Two Trails You Need To Ride
It’s nearly impossible to listen in on a conversation about the Sierra Nevada Mountains and not hear numerous riders rave about the Downieville Downhill, where the fastest riders gather once a year to spend around 45-minutes sending it over rock gardens and pinning through straightaways strewn with rock ledges and roots. The racecourse includes some of the rowdiest high-speed descents found in America.
We’ve been riding around Downieville for years and finish each ride with a burning desire for more; however, the Downieville Downhill is but a small taste of what the Sierra Buttes region of Northern California has to offer. Starting off the same ridgeline, there’s a breathtaking network of trails that leave us at a loss for words. While the Downieville Downhill is a fixture in West Coast mountain bike racing and has been ridden by thousands of riders, the trails surrounding the town of Graeagle capture the raw trail riding that reflects the roots of our sport. This is exactly why Specialized chose a quaint lodge outside of Graeagle to launch the newest rendition of its cross-country/trail hybrid, the Camber.
While easily shuttled via paved and dirt roads, we reached the top of Mills Peak through grunts, sweat and a massive pile of French toast, which the server at the lodge calls the “fuel of the outdoorsman.” Somebody mans the fire lookout 24/7 during the dry summer months, and conversations with such woodland overseers always go off on tangents only somebody alone in the woods could provide. We begin the descent behind one of the Specialized staff, expecting the standard routine of kissing the rear tire of a product manager for the entirety of the day. On this occasion, however, we are content just to keep one of their blurred rear tires in sight. The Specialized crew is comprised of highly skilled shredders who all provide plenty of input into the development of the products.
Deadly Nedly: Some may prefer to call him “The Lung,” but whatever Ned Overend is addressed by was earned by being an absolute machine on a bike. He may be a legend of cross-country endurance, but his descending skills are nothing to be taken lightly.
Dipping the nose: While the Camber was the star of the event, we spent one day on a perennial favorite, the Stumpjumper FSR. It delivers a hard- charging ride that allows us to ride a lot rowdier than you’d expect of a 130-millimeter-travel bike.
Loose and rocky, the start of the trail keeps us on our toes, as rocks take turns sliding out underneath our tires. Unable to trust the terrain, we become focused on our lines and quickly learn how much our front tires can handle in the corners. Many such corners open up to views of Gold Lake below, and it’s often better to slow it down a bit and take in the sights. Manzanita bushes line the sides of the trail, as expanses of exposed granite alternate between beautiful backdrops and on-trail obstacles. Like many in this region, the trail quickly leads us into a completely different setting, as sharp rocks transition to the rich dirt of a tight forest. Tires throw up roosts of pine needles as high-speed sections are accompanied by smooth, angled rocks that allow us to boost 10 feet over the inside line of a corner. These sections eventually funnel us into technical sections of trail that slice and dice their way through tightly spaced trees that have the same proximity to each other as deal-crazed people at a Best Buy on Black Friday.
Rolling into camp: This location was only a couple hundred yards upstream of the bungalows we stayed in at the Gold Lake Lodge. It would be difficult for us to think of a more scenic trail commute.
Counterbalancing our upper bodies through narrow sections of trees, we are constantly focused on our handlebar positions to ensure our grips don’t pick up a little bark. We make easy work of pre-loading our suspension and hopping as we throw a little extra playfulness into setting up for the corners. As everybody is finishing up the ride with ear-to-ear smiles, flowy sections of trail with long lines of sight have us leaning our bikes over and skipping across patches of natural obstacles. We can’t thank the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship enough for making this trail a reality.
Of a higher caliber: Previous model years were offered in two different geometries, but this year the Camber is offered in a single geometry that most closely resembles previous Evo models. Throw a custom, 130-millimeter-travel Rockshox RS-1 fork on there and you have a bike ready for either the trails or a cross-country course.
There’s no getting around it; you’ll be pedaling/hiking/crawling your way to the top of Mt. Elwell if you set out to enjoy a slice of some of the most raw and real mountain biking you’ll ever experience. Throw your bike on your back and put one foot in front of the next, knowing that every footprint you leave will be compensated for by a ripping corner that provides triple the reward in exchange. The top delivers a grand precipice that serves as an excellent place to eat lunch, take in the massiveness of the Sierra Buttes across the valley, and look down upon the loose slabs of granite that make up the trail below.
