Up the St. Helena Downhill

Dayride epic

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Three takers for ride


After some botched scheduling Jim, Michel and Eric convened on Saturday to ride something. It turns out this was the day for the Russian River cleanup day, but somehow the days got switched. Michel was threatening suicide if there was no ride. Jim had the day available for a ride. Discussion followed about where to go. The Girl Scouts had been mentioned. Eric offered the Up and Over possibility. Jim countered that it would likely be sketchy conditions on the upper reaches of the Palisades.

“Hey, what about doing the St. Helena Downhill backwards.” Jim suggested.

“Hum, I’ve never done it” Eric said.

“Will it last five or six hours?” Michel asked.

So it was set. The trio would go up the favorite ride, always ridden downhill. There was only one other time that the ride was ridden uphill, on a moonride many months ago. Jim promised that it was easier than one might think. The three rode out Bennett Lane and began the arduous climb up the lower flanks of the towering mountain. Almost immediately Eric made a navigation error by blowing past a right turn. In an effort to smoke Jim downhill, Eric failed to see the partially overgrown jeep trail. He led the group downhill until it was obvious that this was not correct. Jim and Eric discussed a possible third option, but decided to return up the steep hill and contact the correct road. This mild annoyance slowed the ride only slightly.

Immediately noticeable on this ride was the strong presence of star thistle. The correct turn from the ranch road towards Chino was choked with the invasive, nasty weeds. To make matters worse, the road faded to nearly not navigable until there was some relief at the flats. The next part of the road is not too steep, yet much of this section was so cow-pocked that it was difficult to ride, even the level sections.

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Massive star thistle

The riders eventually reached the junction of the cow road and the lower hills. Jim insisted that the single track-looking path was correct. Eric was skeptical. After the trail led downhill, Eric baled for a hike-a-bike back up to the ridge. Jim continued on the path. After twenty minutes of tough going through more thick star thistle, the three again contacted the correct trail. This was the bottom of the side hill route. The riding for the next fifteen minutes would be great. There was no thistle and the single track was in good condition. The track eventually exited the woods and hung off the steep, empty hillside.

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Michel and Jim ride across the hillside


The three stared blankly at the steep, dry face of the mountain that stood between them and the ranch road. It seemed inconceivable that they would be able to get enough footing to climb the namesake hill of this passage. Somehow, in G.I. Joe mode the bikers inched up the hill, stopping frequently to gain balance and catch the breath. Fortunately this part of the Downhill doesn’t last too long. At the top is the official break spot for the downhill riders. The three stopped and discussed options. One was to bail at the 420 route and rocket back to town. There would be no takers for that idea. All three were in the mood for an epic event.

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Water striders running out of room in their shrinking pool

The next section of the ride contains some of the nastiest brush known to nature. The thorn laden bushes resist passage and can puncture tires. It was a struggle and nobody escaped unscathed. Finally at Turk’s Head, the ranch road was contacted. Jim discovered his front tire going flat. An extended break was taken at the Napa River crossing. Thousands of water striders covered the surface of a pool just up from the road. There is a sense of being far out in the country at this remote setting, now high above the Napa and Knight’s valleys.

After the tire fix, the group headed towards the only real climb on the ranch road. Just as they contacted pavement, Jim said with surprise; “ I hear a bike coming!”

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Confluence of bikin' fools

Sure enough Sean Large sped into view followed closely by Doctor Die. It was pretty cool to hook up with these bikin’ fools way out in the boonies. After a short break each contingent headed their separate ways. Jim, Michel and Eric climbed up the hill and decided to take the ranch road to highway 29. No one was home at the house. The riders filed down the highway, past the crowded parking lot and down the G.S. trail. Eric, again in the lead stopped.

“Did we want to do the Wild Lilac Trail?”

“Too late now.” Jim said

“We could turn around.”

“No, let’s keep going.”

The three dropped the swift old toll road, through the camp and over the gate. Back up the paved part of the road, they found the gate open. This seemed a little ominous, indicating there might be company up in the forbidden zone. But no one was seen as the riders split up, one on the road, two by trail. The plan was to reconvene at the watering spot.

At the Tin Cup the three rejoined and headed up the drainage. To their surprise they came upon a huge tree that had died some time ago, then fell recently across the road. It would be some time until that monstrous amount of wood gets cleared off the road.

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Ancient tree falls in the woods

At Pocai camp the three weary riders collapsed for an extended lunch break. Michel brought cheese and bread, Jim contributed a tasty apple. The meal was long in coming, now several hours into the ride. It would refresh the bikers with enough energy to process the last hour of the ride.

The ride on the backside of the Oat was routinely difficult, but passage was swift. Once down the upper section, the three blazed the lower part and headed to the Calistoga Inn for the official de-briefing session. It was an epic ride, spanning nearly seven hours. It was a ride that was not fun at times, but left the riders smiling.