A mountain bike world champion's perfect road trip2018 Elite World Champion Kate Courtney plots her perfect mountain bike road trip in the western U.S.
By Kate Courtney
Mt. Tamalpais, California
Meet the author
Kate Courtney is the 2018 mountain bike world champion. Kate grew up in Marin County, California, at the base of Mount Tamalpais—the birthplace of mountain biking. Kate was introduced to cycling at a young age, riding on the back of a tandem mountain bike with her dad to get pancakes on Sunday mornings. In 2012, she became the first American woman to win a Union Cycliste Internationale Mountain Bike World Cup in the junior category. In 2013, Kate begin attending Stanford University and signed her first professional contract with Specialized Bicycles.
This article is part of our Up For It series,
where experts in their field curate their ultimate road trips.
Stop 1: Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California
While Marin is known for many things, including a beautiful coastline and miles of scenic hiking trails, its rich mountain bike history is often overlooked. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sport of mountain biking started to emerge as locals took vintage single speeds off road. The first official downhill series was held in Marin on a fire road now called Repack, because riders allegedly had to repack their brakes with grease after each run. Now, Marin is the home of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, which is a must-see feature of this first stop, and remains an incredible place to get out for a ride.
While single track access on Mt. Tamalpais is limited, the famous Camp Tamarancho boasts a completely legal, fun, and technical loop that is sure to kick off your road trip in style. A few extra laps of the recently added and well maintained Flow Trail will leave you eager for more time on the bike. Tamarancho is, however, on private property and you should purchase a $5 permit online to use the trails and help support such an incredible resource for cyclists.
No ride in Fairfax is complete without a beer and a brat at the legendary Gestalt Haus. End your ride feeling at home in this bike-friendly hangout, where customers are encouraged to hang their bikes on the wall and put their feet up after enjoying Marin’s beautiful trails.
I grew up at the base of Mt. Tamalpais and am incredibly attached to this area as not only my personal home, but the home of my sport. I hope that when you visit Marin, you can feel the excitement and love for mountain biking in the air. For me, this mountain biking community continues to be a source of motivation, and Marin remains one of my favorite places to ride when I need a reminder of why I started riding my bike: For the love of riding—as well as for the beautiful views, great company, and post-ride tacos.
Stop 2: Downieville, California
Downieville is known in the cycling world for its infamous all-mountain race. This two-day race, which claims to be the all-mountain world championships, includes a long, cross-country adventure loop that begins with a 3,000-foot climb up the Sierra Buttes and then descends miles of extremely technical and fun single track. The second day of racing is a timed downhill run which, combined with the cross country results, determines the overall winner. The catch? Both races must be completed on the same bike—meaning your trail bike setup must be light enough to survive the climb without compromising speed downhill.
I have such distinct memories of eating ice cream and watching the bike jump competition from the side of the river bank after a brutal day on the bike.
Although race courses aren’t ideal for a Sunday ride, rest assured this loop is epic and more than worthy of your second stop on the trip. For those who are less interested in the grueling climb, there are shuttles available to take you to the top. If you are looking for a truly epic day on the mountain, however, it is always recommended you earn your turns by pedaling up.
I raced the Downieville Classic every summer as a Junior racer. It is an incredibly challenging event—both physically and mentally. It also brings a fun and competitive atmosphere where like-minded people are united around a common love for the bicycle. I have such distinct memories of eating ice cream and watching the bike jump competition from the side of the river bank after a brutal day on the bike. It is in remembering moments like these that I feel so lucky to have such a strong mountain bike community in my backyard.
Stop 3: Lake Tahoe, CA
In addition to being a winter wonderland during ski season, the beautiful Lake Tahoe certainly does not disappoint in the summertime. The vistas are unbelievable and there are several long and well-known single track loops. The Tahoe Rim Trail is toward the top of the bucket list, with stunning views of the lake from the ridge line above. The 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail completely circles the lake—however, only certain segments are open to mountain bikes.
The Flume Trail provides another scenic option high above the lake. Most riders leave from Spooner Lake and ascend up to Marlette Saddle. In all, the trail is moderately technical and provides great options to extend your ride if you’d like to make it a truly epic day on the mountain bike. Another classic and well-known Lake Tahoe loop is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a more technical and challenging trail that includes sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail. This trail is recommended for more advanced riders as it can be a bit of a wild ride.