Pick a trail, any trail: The ridgeline leading to Mount Elwell has numerous trails running off it, and each one provides a totally different riding experience. Some will have you hopping up and down rocks like a mountain goat, while others leave you cruising through open expanses with dense brush and sparse pines.
Not letting the previous day of extend- ed riding slow us down, we throw our weight behind our seatposts and allow our front tires to punch their way down many consecutive ledges as the white-knuckle descent to Graeagle begins. Narrow sections of singletrack are bordered by boulders. We find traction in pockets of dirt that fill in the brief sections of trail without rock. Then, before we know it, there’s an instant transition to airy sections of forest, where the treetops are so dense and the pine needles so thick that there’s nothing but flat-out sections of singletrack where we use our momentum to pull through quick bumps in the trail. Some corners have berms that keep us pulled into a fast line, while others are somewhat flat and require us to unclip and float through with speed. This is raw and untamed mountain biking for the wildest of riders.
Utility at speed: While we wouldn’t suggest it as the bike you keep on hand to take on your favorite jump line, it’s certainly capable enough to take on occasional trail senders. How often do you see somebody ripping trails without a hydration pack?
As we continue to drop, moss-covered ponderosa and Jeffrey pines meet Squaw Carpet at their base, which we consider the official ground cover of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Able to see far ahead, we rarely dab the brakes as we send it off small, natural obstacles and end up turning them into launch pads. Heart rates run high, as nobody wants to stop or even slow down, but the camaraderie of hooting and hollering keeps us going. As we spot our favorite trail features and commit to them, we hear the approving roar of the riders following. Stream crossings dot the bottom of the route as we are refreshed by the cool water and end up doubling back to dunk our heads for a little refreshment from the summer heat. The final couple miles of trail are the perfect cool-down, winding back and forth through a drainage covered in flowers and long grass. The trail down from Mount Elwell is certainly epic in its own right, but it’s the root-beer floats available from a burger shack at the end of the trail that really complete the experience. Do not skimp on your intake of root-beer floats afterwards!
2FO CLIPLITE SHOES
Last summer Specialized released its 2FO Clip and Flat shoes, which became a hit among gravity fiends, both downhill and freeride. They provide incredible toe box protection, proven Slipnot rubber compound on the sole, a thermobonded upper that kept our feet safe through numerous rock kicks, and walkability that even left our feet alive through a grueling tour of Disneyland. The 2FO ClipLite incorporates all these same features into a trail-ready shoe that is streamlined and ready for a full day on the bike. They were presented to us using many of those terms, but luckily we’ve had some time to weed through the marketing lingo and confirm exactly what was promised.
Dialing them in with a snug fit, the dual Boa closures and single toe strap really do provide a solid hold on your foot without creating hot spots in any area. There was no heel lift in our standard “sprint up the warehouse stairs” test, and we had plenty of room in the toe box so we weren’t slamming our toes into the front of the shoe. While the tread in the forward half of the sole appears minimalistic, its sticky compound was enough to keep us glued to the loose-over-hardpack trails of Southern California and the wet, slick rocks on the Downieville Downhill. They’re essentially a slimmed-down trail version of the original 2FO and really do deliver the same amount of performance and quality. “Foot out, flat out” may not be the way most trail riders choose to shred, but it’s good to know the traction and protection are there when needed if a rider pushes a little too hard through a corner. The shoes’ walkability doesn’t adversely affect their stiffness while pedaling, and we were comfortable grabbing them for anything other than a cross-country race. Our only worry is how quickly the sole and plastic cleat slot of our pair is feeling the heat; however, although they’re showing wear in an aesthetic sense, we’ve yet to see any decline in performance. They retail for $180 and are available in half sizes for both men and women.
Riding in ’Merica! Specialized Purgatory tires have consistently been among our favorite trail tires for a wide variety of conditions and terrain. Their knobs are medium length and have a relatively wide spacing, which create little rolling resistance, but still deliver plenty of traction. The proof is in this lean on a flat corner.
MAKE THE TRIP!
Prior to this trip, the Downieville Downhill would have taken the top spot on our bucket list of trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While it’s still a must-do for all who call themselves mountain bikers, a weekend getaway on Mills Peak and Mount Elwell would give any rider a newfound respect and appreciation for what raw mountain biking is in its purest form. Spending the week with Specialized and indulging in the ultimate trail experience was a great way to get a feel for Specialized’s new products, but we were also fortunate enough to bring home an S-Works Camber 650b for extended testing.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
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