I have this indicator that lets me know when I am into a race, ride or an event: it’s my voice. If am talking, then I’m rollin’ with purpose. Remember mood rings? Same idea. When the feeling’s right my vocal chords glow blue-green: upbeat, pleased, motivated. When I’m not feelin’ it, they turn black: fear, angst, nothing.
Normally I am pretty quiet, a listener rather than a chatter. But when the break is made or the effort feels right then I begin communicating. I turn into a pace line cheerleader, an equipment commentator or a pedaling small talker. Positive vibin’ and verbalizin’ is one way to put it.
So as I rolled up PCH at the King Ridge Dirt Supreme and had nothing to say to my fellow Grasshoppers, I began to fear the day ahead. No good reason really, but my vocal mood ring was fading to black.
The King Ridge Dirt Supreme is the last event of the Grasshopper Adventure Series in West Sonoma County. Padraig and I had done the first of the five, Old Cazadero, at the end of January. He would have lined up for the finale, but a bad wrist had made holding on during rough dirt descents impossible. Next year, Padraig.
At the start in west Sonoma County town of Occidental, we were told by race/ride organizer Miguel that this was the hardest of the five. The turnout and the mood (without the assistance of mood rings) seem to indicate that. At Old Caz’ we had more than 400 at the start line and pre-race had a party like atmosphere. The finale had attracted no more than 150 and the vibe in the staging area was friendly with an undertone of dread. On paper, the King Ridge Dirt Supreme didn’t look that bad: 84 miles, 8900 feet of climbing, 4 dirt sections. Two weeks prior, I had done the Belgian Waffle Ride in north San Diego County. It was a beast at 140 miles (30 on dirt) and 11,000 feet of uphill. So I came into the King Ridge event confident the profile was well within my abilities. What could possibly be so hard about this?
Like Old Caz’, the King Ridge course challenges your equipment as well as your body. The opening event of the series is clearly one for ‘cross bikes. But King Ridge has a greater ratio of tarmac to dirt so road bikes with wider tires were popular. My choice was a Specialized Roubaix with 28mm tubeless Hutchinson Sectors. A compact chainset and a 12-28 for the hills.
We rolled out of Occidental and began the climb up Coleman Valley. You could tell the initial effort was reasonable, people were still talking. But by the time we turned onto Willow Creek, talking gave way to inhaling and exhaling. With Levi Leipheimmer on the front, I was worried that the elastic would snap in the opening kilometers. But Levi and the other strongmen were kind as we covered the opening stretch and I was happy to still see the front of the race as we approached the first dirt descent.
California is in the middle of a four-year drought and even normally wet Sonoma County has been short on precipitation. The Willow Creek dirt was much like it was in late January for Old Caz—dry with few runoff created ruts. Willow Creek does have this beautiful canopy so picking a smooth line can be guesswork due to the intermittent light. There’s also a good amount of tree debris covering the trail so on some parts it’s just point and hope. My Roubaix, even with 28s, washed out on a couple of the pitched corners and once or twice I unclipped my inside foot as I swept through loose turns. Numerous riders were already on the side of the trail, repairing flats.
The bottom of Willow Creek is paved with a smattering of potholes and puddles. It’s rough, chaotic and dirty. The group was more like a gang. We were spread across the road, bunny hopping imperfections, fishtailing through mud and sloshing in and out of pools of black water. Cooperation went out the window as every rider was finding their own way around the obstacles. We reached PCH and the mind advanced to the next big objective: Fort Ross Road; I remained tight-lipped.
I was warned by my brother-in-law about Fort Ross. He knows these roads well and he told me, things would definitely break up there. I was in a good-sized group, maybe 20 riders, as we hung a right off PCH. The ascent from the coast to Seaview Road is about 2.5 miles, averages almost 11 percent with instances of 16 percent. Those with better power to weight ratios broke the pack into several pieces. We were fragmented into groups of three or four, scattered on the slopes of this leg sapper. Riding became grinding. The climb is beautiful, at least that’s what I am told. My focus was on the four feet of pavement in front of me. Fort Ross Road proved to be the Darwin of climbs. Its natural selection placed each rider with like species. The horses were up the road. I settled in with the pack mules.
