It took three years after racing my first Tahoe Sierra 100 mountain bike race in 2011 to want to do it again. It’s been more than a month since crossing the finish line. I finally feel I can recount the event in words without shuddering. As it stated on the registration website (www.globalbiorhythmevents.com), this is an “old-school, point-to-point mountain bike race.” Whereas many races of this distance consist of multiple laps on a shorter loop, this race began atop Donner Summit in Soda Springs, CA and ended at Placer High School in Auburn, CA. If that route sounds vaguely familiar, the legendary Western States Endurance Run and the Tevis Cup equestrian event share much of the course. Mountain bikers have fought hard over the years to be accepted as a legitimate user-group on this trail system and this race serves to maintain and promote that fact.
My first suppressed memory reared its ugly head as we were setting up camp the night before the race. I remembered it as a convenient, free spot, just minutes away from the start. Somehow the train tracks and their hourly freights just a few hundred yards away had faded from memory. I think we got a collective hour of sleep. While we shivered in the pre-dawn darkness, drinking cold coffee and adjusting tire pressure, our girlfriends elected to stay in their sleeping bags.
Signing in at the start, it was obvious some racers had second thoughts and decided their entry fee was better served as a donation rather than putting themselves through voluntary torture. After a short pep talk, it was 3-2-1 GO! The crisp air stung my bare arms and legs and my fingers and toes were numb. Knowing that soon the sun would rise, giving way to temps in the 90s, I chose to leave my jacket at camp. After a couple miles of pavement, the field of racers started to spread out a bit coming into the initial dirt descent. Here’s where my memory failed me again. Any descent in this race does not go unpunished without an equal ascent. In addition, within the first 20 miles, racers were forced off their bikes into short hike-a-bikes on multiple occasions. If the trail wasn’t too steep, it was often too loose, rocky, or rutted to climb. Bashing along the trail, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we crested Redstar ridge and the views started to open up. Some veteran riders were wearing surgical masks and this triggered another memory. The high and dry soil was several inches deep and resembled brown talcum powder. Hidden beneath were loose rocks that made steering unpredictable and wobbly. Riders in front kicked up huge clouds of pulverized dust that hung in the air coating sunglass lenses and choking airways. Nearly every climb was relentless. Just when it seemed you couldn’t possibly climb any longer the trail would bend and another slanted patch of dirt continued upwards as far as the eye could see into the woods. Spur trails came into view but upon reaching them a white arrow in the dirt indicated the course was straight ahead and up. With lungs searing and lactic acid levels continually rising, you eventually reached the top.
As much as I tend to enjoy the uphill, riding downhill on a bike is really when the fun begins. And it was fun. Kinda. Sometimes. Most times though, the descents were just as loose as the ascents. Fundamentally, a rider should relax their grip on the handlebars, using a soft touch on the brakes. However, these descents were like riding blind. Lurking beneath the dust were roots, rocks, and stumps waiting like a sniper to pluck a rider from their bike and deposit them headlong into the bushes. In recent years, fires ravaged portions of the course. Trails were rerouted so recently you would have thought they were made the day before the race. I use the word trails very lightly here. One pass over the burnt forest floor with a grader and some temporary, near-vertical water bars is a more accurate description. Both Bligh and I actually stopped mid-descent once because our forearms and hands were aching so badly we could hardly hang on.
Soon after, the course mellowed out and the trails got better. They even started to resemble trails designed for mountain biking. They were fast and smooth and hardpacked. I knew these trails from previous trips to Auburn when the skiing was terrible in Tahoe or our trails were still buried under spring snow. They all felt longer this time though. I couldn’t wait for them to be over. Even the super fun Culvert Trail featuring a large pipe where in the middle it goes completely dark, ceased to be amusing. We finally hit the American River confluence as the sun was dipping out of sight.
The final Stagecoach aid-station, that on paper seemed superfluous with only 5 miles left to the finish, provided a much needed caffeine boost. The climb was slow and steady but Bligh and I chatted away like teenaged girls. Any doubt we harbored about finishing slipped away with each revolution of the pedals. We had somehow managed to ride together the entire race without even planning on it. We marveled at how despite the rugged terrain our bikes had performed flawlessly. Rolling through neighborhoods in the final miles made it feel like just another weekend or after work ride. There was no dramatic sprint to the finish. We smiled, bumped fists, and coasted through an inflatable arch 103 miles and 13 plus hours from where we started that morning to the cheers of two very patient girlfriends.
One memory that I definitely did not forget was that of the river canyons. The river canyons are encountered around midday when the sun is highest in the sky and temps are reaching their forecasted maximum. The descents into the canyons are steep and loose which by this point came as no surprise to racers. Tight switchbacks with high-consequence drop offs on the downhill side made riding them petrifying. I was elated when we finally reached the cool, crystal clear waters of the American River at the bottom. Fire had burnt out the bridge and riders were faced with a waist-deep river crossing. We elected to take a few moments to dunk our heads and soak our shirts to cool off and rinse the accumulated dirt from our faces. The climb out of the first canyon is virtually unrideable. Sometimes we’d get tricked back onto our bikes, only to be forced off again in 50 feet or so. Typically the effort exerted to ride that short section didn’t pay an equivalent time or energy dividend either. There’s no way to sugar coat this. It was a 1.5 mile hike-a-bike. I think it’s pretty fair to say that even the most seasoned of mountain bikers have probably never hiked their fully functioning bike for this long. Go out and try it sometime if you think this doesn’t sound that bad. It’s terrible. Trust me. There were two more canyons to follow, although each one got a little more rideable on the way up. My mood elevated upon arrival at the aid-station after the heinous climb to Devil’s Thumb. There was a ‘70s theme going on here complete with afro wigs and polyester bellbottoms. I took full advantage of the garden hose dousing offered by one of the gracious volunteers. The shot of Fireball was tempting, but in a rare execution of will power I abstained.