Prior to the start of the ride locals were discussing their last outing with Yankee Jim. Every community has their Yankee Jim. Sometimes it’s the dog that’s never chained up in the unfenced yard. Sometimes it’s the guy who recently got the Cat. II upgrade and loves to remind you of that. And sometimes it’s a climb for which you wish you had a lower gear. Given that I had never ridden in or around Auburn and was unfamiliar with the Sierra foothills, I’d spent a big chunk of the day getting to the bottom of climbs and wondering, “Could this be Yankee Jim?”
I felt like the bird in the children’s book, “Are you my mother?”
There was a rider a full story above me. Two turns into the climb, I could still see him through the trees on what must have been the only way up this granite face towering over Devil’s Canyon Creek. How did he get so high above me so quickly? Oh, that’s how. The road twisted up at a fall line pitch. I began to wonder if I was about to get humbled. I don’t care how slowly I ride up a hill, so long as I’m pedaling. I just don’t want to get off my bike and walk.
This must be Yankee Jim, I thought.
It wasn’t. Despite the long stretch that tilted between 18 and 21 percent, a slope that no cyclist would ever forget, that wasn’t Yankee Jim. As Strava would inform me, I’d already done it, for me a 36-minute ascent that mostly stuck to reasonable slopes, but occasionally offered kickers that would cause even Chris Froome to slow. I’d come upon a guy on a road bike there, his only concession to the day being what looked to be 25mm tires. I had a less than charitable thought about his sanity, and then as I rounded him in a switchback, I looked down and noticed the slightly slack chain. Dude was on a single speed. In a monster gear. Every 10 or so pedal strokes he’d either growl or shout, “Come on!” I have often joked about climbs so steep that I was reduced to a cadence of four. This dude couldn’t have had a cadence of more than 10.
What occasioned my education into Yankee Jim was the Tour de Placer Roubaix, a fundraiser for the local Placer Foothills high school mountain bike team. A whopping $30 and they included tacos and beer at the finish. It was sponsored by local shop Victory Velo, whose owner, Dan Tebbs, I’d met a few years back when I did the ride to Vegas with Specialized. Dan was ultra-strong (and little has changed with him).
The course was to be 50-ish miles I was told, with 4000 or so feet of climbing. Honestly, the description of the ride on their Facebook page and the Eventbrite listing undersold the ride. In raw numbers, the ride was 49 miles (they did a small re-route due to all the rain), but climbed more than 5600 feet. For the first 20 miles, the course climbed with frequent short descents. Climb three miles, drop a mile, climb five miles, drop two miles. There were several miles of singletrack along a canal built by miners. It’s been upgraded, but the path was a testament to the marvel of engineer the canal was. I could tell we were climbing, but at just 3 percent, there were times when I wasn’t convinced and even asked a rider ahead of me. The canal, a reinforced concrete affair—flowed to our right, while homes sat below us to our left. At times the path was fenced on both sides, with maybe only four feet to squeeze through.
And then we encountered the first big descent of the day down Yankee Jim, a dirt road that dropped more than five miles to an old mining bridge from the 19th century that spanned the North Fork of the American River. The climb back up Yankee Jim was a switchback affair that passed a waterfall and ascended more than 1600 feet in just five miles. From there the course rejoined the road for a road descent that couldn’t stick with a good thing. Every time I thought I was going to get some rest, the road would turn back up until we finally hit the dirt descent down Lake Clementine road.
Apparently Lake Clementine Road, because it’s closed to vehicular traffic, is a popular hiking spot. We had to be considerate of all the hikers and dogs on our way down, but the descent, which ranged between wide fire road and singletrack, was rollicking fun. The surface was crushed gravel over dirt and rock. There were places where the road was nothing but bare bedrock. To our right, theAmerican River’s North Fork thundered down, a veritable roar disgorging Northern California rain.
To get back to Auburn, we had to climb 700 feet up Stagecoach, the old road carved through the rock in the 19th century for—you guessed it—stagecoaches.
The event was a ride, not a race, and it was easy to understand why it wasn’t a race. There were enough intersections and turns in the first 10 miles that controlling that would have required so many police the entry fee would be $200. But of course, even though it wasn’t a race, no one was softpedaling. I suspect many riders were like me, torn between attacking the terrain and sitting up to look around at how beautiful the land was. Mountains covered by conifers, gorges carved by rivers, thick forest giving way to sweeping vistas, it held plenty of excuses for pulling over.
I’ve done rides in the Sierras before, but traffic always cut down on my enjoyment. This ride had little traffic and at the ride’s most challenging points there was no traffic, except for some hikers—traffic of a different sort, I suppose. This was easily the most enjoyable ride I’ve done in the Sierra, not to mention the most beautiful. I’d put it in my top three gravel rides I’ve ever done.
Action shots by Jorge Flores, Just Pedal
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