The Downieville Classic Turns 25: Celebrating a quarter century of good times with good people

How do you summarize the impact the Downieville Classic has had on the sport of mountain biking since its first running in 1995? The hardest part about writing an article celebrating 25 years of the Downieville Classic is figuring out where to begin, as the stories from this legendary mountain bike event tower as high as the Sierra Buttes themselves, and the line between myth and reality as intertwined as gold in quartz.

In the history of mountain biking, no other event has captured the essence of pleasure and pain on two wheels better than the Downieville Classic; it is the granddaddy of all mountain bike events for good reason. As one of the only point-to-point mountain bike races left in existence, the Downieville Classic features a 27-mile cross-country event starting in Sierra City and finishing in Downieville, opening with a grueling 3,000 vertical foot climb to Packer Saddle before plunging 5,500 vertical feet on trails originally cut during the Gold Rush, laden with every kind of rock imaginable.

Riders smiling through the pain with the Sierra Buttes towering high above. Photo by SBTS

But what’s made the Downieville Classic most legendary is the All-Mountain category, combining the cross-country event on Saturday with a 17-mile downhill race on Sunday, starting at 7,000 feet elevation at Packer Saddle and careening 5,000 vertical feet down Butcher Ranch trail to Third and First Divide trails before finishing in the heart of town. Downieville is the origin of the All-Mountain World Championships, an event testing the true mettle of every participant. To win the All-Mountain requires the ultimate balance of fitness and skill with a little bit of luck peppered in.

Flat tires are an inevitability in Downieville, so bring extra tubes and tire plugs. Photo by Ken Etzel

For most mortals, finishing the downhill in under an hour is something to be proud of. That’s right, an hour-long descent at full speed. And for good measure, there’s 500 feet of climbing to really burn the memory into the lungs and legs as much as the brain. On the bucket list of mountain bike events, the Downieville Classic ranks at the top, as no other event tests the mental and physical fortitude of its participants more thoroughly. Seven-time winner Mark Weir summed it up in Dirt Magic, a Patagonia-funded documentary about the history of the Downieville Classic.

“If someone underestimates it, they better be really fit, or serves them right,” said Weir. “Freaking hardest race I’ve ever done.”

In addition to pushing the limits of participants, the Classic has also pushed the sport of mountain biking itself. Due to the unique combination of warp speed and abundant rocks, Downieville’s trails have claimed countless broken wheels, frames and handlebars over the years, and shred unworthy tires with delight. The term “Downieville Tough” is a thing, as it’s been the ultimate proving ground for Downieville Classic title sponsor Santa Cruz Bicycles, testing product durability and advancing suspension design since the early 1990s.

Descending Gold Valley OHV Road, aka “Baby Heads” is a wild, fast, rocky and dusty ride. Photo courtesy of SBTS

The magic carpet-like suspension we enjoy on modern trail bikes can be credited in part to the trails of Downieville, as the riding experience today is worlds different than when the event started in 1995 as the Coyote Classic. Back then, on steel hardtails with cantilever brakes and 80 millimeters of elastomer suspension, racing the Downieville Classic was more about white-knuckle survival and not rattling teeth from your skull than anything else. Today the Classic is more about fun and pushing personal goals instead of pushing the bike to its functional limits.

Beyond the rugged, raw and historic trails, what makes the Downieville Classic so special is the environment of the Gold Rush-era town, little changed from its founding in the early 1850s. Today, throngs of spectators sit along the North Yuba River watching the Ron’s House of Big Air River Jump contest, just like in the early days of the Gold Rush when throngs of prospectors sat along those same river banks panning for gold.

The log pull down Main Street in Downieville is another crowd favorite> Photo by Ken Etzel

Today’s population of Downieville is barely 200 year-round residents, when in the 1850s it ranked in the thousands. Considering the Downieville Classic is the biggest event of the year with thousands of people attending from all over the world, the Classic gives folks a feel of what Downieville must have been like in the early days when gold was abundant and business was booming.

The river jump is a sight to see every year durning the Downieville Classic. It happens after the cross country race and the eve before the down hill. Photo: Ken Etzel

In order to help bolster his fledgling Coyote Adventures guiding company, Greg Williams started the Coyote Classic in 1995. At first, Williams was met with mixed response from residents, but in Williams’ signature fashion, he didn’t give up, knocked on the door of every resident on Main Street and won them over with his sincerity, receiving their blessing so he could shut down the street for the day to run the event. Williams was also the last person seen in town cleaning up after each year’s event, sweeping trash off Main Street with a broom; a tradition he has kept alive to this day.

Nevada City artist Bob Crabb has illustrated for the Downieville Classic since its first running in 1995 as the Coyote Classic. Photo by SBTS

The Downieville Classic is also the only event that ever gave out real gold nuggets, awarding the first man and woman to the top of the cross-country climb with one.

“It’s the only prize I have ever won that has gained value over the years,” said Stosh Bankston, local Nevada City mountain bike legend and Coyote Classic winner.

Before 2020, the only year the Classic didn’t run was in 2004, when Williams welcomed his first child into the world. That year, longtime supporter Santa Cruz Bicycles still cut Williams a check for sponsorship of the event, but instead of it going to producing the Downieville Classic, Williams put that money towards funding the creation of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a local non-profit trail building organization celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2023, and the beneficiary of funds raised by the Downieville Classic.

Costumes are always encouraged at the Classic. Photo by SBTS

“Without the support of the community and Santa Cruz Bicycles, neither the Downieville Classic nor the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship would exist today,” said Williams.

After a three-year hiatus due to COVID and wildfires, the 25th Anniversary of the Downieville Classic returns in grand fashion on July 13-16 after a historic winter dropping record snowpack on the Sierra Nevada. Much like in 2011 when a massive winter forced hundreds of volunteers to shovel out the trail for weeks leading up to the race, only to watch a last-minute heatwave melt all the snow a few days before the event, the 25th running of the Downieville Classic will also involve snow shoveling to make some of the upper trails passable.

It’s unclear if the cross-country event will use Gold Valley Rim Trail due to snowpack depth, but one thing is for certain: the snow won’t stop the Classic, it will only make the 25th running more legendary, especially the river jump thanks to runoff keeping the river running high all summer long.

Kurt Gensheimer creates the stoke for racers during the Downieville Classic race. It’s all time. Photo: Ken Etze

Kindred spirit and co-founder of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, Mark “Uncle Coz” Cosbey is a man of few words, but when he speaks, he makes it count, especially when looking back on the history of the Classic.

“We made the race happen during fires, we made it happen with massive amounts of snow, and most importantly to us, we did it when others doubted,” said Uncle Coz. “We all did it because we love it, and because we love each other. We’ve all got the passion for the Downieville Classic; whether you come to race or to volunteer or to just sit in the river with a cold beer. Friendships of a lifetime are made here, the more friends the better.”

Whether it be a wild tale of survival on the trail, an even wilder tale of encountering a bear in a tent, receiving a high five on the trail from a life-size pink gorilla, getting “Downievilled” in the St. Charles Saloon, cheering on your kids as they tackle the race course or meeting new lifelong friends while volunteering on event weekend, everyone who’s ever been to the Downieville Classic has a Downieville story. If you don’t yet have a Downieville story, mark the calendar for July 13-16, and make 2023 your first.

For more information on Downieville Classic registration, volunteering and a schedule of events, visit downievilleclassic.com. For more information on Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, visit sierratrails.org.

Main Image: Pro riders prepare for a 3,000 vertical foot climb from the start line of the Downieville Classic in Sierra City (Photo courtesy SBTS).

Read past article on Downieville here.