The six-mile ride along Seaview took us to Salt Point Park. I paid close attention to the mileage because the left into the park onto a dirt road was not marked. I also began to talk. I wanted to know who in the group had done the dirt descent that was ahead of us. None had. So as we entered the park, I tucked in behind a confident looking local on a ‘cross bike. He was my pack mule-guide dog. Compared to Willow Creek, Salt Point is darker, rougher and has more debris. At one point, the bike was bouncing so harshly, I really couldn’t see where I was going. But my hearing was still good and when I heard familiar voices, I knew the coast highway was close. My sister, wife and brother-in-law had staged at the bottom and were yelling at riders to dismount so they could hop the gate at the end of the trail. I dutifully followed their instructions.
One of the cool things about the Grasshopper series is the laminated card each entrant receives. On one side is a course map and the other has turn by turn directions with mileage. After Salt Point and another section on PCH, the card lists three segments: Kruse Ranch Rd., Hauser Bridge Rd. and King Ridge Rd. What seems like three approachable sections is really one long, long climb with a third of it on dirt. The three together cover 12 miles and go up 2400 feet.
Our group had fragmented coming down the dirt through Salt Point Creek Park but we reformed as we rolled onto the next off-road portion. Kruse Ranch Road is inviting in pictures: graded, covered, ferns growing trail side. But in reality it’s as rough as a cheese grader and our pace was amped up so identifying foliage was simply out of the question. The rest stop at the top was the best sight.
My approach to Hauser Bridge Road was to move slightly ahead of the others in my group. The small gap meant I could hide the grimace on my face and drool in peace as we slogged up its slopes. It’s one of those climbs where you should not look at your bike computer’s gradient readings. 11 percent, 12 percent, 10 percent; Hauser does not let up until the right onto King Ridge Road.
Levi Leipheimmer has helped make King Ridge famous via his training rides and his now wildly, well-attended King Ridge Granfondo. The dirt Supreme attacks it from the opposite direction. Its undulating profile and slow-rolling pavement leaves the unfamiliar rider saying, “Are we there yet?” Eventually, without fanfare, we were and we began our drop towards the rest stop at Cazadero.
At mile 63, I finally got a reason to chat it up. The volunteer working the feed told us there were less than 20 riders ahead of us. Really? The ride to the top of King Ridge had felt like eternity. We’d caught a few riders along the way but we had no indication that our effort was worthy of a top thirty finish. The mood lifted to Blue: optimistic, accepting, pleasant.
A pace line of short pulls got us down Cazadero highway, onto River Road and through the headwind until we reached PCH. I was the most talkative. “Clear” I would tell the rider to my right when he had enough room to pull off the front and “last” to indicate when the rear of the pace line was approaching. Pleasantries and stories were exchanged as the final climb neared. One rider disclosed to me that he had ripped his shorts on the seam along the inner thigh seam and had placed duct tape over the tear to keep his Capos together. Suddenly we had some levity and new energy.
It’s 8 miles from the turn off PCH to the top, but the Willow Creek Climb doesn’t start to pitch until it reaches the dirt portion, about mile four. By the time I had reached the gate where the dirt begins, our group of about ten was down to four. I like this climb, even 78 miles in. Find the right gear, hold a cadence and look for the small clearing that indicates the finish line is near.
A younger rider was the first to pull away. I kept him in sight but his youth proved too much. I was caught and passed by big Brad who later told me he too likes the effort on Willow Creek. I was now side by side with my Fort Ross ‘cross guide. His real name is David. If you read Padraig’s write up of Old ‘Caz then you are familiar with the three sisters. Short, steep punches to the quads that demand a seated position or run the risk of rear wheel slippage. On the steepest of the three, David got off. I grunted and churned my 34-28 up that ‘sis. The gap created would hold to the finish and I clocked in at 5:13:17, 22nd overall and second in my category.
Less than 24 hours after finishing the King Ridge Dirt Supreme, every corner of my being had something to say. The obvious body parts were in agony: The quads were throbbing, the back was aching and the sit bones were sore. But when a bike event leaves you with worn out hands, tired triceps and wind burnt face, it’s a subtle message that your day on the bike was no casual affair. I was in the throws of a supreme hangover. The King Ridge Dirt Supreme was long, it was hard and it was beautiful and that’s something worth talking about.