Riding the Trifecta: Auburn California’s Confluence trails

Posted by SuperClydesdale on April 18, 2011 under Commentary, Rides | 2 Comments to Read

170-pounder Don "the wheel guy," and 150-pounder Joe the Hill Monkey as they were leading me to my doom. Never trust small, fit people.

Just when I was feeling somewhat conciliatory toward small people, I had another brutal experience to remind me why I hate them, that they are bad, and that everything that happens to them in the form of discrimination, income disparity, and inability to find women who are willing to date them is well deserved.

These are not nice people.

I was gulled into a ride yesterday, a ride with a vague description, “lets ride the Confluence.”  It was in an area that I was unfamiliar with and had always wanted to see, so I thought it would be great way of getting a guided tour of the trail.

The trails in question are just outside of Auburn, California.  There are many areas to access the trails, but the area is generally known as “the Confluence,” because one of the main parking areas is at the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River.   I had never been there, but knew it as a popular trail system for mountain bikers in the Sacramento area.

The guy who organized the ride is “wheel guy” Don, the guy who helped me re-tension the spokes on my Spinergy PBO Stealth wheels on my road bike.  Don’s a very experienced mountain biker and has been trying to get me to ride the Confluence with him since I took up mountain biking last fall.

I became a bit concerned when I learned that Joe McKeen was going to be on the ride.  I’ve written about Joe.  Joe is a 150-pound hill monkey that is probably the strongest rider, pound for pound, that I know.  I called up Don and expressed my concern about the pace of the ride.  Joe is so freaking fast on the hills that I didn’t want to hold up the ride.   Don assured me that he would be there to moderate the pace.

Don is no Clydesdale either.  He’s extremely lean, probably 5’10” and 170 pounds.  I knew that this could be a challenging ride, but what the heck?   I wanted to ride “The Confluence.”

Second red flag:  they seemed surprised that I actually showed up.

Don discussed our route for the day.  There are numerous trails at the Confluence:

  • Stagecoach
  • Lake Clementine
  • Connector
  • Forresthill Divide Loop (FHDL)
  • The Culvert to Confluence

These are all connected.   And, I found out that the plan (heretofore unannounced) was to ride all of these.   They call it the “trifecta” which is puzzling, since I count at least five separate trails here, and in researching it on the Internet, it sounds like we actually rode parts of other trails as well.

Map of the Confluence trails that comprise "The Trifecta"

The first piece, up an old stagecoach road from the Confluence to the end of the town of Auburn, is called Stagecoach.   I heard that many locals start at the top, then return up Stagecoach on the way back — which might make sense, but the idea of ending a ride with a 2-mile, 800-foot climb doesn’t sound like fun.  We started Stagecoach at the lowest point — from the Confluence trailhead, which means that you start a very steep climb as soon as you begin the ride.   This is not ideal for me, either.  I usually like at least a little bit of warm-up.   In the first two miles, you climb 800 feet.  But, that was just an appetizer.  As we started our first ascent, Joe said something to the effect of “I’m glad you came.  Most everyone else feels like they have to work up to the trifecta.“  Uh oh.


I was quite proud of myself up Stagecoach.  I hung right with the little guys, although I was distressed by the fact that while I was huffing and puffing, they were talking as if they were sitting at the bar.   Joe asked me if I was going to sign up for any of the big endurance rides this season.   “That… would… require…   endurance,”  I replied.   They spoke in complete sentences — between breaths.   I might be able to belt out a sentence, but it would be a few syllables at a time, jammed between frantic breaths.   At the top of Stagecoach, we stopped and they allowed me some time to put my heart back in my chest.

From near the top of the Stagecoach trail, a view of the American river. My car is one of those dots.

From the top of Stagecoach, there’s a paved road that leads you to a singletrack loop back to the main trail.  This was my first taste of “Confluence single track.”

From Clementine trail, going under the Foresthill Bridge. One of the highest bridges in the US.

Once back at the trailhead, we started the Clementine trail.    The first part of this trail brings you under the famous Foresthill Bridge.   This bridge has been used in numerous movies and commercials, probably the most famous being an early scene in the movie Triple-X, where they drive a car off the bridge.

The Clementine trail follows the North Fork of the American River to a perch above the dam that holds back Lake Clementine.   The North Fork Dam was built in 1939 to catch debris and protect downstream bridges.   It has no spillways, so water just flows over the top of the dam.  It’s a beautiful structure, with it’s arc holding back a long, thin finger of a lake.  Because it’s been an incredibly wet winter, the spring’s snowmelt has swelled the rivers, so there’s a tremendous amount of water going over the dam.   With the water flowing over the arc of the dam, it looks like a smaller version of Niagra Falls.   The view from above, combined with the incredible roar of the water crashing, was quite sight.

The Clementine trail meets up with Lake Clementine Road, which goes down to the lake.   Our ride took us up Lake Clementine Road to get to the next part of our ride, the Connector Trail.   There are places to park on Lake Clementine Road that provides access to the Connector Trail and Forresthill Divide Loop (FHDL).

