Chileno Valley Grasshopper

Chileno Valley Grasshopper

In Sonoma County’s Grasshopper Adventure Series, riders who do the full series are treated subjected to a variety of different requirements to succeed. Sure, you’ve got to have the aerobic fitness to climb. You’ve got to have a powerful engine to drive on the flats. You need to be able to point a bike downhill with a certain confident aplomb that we consider the domain of lumberjacks and alligator wrestlers.

You also need a stable of bikes.

Chileno Valley, named for the road that winds through farmland in Southern Sonoma County, is the only pure-road event on the calendar, the one Grasshopper where people might dare to show up with 23mm tires. While some of the roads are decent enough, many belong to that class of road that was once remarkable but more than a decade of neglect has resulted in potholed potholes, road shoulders that blur into dirt and patched pavement that can launch a rider into the air if hit with enough speed.

It’s the sort of event that some might look at and conclude is the easiest of the bunch. And I suppose there was a time when I would have considered an event run over an 80-mile course with 8000 feet of climbing not so bad. No, you can put away the smelling salts.

If Old Caz is the pop quiz to check how you’re doing at the beginning of the season, then Chileno Valley is the open-book test. You know the basics, don’t you? You know where to find the answers. However, and here I’m going to use a technical term—holy hell—the course is unlike any road race I ever did while carrying a license.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

Consider that the course contains three category three climbs and five category four hills. That sounds rough, but it can lull you into thinking that the course will be flat between spikes. If only that were so. The course profile recalls nothing so much as a shark’s mouth. It looks every bit as inviting.

In what was a nearly unfortunate turn of events, the weather that day began in the 50s and steadily climbed to the low 70s with bright sunshine bathing the riders as we passed dairy farm after dairy farm. I didn’t quite know what to do. Grasshoppers, in my mind, are supposed to go heavy on the suffering. The last time I attempted Chileno Valley temperatures barely made it into the 50s and rain was driven by a offshore wind to the point that I looked down to see if I had a flat tire.

With Burke Swindlehurt’s Crushar in the Tushar, riders are asked to contemplate which bike for the 70-mile course. I’ll admit that I don’t really want to have to think about flat bar vs. drop bar. I want that much to be clear. What I want to labor over is which drop bar bike and which tires. Plenty of riders chose traditional road bikes, and while I didn’t see anything skinnier than 25mm, I’m sure someone had to show up with a pair of 23mm clinchers. Pardon me while I take some ibuprofen on their behalf.

For me the question came down to whether I’d ride a traditional road bike with 28mm clinchers or a gravel bike with something a little bigger, but not as large as I’d use for a true gravel ride. After consulting with a friend who had been on some of those roads more recently than I, I selected my Seven Airheart with Zipp 454s and 32mm Panaracer Gravel King SKs pumped to 50 psi.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

I knew that the larger tire at lower pressure would increase rolling resistance and slow me down, which is why I went with an ultra-aero set of wheels and an aero helmet. I wanted to offset as much of that loss as possible. But why go with such a large tire at such low pressure? My neck. Quite simply I’m not getting all the mileage in that I’d like due to nerve pain. I’ve got to manage my longer rides very carefully. My thinking was simple—unless I was comfortable enough to pedal, I’d never get through the day.

Most of the Grasshoppers begin the day by climbing up Coleman Valley Road out of Occidental. The climb is reasonable enough and after punching over a few hills at the top you come over a rise that exposes the rocky coastline and washes your sinuses in salt air. The drop to the coast is as hairy as any other in a Grasshopper. Steep ramps alternate with more sane pitches while the road serpentines its way down. The road itself is poorly paved; even where the pavement looks to be intact, it undulates and bucks. Add to that occasional potholes big enough to swallow an industrial-sized wok and you have a recipe for very careful passes.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

On good days, you get to the coast and have a tailwind as you head south toward Tomales. On days like this, you pray the crosswind changes direction at some point. It’s the turn onto Valley Ford Road, which takes you southwest into the fangs of the wind, that makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing. By this time I was alone; I’d given up on a group I’d worked hard to chase down near Bodega Bay because once there the constant accordion caused by hills and traffic was harder than just riding on my own. Maybe.

