2015 Grasshopper Adventure Series Race #1: Old Caz, 31 Jan
Result: Worked hard to be on the cusp of the dean’s list but now under academic probation
For those who might not yet know about it, the Grasshopper Adventure series is a group of races held on open pavement and unpaved trails and roads, in the winter and spring every year in Sonoma County (with occasionally a little dip into northern Marin). Miguel Crawford is the point man for these, his brainchild, his baby, and he’s overseen them since their start 17 years ago. I’ve ridden plenty of them. They are hugely competitive events yet not strictly billed as races. But trust me, the Grasshoppers are indeed raced. In the last two to three years the ‘hoppers have grown so much they now charge an entry fee, have race numbers, portapotties, sponsors (Elevengear’s Crashtag being one of them this year), paramedic support and neutral feed zones. Entries are now capped at 400 riders, and this year’s Old Caz ‘hopper sold out early. 400 riders wiretied numbers to their handlebars and took the start.
The grande depart was in downtown Occidental at 10 am sharp and featured a contingent of cross racers, road riders, radonneurs, MTB specialists and all round tough guys and gals. Strong riders self-select to be in these rides so even starting them you’re in rarified company. The weather was surprisingly warm and inviting. I wormed my way in to the scrum and lined up. I noticed lots of local talent, bay area fast guys, a couple pros and even our famous (or infamous, take your pick) cycling celebrity. Also a small but quite impressive group of very fast road women, notably Katie Hall, the UHC racer who shocked the cycling world earlier in the month with an audacious mountaintop stage win in an important early season stage race in Argentina.
The Old Caz course is “just” a little over 50 miles, with “only” 4600 feet of climbing. But don’t let that fool you for a minute. There are no gentle grades on this course. You are either plunging down a rutted dirt trail, climbing a steep hillbilly forest road or trying to make it to the group up the road on a flat section. As befitting to a proper course such as this, proper attire must be worn. I selected the Elevengear Church of the Bicycle jersey, complete with clerical collar, as well as the Elevengear Luxe black deerskin gloves. And just in case of emergency definitely wore my Crashtag™ because you just never know … if they’ll have proper bottle openers at the finish.
For me, any hope of a top placing is simply unrealistic. Instead I go for the letter grade. My goal is always an “A” which is top ten percent. So with 400 starters, the goal was 40th place or better.
For this ‘hopper I decided to play a little cheeky move: The first three and a half miles are basically straight uphill out of Occidental, so I pre-positioned my two water bottles behind a tree stump near the side of the road at the top of the climb, saving about three pounds that I’d have to otherwise lug up the climb. Only problem was I got a late start on the morning and in order to do the pre-position shenanigan I’d have to forego a reasonable warm up, which probably cancelled out any weight saving benefit.
After the thank you’s, the dire warnings, the genuflections and the like, the gun went off and so did the field. Right off the bat the pace was too high for my liking, and with no warmup my “check engine” light came on rather early. I soldiered on, passing several, being passed by several more me but trying to stay in the first 70 or so riders while my legs were rudely awakened to the morning’s exertions. Somewhere along the way Katie Hall gets by me and makes it up the road, she making no allowances for the dirt, aboard a standard road bike.
The top of the climb and I remembered my bottles, exited the small coterie of riders I was with to extract them. Put them in the bottle cages and continued.
Top of WIllow Creek Rd, it turns dirt and downhill pretty fast; cross an open gate with cattle guard and those skilled in the dark art of careening on dirt opened up their account.
The first challenge of any ‘Hopper is to try to figure out ahead of time what sort of bike to ride for that particular day. Because the courses routinely mix dirt and pavement in the same race, the calculation can get a little tricky. Lug a MTB around the paved sections so you can pass a bunch on the dirt descent? go with your road bike to lay some hurt on the highway sections and nurse the singletrack? Cross bike? Okay but what tires?
For Old Caz my setup was my worn-in aluminum eBay special cross bike fitted with light rims and medium width file tread tires. I guessed that 60 PSI was going to work well, and made sure that I had my lowest gearing handy as it was going to be needed: 34×27. Some pitches of Duncan Rd and Old Caz exceeded 15% I’m sure.