I grew up ski-racing in Tahoe, but more recently have found myself spending more and more time there in the summer. It is the ideal place for a high altitude training camp during the season. The trails are perfect for training—and the area offers plenty of lake activities, swimming holes, hikes, and stand-up paddleboarding to ensure that, even with the hard work, “training camp” feels more like vacation.
Stop 4: Bend, Oregon
The beautiful city of Bend, Oregon is known for anything and everything outdoors-related—and its rad mountain biking is no exception. The trail networks are well-marked and easy to access just a short spin from town, but offer miles of well-built single-track with fun and challenging features. In general, the trails are flowy, smooth, and rolling. With rolling terrain, it never feels as though you are climbing or descending too quickly, and it often leaves you wanting to spend all day out on the trails. You’ll be surprised by how many miles and feet of elevation you can rack up.
A few favorite trails among locals include Tiddlywinks and Funner, both of which offer slightly more challenging terrain and options for larger jumps and berms. Both of these trails, however, are definitely possible on XC mountain bikes. Another classic trail worth riding is Phil’s Trail, which has slightly smoother terrain and offers something for every skill level. After an awesome ride, the town of Bend is a great place to spend the day, grab a beer (there are over 29 microbreweries in town), and enjoy time with friends on and off the trails.
My last trip to Bend, Oregon left me eager to return and get back out on their expansive trail network. I described it almost as an outdoor mountain bike treadmill, meaning that you can go for hours and hours and feel like you are just riding along on undulating terrain. It’s a dream come true for an XC racer. While I only had two days in Bend, I managed to sneak out for a few longer rides and even made my flight after cutting it ridiculously close
Stop 5: Sun Valley, Idaho
Like Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley is both a winter and summer wonderland for outdoor adventures. Sun Valley trails offer something for everyone, ranging from fire roads to XC-style riding to very technical downhill trails. This stop is one of the only locations on this trip that has lift-accessed trails to maximize single-track descending, which allow for a more relaxed ride. Take the chairlift up to the top of Bald Mountain to quickly reach stunning views and secure a long descent back into town.
There is also an option to climb up for those interested in a great workout and a long, more than 3,000-foot ascent to the peak. From the top, you have several options for descents that vary in terms of technical terrain. Saddle Up and Warm Springs River Run Trail are both favorites to consider including. No matter which route you take down, it will certainly be another iconic day of single track to remember. And this time without quite so much pedaling.
Sun Valley was the first place that I ever actually went downhill mountain biking. It was on a family vacation long before I started racing bikes competitively. We rented bikes, took the chairlift up, and rode amazing single-track with great views all the way home. I may have worn tennis shoes and an incredibly awkward helmet with a visor, but I fell in love with the trails and the outdoor-focused community in Sun Valley. Years later, I returned to the very same mountain for the USA Cycling National MTB Championships which was held in Sun Valley two years in a row.
Stop 6: Moab, Utah
The final stop on my ultimate mountain bike road trip of a lifetime is Moab. It is one of the biggest riding destinations in the country, and it certainly lives up to the hype. With technical single track and unique, tacky trails built into red rock, it is high on any mountain biker’s bucket list.
While in town, check out the famous Slick Rock trail. With incredibly tacky red rock slabs, you will be shocked by what you can ride down—and up—on this unique and mystifying surface. If you are looking for a truly epic experience, book a shuttle and take on the Whole Enchilada Trail. Start your morning at the Love Muffin Cafe for a hardy pre-ride breakfast and then load into a shuttle for a long ride to the top of Geyser Pass in the LaSal Mountains. This all-day adventure offers 34 miles of trail that drops almost 8,000 feet of elevation. Starting up above the tree line, you will descend through a range of scenery and trail conditions. From riding down slabs of red rock to tacky dirt winding through the aspens, this ride has it all. While your arms may be a bit tired by the bottom, you certainly won’t want the fun to end.
On my last trip to Moab, I was lucky enough to get to ride the Whole Enchilada for the first time. We started the day at Love Muffin Cafe where my boyfriend and I ran into one of his close childhood friends. As it turns out, he was booked on our exact same morning shuttle and ended up riding the entire trail with us. This is what I love about Moab; it is a mountain biking mecca, filled with people who absolutely love to ride their bikes and are always up for an adventure.
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