Highway 49 – The Gold Route Road Journals: Day 1

Six dudes, five bikes, one van, five days, 400 miles, more than 160 years of history and a bag of peanut-butter pretzels. These are The SAG Wagon Confessions.

by Don Stefanovich

DAY 1: Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011

Scott Markewitz climbs into Tahoe National Forest, 'angry midget' in tow. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Scott Markewitz climbs into Tahoe National Forest, 'angry midget' in tow. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

I threw up my hands as they approached. “There is NO Oak Valley!” I yelled from beside the van — a white 15-passenger Ford the size of a small school bus. The sound of the freehubs’ angry cry slowed to a yawn as the four riders came to a halt. “Then let’s just go for a hundred,” said photographer Scott Markewitz, setting the century mark as a cut off for the day’s mileage. The oldest rider in the group, carrying a 30-pound bag full of camera gear on his back that he calls ‘the angry midget’ (it’s the size of a small person), was setting the pace.

We were deep in California’s Gold Country along Highway 49, on a stretch of road woven along the Yuba River where some still pan for nuggets, deep in an evergreen crease of the Sierra Nevadas.

Hours earlier, we left a cabin in Tahoe and rolled into Reno as the first hints of pastel began to bleed onto the horizon. It was there that Kevin Rouse, Paved’s assistant editor, and I met Scott and the rest of the riders: Oakley product tester Dave Steiner and his buddy Brendan ‘The Bone’ McIlravy. After some proper coffee (that I would inevitably spill in the van) courtesy of the Java Jungle in downtown Reno, we headed out.

Somewhere in the desert we crossed back into California and eventually reached the ‘town’ of Vinton. It was along this lonely stretch of Highway 70, across from the peeling, abandoned remains of Jack’s Vinton Garage that the weathered asphalt of the 49 began and stretched off into a horizon dotted with cattle ranches. At this intersection, in the parking lot of what appeared to be a makeshift chapel that lived its past life as a gas station, Kevin, Dave, Brendan and Scott stuffed themselves into diapers of Chamois Butt’r and began the nearly 400 mile journey in search of the mother lode of American road rides. I followed in the SAG wagon.

Dave Steiner rests outside the Cash Store in Satley, Calif. Population: 49. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Dave Steiner rests outside the Cash Store in Satley, Calif. Population: 49. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

We played leapfrog through towns that had been all but stuffed into the recesses of America’s subconscious, using turnoffs for the riders to refill waters, and don or abandon extra layers as the temperature changed with the elevation. The Van was their lifeline. In it were tools, food and water. A cardboard box in the back held a veritable cornucopia of fatigue-fighting supplements and science food — and peanut-butter pretzels.

Road stretching across open pastures would eventually coil up through stands of pines cresting at over 6,000 feet before weaving paved, black-velvet ribbons back down to the valley floor. It was during these gloriously anaerobic losses of elevation that I had trouble keeping the riders in sight as they surpassed 50 miles per hour, navigating the switchbacks much faster than I could in the van without doing my best Sonny Bono impression.

After a pit stop for pizza in the legendary mountain-bike haven of Downieville, a place where classic cars saunter over single-lane bridges and a parrot greets passerby from its perch on a second-story veranda, the slog began back up the mountain in search of the elusive town of Oak Valley.

Brendan 'The Bone' McIlravy rests among signs of a simpler time. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Brendan 'The Bone' McIlravy rests among signs of a simpler time. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

In lieu of the berg that appeared to exist on Google Maps but nowhere else, the riders hammered on toward a hundred-mile day as the sun began to dip over the Yuba. Brendan opted to ride shotgun in the van after 95 miles in the saddle. Just over the century mark, Scott decided to ditch the angry midget and keep pushing. After one of the fastest back-and-forth descents of the day punctuating the first leg of the journey, he was glad he did. A few post-ride recovery drinks (and pretzels) and they piled back in the van for the first and last shuttle of the trip to the hotel in Grass Valley. From here on out they would ride point to point. At least that was the plan.

To be continued…

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