So, now descending Willow Creek Rd, my goal was not to lose too many positions to the guys around me who wanted to bomb the descent. I can get down a paved road pretty good, but this dirt stuff has me stumped. And there was about four miles of it to deal with. Down we go steeply past a meadow, now into a redwood forest, out into another meadow with the occasional rider rocketing past me. Occasionally I pick off a rider even slower than me. Maybe four or more guys stopped to repair flats already. I’d count the riders I passed against those who passed me. The ratio wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t terribly embarrassing. by the bottom I passed 8 riders while 17 passed me. When we hit the end of the descent the speed went down and my comfort level rose; I fell in to a group of about 8 guys, all of whom had passed me earlier but I was able to glom on to the back of this as we navigated the road which by turns became more paved but with potholes and other features that kept one’s attention fixed.
Once down to where it was flat our little group rolled up on Katie Hall’s group, and the two merged groups contended with some serious road issues — huge car sized mud puddles that required some evasive maneuvering. Now muddied up pretty good, our group about 20 strong focused on the next 15 riders just 15 seconds or so up the road, many of which had just came by me on the descent. It felt good to make it back up to them.
Finally off of Willow Creek road which truth be told could be used as a location for filming some sort of battle-in-the-Ardennes-forest-movie and on to actual pavement of HWY 1 and then 116 heading inland. As soon as the road kicked up a little I found myself at the front of this 35-ish strong group. I took the opportunity to explore an attack to see if anyone was game to riding harder on this section and only Katie Hall came with me. I pulled for a minute or so, she took a pull just barely, but the pack didn’t want to let us go. We were absorbed and the pace diminished again.
Off of 116 and on to Moscow Rd at Duncans Mills and, feeling frisky, tried my hand again. Brian Staby of CXNation joined me and we had a nice gap immediately. We traded pulls, not going flat out but trying to make quick work of this road that parallels the Russian River. Again absorbed. But this time the pace continued higher which is good, because I was sure there were a good many riders up the road and wanted to keep the notion alive of picking off some of them before the end.
Once in Monte Rio we actually had course marshals, as it if was actually a sanctioned race! How cool is that? A left to get across the river and another left on 116. Pace is good and I’m sitting in. After a bit I notice Staby moving up, looking serious. My interest is piqued so I follow him. At the bottom of a little depression he just jams off the front. I go with him and almost immediately run into his back wheel as he’s braking to negotiate the next obstacle of the ride, Duncan Road. From 116 we turned a hairpin right and immediately away from the river going up a 15% pitch. I saw Staby shift so like one chess player castles right after the first one does, I follow suit which was very helpful as we’re immediately climbing up a most wicked pitch.
After about a half mile of this strenuousness, I’m finding myself in with like five guys and Katie. I’m in my lowest gear and definitely have my physiology taxed. We come around the corner and there’s a closed gate with an arrow obliging us to get past it. So unmount, drag your bike under, fit it through a gap or throw it over the top, re-mount, continue, now on dirt.
The road kept going up and getting narrower and was now completely dirt. I was holding my own about 5th in this group. We picked off a couple guys who were up the road earlier, and then a plunge downhill, with a bizarre portage through what looked to be a small mudslide. Back on the bike and some tricky descending and finally through another gate and on to some beat up backroads Russian River Rat pavement.
Here the road drops away from the rider alarmingly, only to pitch back up just as quickly. Cars on blocks, the sound of chickens, a whiff of ganja, dogs barking at us careering down these twisted fucked up threads of roads. It feels like an amusement park ride. Definitely an E ticket.
One rider with a prison-striped jersey was staying tantalizingly away from me. He’d screw up a turn and I’d almost be on him, then I’d blow a shift and he’d get away. It was like this for several minutes until a sharp left onto Old Cazadero road, which was only slightly wider than the road we’d just come off of, but with speed humps and cars parked near the road in every direction. Have to keep your head up. Prison stripe guy makes contact with four riders in front, and I do too, but at that moment two of the guys we just caught sort of sat up to drink water or whatever leaving three to drift away from us.
