Even after seeing a third tandem my competitive urges stayed firmly in check. There was no tandem category and I wasn’t there to race anyone on any level. Put another way, my heart rate and blood pressure rose the way Darth Vader showed compassion: not at all.
There was plenty of support before and during the event thanks to Breakaway Bikes.
The town of Occidental, where most of the Grasshopper Adventure Series events start, sits in a small valley in the shadow of Redwood forest. Mornings are cool and damp, no matter the time of year. In the hour before the start the mercury clawed its way to 50 degrees, which saved me from putting on a heavier base layer or choosing a jacket instead of my vest.
The opening pitch of Coleman Valley, guns ablaze.
With but one hardware store, two small markets and a couple of restaurants, the swarming of nearly 700 cyclists all but brings the town to a stop. Half an hour before the start riders began lining up on Bohemian Highway, less than 100 meters from the right turn onto Coleman Valley Road, the opening climb of the event. It’s as unsympathetic a start as I’ve experienced in cycling, and that is inherent to the charm of the Grasshoppers. This is no wine country tour, though the event passes near some of Sonoma County’s most prized vineyards.
You can tell the suffering hasn’t started yet because I’m still smiling.
Because I was on a tandem, because my stoker, Andrea, had never ridden a Grasshopper, because she is as new to cycling as I am to Sonoma County (actually, newer), I did my best to line up at the back of the pack. Somehow, even after not lining up until 10 minutes before the start, other people managed to line up behind me. I hated this only because I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way as we rolled out, so once the cheer went up signaling the start, I immediately made for the gutter. By the time we made the right onto Coleman Valley there weren’t too many people left to come around. It allowed us the luxury of riding at a pace that didn’t feel like death was imminent.
The first section of dirt in Old Caz is the descent of Willow Creek Road. For the most part the surface is firm dirt, with but a few water bars, a dozen or so switchbacks and enough twists and turns to be both fun and to shield from sight anything more than 50 meters of road. There seem to me to be so few rocks on the road I’m always surprised when I see someone pulled over fixing a flat, but they were there. In talking to a few riders who flatted at the finish I learned that nearly all of them rode tires no wider than 33mm. On my tandem I was running 35mm tires and because the rims were not tubeless compatible (nor were the tires), I chose to run heavy, puncture-resistant tubes. It’s hard to say whether prudent descending or the tubes made the difference (I suspect a little of column A and a little of column B), but we never flatted.
Though the fall had been reasonably dry, winter in Sonoma County means rain and the bottom, flat-ish portion of Willow Creek that is “paved” was essentially a sequence of ponds and mystery potholes. Once on Bohemian Highway we started to catch other cyclists … and drop them. Even though we were generally riding between 18 and 20 on the flats, our pace was just high enough to keep the riders we encountered from sticking with us for too long. I could have slowed down, in keeping with my Tow Truck mission, but I knew that even at our pace we were likely to be out for six hours or more. Slowing down any from our already leisurely pace seemed hard to justify. So we picked up riders and shed them throughout the day; we were dropped as often as we rolled away from riders.
With the exception of the ten-ish miles on Bohemian Hwy toward the beginning and end of the race, Old Caz is composed of substandard surfaces. Even the paved bits aren’t great. The upshot is that it’s hard to point to the climbs (of which there are five) or the dirt (of which there are four sections) as the challenges of the course. Hell, even the final section of good pavement on Bohemian Hwy is into a headwind in the afternoon. I can think of one three-mile stretch early in the day that I think of as easy.
With pitches on the middle climbs of Duncan Road and Old Cazadero Road stinging with steeps of 18 to 20 percent, there’s no real way to “settle in” on these climbs. Every time you begin to think you’re managing, you come around a turn and are faced with a curtain of asphalt. I’m so accustomed to these little cruelties I’ve come to just gut my way through without much thought. Fundamentally, I believe a key to enjoying events of this sort comes from going deep enough that conscious thought largely shuts down, which eliminates the opportunity for judgment and disappointment. However, with a stoker new to these roads, I felt protective enough of her experience that I did my best to narrate the challenges as they arrived and got myself into some trouble when I characterized the course as having four climbs; I’d neglected to factor the climb out from Austin Creek, and while it ascends a mere 300 feet, it does so in less than a mile. There’s no skipping over it.
It was a wetter edition than usual.
Incidentally, I’ve reviewed a number of pair of waterproof socks in the last year. I wore the Sealskinz Road Thin-Mid with Hydrostop during Old Caz. The Road Thin-Mid is a bit thinner than the Mountain Thin-Mid and more likely to fit in a shoe without cutting off circulation than the Mountain Thin-Mid. I’ve wondered just how much a difference the socks’ signature feature, Hydrostop is. Hydrostop is a silicone gripper just like you get in jerseys and shorts that rings the sock just below the inside of the cuff. Sure in splashes, no water drains into the sock, but that really hasn’t been a problem for me even with the Showers Pass socks which don’t share the feature. Well, I has nearly half way across Austin Creek before the knee-high water made its way past the barrier. Had there only been two or three steps in the knee-high water, I think they would have kept my feet dry. And even though water made it to my toes, the socks didn’t fill up like some knitted water balloon.
The second of the day’s two sag stops comes a mile or so before the climb back up Willow Creek. It was just the break we needed. A few weeks back I’d taken Andrea on a ride on the tandem to Willow Creek, so she had some idea what to expect. However, on that ride, I’d stopped about half way up to let her recover and down a gel. It is the longest climb, though not by much, and it features the most elevation gained, though not by much either. However, to climb 1000 feet in 3.5 miles at the end of what has been a grueling day is both insult and injury. What I didn’t tell her at the sag stop was that we wouldn’t be stopping this time.
I was wrong about that. The Sisters are the signature crux of the climb, two short ramps that each hit 19 percent, with a brief “recovery” of only 9 percent between them. We were a mere 10 feet from the top of the second sister, almost to the water bar that signals the end of the suffering when our weight shifted right and I found the bike heading for the edge of the fire road. Unable to straighten us out sufficiently, I put a foot down. I can’t recall making a deeper effort built on pure strength in the last 10 years. In the final kilometer we reached a section of particularly soupy mud and spun out. While we had experienced tire slip at various points previously (I ran the 35mm-wide Clement X’Plor USH, which has a center slick and diamond knobs on the sides), this was the first time the tire completely spun out. We couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity.
The final slap in Old Caz comes less than 100 feet from the finish. After rolling over a slight rise, there is a slight drop followed by 40 feet of roughly 16 percent. When you hit it at speed, it’s but an ugly punch, but at 6 mph it might as well be the last two reps of 400 lb. squats.
It would be easy to say I failed at my goal of helping others, but that’s not the case. There were plenty of people we encouraged through the day. We lent some drafts here and there and I’m told we even inspired some people. What means most is that I helped a rider accomplish something well outside her sweet spot. Old Caz is honestly my favorite event on the planet and this was just a new angle of education.
Images: Jorge Flores, JustPedal