The Old Caz Grasshopper

The Old Caz Grasshopper

I stopped racing bikes in 2003 for two reasons. The first and most deciding factor was that I couldn’t afford it; I was starting Asphalt Magazine and I needed every cent I could lay my hands on. The second factor would have probably ended my racing within another year or two; I’d grown disenchanted with the majority of the events I did.

Living in Southern California meant doing industrial park crits several times a month. And what passed for a road race within three hours of my home had all the novelty of a rerun of “Leave It To Beaver.”

So I focused on doing long rides in the Santa Monica Mountains on the weekends, rather than paying $30 to pin a number on for 45 minutes. I’ve nothing against those who choose to do it; it just stopped being exciting for me.

IMG_4879My friends Neil Shirley and Zap at Road Bike Action rode Old Caz.  

However, riding in a fast group with other well-trained athletes never stopped being fun, so scratching that itch to go fast always stayed with me, rather like an untreated sinus infection. The rise of gran fondos was a big step in the right direction.

That said, I can’t really race a 100-mile event. I just don’t have the fitness. But 50 miles? Well I can ride hard for 50 miles. I should back up a second and confess that my fitness has been compromised ever since my crash in 2012. The reasons are diverse and beyond my control, but lately, things have been improving just a bit. I’m finally at a point again where I’m willing to take on some challenges.

It was in doing Levi’s GranFondo that I met Carlos, Fish and Yuri, the guys behind both the Bike Monkey events and the (now defunct) magazine. It was through them that I started to hear stories about other events in the area, underground stuff, Fight Club kinda stuff.

Well, someone broke the rules and talked about Fight Club. I’m not saying who, but I am saying I’m glad they did.

IMG_4858Not everyone was overly serious about the event. Kinda nice.

The particular rule broken had to do with the Grasshopper Series. The lore has it these were near-bandit events built to humble badasses. The lead event, Old Caz (Caz is short for Cazadero, one of the towns this particular event passes through) happens in late January and takes in nearly as much dirt as it does road. It’s the sort of race (and yes, most folks treat it as a race) where participants will talk about tire choice and gearing, though a poor choice in either regard can either unfortunately shorten or horribly lengthen your day.

I heard this was the biggest turnout Old Caz had ever had at nearly 500 entrants. Honestly, with two pit stops, a laminated route card and course marshalls, I was amazed that the entry was only $35.

I lined up at what I thought was the back, but then over the next 15 minutes the start chute doubled in population. I was vaguely chagrined; I assumed many people would be passing me on the opening climb. And I was right about that; the sad thing is that I only needed a kilometer to confirm it; the first climb started less than 200m from the start in Occidental. We turned right on Coleman Valley Road, a stripe of asphalt known to participants of Levi’s GranFondo, though in the other direction. The climb is a nick over 4km and takes you to Willow Creek, a road covered for most of its length with little more than dirt and mayhem.

It was evident in the first unpaved kilometer of the descent that many riders had overplayed their hands in the equipment planning department. Seemingly every 20 or 30 meters there was someone pulled off with a flat. Most seemed to be using tires too skinny, but then some had 33s and 35s and I suspect they thought they could pull a Sven Nys and get away with 25psi.

IMG_4880 RKP contributor Michael Hotten attended and got second in his category. How do you spell beast?

To say I felt confident on the descent would be incorrect. I was something approaching euphoric. There was good reason; I was astride the previously mentioned Specialized Diverge shod with 38mm tires pumped to 60psi. Flat risk was lower than savings account interest and the bike handled in such a predictable fashion I took lines through the rough stuff to pass people.

Much of Willow Creek descends at relatively gentle grades and only gets steep in the switchbacks. For those with great brakes, the descent really wasn’t that challenging. I felt so at home on the Diverge (and that’s a truly rare experience for me to have on a first ride on a bike) that I felt like I wasn’t even tapping its potential on the descent. I was catching air on water bars, could pass people on the steepest, inside portion of a turn, which was invariable coated with decomposing leaves, looser than an off-leash dog at the beach. Passing on the outside was even easier. What was funny was to hear a guy bomb a straightaway to try and catch me only to under-brake at the next switchback because they couldn’t match the power of the hydraulic discs I was riding. The resulting sound became predictable—a few startled exclamations, a sound of rustling leaves and then the unmistakable click of an SPD pedal releasing.

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Willow Creek empties into the Russian River very near where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. The eponymous road Tees into Hwy 1 near Jenner. There’s a relatively flat run of dirt to reach Hwy. 1 following the dirt descent and then blissfully flat asphalt to take you to the next climb, this one paved, up Duncan Road. Our right turn onto Duncan felt like entry to a skatepark. My Garmin freaked out and recorded 35.8 percent gradient; it wasn’t that steep, but I immediately shifted into my 34×32 thanks to coaching right at the turn by course marshals. It quickly relaxed to a more manageable 18 percent grade, so it wasn’t hard to appreciate why I’d been warned about this climb.