Rolling on the flats is one of the things I do better than some others. I immediately sprung away and got up to those two, taking another couple guys with me. Prison jersey guy was not among our new group of maybe seven guys (we’d keep catching blown riders who were up the road). Katie Hall makes it to this group.
At that moment Old Caz climb started in earnest. We began this whole section with like 40 riders and I was in a group of seven at the front but was afraid to look behind. Two of the riders fairly drill it up the first, intimidating part of the climb leaving us other five to shatter across the roadway. I and two other riders regroup and make contact again. Then one guy falls off the pace and then finally I can’t handle it and am climbing in 4th in this group. The climb is merciless for a few miles, then finally levels a bit where I can get back on top of my gears. The top gets ragged which allows me to descend a bit then climb a bit more and I’m keeping all the riders ahead of me in sight which is comforting. At the top is the feed zone. Nor Cal Bike Sport’s Jim Keane hands me my bottles, tells me I’m somewhere between 50th and 60th place and gives me a shove off, passing three of the four ahead of me as those guys are re-filling their bottles instead of exchanging pre-positioned bottles. It’s a great time saver!
On the other side of the feed is a little more climbing for good measure then the Old Caz descent. I swear one of these days I’m going to ride this “road” (it’s really singletrack at this point) not in race mode so I can actually enjoy it; the view is incredible with rugged pasture in the foreground and seemingly endless redwood forest to the horizon. But don’t look up, you have to concentrate on the descent! We hit a gate and I think a Lamperti kid we caught rides around it and a Metromint rider I’d been more or less climbing with succumbs to exercise induced uncoordination and falls in front of the gate. I make it through okay, both riders eventually distance me but not by too terribly much. The dirt descent is damp and leafy and I’m unsure again, clutching at my brakes like driving instructor on a Bolivian highway. A few fellas I dropped on the Old Caz climb come by me on the Old Caz descent.
The bottom of this descent gets steeper and then really quite steep before it ends precipitously in a running stream. Two MTB riders catch me trying to dismount at that moment and ride through the stream with much bravado. I dismount and stagger through the stream, shifting into my smallest gearing while making it through the stream bed, because up next is a nasty dirt climb.
Once mounted past an old seemingly abandoned cabin I re-take the MTBers and pick off a couple more guys. Now we’re in the holler: a couple years back some yahoos tried to block this road during the Old Caz hopper even though it’s an open public thoroughfare. This year race organizer Miguel ran some magnets over the dirt road and picked up a number of carpet tacks. Cheery.
This dirt climb is soul sapping as it’s pretty steep and uneven and keeping the bike steered properly was a chore. I was staying with a couple riders near me through this part but lost them both as the the road shifted downhill after another gate crossing and I overcooked the first corner and almost ran off the road. Eventually I got a little better groove on and suffered the descent with no further issues until it became paved. Once paved I was back to being in control and started back on those lads.
At the bottom of the descent there’s a one-lane metal grate bridge and people urging me to slow down. Crossing the bridge I saw why; some poor dude fell while crossing the bridge. Losing traction on a metal bridge on a bicycle is very easy to do and the resulting crash is quite unpleasant. They were bandaging him up right on the bridge as I picked my way carefully across, then punched it to join a trio right in front of me.
We made it through downtown Cazadero together then instead of the flat and fast run back down New Cazadero rd, we veered right and went back on the rutted, clapped-out and corrugated Austin Creek Rd which was bumpy as all hell and filled with steep climbs and descents.
In the new quartet, one rider pulled off presumably for water, leaving us a trio — me, the Metromint rider from before and one of the smug looking MTB riders from the creek crossing.
The three of us put our backs into it, taking even turns. MTB guy takes a long turn up a rise. At the top he turns around — I think to check to see how much he dropped us by, only to find us glued to his wheel. I take the next pull, then Metromint. Good, hard pulls. Nothing fancy, good journeyman work. This ended up dropping MTB guy. A bit longer and we catch another rider going it alone. My back is starting to get sore but otherwise I’m feeling game. We drill it up a short climb and the new guy is no more. Just me and Metromint again.
