There’s no place else on earth I’d rather be than along the North Yuba River in summertime. Maybe it’s the emerald blue-green swimming holes lining the canyon, one after another, ensuring you can always find your own private spot to escape the heat of the day. Or perhaps its the hundreds of miles of historic Gold Rush-era trails providing a lifetime of exploration and discovery. It could be the storybook beauty of Downieville, preserved in time, not much different in character than it was during the Gold Rush. Or it could be the high country above Downieville – the Sierra Buttes, Lakes Basin and Chimney Rock – delivering huge views in all directions and even bigger terrain for adventurous souls to uncover. Actually, it’s all of these things and more.
Over the last 30 years, Downieville has become one of the most legendary places to ride a mountain bike or a dirt bike, attracting visitors from all around the world. Exploring on a mountain bike is what originally attracted me to this magical place. But as popular as Downieville has been for mountain biking, there’s an evolution of the sport happening that will take Downieville’s popularity to a new level; the electric-assist mountain bike (e-MTB).
One of the challenges riding in Downieville is that the town is at the bottom of a very deep and steep canyon, with every trail leaving town going straight up. Even for folks with superhuman fitness, a ride out of Downieville is chock full of pain and suffering, for you must go up before you can go down. This suffering is why most visitors choose to ride the shuttle to Packer Saddle. But even with a lift to the top, the Downieville Downhill still has almost 1,000 feet of climbing over the course of 16 miles. Nothing in these mountains is a gimme.
As a result of Downieville’s popularity, the main trails coming off Packer Saddle have gotten a lot of use, while 90 percent of the other trails around Downieville that are not shuttle serviced see hardly any use because they are too hard for most people to access. But the advent of e-MTBs will change all of this.
For the past few summers I’ve been exploring all the most remote backcountry terrain above Downieville on an e-bike, and its been some of the most fun I’ve ever had on two wheels. Santa Cruz Bicycles recently released the Heckler, their first e-MTB. This summer, Downieville’s premier bike shop Yuba Expeditions, will have the first demo fleet of Santa Cruz e-bikes in America. That’s right, you can come to Downieville, stay at The Lure, demo an e-bike from Yuba, ride right from town and see what it’s all about.
In case you haven’t ridden one, a Class 1 e-MTB has three assist modes to help climb even the steepest grades. You still must pedal, but the return energy out of the bike is like the hand of God giving you a gentle push up the mountain. The Heckler is nearly silent in operation and can go as far as 30 miles and 4,500 feet of climbing depending on factors like rider weight and assist mode use.
But don’t be mistaken, riding an e-bike is still a total workout, especially riding the steep and rocky terrain around Downieville. The beauty of the e-bike is that you still work, but you can go a lot further without returning home at the end of the day completely and totally wasted like you would on a mountain bike.
The introduction of e-bikes like the Heckler to Downieville will encourage folks to get off the beaten path and explore the many miles of trails the Lost Sierra has to offer without having to ride the shuttle. In my experience, an e-bike is the ultimate backcountry exploration tool. I can’t wait for the snow to melt and trail exploration season to begin.