The organizer called this section of the course a labyrinth and that was a fair term. Though we had laminated route cards, they really weren’t necessary thanks to course marshalls at each of the critical turns. The basic pattern was paved climb followed by dirt descent, though my memory (admittedly jumbled from the day’s fun) says much of the Old Cazadero Road climb—which is the signature attraction of the event and contains a creek crossing at the bottom—was unpaved.

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One of the more fascinating features of the event was that by virtue of the course’s sheer difficulty, I watched riders kill it on the climb, only to fold on the descent, or jet the descent only to soft pedal the flat. Sure, the leaders finished more than an hour ahead of me, but back with my peeps—the mortals—we all seemed to know we had to pick our battles.

It’s strange to me to admit that my descending on the road isn’t what it used to be, but off-road, especially with disc brakes and 38mm tires, my sense of adventure remains intact. I’d brake enough to maintain control, but there were plenty of times where I found myself sprinting out of the saddle upon leaving a turn. Airless water bars were missed opportunities.

I probably encountered two dozen cars, maybe even more, over the course, but it felt like only two. Even though we were never on a closed course, traffic never felt like an issue (the wind was blowing the wrong way for the one idiot in the truck who tried to blast us with soot from his tail pipe).

The run back to Highway 1 is flat but in the early afternoon was bathed in an offshore breeze. The small group I’d been riding with—four other guys and one woman—was progressively worn away like a bar of soap in a shower. I turned to check on the dwindling company and saw no one on my wheel. Meanwhile, the wheel I was drafting wasn’t going to take prisoners or bother with recovery. He was riding a Bianchi and was dressed in a Broakland kit. I finally called up to him, “I’d take a pull, but you’re killing me.”

I felt badly about that. I take my pulls. It’s an important social contract to me. He wasn’t bothered, though.

He yelled back, “Well then you better stay on my wheel.”

Well, if you’re offering…. We finally saw a group of six ahead and entered a channel protected from the wind. That was my chance. I figured I could close the final 100 meters and give him a chance to recover. I’d forgotten this was a bike race. The moment I closed the distance, he pulled left and rode right by the group. Only one other rider even tried to get on his wheel. I guess I’d given him all the recovery he needed. Ah. Okay. No, you go ahead; I’m good. I’ll keep an eye on things back here.

IMG_4894

The final climb was back up Willow Creek, with the finish at the gate that signals the end of the dirt, just before the top of the climb. Rolling into the climb felt rather anticlimactic. I knew there would be no helter skelter dirt descent to follow this climb, so I didn’t gas with the eagerness I had the others. Or maybe it was the lack of energy. For reasons I struggle to comprehend, let alone explain, I managed to gradually turn up the steam as the grade increased. I’ve written obliquely about how empty my legs have been. Going deep on a climb has been impossible for a couple of years. The reasons have been less muscular than gray matter—and yes, I’ve skirted the ragged edge of depression. Somewhere inside I found something seemingly lost. I began to dig. And things went well until I hit the “Two Bitches” a couple of kilometers from the top of the climb. These are two short pitches—the first hits 23 percent—separated by maybe 10 meters. The 12 percent breather in the middle feels positively flat. As it happens, I’m not too proud to say that at one point I was moving at a whopping 2.8 mph.

Rolling out of the bitches took whatever seemed left in the tank. My engine was misfiring and a few riders overtook me. But by now the forest was beginning to open up again and you could look out over the mountains. I didn’t have the energy to take in the views, but I knew those openings meant we were finally near the top. After months and months and months of not being able to find anything in the legs to dig for more than a minute, maybe two, I put my head down and gritted my way back to threshold. The road was relatively smooth, double-tracked, with some grass at the edges, easy passing.

I’d been riding with a woman named Jennie ever since we’d turned onto Willow Creek. She was new to road bikes and unpaved surfaces; her Focus ‘cross bike had been a Christmas present. I’d given her a few pointers and did what I could to build her confidence (bikes like to stay upright once they are moving) and ended up pacing her the whole way up the climb. Shortly after the Two Bitches I called to her and said, “You’ve got about 500 meters left; if you have anything left, now is the time to go.” And away she went; it was stinkin’ cool to watch. She must be formidable to race against.

As I rolled across the line NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny was there to catch me with a drink and a smile. Seeing a friendly face at the end of any hard event is always nice, but I have such epic respect for this guy. I just don’t think people understand how greatly he’s going to influence the future population of cycling through his work with NICA and seeing him at the finish gave me the sense that we’re at a new threshold, one where we’ve recognized that we can be more creative about how we engage our environment, what we call fun, how we live.

If I could do that ride monthly, I would; it was that fun.

 

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23 comments

  1. Conrad

    I used to think gran fondos were dumb Fred rides, until I did one. There is something to be said for a challenging, scenic and selective course for a road race. Or just ride the course and have fun if you are so inclined. The entry fee is reasonable given that there is usually a tee shirt, food, or beer involved. There are plenty of criteriums on the calendar so having a road race that is 30 miles long and flat is pointless- I would rather do the fondo. For better or worse, I think the fondos are going to take over a big chunk of the race scene.

