Enduro World Series Northstar 2019

#gnarstarNorthstar California – sure lived up to its reputation at this year’s Enduro World Series of mountain biking, which dominated the mountain resort August 23-25, 2019. The fastest, most adept riders in the world came here to prove their own gnar factor on some of the dustiest, loosest, and rockiest trails. With end of Summer moisture at an all time low, it was akin to dirt surfing or powder skiing, with some television-sized boulders thrown in for good measure. This was one of the toughest races on the EWS circuit, and amateur racers like myself had the chance to join in on the fun by riding the EWS80 (80% of the course – 4/6 trails), or EWS100 (100% of the course; exactly what the pros ride). This was the penultimate round of the EWS, and Round #4 of the California Enduro Series.

Fun? That may not be the first word that comes to mind when racers think of Northstar. Crazy. Scary. Survive! These were some of the buzz words I heard throughout the weekend. For riders who weren’t familiar with its moonscape silt, it was a bit unsettling. You can’t trust it. I could see the timidity in many riders; there was an “on your toes” edge to many of the racers, from amateur to pro.

Northstar is the closest thing to a local race for me, aside from Toro Park in Salinas. I’ve done a lot of racing over the last few years, but this was just my third race this season. I’m a self-proclaimed soul-rider, riding for the pure bliss of it, and I’ve all but given up on racing. I love to ride fast, but not under pressure, even if it is completely self-induced. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race the EWS80 when Northstar came on the EWS schedule this year, though, and registered early. This would be an awesome weekend!

When it came to practice day on Friday, I arrived to a parking lot full of half-open cars, bikes in various states of repair or tuning, and eager riders setting out to the gondola. The energy was abuzz with the prospect of seeing a pro rider at any turn; those were the Gehrig twins! I caught myself giggling. From the start of the weekend, I knew the real highlight was seeing the pros – from the California Enduro Series, to elite Enduro World Series riders. I found myself feeling like a gawking fan among celebrities.

I rode two of the four stages at Friday’s practice: Stages 1 and 3. I’ve ridden here several times this Summer, and raced Boondocks (Stage 4) at the downhill race in July, placing first for Cat 2 Women. My first week of teaching had just begun, and I was certainly tired from the long week, even with Friday off for practice. I had a good dinner, and slept hard at my hotel in Tahoe City on Lake Tahoe. Though it would have been prudent to ride the other two stages, I knew I needed an early night in to be ready for the next day.

On raceday morning, I was excited about the format. We were given a roll-out time, but were to complete the remaining stages, in order, at our own pace without set start-times; we’d have three hours and eight minutes to finish the race, lest get a time penalty.

The best part? All stages were lift-assist! I was ecstatic about the new format, as I often felt a lot of hurry up and wait at past Enduro races, which could take hours on end. One of the things I struggle with at races is nutrition; eating solid food is all but impossible for me. You can get some calories out of powdered mixes, juices, and other fortified liquids, but I always felt myself bonking toward the end of the longer races. After about hour four I was done. Seeing the schedule for this race was encouraging; I knew right away this format would work better for me.

Every rider got their own introduction off the main stage by the race announcer; it made us all feel somewhat special, no matter how cool we may have tried to act. It certainly felt exciting to drop in to a little crowd after being introduced!

Stage 1 was the new River Styx trail, a good flow trail with just enough loose dirt to wake up your senses. This was a fast run, and had a good technical section through KT.

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Stage 2 was mostly down Karpiel, with a turn off for us EWS80 riders to skip the infamously difficult lower section that the EWS100 and pro riders would tackle on their second day of riding. I caught myself lagging a bit on this run, noticeably enough that I told myself to pick up the pace about halfway down the trail. You are racing, after all! I got passed by another rider, and that added to my feeling of being behind. Racing is such a mental game above all else, granted you have the physical fitness, skills, and experience part down. If you’re not fully present, or doubting yourself, it can cost you precious time. Staying focused is an understatement. You definitely have to balance riding clean and safe with charging fast. At the end of the day, it’s always better to go home in one piece than in no peace, as in hurt or injured. But I have a competitive side, and I do love to ride fast.

Stage 3 was the Queen Stage, the longest stage. We had a short climb from the top of Vista chair to the Tahoe Trail. This had a new trail called the Tahoe Cut, which was basically a steep dirt chute with about a foot of talcum-powder like dirt menacing all those who dared ride down it. Before I’d even ridden it on practice day, I’d heard the stories of people falling, sliding downhill, over the bars tales to tell.

