The very first thing you notice about Mark Weir isn’t the obligatory pearly whites or the monstrous calves. It is in fact his forearms. As he shakes my hand in a soggy Welsh car park, I can’t help but stare at them.
They’re muscle layered on muscle like some kind of wind-beaten tree trunk. Huge veins snake around them like ivy, and they dwarf his ball-like biceps.
“I was really big for a while there,” Mark admits. “All I did was go out on three or four hour rides on my Santa Cruz Driver 8, and I put on a lot of muscle.”
That all had to go for the Downieville Classic, though. Mark’s eighth victory at this year’s event wasn’t a muscle-bound battering of the competition – it was the result of months of meticulous, almost Spartan preparation and some tough personal questions.
“A buddy of mine used to be a top-level roadie,” Mark smiles. “He’s over racing now, but still had this ultra-expensive altitude tent that he let me have for next to nothing. I spent a couple of months in there training my ass off. I lost thirty pounds in like, four weeks in that thing!”
“It’s hard enough to win the race, but to repeat over and over again is very difficult,” he evenly admits. “This was by far the best win I have had there. I got to hold my son Gus on the podium, and it was a feeling I will never forget.”
Just like the Downieville Classic itself, Weir is different from the norm. He’s as far-removed from the clean-cut, energy drink swigging pro as you could ever hope to get. Weir rides bikes and has fun, and it’s a point he often inadvertently makes as a foot note to his stories.
“You guys really need to come over in the winter though,” he booms. “We just goof about trying to roll my old jeep, shoot guns and drink beers!” he beams. As we said, the clean-cut, sponsor-grovelling racerhead he ain’t.
The altitude tent is a prime example of this: “The altitude tent is crap. I hate that I have to go to such extremes to race enduro style races,” Mark shakes his head in consternation: “I’m not the guy that was born with crazy skill or giant lungs. For me it’s always a real struggle with my weight and training.”
Downieville is a race close to Weir’s heart: “I’ve been to that race since it first started, and it’s an amazing event. Forty mile-an-hour downhills through razor-sharp rocks – it pushes you so hard.”
The race’s recent rise in profile however worries him: “The more pro racers you have turning up trying to win it to please their sponsors, the further it gets away from what the event is actually all about,” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, most people get it. Like this year Minnaar (Greg; Santa Cruz Syndicate) came out and he totally got it. He just wanted to have fun on his bike and sink a few beers – that’s what it’s all about. I mean, I like people like Adam Craig (Giant), but when he started telling people that he was going to win Downieville, I knew I had to beat him for the sake of the race. It’s about the lifestyle dudes, not the pro-racers.”
Downieville itself is a town notable if nothing else, for an odd history. At one stage it was only two votes away from becoming the capital of California, and was the last town in America to publicly hang someone. The gallows still stand in the town centre, and act as a macabre photo-spot for the few visitors who pass through the town outside of the race weekend.
During the running of the Classic, the population can swell from two hundred up to nearly five thousand. “The locals hate all of us arriving,” Mark smiles. “It’s a cool town to just hang out in though. There’s no open container law, so everyone just hangs out on the street.”
The race itself is a bike killer – once you sign on you can’t change or replace any component, dictating that competitors delicately balance the combination of flat-out, demanding terrain, while also preserving their machinery and whatever weight they can.
“I definitely ride Downieville a lot differently to any other race,” Weir smiles. “You’ve got to look after your bike, you can’t just thump through it all. If you have a major mechanical, chances are you could still be sixteen-odd miles from the finish.”
The Classic is split into two separate races – the XC and the DH. Competing in both puts you in contention for the AllMountain overall. The ProAllMountain riders face a daunting three hour cut-off to reach Downieville from SierraCity, 29 miles away in the XC race.
The following days DH drops a staggering 5000ft in 17 miles, from Packer Saddle back to Downieville. All on the bike which you raced XC on the previous day.
“My Carbon Nomad is one of the first ten test frames,” Mark says. “I set it up mostly for the downhill. I got sixth in the XC though so it works alright!” From a lot of other riders that alone would sound arrogant, but with Mark it’s not. Again, he had fun doing it and he’s having fun telling you about it.
Last year however, Mark’s life hit a shattering turning point when his house burned down. No-one was injured, but the family lost everything. The build up to this years Downieville saw Weir battling insurance companies to rebuild his home.
“I started drinking a lot,” he tells us, as the ever-present smile fades for a second. “With the stress of finding out insurance is not always on your side and knowing that you might not be able to afford the rebuild, I was all of a sudden on a more abusive path.
“Then my wife called me a drunk and told me that my new lifestyle wasn’t the answer. She told me to shit or get off the pot!” The laugh returns. “So three months before the race I went all in. I dropped those 30 pounds, I stopped drinking beer and just drank tequila. Cold turkey is for Quakers, man – I guess it worked.”
With win number eight done and dusted, Weir and the family jumped aboard a flight and headed to Europe to race a number of French enduros, and help promote the 2011 WTB range.
Weir is an infectious individual – he’s not a loud or brash type, although you get the impression that somehow he has the right to be. Downieville and bikes run thick in his blood, and after a year that saw him very nearly lose it all over-night, it might just have saved him.
Single-minded, brutal yet ultimately chilled out – whatever the connection with the once-obscure race in the middle of nowhere is, Mark Weir IS the Downieville Classic. Here’s to them both continuing to remain that way for many years to come.