  2. Scott

    Love, Love, Love West Sonoma County! If you think riding fast is fun, you should try it slow. Come back in July when you can stop at a roadside blackberry batch, high atop Tin Barn road and fill your grill with nature’s energy gel. Or, ride King Ridge when it’s just you and the buzzards soaring below your razor thin ridge. Take a moment to check out the fairy circles (multiple redwoods growing around an old stump) and the 25-foot moss beard draped over the road. Or admire the gold stupas and bright flags of the Oddyan Buddhist Monastery. Or check out Kruse Rhododendron Reserve in late spring when wild blossoms brighten dimly lit redwood groves with their white stars. Or ride UP Houser Bridge Road, you know the descent that everyone talks about on the Gran Fondo — it’s a legit 28% quad buster in the other direction. Or release your inner Jedi as you zip through the fern and redwood grotto lining the single lane of Skaggs Spring Road near Stewart’s Point. Or, Or, Or…

    1. Kevin McTighe

      Scott,
      Ahhh ! Spent a lot of time in Skaggs Spring Resort ruins, which unfortunately now reside under Lake Sonoma. Sad Day when the dam was completed !
      But this is a cycling site. Agree, adding Meyers Grade and other or, or, or, it’s hard to beat this area of Sonoma County for cycling. Extraordinarily scenic, light auto traffic, hard with constant up/down and leg/lung busting grades. Ride on brother. Everyone else should add area to their list.

  3. Andy G

    One of the best articles I’ve read in quite awhile (on RKP or elsewhere). Thanks for taking the time to share….and convince me that I need to start riding some of these Gran-Fondo type events.

  4. Austin McInerny

    Thanks for the kind words about NICA! Upon reaching the summit of the Old Caz climb, I stopped to fill my bottles and heard a high school student-athlete say to his buddy, “Being with friends on rides like this is what it’s all about!” While I was fighting a wicked cramp, hearing this observation made me happy and proud to be working to give young riders the opportunity to learn the true value of cycling. Let’s hope some of these students grow to be skilled writers like Padraig!

  5. Brian Staby

    I enjoyed your prose. Thanks for coming up and racing err…riding with us NorCal folks. I have been doing these rides for ages and the progression from bandito cage matches with a couple friends to what now is a full on Fondo, has been interesting. I am psyched for my friend Miguel, but bummed that the ride has gotten this big. After reading your story of suffering I am now realizing that it is not all about me. It is about enjoying the bike with others and showing off our awesome roads in Sonoma County. Gone are the days when local knowledge meant that you didn’t get lost and the occasional infiltrator really had to rely on you. These new days are fun too – just different. Cheers!


  6. Author
    Padraig

    Everyone: Thanks for your comments.

    One broad comment I want to make is to caution everyone from using the word fondo in conjunction with this event. I’m not sure that Miguel, the organizer, would use that term and my definition of a fondo is more road centric and meant to accommodate a larger population. And to be super-clear: not calling this a fondo is in no way a slight. He calls the Grasshoppers and Adventure Race Series, which I think gets at his mission. And he fulfills it nicely.

    Scott: I do plenty of slow riding (it’s about all I’ve done for most of the last two years), but would welcome the chance to do some leisurely riding through Sonoma County. Believe me, I’m ready.

    Andy G: Thanks! We never know when something will really connect, but we’re always grateful to find out.

    Austin: RKP doesn’t do enough for NICA. I’m a guy who had his day. I really want to do all I can to be supportive of the next generation. I have this hunch that some of your current riders will be coaching my sons in years to come.

    Brian: You’ve got a great thing going. Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to doing some miles with you kids soon.

  7. Pat O'Brien

    Glad your riding mojo came back. When Sandy talks about a ride, she steals a lick from the old candy bar commercial. “Some days you ride like a nut, some days you don’t.” That was a nice read.

  8. Michael

    Your story of the Old Caz ride has put a big smile on my face. I have already emailed my buddy with the ridewithgps route and can’t wait to drive the 300 miles from my house in Mount Shasta to try this ride. Hopefully my Jack Browns Blue 33’s are up to the task.

    Old Caz sounds something like a fun ride we do in Siskiyou County called the Honey Badger. People just know to show up through word of mouth and emails. Some ride for glory and the rest ride to survive and make it to the end. http://ridewithgps.com/routes/6807567

  9. Sparty

    I had a similar (got bored) experience with the racing near where I live. I have found two underground groups and the competition is top-notch.

  10. K-Dogg

    Well said, well written, well ridden!

    If you are ever in North Florida look lup gravelcyclist. We can show you how to suffer and thrive in swamps and sugar sand.

    K-Dogg
    Gainesville Fl.


  11. Author
    Padraig

    I’ve been informed by two friends who are local that my use of the term “Two Bitches” isn’t correct. Which is to say that I might have been riding with some folks who only claimed or wish they were locals. More properly, they are the “Twin Sisters,” or just “the Sisters.”

  12. Les.B.

    Scott: I’ll be up in Sonoma County in June and will have 1 day for nothing but riding. What of those delicious sounding rides you mentioned would you suggest for a first-timer to the area with 25mm wheels?

    1. hhbikes

      Coleman Valley to the coast. North up 1 then up Willow Creek. Beer at Barley and Hops in Occidental

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