I’m choking on the dust flicked up by Mike’s rear wheel spinning ahead of me, a cloud of fine silt that’s renewed with each of his pedal rotations. I can’t escape it, no matter if I drop back or stick right on his wheel I’m destined to be picking grit from between my teeth all evening. Eating the dust of the rider in front of me isn’t a new experience, but I’ve never endured it during a climb before. It hasn’t rained here for at least a couple of months – something that’s typical of Northern California apparently – and the trail we’re on, like others we’ve ridden in the last couple of days, sits inches deep in fine, teeth-coating summer dust. I’m not complaining of course; I need the minerals in my diet.
| Tahoe in September is all about big trees and temperatures that are cool enough to ride again.|
It’s September and I’m seeing North Tahoe for the first time without it being buried in snow. Eight months earlier I’d been here shooting a snowboard story with a pro-snowboarder friend, Mikey Basich, while staying in a small, remote mountainside cabin he’d spent the previous summer constructing. Holed up in the little solar powered cabin I’d warmed to the back-to-nature feel of having to cook on a wood stove and crap in the forest, and was already looking for an excuse to revisit him again in the summer. And then he let slip that one of Tahoe’s best mountain bike trails passed right by his little hobbit-house door. He should have kept schtum: at this rate the guy was at risk of never getting rid of me. Before January was up, I was already planning my trip back to Tahoe.
| Cresting the climb up from Boreal means a lot of descent ahead.|
| Western states trail in all its wooded glory.|
Mikey collects me and two riding mates, ‘Mike Two’ and Jez from Reno airport rocking up in a beaten up Nissan pick-up truck that appears to be more holes than actual bodywork. We reach the cabin, or as near to it as the Nissan will get, and Mikey points out the basics of cabin life, essentially indicating the toilet: an old toilet seat wedged between two nearby boulders. Right from his door there is a hundred metre section of squiggly trail that rolls over bedrock and between twisted trees, dropping perhaps fifty metres to the 4x4 track. Even this little stretch of dirt looks perfect: steep, spiraling and littered with tech challenges. And that’s merely the access to the cabin.
| Mikey's cabin: probably the best little trail-side cabin in the world.|
| The cabin even has helmet hooks.|
The actual trail that was the excuse to come back is called the Hole-in-the-Ground-trail, ‘officially’ starting and finishing at Highway 80 near Boreal ski resort, the trail's climb teases us a stone’s throw from where we’re now sitting supping tea. Like horny teenagers at a disco we waste no time in getting acquainted with the new potential heart-throb and pull our bikes, two yeti 575’s and a Specialized Stumpy, from their flight boxes, and then stand gob-smacked as Mikey wheels his own steed out of storage. ‘Don’t mind if I come along too, do ya?’ he asks almost apologetically, not wanting to slow down the dance. In is hands is a mid-nineties Schwinn whose damping-less suspension technology has all the finesse of a pogo stick. Mountain bike technology seems to have passed Mikey by.
| The Hole in the Ground trail is one of the best flowy tech trails in Tahoe. I dont care what anyone else says about it.|
I can easily see why the Hole in the Ground is right up there with the best of Tahoe’s trails. Within minutes we’re whooping and hollering down a twisting helter-skelter of a descent that weaves rhythmically between huge old pine trees strewn with fluorescent green moss. While not a purpose-built bike trail, the Hole in the ground couldn’t flow better if had been designed for bikes, and we barrel through switchbacks dodge trees and pick up speed while quickly learning the limits of grip as our tyres bite through the thick dust to the trail below. At one point we come across a huge slanted boulder, the first of a few natural wall rides that lie along the loop, and stop to play on it for a few minutes. We’re no Ritchey Schleys, though, and the ninety degree right hander buried in deep, loose silt just before the wall’s transition kills all our speed along with any chance of reaching the top.
| The lads throw up rooster tails off the back of Sugar Bowl resort, something usually reserved for wintertime.|
Two hours later we pull up at the edge of a small lake and I’m out of breath more from pumping the front end of my Yeti back and forth than actually pedaling the thing. Mikey is already stripped off to his birthday suit and diving headfirst into the cool water. Dusty, sweaty and buzzing from the ride, we all join him. Four grown men enjoying a refreshing dip in a chilly mountain lake, as naked as the day we were born. What could be more back-to-nature than that? ‘Make the most of it’ says Mikey, ‘there’s no shower at the cabin’. The dip thus sets a precedent, using lakes and rivers as daily post ride baths, something we repeat in the Truckee river and in Lake Tahoe too, braving the effects of the water’s chill on our manhood.
As the sun sets behind the cabin we watch chipmunks scurrying for cover and our minds wander to the thought of the bears that roam these forests. “Don’t worry about the bears, I mostly see coyotes’ Mike says as if that will put our minds at rest. He forgets we herald from the England, a place in which the idea of being eaten is pretty alien. I wait until morning for my next bladder break.
| Cabin life means taking whatever chance you get to wash the grime away. Now, who's first?|
The Schwinn has beaten Mikey and next day he leaves us to the mercy of Andy and Amber Finch to guide us on another loop. Andy is one of the USA’s strongest snowboard halfpipe riders, but he rocks up gloveless, in shorts and cotton T-shirt with his bike leaving me to wonder if he’ll be guiding from the back. He immediately pulls a 30 metre manual, putting my mind at rest, before setting a pace up the climb that none of us can match. In fact it’s Amber that sets the pace, being a weekend XC racer, and despite our “altitude training” in Colorado the week before, we struggle to keep her in sight. We’re riding Western States and Missing Link trails, and riding them at a hell-for-leather pace through some of Tahoe National Forest’s prime real estate. We grind up a super steep section unambiguously called The Wall (just like their ski trails, Americans love to name every defining part of a bike trail) before hitting the Whoopy-Doos, a set of fourteen rollers that see even my Mavics leave the ground, then finish down Missing Link’s loose and tech offerings. By the time we load the truck again with our uniformly dusty bikes to head back to take care of hygiene duties in the Truckee River, I’m toast.