When I rode it in practice, there was a line of people waiting their turn to try it because not because it was so intimidating, but because the dust was so thick you couldn’t see until some seconds had passed in between riders. As I stood in line behind a few male riders, a young man approached and sidled in front of me.

You don’t mind if I go ahead, do you? he asked nonchalantly.

I probably don’t have to elucidate the frustration a woman feels after years of doing male-dominated sports when questions or comments like this are directed at us. Though subtle, it’s a dis. After so many experiences like this, I just want to say, Just do you…I got this.

Or be humble, per the Ferda girls. Preach!

Yeah sure; go right ahead, I curtly replied, moving my bike out of his way. I’ve just been waiting my turn here like every one else in line.

He caught my drift, and readied his bike back down the line.

Or not, he quipped.

It’s okay; I’m a girl. I’m used to it. Sorry if I’m short, but it gets eggy after awhile when guys do stuff like this, I explained. Why was I apologizing again anyway? I hate this stereotypical quality that women are often known for, and I wear it to a tee.

Hey dude, that’s not cool; don’t do that, a fellow rider down the line chimed in supportively. You don’t go up and just cut the line like that, let alone to a girl, he added.

A few others added in to the gentle scolding, which made me feel good. It reminded me that most riders are cool. Manners matter; respect is important. I’ll always stand up and say something when this kind of stuff happens.

My turn was up, and with all that build up, I was fired up to send this scary dirt chute. Part of me wanted to prove myself to that guy; to show him what riding like a girl looks like.

This chute was gnarly, though. It was nearly impossible to find traction as I started fishtailing down the trail, carefully, and barely, correcting myself until a small slideout at the bottom, which I pushed out of and kept going. Though not yet graceful, I’d made it.

On raceday, I had the confidence I could send it smoothly. I charged into the chute and managed a controlled slide down it, balancing carefully to not slide out, and finishing with a quick turn. I was so stoked I’d sent it, especially because it was one of the toughest sections of the race. Even cooler was photographer Aaron Lesieur catching my descent in this sequence; these pictures are the best I’ve ever had of me on a bike.

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Stage 3 Dirt Chute
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Dirt Surfing

I came across another rider soon after this turn, and though we were riding at somewhat similar paces, it took a quick minute to pass him. I announced I wanted to pass, but there wasn’t a good spot. I should’ve been more aggressive about passing earlier on; that’s my ridiculous tendency to see a male and assume he’s faster than I. Once I passed him, I tried to fire up the engines and make up for time. I finished this stage two seconds off the Stage Win, and take it as another lesson to be more forthright about passing in the future. You always learn something new in every race.

Stage 4 was Boondocks, probably the easiest trail of the race, though still double-black. We had our longest climb of the race from the bottom of Stage 3 up to Vista, and then rode Crossover up to Boondocks. Though most people liked the new racing format, by this point we were all commenting on how we felt a bit pressed for time.

I only have fifteen minutes to finish, one rider noted en route to the stage start. I had twenty-five minutes by the time I reached the start of stage 4, and had I come across any mechanical issues like last year, I probably wouldn’t have finished in time. We weren’t dilly-dallying; it was just a tight ship they were running.

I cruised down that final stage of Boondocks with the excitement of being done in a little under six minutes. One of my favorite parts of the entire race is going through the final gate, hearing the beeps, and knowing it is officially DONE! I love this feeling. After all of the planning, preparation, anticipation, nerves, energy management, focus, feeling like you have to be on, it is so nice to let go of the rope and be done with it all. Racing isn’t easy, especially at challenging venues like Gnarstar. It’s one of the reasons I don’t really do it anymore; I just want to ride on my own schedule, for the simple joy it brings. Every now and then my ego fires up and I want to prove myself in a race, but I don’t know how much longer that will keep up.

I went through the final gate, and gave the course marshal my timechips. I went straight to my car and drove to my hotel in Lake Tahoe, where I immediately went for a heavenly swim in the lake. I was so happy to have ridden the course clean with no falls; I’d even enjoyed the experience and had fun. Sure, I could’ve picked up the pace in some sections, but I felt strong.

When I checked my results, I was quite happy to get third place in the Masters 35+ category. The first and second place girls were experienced, local racers who know the terrain well and have a lot of experience. I felt good with my finish, and I made the podium. I returned in the afternoon for the awards ceremony, and felt really content about the whole day.

