top of page
  • leepanecki

A Love Letter to the Bike and the Lost Sierra

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Downieville California might just be my favorite place on earth. Originally a gold mining and logging town, Downieville sits in a Sierra alpine valley at the confluence of the Downie and North Yuba rivers, about an hour northwest of Truckee. It’s one of those small mountain towns that feels perpetually frozen in time, looking more like a set from Deadwood than anything from the 21st century. There be no McDonalds, Walmart, or Starbucks here - just a cafe, a general store, a saloon, and curiously, a whole bunch of bikes. The bikes are there for two reasons: one, an incredible landscape of steep mountains and valleys, and two, the relentless trail building efforts of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. I’ve come across and volunteered with a few trail groups over the years, but none more effective and well organized than the SBTS. Founded by Downieville natives aiming to revitalize their local economy through outdoor access, the Stewardship has built and actively maintains some of the best natural bike trails I have ever ridden. Consistently throughout this trip, whenever I’ve descended a trail that’s made me giggle like an idiot, the SBTS sticker has been at the trailhead. Their efforts have turned Downieville into the preeminent mountain bike destination in the Sierras, and they’ve done so through local and youth volunteer programs that have turned an initially resistant community into bike believers. Patagonia made a short film about Downieville and the SBTS that’s well worth a watch -

These days, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship has its sights set on other Sierra towns that have been ravaged by wildfire. Kathleen and I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time in these small communities - Quincy, Lassen, Graeagle, Sierra City, Portola, Susanville, and more. We’ve seen firsthand the devastation that the fires have caused, and the vacancy and poverty left in its wake. The more we’ve fallen in love with with the Lost Sierra, the more we’ve mourned the accuracy of its namesake. SBTS wants to replicate in these towns what it did in Downieville. Connect them through a network of world class trails. Bring some Bay Area money up to the mountains. Contribute to a sustainable local economy for the residents who call this place home. It may seem far fetched to support a town through mountain biking, but it’s been done with skiing for years. And with the sport’s explosion in popularity and diversity, it just might work.

While the SBTS aims to support Lost Sierra towns with bikes on a macro level, bikes have supported me on an individual level for years. My first job was in a local bike shop, kickstarting my love affair with mechanical engineering. My first college internship was landed by explaining the mechanisms behind adjustable bike suspension dampers. Many deep conversations have been had on long uphill slogs, and biking has helped me connect with coworkers and recover relationships that had previously been adversarial. Not to mention that making friends past 30 = hard, but making friends past 30 while biking = easy. I owe a lot to the noble bicycle, and that’s not even counting how its helped me through my latest and largest challenge yet.

Last year, my vestibular therapist surprised me by recommending a bike ride after my first appointment. Absolute craziness - this was a time when bending over to tie my shoes often meant a good 10 minute sit on the ground to regain a sense of equilibrium. I was positive I’d immediately fall and hurt myself - or worse - damage my shiny new gravel bike. Her reasoning was sound though. Superior semi circular canal dehiscence essentially causes one of your six balance canals to go haywire. Pressure from your brain, blood flow, and external noise causes unintended fluid movement in one canal, creating a strong vestibular signal when there should be none. When sitting still, this effect can be debilitating. Five of six canals say the seas are calm, while one of six sees the perfect storm. Your body tenses and never releases, causing cramping everywhere. Your brain can’t comprehend what’s happening, creating a sense of pressure and confusion not dissimilar to taking the hardest academic test of your life. Except this test never ends, and true relaxation becomes a thing of the past. Everything is disorienting, and you would give anything just to feel like you were standing on solid ground. However, my therapist explained, if your other five canals are seeing strong signals themselves, the signal from the haywire canal can be overwhelmed - and eventually tuned out.

She was right. My first few rides felt like a toddler ditching their training wheels, and I had to be mindful of the fact that increased heart rate meant increased pressure on my errant canal. But after about a month, I began to feel better on the bike than I did off the bike, as this was the only time when my bad canal wasn't dominating the mental conversation. As time went on and my mileage increased, that feeling was amplified. On days when I didn’t ride, I was miserable, grumpy, and on choppy seas. On days when I did ride, I was social, myself, and on calm waters. After 6 months on road, I made the big jump back into mountain biking. Not to say that I don’t love road and gravel, but flying down a loamy flow trail is right up there with life’s greatest feelings. Think the X-Wing trench scene from Star Wars. Or the dogfight scenes from Top Gun. Or the Endor speeder bike scene, also from Star Wars (bit of a fan here). It’s just a fantastic life-affirming concoction of adrenaline and connection to nature that no fast car, motorcycle, or skydive has ever been able to replicate. Unfortunately, I had yet to experience this feeling since getting SSCD, and had resigned myself to a lifetime of wobbliness and timid descents.

Last week, a group of friends came up to meet Kathleen and I for a weekend of camping and mountain biking. The plan was to hit up some of the best trails we had found over the last month, and introduce everyone to the Lost Sierra mountains. The Downieville Downhill was obviously on the list, but I convinced Matt, Kyle, and Steven to do a warmup day at Mt Hough (site of the triumphant snow ascent from the last blog post). As we set off down the descent, I was pretty nervous. These guys were good: Matt - the fearless bulldozer, Kyle - the dynamic corner carver, and Steven - the good line genius. Matt and Kyle sped off out of sight immediately, and Steven I’m convinced was just stuck going slow behind me. After ten minutes of descent, we regrouped after coming upon another group of riders, helping them splice together a broken chain. When we set off again, I was determined to keep up. Matt and Kyle pushed the pace immediately, weaving through perfectly formed berms and levitation inducing rollers. I tried stay loose and look ahead, but the speeds seemed ludicrous, especially darting between trees on damp shelf trails. Despite my best efforts, Matt and Kyle were getting away. Suddenly the landscape opened up into an expanse of giant redwoods, lofty branches creating a magical loamy environment that almost felt indoor. Visibility was excellent - I could see four turns ahead, Matt and Kyle dogfighting in the distance. Alright. Chin up. Elbows out. Look ahead. Trust your body. Let go of the brakes. Berm, railed. Roller, scrubbed. Jump, cleared. I wasn’t catching them, but Matt and Kyle weren’t getting away either. I kept my focus on them as I felt my body do something it hadn’t done in a long time - work intuitively. Now it was my turn to laugh maniacally, as I felt that old familiar feeling, that fantastic life-affirming concoction of adrenaline and connection to nature. It was absolutely incredible. When we got to them bottom, I was totally losing my shit. I tried to play it cool though, and just said “What a trail, thanks guys, I didn’t know I could do that.” “What a trail indeed!” replied Kyle. “Built perfectly, who made this?” asked Matt. I looked over my shoulder, already knowing what I’d find. There, at the trailhead, was the familiar sticker of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.

Here are some photos from the last few weeks:

Kyle, Matt, myself, and Steven atop the Downieville Downhill

Kathleen traversing Diamond Peak in front of Lake Tahoe

Shortly before going down in the off-camber sand

Glory shot of the Tallboy, what a champ this bike is

Life on a rest day

Country Kathleen, Silky Big Boi, and Manual Machine Gun Kelly (not pictured)

Snow plants abound

Dat long exposure

Ollie the tree

"show me your model face"

Can't be blamed for going to bed at 9:00 when the truck is so cozy

4Runner sendoff - final dispersed camp overlooking Lake Tahoe

Again, you can never have too many sunset pics

Atop Mount Baldy (such an insensitive name)

Leaning trees

Mind Flayer tree

New favorite trail snack: Biltong


bottom of page