| Beer or a bath first? Beer wins again.|
Like with visiting relatives, responsibility for keeping us entertained is passed between Mikey’s various riding buddies, with each showing us a new trail. We ride the historic Flume Trail (that follows the route of an old water channel used to power silver mining operations) a couple of hundred metres above lake Tahoe with Alicia and Ali. The Flume steadily traverses a forty-five degree mountainside for 12 miles without ever widening more than a metre and despite the lack of obstacles we need to stay focused or risk falling to our doom, or at least a premature dip, to the lake below. The dip will come later.
| At 1645 ft deep, Lake Tahoe is the USA's second deepest lake. The Flume trail finishes at its edge, just right for a post ride cool down.|
On our final day at the cabin we are drawn between hitting the Hole-in-the-ground again and cleaning the wall ride once and for all, or riding something new to complete our Tahoe experience. Poaching the Pacific Crest hikers-only Trail to Squaw Valley has been suggested to us (the trail actually runs all the way to Mexico), but we decide to try to find the trail down to Truckee instead. We climb out of Sugar Bowl ski resort, and pass clumps of fresh bear-crap on the trail. I’m in two minds whether I really want to encounter a black bear during a ride, but as we drop in to the fast, swooping descent the thought of crashing headlong into a wall of fur rapidly dissipates from my dust-addled brain as I concentrate on keeping my front wheel tracking where I want it to go.
| The Flume trail is nothing to write home about if you're after a tech injection. But if its easy pedalling and great views for a wind-down you're after, it is up there.|
The trail eventually spits us out at the spot where the Donner Party pioneers made history in 1846, when as a group of 87 settlers heading west got cut off by snow, losing 39 people to starvation, some of the survivors having to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. It’s hard to believe that that this piece of morbid history happened in late October when we’re standing ankle deep in September dust. The commemorative plaque reminds me of how hungry we are and we roll the last mile or so into Truckee to finally eat something that’s not cooked on a wood burning stove for a change as me munch down heavy burrito at he Mexican joint, we ponder our four days of fun, a mix of wilderness-inspired tranquil living punctuated by full-speed, singletrack blasting. Away from TV’s and Facebook and even flush toilets, with only bikes and some damn good trails, life becomes simple and uncomplicated. Maybe it’s time I built a cabin.About Tahoe:
North Tahoe’s trails can be accessed from Truckee or Tahoe City, but you’ll need a vehicle to get to the trailheads. Both towns are about an hour’s drive from Reno international airport and about four hours from San Francisco Airport. Accommodation in Truckee starts at $49 per room/night 2 people (truckeehotel.com
) or $77 at Tahoe City (tamarackattahoe.com
). Snow can block trails and melt water can make creeks tricky to cross as late as June. Mid summer heat (30 degrees plus) means early rides. Late August or early September is probably the ideal time to ride Tahoe with daytime temperatures about 22 degrees and the lakes still warm enough for a dip. Just.The trails:
Tahoe’s trails are suitable for strong intermediate riders with a decent full suspension set up. While 100mm travel is enough to cope, a lightweight 120 or 140mm travel rig will let you play more, and there’s plenty to play on in Tahoe! Generally climbs are smaller than 1200 ft and most trails rollercoaster along rather than going straight up and back down again, but expect up to 2000 ft of climbing in all per trail. Trails are fast but prepare to meet other riders coming up them too; they are not designated one way! Try riding Northstar resort (northstarattahoe.com
) for some purpose-built bike trails, along with DH tracks and north shore sections. Lift tickets are $39/day. For techie rewards head for the Hole-in-the-ground trail starting from the North side of Highway 80 about 10 miles west of Truckee. The trail starts 600 ft east of Boreal ski resort. For a bit of everything try the fluid Western States trail (13 miles long) and the very tech Missing Link trail (1.5 miles, 600 ft drop) starting from Highway 89 about ten miles south of Truckee. The Flume trail (14 miles long) is easiest of the lot and best ridden in a northerly direction, starting at Spooner Lake and ending near Incline Village on Lake Tahoe. There is a bike shuttle hourly between the two. Good trail directions can be found on www.greatbasinbicycles.comThe wildlife:
Riding in Tahoe Forest means you need to be aware of some of the wildlife you might meet. Mostly you’ll see elk and perhaps big horn sheep, but certainly a lot of chipmunks and perhaps the occasional coyote as we did. You may well see bears, but the chances of seeing a black bear itself are small, as the noise of you coming will usually scare them off. If you do stumble across one, then stop, and if the bear hasn’t seen you, back away quietly. If the bear has seen you then move slowly, waving and speaking calmly to let it identify you as human and back away or move around it slowly in a wide berth.All photography by Dan Milner. You can see more of Dan's incredible work on his website.Did you enjoy reading about Dan's Tahoe adventure? Want to try a similar trip yourself? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments section below.
Editor's note: We'll be bringing you adventures from Dan Milner each month, so stay tuned!
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