April 29, 2005: Ghosts of the pioneers

In Shasta County, mentioning the Lemurian is like giving the secret handshake. Outsiders won't know what the hell you're talking about; locals will give you a long, interpretative look, at once impressed and piteous -- a connection between fellow travelers. Either you're in the know, or you're not.

A call to wheels
Strange dreams inside the gold mine

Locally, this event is known. It is a tribal feast, a town meeting, a mountain man rendezvous, pulling hardcore riders from their remote forest training camps and bringing them together for an epic annual gathering.

It's not surprising that an event as passionate as the Lemurian is set against the rough, verdant hills of the Mt. Shasta area. Unlike Temecula (See April 22, 2005: Where's the beef?), the Shasta area still retains some of its rural innocence. Sparsely populated, ghosts of its hardscrabble past hang in the persistent mists and heavy silence of the mountains. Rugged individualism and personal freedom provide a wellspring for local color and grit. It's a frontier throwback where eccentricity is still respected as a personal right.

As a cyclist who has lived in southern, central, and northern California, it is my opinion that, pound for pound, the Shasta-Redding-Chico area is the current nexus of California mountain biking. Marin may be the birthplace; Tahoe and Big Bear might have the mountains and the altitude, SoCal might have the year-round weather, but the pioneer spirit of hardcore mountain biking burns fiercest here. These are true believers like the East Coast and Rockies cyclists that turn out in such huge numbers for at 24-hour events in Moab and Snowshoe, WV. Think committed. Think Rocky I committed, think Clubber Lang committed, think living in a singlewide out in the woods, trucking in your water, no central heating, got to shovel the snow off the front steps so you can get your bike out the door for some hill repeats on a frosty February morning committed.

It doesn't get a lot of attention or hype in the few media outlets that discuss cross-country mountain biking, but the Shasta area has miles of unbelievable trails and some of the fastest, toughest, and most skilled riders in the state. This is California's Moab.

I've been waiting to participate in this California mountain biking rite of passage since my first ride with Romulus over two years ago. Romulus was fresh off the 2003 Lemurian and filled the heads of Bonzai and I with fantastic visions of racing glory. We couldn't do it last year because the race was canceled after a fire burned through the home of The Lemurian, French Gulch, CA. So this was not only our first chance to do the fabled race in two years, it was everybody's first chance in two years.

Romulus and I hooked up in the City at about 6:30 AM this morning and set out for Redding, California. Our intention was to get to Redding, pre-ride the course, register, and be done for the day by late afternoon. Running like clockwork, we got to the Shasta-Whiskeytown National Recreation Area Visitor's Center about 11:00. We paid our fees and headed off to Brandy Creek Marina, the start/finish area for the race.

When we got to the marina parking lot, there wasn't another soul in sight. I began to wonder if the race had been cancelled again this year, but my concerns were soon flushed away by the arrival of a flatbed truck bearing 10 port-a-potties. The race was on!

I was actually thinking that we were only going to pre-ride about 15 miles of the course, enough to see most of it and get our legs stretched out a bit, but not enough to leave us fatigued for tomorrow. Romulus was of the mind though that we don't get the opportunity to ride a professionally designed 26-mile cross-country course in Shasta County very often, so we should get our money's worth and ride the whole 26. It was hard to argue with that logic, but I was concerned that back-to-back 26-mile days might have an affect on 37-year-old legs. I hadn't done serious back-to-back rides since last summer in Moab with Bonzai and Krusty (See August 23, 2004: Skate park for bikes; and August 24, 2004: Eh-pic)

While we were gearing up, Rom's buddy Killicks rolled into the parking lot. We saw Killicks two weeks ago at the Sea Otter (See April 17, 2005: Race day; and April 17, 2004: Otter pop weekender; he was racing in the MTB Cross Country Men's 30-34 Sport Class. A couple of days after the Sea Otter, Killicks suffered a pretty nasty high-speed crash, ripping up some skin, bruising a couple of ribs, and changing his status for The Lemurian from Definite to Questionable. He was still pretty sore, but wanted to ride today to see if he could tough it out tomorrow.

We started out in our usual excited and safety-conscious manner, and quickly missed a turn on the map. Actually, we and some other pre-riders with us all saw the brutally steep gravel road we were supposed to turn off on, but we couldn't believe that they'd have us climb something so impossible so early in the course. We continued on for about a mile before we reluctantly agreed that our path lay back with the impossible.

The first gravel climb
The gravel

Lemurian courses are designed for true grit. They traditionally feature leg-ripping climbs that leave half the field walking their bikes. Also included are highly technical XXX downhill sections and majestic rollercoaster singletrack. But as it should be with any great race, the hills rule the day.

