When Amity began to float away from me, I told myself that her balloon-like act was the natural order of the world, the way things are supposed to work. It was also my just desserts for telling her that she was, in my limited estimation, the toughest person on the course.
On any other race course a woman riding a carbon fiber bike with a full Ultegra group and 25mm tires would be, well, a non-event; hopefully, there’d be dozens like her, right? But at Old Cazadero, the opening event in the Grasshopper Adventure Series, no one rides 25mm tires on rims stopped by Ultegra calipers. But then, Old Caz is a race unlike most others. Very little of the pavement in the event is what you or I would call good. And not all of the course is paved. And the bits that aren’t paved aren’t flat.
Amity, moments before liftoff.
So a woman on a carbon fiber road bike, running caliper brakes and 25mm tires is badass of a variety that I don’t even aspire to. To her credit, Amity brushed off my compliment with practiced nonchalance. “It’s because I’m so light I can get away with this.”
Moments later we hit the first steep pitch of the final climb of Willow Creek. It was then that she decided to either drive home just how light she was or give me a slyly implicit wink and reinforce my belief that she was, in fact, the toughest person on the course. Either way, it worked out the same. She was out of sight two turns later.
Some of the mid-race hydration options. I actually heard someone ask, “You have any beer left?”
Old Caz is a beast. The only way you could make the 52-mile course any harder wo if you ripped up the pavement that graces roughly half the course. As it is, much of the climbing is unpaved, and most of the descending is unpaved. There’s not much left other than the elimination of the rest of the pavement. And were it not for those better roads, you could be forgiven for imagining you’d been propelled into the past and were racing the way that Fausto Coppi did.
There are five climbs. The first, third and last climbs are all Category 3; the other two are Category 4. That the course begins at the foot of a Category 3 climb should be some indication of organizer Miguel Crawford’s regard for anyone’s delicate sensibilities. It’s a serious course for people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
The first descent of the day, down Willow Creek also serves as the day’s final climb. Think about it: when was the last time you got to race down an unpaved Cat. 3 climb on a bike with drop bars? Somehow, despite negotiating traffic (I actually passed people with regularity), I recorded a PR on the descent. The whole time I had the sense that I could be, should be going faster and the only thing holding me back was my desire not to be the jerk who bumped someone as they passed.
Somehow, I think this is what I imagined racing would evolve into back when I first encountered amateur races. I figured the courses would get harder and harder, the challenges increasing so that I’d be tested not just aerobically, but technically, psychologically. I went so deep, I lost track of time. I was out there four hours, but you could have told me it was either three or five, and I was so in the moment I had no way to gauge what might have been true.
What might be the most difficult aspect of Old Caz to convey is how for many of us there is a desire to pull over and soak in the surroundings, to actually stop and look at the beauty, rather than just tear through it. The crazy part is that you’d be exchanging one beauty for another. These roads, both paved and less so, are an interpretation of the landscape, and expression of what these coastal mountains provide and taking them at speed is one way to experience just how this land folds and undulates.
To the degree that any of us think that a race course should be a thing of drama, the right turn off of River Road onto Duncan Road, which begins the day’s second climb will teach anyone the meaning of difficult. Two years in a row I’ve heard people destroy derailleurs upon making the turn. I was running a 34×28 low gear and wondered briefly whether or not I’d make it over the opening pitch. While GPS is a notoriously poor measure of gradient, it’s worth noting that my GPS claims the road did tilt skyward at a whopping pitch of 35.8 percent. Sure, that’s wrong, but I’m willing to be the road was at least 25 percent for the first 20 meters or so before backing off to a more manageable 20 percent.
This is also the course that would cause anyone who has ever argued against disc brakes to check their tongue. Ahead of the this year’s race I changed out my brake cables for compressionless housing, installed new organic brake pads and swapped out the 160 and 140mm rotors in favor of 180 and 160mm units. I also ran new wheels, the Ritchey Logic WCS Zetas with 40mm Panaracer Gravel Kings. I’ll be reviewing each of these in the coming weeks. What I can say here is that the setup provided stellar performance in the loose stuff while still rolling well enough to allow me to trade pulls with other riders at race pace. That I can do 28 mph on flat ground on tires inflated to 55 psi still amazes me. Tires have come a long way.
Laurens Ten Dam and eventual winner, Ted King.
On a more personal note, I more than doubled my estimated average wattage compared to last year, but around the 2:45 mark, I started to misfire and after taking a number of firm pulls on the headwind run to Jenner and the coast, I had nothing in reserve for the climb back up Willow Creek.
It’s this sort of thing for which racing was made. Looking over my stats, I’m curious what went wrong. Was it just that it’s been a while since I had to lay down that kind of wattage for four hours and I should be pleased with 2:45 at that pace? Or did I not eat enough and this was just my comeuppance for taking in only 800 calories when I should probably have eaten at least 1200, but ideally even more?
Organizer Miguel Crawford with previous winner Barry Wicks (who was 6th on the day).
Of what are we made? That’s always been the question racing is meant to ask as much as answer. I didn’t run across Austin Creek, but I pedaled each of the insanely steep pitches. I hid in wheels when we did 28, but any time I had a little more grit on a climb, I delivered. The answer is much less important than the opportunity to ask the question. I’ve the course to thank for that.