Once Upon a Time in the California Frontier (Keyesville Classic)

by Zach March 12, 2013

Unlike the vast majority of sporting lore, the story of mountain biking is relatively young. One could even say that the torch has yet to be completely passed from its pioneers to a new generation. Even at this young age, there are very few mountain biking events in the United States that can claim to have been around as long as the Keyesville Classic — 25 years to be exact. When we asked you where we should Send the Sprinter, you told us to come to the Keyesville Classic where we discovered a special slice of mountain bike racing whose format and local grassroots underpinnings make it a deserving classic by every definition of the word.

We arrived at the Keyesville staging area well into the evening, following a twisty, pitch-black drive up Kern Canyon. With only a few campfires as reference points under a field of twinkling stars, we maneuvered the Sprinter into position and tucked in for the night. Morning brought crisp air and beautiful blue skies which revealed the aridity of our new surroundings. Arriving participants soon busied themselves, readying their bikes and bodies for the first event of a weekend of racing and revelry. Even the legendary Tinker Juarez was on hand to throw down. And yes, that is a pet red-tailed hawk. Mobile feed zone support perhaps?

The aptly named Keyesville Classic has all the trappings of a true classic, due in part to its Enduro-style race format. Participants can choose between racing the Short Track, Downhill, or Cross-Country events, or race all three on the same bike in competition for the All Mountain category. The real draw of the Classic, and the vast majority of the weekend’s focus is spent in contention for this category. Bike selection is critical here: do you choose a hardtail 29er and break away in the XC event, or do you bring along some extra squish to smoke the downhill course? Another compelling aspect of the All Mountain race is the sub-divided “Vintage” class, which brings out the true hardmen of mountain biking. Nowhere is this better exemplified than here as this fully rigid, ninties-era Klein Attitude gets rowdy on entry to the “Snake Pit” during the Downhill event.

For fans and hecklers alike, the Snake Pit is a marquee moment in every Keyesville Classic. Easily the most challenging part of the Downhill event, riders must test their technical mettle against this rocky, twisted and narrow section of trail. While less of a “pit” and more of a steep, rock-walled chute, each line selection through the gauntlet offers distinct risk/reward characteristics with precious seconds and the delight of the spectators at stake.

Granted, not everyone had the fortitude or the luck to conquer the Snake Pit, but that didn’t stop this little participant from smiling for her entire run-through. Look no further for proof that the future of mountain biking is a bright one indeed.

All cards are on the table for the event that punctuates the Keyesville Classic: the Pro Men’s Cross Country race. Three laps on an undulating and technical 8-mile loop is certain to decide the rightful owner of an All-Mountain title, and local bragging rights for yet another year.

Walking the staging area of the Classic felt like walking a main street in some tiny wilderness town: everyone knew each other, and everyone was more than happy to strike up a conversation (and everyone was drinking). It takes a great deal of effort and finesse to pull off a uniquely atmospheric sporting event of this caliber, but Keyesville benefits from an amazing support network of generous volunteers, hugely enthusiastic fans and participants, and a hearty blessing from the Bureau of Land Management. The multiple days of racing, the amazing variety of riding styles, and the camping component don’t hurt either — as they each help bring a level of closeness between bicycle and wilderness that really exemplify what it means to live and love riding dirt.

Regardless of whether or not it would have been called “classic” in its early iterations, the very first Keyesville mountain bike race was held in 1988, and both of these guys raced it. Sam Ames (left) has since taken the reigns of the event, combining a savvy promotion sense and an impressive level of organization with his infectious passion for riding, in hopes of re-introducing the event to an entirely new generation of mountain bikers. At only a glance, it’s clear that the future of our sport is being introduced, enjoyed, and raced on trails like those found all over Kern County, and Sam is a huge reason why. If you happen to run into him at the Kern River Brewing Company, buy this man a beer.

Despite losing an hour of sleep on Sunday morning, we took advantage of the newly delayed sunset by squeezing in a hot lap of the cross-country course. The rugged, wind-swept trails that criss-cross the Kern River Valley are truly “the frontier of California” as the local BLM ranger confidently put it. Perfectly fitting for an event built on the very frontier of the sport itself.

Be sure to like Kitsbow on Facebook where you can find the rest of the photographs taken from our weekend in Kern County. And as our Sprinter Van journey continues, remember that you can still tell us where you’d like to send it by dropping us a message on Facebook or using the hashtag #sendthesprinter on Twitter or Instagram. We’ll see you in Las Vegas. [zp]

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