Our solid pacemaking is starting to produce a dividend as we see a group of about 15 up the road when we can glance them on straighter sections. Quite quickly we’re on the group, which on a short rise is splayed across the road. Once we made the catch, I, still feeling good, don’t want to blow my mojo and ride slower so I punch it and ride right through, roadie style.
I’m solo now, on the flatter sections of Austin Creek Rd going steady hard, hoping I can maybe catch another group and work with them as we all retrace our steps back to Willow Creek road and up the dirt descent to the finish. I pass a couple of the orange-clad Velo Fratello riders as it appears they are tending to a rear wheel.
A couple miles of head down slogging and my back is starting to complain a bit more but I persevere. Presently I’m joined by one of the Velo Fratello riders, a really strong young guy. He told me he had multiple punctures on the day and his teammate was helping him change his most recent flat. Okay if this guy had two flats he should by rights be 10 min up the road from me. No wonder he’s so strong!
But eventually we’re caught by that group of 15 I’d ridden through earlier, no doubt motivated by my jumping away. Very well then, we all roll at a reasonable and not brutal pace back on 116 to 1 and Willow Creek Rd.
Once we take the left at the tandoor restaurant and hit Willow Creek Rd, the road immediately turns to shit and a few guys have a dig but my brief rest in the small peloton put me in a good place to respond. I get in a group of five which includes the Velo Fratello guy, Metromint guy and a couple others. we soldier along the flat sections alright, sloshing through the mud section, getting rattled on the potholes. My headset is somehow getting loose or maybe the front hub I’m not sure which but riding this aluminum bike at this point is beginning to feel like pushing a beat up shopping cart at the FoodMax.
Nevertheless I’m actually feeling pretty good after a salted, caffeinated carmel GU and a lot of electrolyte drink.
Velo Fratello hits out on the flat section before the climb which is marked by Metromint. Then Metromint gives a go with Velo Fratello on him. They do this sort of thing a couple more times and I’m noticing their riding is losing it’s crispness. I can see it in Metromint’s shoulders. I can’t believe my good fortune that these guys are killing themselves while I haven’t needed to burn a single match of my own.
And Willow Creek, as climbs go, is of the type that I’m better off at. I get to bat last! I’m trying to figure out do I attack them hard or just get to the front and start in on a pace that will hopefully grind them both off, while catching more blown riders up the road?
Right before the real climbing of Willow Creek begins, I shift to a little lighter gear, then BANG!
A terrible sound and a lurching feeling from the back wheel.
What happened exactly I still don’t know. But what I was left with was a rear derailleur that wast twisted and rent into two pieces, a chain that was wrapped around half a derailleur, and wedged between spokes and cassette and a wheel that ceased to operate like a wheel. With the those I overtook earlier whizzing past as I’m studying what the hell happened, My race was most definitely over.
It took a few minutes to figure out how to unwrap the chain from its location coiled as it was within the wheel so I could even push the bike. Then I started pushing it up the mountain climb. Lots of passing riders enquired if I needed anything. “Yeah, actually, you got a spare derailleur?” One “Super-Pro” rider was kind enough to leave me his chain tool so I could convert my bike to a sort of single speed but with vertical dropouts I thought that getting this bike to function as a single speed I’d have to get pretty lucky and it would probably take time, time better spent just walking/trotting up the hill to the finish.
Four miles of pushing/walking/trotting my bike up the hill I made it in with a time of a bit over four hours. 218th place. Later on I checked Velo Fratello’s time and position: 3:18 and 39th place. I would like to say I could have stayed with him or even better, getting that “A” grade, but of course I’ll never know.
But still it was a gorgeous day out and a great day on the bike, even if it ended ingloriously. Like the T-800 Terminator says, I’ll be back.
(most images lifted shamelessly from Miguel’s http://www.grasshopperadventureseries.com/ website)