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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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