The next day, I went for a swim in Lake Tahoe; it was already hot by mid morning. I made my way back to Northstar for Day 2 of EWS racing; the EWS100 and pro riders were to ride stages 3-6 today, which included Dog Bone, and the newly built trail, Tell No Tales. This was the main event, why I decided to come here in the first place.

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I watched some of the pros rollout off the main stage, and checked out the plethora of vendor booths.

I then hiked up to watch them down Stages 3, the Queen Stage, and Stage 5, Dog Bone. The flow and grace they ride with is humbling and inspiring. If you want a good laugh, check out my videos of Karpiel and Dog Bone; that lower part is crazy hard!

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Unknown EWS100 Rider off the Diving Board

The waterfall rock garden on Dog Bone was the apex of the event, with the best riders even showing some struggle down the relentless, rocky drop this section was. A boisterous crowd of cheerleaders lined the sides of the course, with a bullhorn and siren to boot, making it feel more like a party than a race. I was simply awestruck by the riders charging this section! It’s one thing to watch their videos online, which I do all the time, but to see them up close in person was mind blowing.

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Pedro Burns Contreras

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There were dedicated cheer sections on every stage, and from what I hear, the riders appreciate it. Aside from a spastic barking dog at a quiet moment, the cacophony of screaming fans makes a unique harmony in the key of positivity – lots of encouragement, admiration, and reverence for these men and women!

Check out the Pinkbike EWS Full Highlights video for a good summary of the weekend; I even appear in it at 13:48, standing next to a tree on Dog Bone – my claim to fame! Totally kidding, of course.

I also made a video of raw racing footage; it was so much fun to capture their dust!

Full results can be found on the EWS Northstar page. Isabeau Courdurier took first for Women’s Pro, and Richie Rude secured victory by .8 seconds! It was a stacked field of riders in every category, and was especially tight.

Experiences like this are once in a lifetime, and this weekend was one of the best I’ve had in a long time. I always love the collective pulse of being around a bunch of other mountain bikers, especially in a remarkable landscape with thrilling trails. There are so many cool people in this community. I look forward to more EWS events in the future, hopefully again at Northstar!

Northstar MTB

Northstar California Resort, also known as #gnarstar and #duststar, is a mountain bike park and ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. A North Shore resort, it’s about a fifteen minute drive South on Highway 267 to King’s Beach and stunning Lake Tahoe. Known for its first-class amenities and village, its 3,000 acres are known for epic snow in the Winter, and mountain biking in the Summer. You can also hike here, or just take the gondola up for a scenic ride to mid-mountain and the Ritz Carlton Resort, a luxurious hotel complete with day spa. However, the real draw here in the summertime is the mountain biking.

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There is nothing like chair-lift assisted riding. For the amount of downhill you get, you’ll need all that energy you saved not climbing hills. The laws of physics are in your favor here, gravity assisted. The first time I came here, my forearms and wrists just about gave out by the end of the day I was so sore! Most people ride downhill bikes here, but enduro bikes are becoming more popular. I rode my low-travel bike here for a few years before upgrading last year to 150mm of travel, which is still on the scant side for Northstar. I’ve actually never tried a downhill bike, so I only know how these trails feel on my enduro bike. With enduro racing, it’s more helpful to ride these trails on my bike, anyway.

I don’t consider myself the top expert on Northstar, but I’ve ridden here dozens of times over the last several years, basically since I got my first full-suspension mountain bike (with all 110mm of travel!). I love riding up here! I’ve included some videos below of the trails, with the obvious preface that there are riders out there who charge way harder than I do. As a racer, videos are part of my training, and help me improve; they may also help give others an idea of what the trails are about. I know I get a lot out of watching others’ videos, especially when it’s a new trail.

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Summer Trail Map

You can make it as easy or challenging as you want riding Northstar. Having fun is often considered the most important part of mountain biking, and I passionately agree with that, but safety is equally important here. Northstar is known not only for eating tires and rims, but causing some pretty awful injuries. Full-faced helmets and protective gear are prerequisites.

If you’re an experienced mountain biker, you will immediately find your niche here, and know how to gauge each trail. If you’re new to mountain biking, it probably goes unsaid to start off on the blues and work your way up. Always stay in control, be able to stop on a moment’s notice, and know when to call it a day. Fatigue is public enemy #1 in mountain biking, so don’t let it get you sloppy. This is not the terrain to get tired on; you need all your focus, awareness, and commitment to tackle these trails.