This year's Lemurian offered riders three different courses, but Romulus got the straight dope from race organizers that the Long Course (26 miles) offered the best singletrack. In addition, Romulus and I have always felt that in longer races, our conditioning gives us an advantage. There was never a doubt, we were down for the Long Course.

As mentioned, the first climb, less than two miles into the course, was particularly challenging. Stretching up and away for a mile into the mist-shrouded forest at angles ranging from 5 degrees to 17 degrees, this dirt road was covered with a thick, tractionless layer of golf-ball sized stones. Working against gravity, it was nearly impossible to get enough grip to handle the torque required to keep the bike moving upward. Standing was completely out of the question. On the downhill side of the road, there was a slender ribbon of line, but this was fraught with its own peril: to the left was a steep slope leading down into the forest scrub -- big trouble; inches to the right were millions of loose gravel stones, any one of which would be enough to bump your front tire off its line or spin out the rear tire.

I spun out and was off the bike less than 100 yards from the start of the climb. I could not get enough traction to generate enough speed to keep a straight line. I walked for another one hundred yards and then remounted, thrilled with the prospect of trying this impossible climb in the midst of hundreds of other churning legs and burning lungs. As a side note, 115-pound Killicks literally floated up this hill and professed to "taking it easy" so as not to tax his injured body too much.

After topping out on the shoulder of Monarch Mountain, we then hurtled down the Gas Can at breakneck speed. I was completedly wobbled from the climb and got spooked pretty good on the extremely steep, rutted, hardpacked but gritty, off-camber turns and baby heads of the Gas Can. Romulus and Killicks easily pulled away from me on this descent and I was left alone to ponder my ineptitude. Adding to the situation, Blue Sugar (my 2002 Gary Fisher Sugar 1) felt like it was handling terribly -- the front end felt rigid and unresponsive. Suddenly, I was having serious doubts about my ability to handle this course at all, let alone with a stampede of riders around me.

Turns out I had way too much PSI in my tires for this course. Killicks pointed this out me, and I dialed both tires down to 38 PSI from 50 PSI. I also lowered the seat about an inch; I knew it would hurt me on the climbs, but I definitely needed to lower my center of gravity. Things felt much, much better after that.

Down across the Whiskeytown Dam and into the gently rolling singletrack, the course was like a vision quest. The singletrack, the forest, the mountains, the smells, the sounds, the exhilaration of awesome trails and skillful riding, the numerous stream crossings, the relentless topography and technical challenges -- I was stoned immaculate. Everywhere I sensed fleeting, flashing glimpses of the past: the clink of the gold pan or the whiskey bottle, the scream of the railroad, huddled forms around the flicker of a campfire, the crash of falling timber, wagon teams, and canvas tents.

One of many stream crossings on the course

This course was very much like our typical training rides. It was long (over 25 miles), stressed hills and singletrack, and featured a wide variety of technical challenges. Around mile 15 of today's ride though, I began to worry about the physical ramifications such energy expenditure might have on our performance tomorrow. At this point, we were pretty much committed though, so we pushed on. Killicks had left us at the bottom of the Gas Can after about seven miles. I tried to conserve energy as much as possible, but by the time we hit the brutal uphill single and doubletrack of The Recliner and The Couch, I was entering the red zone.

Near my breaking point, we again crested and started back down into Brandy Creek and the Ice Box, home to the majority of the XXX sections of the course. Romulus led the way through these very difficult, but doable, steep, root-laced and rock-studded downhill plunges. We took them at speed and we pured them. That felt really, really good and left us encouraged for tomorrow. Within a couple of minutes, we popped out into the parking lot and our work was done for the day.

Cannonball on the Canal Trail singletrack

Well, not quite. We hadn't ridden the entire Long Course, but we had done 22 pretty taxing miles. If we were to have any chance at fresh legs for the race (about 17 hours away), we needed to be very meticulous about our recovery efforts.

We first cleaned the bikes and changed into our civvies, then followed up with critical rehydration and glycogen replenishment with some sports drinks and energy bars. The basics covered, we formally registered for the race and received our number plates. Then it was time to move on to phase 2: refueling.

The Straw Hat Pizza in Redding never knew what hit it. The three of us blew in there like Dom DeLouise with dangerously low blood sugar. We each ordered and finished an entire pizza, liters of soda, salads, and I think I remember an order of hot wings somewhere in the orgy of carbohydrates that ensued.

When the dust had settled on our 2000-calorie meals, we let out the belts a couple of notches and proceeded to phase 3: rest. Killicks headed off to the woods for some car camping and Romulus and I checked into a nondescript Super 9. Praise Fortuna, it had a jacuzzi, which Romulus and I used to reinvigorate our tired legs. Showers, more hydration, a little NBA playoffs, and we were out by 11:00 PM.

Now that was one kick-ass day.


Mileage: 22.53 Time: 3:10:01 Avg: 7.1 Max: 33.0 Weight: 

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