Tour de California Day 3: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area

After hitting Mr. Toad’s in South Lake Tahoe, my buddy Jim Norman and I headed south toward Mammoth. The weather was perfect and since it was the week after Labor Day, the roads were empty. We cruised The Panzer along the eastern Sierra on Highway 395, past countless mountains and valleys, and made an excellent side trip up to Sonora Pass, down which I rode my bike.

Jim hangs a hard left on Skid Marks.  Check out the gondolaWe reached Mammoth in the evening, settled into Motel 6 and found some pizza. The next morning dawned crystal clear, with the 11,000-foot peaks of the John Muir Wilderness Area presiding over town. In the town of Mammoth Lakes, you feel the immenseness of the terrain even while you’re at McDonald’s.

Lee flat tracks in on Skid Marks, high on Mammoth Mountain ski area.The town was desolate. The restaurants, standing-room-only during ski season and Nationals weekends, were quiet, and we overheard a lot of people talking about being laid off for the season. Fall tourism is tough for the local economy, but great for tourists like us. In an entire day of riding we didn’t wait in a single lift line, and we encountered maybe two riders on the trails.

Just a strip of white with mountains in the distance.  Jim tucks himself into the Mammoth Kamikaze.We rode the Velocity downhill course seven or eight times. This was the 2001 Nationals course. At the time, the short rock section scared the beejeebers out of many racers. But now, after a season of Northstar, it was no big deal. Velocity has nice flow, a few rocks and a neat wooden bridge. At our mellow pace it wasn’t hard or scary – it was just plain fun.

The top of the Mammoth gondola is SICK!!  That's Mono Lake out yonder.  Oh...and that lodge...that's MID mountain.

To experience the essence of Mammoth, you have to ride the gondola all the way to the top. The ride itself is breathtaking. From the mid-mountain lodge you vault straight up a rock face, and all you can say is “whoa.” Then, as you reach the top, you realize you’re nowhere near the top. The bottom drops out across a little valley, then a granite cliff meets you at the summit.

Puny human.  Huge mountain.  Jim rockets down the back side of Mammoth.The summit of Mammoth Mountain is 11,054 feet above sea level. On that fine September day, 40-degree air gusted at 50 mph. There is no trace of vegetation. Just big rocks, small rocks and the pulverized rocks that serve as “dirt.” The 180-degree view sweeps in Mono Lake, the Minarets, and a boatload of miscellaneous huge mountains. The scene is surreal, seemingly not made for humans, and it is the start of the world’s biggest and baddest old-school DH: The Kamikaze.

Zooooommmm!!!!  Kami 2002: full speed and full control, thanks to modern equipment.I had to hit it for old-times’ sake. Pedal, click, pedal, click, pedal pedal pedal – and my 44×11 was spun. I hugged the snow fence around a 40-mph off camber left, scooted through a gap in the fence and shot onto the wide-open backside of the mountain. A ribbon of white scrolled beneath me, the hill roared past on my right, and 12,000-foot peaks stood 20 miles to the left. My BigHit DH just rolled along, soaking up the bumps while the Weir Wolf carved through the kitty litter.

The Poser poses.  The Kamikaze hauls bum around the right side of the fence.  The Minarets don't care.I remember this being more hectic. I last raced this in ’93 on a hard tail with a 1 1/2-inch fork, XC tires pumped to 60psi and a 52×12 spun to the gills. I was scared to death: a Lycra death sausage hurtling toward oblivion.

Jim rolls along the moonscape as the Mammoth Crest frames lakes Mary and George.Maybe it’s the DH tires and eight inches of travel, or maybe it’s the nine years of riding on crazier stuff, but this time the Kamikaze felt mellow. I scanned 100 yards ahead, picked through the bigger rocks and drove out of the turns. I cruised the 3.5 miles and 2000 vertical feet in 5:45, about a minute faster than my last race run.

Rollin' the rocks on the Mammoth Velocity DH course.By today’s technical standards the Mammoth Kamikaze isn’t much. But I’ll never forget that day in ’93. I’d ridden as fast as I dared, scattering on the edge of terror, eyes bouncing and snot streaming. As I crossed the line, all of that fear instantly flipped into euphoria. I felt so incredibly charged – so happy that I made it and so proud that I could. I knew then that, while I love riding cross country, I NEED to ride downhill.

Coming next: Tour de California Stage 4 – Lower Rock Creek trail near Bishop. This was sweet!

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