It was at the rest stop atop a hill that overlooks Dillon Beach that a friend asked me which distance I was doing. When I replied that I was doing the full route, she raised an eyebrow at me and said, “You should turn with me.” We were but a few miles from the split of the two courses and my neck was already giving me an excuse to go short. It’s a good thing she maintained a gap of five or so seconds all the way to the turnoff; had I been there with her, it would have been harder to convince myself to go straight. But as I approached the turn, the marshall stepped out and waived his orange flag for me to turn left. I spent a moment considering my options and what I realized was that no matter how much pain I might be in at the finish, if I did the short course it would color the rest of my season with doubts about my ability to ride more than 60 miles.

I gave a little forward flick to the index and middle fingers on my right hand to signal I was going straight. He stepped back and waived me by. Soon after this juncture you get what is arguably the flatest run of the entire race—a few miles along Tomales Bay, largely sheltered from the wind. For me, it was a chance to regroup in preparation for the climb up Marshall Wall. Once up the first mile of Marshall Wall views open up to the north and south of Marin County farmland, a nearly oxymoronic term for something that seems impossible after you spend a single afternoon in Corte Madera. Those are actual, working dairy farms.

Where the landscape of Old Caz is dominated by Redwoods, Chileno Valley goes heavy on rolling pasture and Blue Gum Eucalyptus. The landscape couldn’t be more different and while I try to remind myself of that, it’s too complicated to think about while trying to climb.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

Osmo Nutrition is a sponsor of the Grasshoppers this year which means you can fill your water bottles at the sag stops with some of the best drink mix going. There were also some evil little cinnamon buns that I delighted in. When I asked one of the volunteers what mile mark we were at, I was lucky she told me 50. Had she told me the truth, that we were at mile 48, I might have gotten off my bike and sat down in the tall grass with a few other riders who seemed to be contemplating major life junctures.

You spend so much time climbing on Marshall-Petaluma Road that the tailwind for which you’ve waited so long ends up unappreciated. By the time you’re down into Chileno Valley the course has turned once again and you’re faced with yet another crosswind. This is a course the Belgians and Dutch would murder.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

Thanks in no small part to my Wahoo Elemnt which was giving me turn-by-turn directions for the course, I didn’t blow the turn on Bodega Highway and made my way into the wind for the turn onto Joy Road. Who came up with that name has a fine sense of the absurd. Was probably a writer for Green Acres. There’s nothing Joyful about this road. Slopes as cruel as 18 percent slow you, though what’s worse is how the opening half mile of the climb doesn’t drop below 12 percent.

Joy Road is really what Chileno Valley is all about. The first 75 miles have been about softening you up so that the climb does optimal damage. This road kills legs with the same gusto it dispatches egos. And it contains everything you see through the course of the day. At the bottom you’re passing between two farms. Soon you climb into more Blue Gum Cypress, then Coast Live Oak and somewhere near the top you final encounter Redwoods once again. It’s an 800-foot climb with the gentle demeanor of a drill sergeant.

Jorge Flores, JustPedal

There were two pony kegs of beer from Woodfour Brewing at the top. I’d say all was forgiven, but my mom hates it when I lie.

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  1. Mig

    Thanks for the fantastic story. I’m so focused on making sure everything comes together,and sweating the details, it warms my heart to see the Joy you and others experienced at Chileno this year.

  2. Vivre

    Light artfully shed on this and the other Hoppers Padraig so thank you for illuminating these NorCal alternatives to an NCNCA road racing scene that can be vibrant but also frenetic and staged in much less scenic venues than Hoppers. Also huge appreciation for Miguel and his army of friendly helpers, sponsors, volunteers and supporters. It’s super fun to ride some of the most scenic and challenging cycling terrain on our continent, blended with demographics ranging from ultra pro to folks just celebrating the multiple benefits of fitness engendered by our gratifying healthy sport.

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