The terrain is pretty well-maintained, especially on the Zephyr side of the mountain, while the Vista side has a more wild, all-mountain feel. It’s famous for getting dustier as Summer goes on and the last of Winter’s moisture is sucked from the soil. The rock is granitic with boulders ranging from the size of bowling balls to small cars. The overlying thin topsoil can become quite loose, like ball bearings over boulders, especially as it dries out. Sometimes it can feel like hydroplaning or skidding on ice it’s so loose. The dirt takes on a sort of hydrophobic, repellent quality that you must keep it in mind, to varying degrees, depending upon the trail and time of Summer.

The glorious exception to the #duststar reputation is Livewire, a meticulously designed trail that Northstar is most known for. Livewire is a fast, adrenaline-pumping descent with thoughtfully built, intelligently spaced jumps that you can get just about as high as you want to on. It is supremely dependable thanks to daily watering and regular trailwork, which makes it a wonderful trail to progress on over time; you get better at it each time you ride it, and the trail gets more fun. Its Livewire Classic downhill race is a big draw each year.

This is the first trail I ever rode here, having heard so much hype about it; this started a love affair over the years of learning how to flow with grace down its packed berms and tabletops. It earns every superlative, praise, and contagious zeal that surrounds its name. From rolling to soaring, you can get as sick as you want to get on this trail. If you ride here on a weekend, expect this trail to have a steady stream of riders, and be ready to yield to any faster riders coming down the trail on you. Everyone from six year-olds to pros on the UCI MTB circuit ride here, so be prepared for all types of riders, showing respect – and hopefully a smile! – in the process.

Coaster is a fun intermediate run, a long traverse down the mountain that makes for a good warm-up. It crosses Boondocks, so look out for riders at the merge.

Gypsy trail includes a variety of rock gardens, wooden berms and jumps, and a Red Bull corkscrew section. It’s a little bit of everything rolled into one.

Boondocks is a double-black that is a long descent full of enough sandy corners and rock drops to get you fired up. There are many go-arounds, as there are on most other trails here, but this trail is rocky top to bottom.

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Boondocks Downhill Race 1st Place Cat 2

On the Vista side of the mountain, the chairlift operates Fridays – Sundays; however, you can easily pedal to it via Zephyr when it’s not turning on weekdays. It’s about a ten minute traverse on fireroad from the top of Tahoe Zephyr Express. That’s the trade-off of coming here on weekdays in the Summer: you will almost have the whole mountain to yourself, but if you want to ride Vista, you’ve got to connect the dots. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make, especially as a teacher with my Summers off! It’s a beautiful thing to be up here on a weekday.

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Sticks and Stones is a solid double-black on the Vista side, whose middle section is famously challenging. There are steep, loose sections of crust on rocks. The upper and lower sections hold their own, but the middle section is the hardest.

Speed Control is a super fun, flow-trail style run that starts below Vista mid-mountain. It’s fun to connect this one to Pho Dogg. Both trails are single blacks, with lots of dynamic flow to them. These are great trails to work on pumping.

Karpiel is a rocky, double-black that starts at the top of Vista. The upper and middle sections aren’t overly gnarly, but the very lower section? Dude what?! This is one of the hardest sections I’ve ever ridden at Northstar, and I certainly haven’t cleared every feature on it yet. If you want full-commitment, keep your speed or crash G-force thrills with high-stakes consequences for crashing or making a seemingly minor error, this is the trail for you! Don’t let the upper part of the trail fool you – the lower section is a bugaboo for many riders I know. You can exit out early before this bottom part, as many riders do, and don’t kick yourself if you do. It’s better to leave in one piece than in no peace.

Dog Bone parallels Karpiel, but starts mid-mountain. It’s also a double-black, whose upper section isn’t terribly death-defying. As you can see in my video below, I am still working on the lower section, which is, like Karpiel, a lot more challenging. Keeping your speed here is essential; I endo’d after stopping from getting my pedal stuck on a rock. Losing momentum makes starting again that much harder since you’ve lost your rolling power.

Both Karpiel and Dog Bone connect to finish at a steep, narrow slide down to the Diving Board, a few feet rock drop, which launches into Daytona Berms at the base of the mountain. The banked berms are a fun finish to the ride, but note that it merges with the bottom of Sticks and Stones; be aware of oncoming riders when you are at this junction.

Cooling off with a dip in the refreshing, second deepest lake in the United States is a wonderful way to finish off a day of physically demanding, and likely dirty, mountain biking at Northstar. The Lake Tahoe region is gorgeous enough to visit in its own right, mountain biking or not. But it’s that much more fun when you bring your two wheels!

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Lake Tahoe
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King’s Beach

Now go get some!