We like to say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We also like to say that human beings have an amazing ability to lie to themselves. It may be that the latter leads to the former.
As if you need proof, I submit myself, a reasonably somethingorother imitation athlete. For at least three years in a row, April’s Grasshopper has fallen on the same weekend as the Sea Otter Classic. Grasshopper empresario Miguel Crawford has correctly calculated that folks inclined to do Grasshoppers are not as inclined to do Sea Otter. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who struggles with the choice. However, for me, it has meant trying to see all the brands I need to see in just two days. There’s an added incentive here—Saturday at Sea Otter is a madhouse; it’s nice to be finished before things get too crazy.
But it means that I arrive to the start of a Grasshopper with two days of being on my feet and in the sun. The first time, I was lining up for Super Sweetwater and I just headed for Occidental after finishing the last dirt descent of the day. I couldn’t handle two more long climbs. Last year it was the Lake Sonoma ‘Hopper, the only mountain bike event of the series. That day I folded badly and spent hours beating myself up for being too dumb to know that I shouldn’t be there.
And this year? Did I listen to history when I knew that showing up would mean riding a 24-mile mountain bike race, mostly on singletrack with more than 5000 feet of climbing? Did I weigh that I might not terribly competitive?
Oh hell no.
But that’s the thing about the Grasshoppers. While I know folks who won’t show up to race if they aren’t in tip-top shape, I have to admit that I do a serious FOMO (fear of missing out, for anyone immune to social media) where Miguel’s events are concerned. I don’t really care how badly I will do, I still want to be there. This is my version of going to France with the flu—hell yes, I’m still going.
The only flat on the course comes in the opening 100 meters while rolling out of the parking lot where the event starts. Seriously. As it goes with nearly every ‘Hopper, the climbing comes without preamble. Just two miles into the course you turn onto the singletrack and the abuse—I mean fun—begins.
That Lake Sonoma has a reputation as a place that is fun for mountain biking defies (my) comprehension. In cycling, the standard metric for a ride with notable elevation gain is 100 feet per mile. That pretty well holds true in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Tuscany, Malibu as well as bits of New England. Lake Sonoma is not only without flat, it is without mercy. Grades often top 15 percent. As a result, in the 24 miles of the race, we ascended more than 5000 vertical feet. The course profile looks like the profile of a blade in a lumberjack’s arsenal.
I spent the first two hours getting passed by lighter riders on the climbs only to overtake them on descents.
With at least eight pitches that topped 20 percent and two more that topped 30 percent, it’s as brutal a course as I’ve encountered. There’s but one feed; not bad if you’re like winner Jason King who covered the distance in 2:10. For slower folks like me, though, it was a four-hour day.
It’s easy to tell yourself you shouldn’t race when you’re not at your best, right? It’s easy to skip an event that makes most mountain bike courses look like a groomed path in a city park. So why go?
Because I don’t know how many chances I will have to do this. I know all the arguments about how if you bite off a ride that’s too hard your recovery will take too long, how you increase the likelihood of injury, how a bad experience may sour you on an event or a place, or even an activity.
I’ve had enough bad days on the bike that if I was likely to be scared off from cycling, I’d have taken up golf before the turn of the century.
Here’s the beauty of being a bonehead: there came a point (I don’t really want to say just when, but it was after the sag stop) when I finally stopped sweating and drooling onto the top tube of my bike that I began to lift my head and look around. The terrain is so steep that you really don’t have to pick your head up very high; all you have to do is twist a bit to the right and you’ll see the lake and the steep hillsides running down to and up from it.
That lake? It was placid, the color of Navajo jewelry, often obscured by oaks, and sometimes, close enough to dive into.
When I think about what I had to do to myself to reach the grove of oaks overlooking the lake and the way I baked upon leaving their refuge—the temperature rose into the upper 80s, easily the hottest day of the year—only to round a bend and see the hillside splashed in the yellow-orange of California poppies, I consider the effort a bargain.
The memory of those poppies registers higher in my mind than the curious geometry of the sun and shadow that resulted in me riding from the left edge to the ride edge of the fire road climb that came in the final miles of the race. I’m still not clear how trees on either side of that strip of dirt could throw shade over a portion of that grade, but I made sure to chase all shelter I could.
There are almost certainly easier ways to see flowers, to soak in nature, but I can’t think of another way to make the experience more visceral.
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