enough for core riders, while befitting of the capabilities of modern mountain bikes. When he’s not at home in the small town of Verdi outside of Reno, or on hand at The Lure in Downieville, he’s usually out here, off-grid and living out of the Toyota Sunrader camper that he converted to a 4-wheel drive overlander, scratching at the trail with McLeods, axes, shovels and a cordless sawzall.
The trailhead lies near the outpost of Kingston, Nevada, and is striking distance from the towns of Fallon, Austin, Tonopah, and Ely, which is to the east near the Utah border.
Ely, population 4,000, gives off the shine of an old west town with heart. The main drag is a mix of local diners and feed stores, fast food and gas for road-trippers passing through, and motels for weary travelers. But it’s also a gateway to the Silver State’s abundance of outdoor opportunities, the Toiyabe Range among them.
Kyle Horvath is part of a new breed of adventure seekers who are rediscovering the riches of the interior public lands in the west. As executive director of the White Pine County Board of Tourism, he is spreading the gospel for this corner of outdoor paradise, charged with getting the word out that Ely, and its expansive high desert surrounds, has the goods. He considers Gensheimer a brother in arms in the battle to reposition this area as more than just a destination for hunters and fisherman.
“He’s really been instrumental to the success of mountain biking in this part of the state,” Horvath says. “I don’t know if people understand how instrumental he’s been to these projects. And these aren’t small projects.”
The two met each other when Horvath was marketing manager for the tourism promotion agency in Nevada’s capitol of Carson City, located just east of Lake Tahoe’s south shore. Gensheimer approached Horvath with a vision to help bring a festival-style mountain bike race to the then-new Ash to Kings Trail. At the time, Carson City was warming to the idea of evolving beyond its staid casino-wild west tourism brand, and Gensheimer tapped his old friend Todd Sadow, the progenitor of the Epic Rides races (Whiskey Off-Road, 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo and Tour of the White Mountains among them). The Carson City Off-Road was born.
“We were planning, going out to dinners, and going on big rides with each other, and talking about how big this could be for Carson City and Northern Nevada,” Horvath says of Gensheimer. “His enthusiasm was infectious. Kurt saw it as ‘Look what mountain biking can do for the community.’”
Despite challenges — the race has been beset by bad weather, course changes and a pandemic cancellation — hosting a big-time bike race brought hundreds of visitors who might have otherwise thought that great riding in the central Sierra stopped at the edge of Lake Tahoe. The Carson City Off-Road put the 55,000-population town on the proverbial mountain bike map.
“Kurt in a great way steered us to Carson City,” Sadow says. For years, Gensheimer has been one of the voices of Epic Rides, crafting promotional content for its storied races. “When Kurt relocated to the Reno area, his eyes were opened to that market. And he knew Carson City was looking to feature their trails. Beyond the connections, he spent a lot of time riding the course, and helped lay out the course. When it came time to promote the event, he was really instrumental.”
Before he moved to Northern Nevada, Gensheimer similarly put his stamp on San Diego’s cycling community, helping to develop the Quick n’ Dirty Mountain Bike Racing series. The owner of the series, Victor Sheldon, says his relationship with Gensheimer started around 2011, when Sheldon was repping eyewear brand Spy, and looking to sponsor a cyclocross race.
“We started off a little shaky,” Sheldon says. Gensheimer doesn’t shy away from expressing his opinions. “I was coming from a motorsports background and Kurt had different ideas. We started on a different page, but eventually we figured it out, and after that it sparked a friendship.”
When Sheldon moved on from Spy, he and Gensheimer started the series with three mountain bike races, and, after an overwhelming positive reception, planned for five the next year. The growth of the series has continued. This year, Quick n’ Dirty will hold 16 races over the course of 2021, with hundreds of riders participating, including a big contingent of kids and high schoolers. “Kurt leaves that kind of mark wherever he goes,” Sheldon says. “He’s a loved individual.”
Horvath sees the same growth potential for Ely, which is already entrenched in mountain bike lore with a unique June race called Fears, Tears and Beers, the self-proclaimed “oldest enduro mountain bike race in the country.” The race/party (maybe actually a party/race?), offers several classes from beginner to pro, and a course with a uniquely Nevada twist: racers literally ride through a casino.
The region has an impressive mix of trails like Ice Plant, High Roller and (the also uniquely Nevadan) Whorehouse Downhill. As a bonus, a 50-mile trail expansion plan is approved and waiting for funding, Horvath says. As part of Ely’s newest bike event, called “Race the Rails,” riders sprint against a train, riding the gravel next to the tracks for a 6-mile burst. Like with Fears, Tears and Beers, the winners are the riders who have the most fun, Horvath says. This being central Nevada, there is no shortage of gravel roads, which are bringing new cycling enthusiasts to the party. “It’s about having fun in a beautiful place and doing what you love,” Horvath says. “It’s definitely more social than competitive.”
In Ely, kids are riding more — there’s a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team approximately 15-20 riders strong —and more and more people are finding their version of mountain bike Mecca in this region, Horvath says.
“What’s so cool about this happening is that it just takes the energy of someone who believes in it,” he says. “Kurt’s a modern-day explorer. He’s so connected to the old days. He can look at the old maps and see the potential for forgotten trails. But in that he can see the potential for the community.
“I’m just blown away by what the mountain biking community is doing here. They are driving cohesion in the region with things like trail-work days and people getting together at events. It’s an awesome thing to see it bringing people and a town together.”
This story was reported at the beginning of what has turned into a catastrophic fire season in the Sierra Nevada. The Lost Sierra and nearby communities were hit hard by the 105,000-acre Beckwourth Fire, and the behemoth Dixie Fire, approaching 1 million acres. South of Lake Tahoe, the Caldor Fire has claimed nearly 800 structures, and was at 215,000 acres as of this publication. The fire required evacuation of communities along Lake Tahoe’s south shore. As a result of these fires, we already know that hundreds of trails have been lost, and that we have a huge trail rebuilding effort ahead of us. Support the organizations that will be at the front and center of this effort at SierraTrails.org and TAMBA.org