The FHDL is a single track loop through the oaks, as well as some groves of Madrone.   Madrone is a relative of Manzanita, and the bottom parts of the trunk look like oak trees, and midway up the trunk the bark takes on the smooth, muscular look of Manzanita.  The Madrones must emit something that prevents other plants from germinating because there was virtually no undergrowth in those areas.  The sight of the trail winding through the Madrone trunks was surreal.

The trifecta is front-loaded with two massive climbs in the first 8 miles.    I kept a pretty good pace up these two climbs (Stagecoach and Clementine).  Too good.  I had no idea what I was in for, so I went out much faster than I should have.   While the rest of the ride (Connector, FHDL, Culvert, and Confluence) lack any long, sustained climbs,  they a littered with short, steep little climbs that really take their toll on a big guy’s legs.    My legs were getting pretty shaky from about the turnaround point on the far end of the FHDL.  Some of the steeper sections, where the gradient reaches into the low 20-percentile range, my cadence was about 12.   That’s brutal.  But, with a 1×10, I had nowhere else to go.  Too damn tired to “get on top” of the gears, so I had to grind it out at a gruelingly low cadence.  It felt like I was riding with my brakes on.  At one point, I actually stopped to check if my brake was rubbing – it felt like something was holding me back.  It was:  gravity.  Cruel, cruel gravity.

All of the single track in the Confluence trail system seems to have a certain flow to it which is very nice, particularly when descending.  These trails are heavily ridden, and the riders/trail-builders have invested a lot of time in making the descents enjoyable to just about everyone.  Although, it would be easy to get into trouble if you were foolish.  I have heard that the park system folks were going to remove some of the jumps just for this reason.  That would be a shame.

The way these trails are set up, if you want to stay on the ground, you can do that.   All of the trails have a lot of nice little features littered throughout to allow you to catch some air, and berms to let you aggressively rip through tight turns.   On one stretch on the final leg beginning with the Culvert trail and continuing on to the Confluence trail along the American River, there’s as much downhill big-air features as you like.   I nearly ate it a few times, and could only laugh that I stayed on the bike.

Most of the jumps have pretty manageable landings, and I was lulled into a foolishly false sense of comfort as to the nature of the trail.   At one point, I made a total rookie move and decided to hit a jump without knowing what the landing area looked like.   As I was hitting it, I realized that it actually had a bit of a gap to clear — a gap that consisted of a very sharp drop down to the river.   Luckily, I had just enough speed to hit the lip of the landing area, but it was a pretty sloppy landing and I almost ate it.  Knowing that I just avoided a potentially nasty crash – onto rocks, all I could do was laugh at my good fortune.   As I continued down the trail, I noticed some hikers coming up the trail had been observing me, and had looks of shock that after a nearly disastrous wipeout, that I was laughing and continued pedaling at high speed.   I had a huge grin on my face as well as I zipped past them.  I’m sure they thought I was a lunatic.   Stupid, maybe, but since I was still in possession of most of my body fluids, I’ll call that descent a success.   My standards may be different than yours.

So, while some people aspire to do the trifecta, I’ve now done it.   Now that I know it’s considered a pretty challenging ride, I’m happy to have done it.  Had I known it was such a ball buster, I probably would have waiting until a little later in the season when my endurance will be up and my weight will be down.

My totals for the trifecta (per my Garmin):

  • 29.16 miles
  • 4,394 feel of climb
  • 8.7 average moving speed.  Somehow when your cadence is 12, it lowers your average speed.
  • 30.5 mph max speed (it felt like 80mph – what a thrill!)

The elevation profile of the trifecta at the Auburn Confluence. Note the early, cruel climbs, apparently designed to knock the wind out of big guys.

A few lessons learned:

  • Never ride with hill monkeys.   I forgot this important rule.  Crushed yet again by Joe the hill monkey.
  • Get a bigger Camelbak.  2.5L was not quite enough.  A big boy needs his h2O more than the little guys.   I think I need a pony keg.
  • Put on the Ivy Block lotion whether you think you’ll need it or not.  You will.   Even though, ounce for ounce, it costs more than gold, it’s well worth it.  I’m itching up a storm.  And on that note:   the whole concept of right-of-way needs to be revisited if there’s poison oak on the sides of the trail.
  • Make sure you know what’s on the other side of jumps.
  • Reconsider the 1×10 for long rides with kick-your-ass climbs.  I may have to face up to the fact that perhaps I am not man enough to handle this gearing with a 34-tooth chain ring on the front.   Or, probably more accurately, that I am too much man for such gearing.   I am a whole lot of man.   A 240-pounder on a 1×10 on a tough early-season mountain bike ride with nearly 4,400 feet of climb… that’s a lot of energy output.

Additional information:   http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/502/files/ASRANews111503.pdf

  • bcool said,

    Good job, I do those rides, but I usually break that into two. Confluence then the FHDL. And I ride it 1×9.

  • bcool said,

    Good job, I do those rides, but I usually break that into two. Confluence then the FHDL. And I ride it 1×9.

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