Whatever Is in There: the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper

Whatever Is in There: the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper

North of Bodega Bay, Highway One loops along the coastline, turning away from the beach and dropping before hooking and then rising back toward the coast. It’s just the sort of stretch that a small paceline can utterly destroy. I was on the wheels of four members of a local club—Velo Fratello—and I knew that without them, I’d be going a third slower than I was.

There was one small problem.

We were nearly 60 miles into the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper and while I could feel the seconds they were saving me as the wind whipped by us, I was aware that my gas tank was emptier than a politician’s promise. I faced a choice: I could either stick with them and get to the foot of the final climb, up Coleman Valley Road, with legs as leaden as a dead battery, or I could drop off the back, eat a gel (maybe two), have a helping of humble pie, finish my bottle and then begin the process of rescuing my ego.

I eased up on my pedal stroke and floated backward away from them, a tiny life preserver carried away in the current.

Of the many bike events I’ve done in my life, Super Sweetwater is one of few I would call an odyssey. The only reason I can come up with is that the challenges are both numerous, and varied. There’s the opening climb of Sweetwater Springs, which is cruel in the same way that making someone listen to Debbie Boone is. No one does that climb for fun.

Then there’s the descent, which is punctuated with some of the most questionable stretches of pavement I encounter in Sonoma County. It’s just the sort of place that makes you wish you’d had disc brakes 10 years ago.

There’s the climb of Old Caz that can fool you into thinking it’s over minutes before the asphalt runs out. And while the rest stop at the top of the climb redefined my sense of relief, I wasn’t one of the riders willing to go all-in on that idea and enjoy a beer.

I figured the descent of Old Caz to Austin Creek was a spot where I could pick up some time on riders ahead of me. But almost immediately after passing one of the gates, my front wheel hit a deep rut and my 32mm tire got trapped and I did the classic slo-mo over the bar tip that gave me enough time to go, “No, no …” through clenched teeth. Back on the bike, my aggression ignited and I began pedaling out of every turn—even those that featured sloshy mud.

For many riders I’ve talked to the course doesn’t really start to feel daunting until you cross Austin Creek and get on that dirt climb. This is the place where my brain most frequently goes off-line and I just try to keep my pace as high as I can. It is followed by another dirt descent that turns to pavement near the bottom. As this section of the course is included in Old Caz, I’d done it just six weeks or so before, so when I crossed the bridge at the bottom of Old Cazadero Road, I was reminded that last time I was here I turned left and headed for the 116. The finish feels in reach. This time I was turning right for the full climb up Fort Ross Road. That right turn carries the emotional weight that words like daunting and slog are meant to convey. It’s a full-body dread.

Fort Ross is a nine mile climb that keeps you shrouded in Redwood forest for so long you begin to wonder if the climb will ever end. This is when the darkness descends. This is when it’s easiest to forget to eat or drink, to soften the pedal stroke, to lose track of the point of the day. And because we’d been into and out of rain all day, I was simply waiting for that moment when it would rain more.

When I pulled into the rest stop at the top of Fort Ross, my gratitude could have been measured in beer. Osmo’s chief dude, Ben Capron was on hand to hydrate everyone and he pointed down at my right shin. It was bloody as a boxer’s nose.

“You want me to clean that up?”

“Actually, no. I crashed on my knee then kicked up a rock that hurt so bad when it hit I had to stop pedaling, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, so, no, please don’t touch it.”

He’d ask twice more if he could help me, but I was adamant that I wanted it left alone.

The view south of the Sonoma Coast from the top of Meyers Grade is one of those vistas that is never not beautiful. Whether it’s sunny, overcast, buried under marine layer or clogged with fog, I can’t get to the top of that run without taking a wow moment. And this time it was as sunny as a summer day in Phoenix. I’ve never seen the coast be more awe-inspiring; I was pretty conflicted about whether or not I should pull over to soak it in.

I made the turn onto Hwy 1 about the same time as the Velo Fratellos. Four of their members were riding together and they’d regroup as things broke up on hills and descents. When they caught me on Hwy 1, I decided the smart thing was to work with them, at least until it wasn’t smart anymore.

Despite them disappearing from site within a couple of minutes of me dropping off them, I was amazed to see them gathered just as I made the turn onto Coleman Valley Road. They’d just taken a pee break and I’d all but reeled them back in. I’d been resigned to suffering up the climb alone, but now I recognized that I may be faced with watching other riders suffer as well. I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing.

Cyclists who visit Sonoma County will express their grudging respect for Coleman Valley, but what I almost always hear referenced is how steep the climb is. However, that portion of the climb lasts slightly less than two miles. What gets me every time are the wind-whipped rollers that last the next three miles. It was there that I decided now matter how demoralized I was by my own fitness, I’d dig until I didn’t notice the wind, until I couldn’t think, until if anyone passed me I’d have to congratulate them.

I suspect that we shouldn’t trust anyone who says they would prefer rain to wind, but I’d have welcomed a dark sky, more rain, less wind, a chance to think about anything other than how much my legs hurt. Velo Fratello’s president, the very chill Dan Lee, shared some of the steeper pitches of Coleman Valley with me. For some reason the absurdity of what we were doing hit me with the force of a house landing on a witch. While there was nothing comic about the moment, I needed to acknowledge my little epiphany.

I turned to Dan and said, “Our definition of a good time is extremely suspect; we shouldn’t be allowed to plan a party.”


Images courtesy Osmo Nutrition


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  1. David

    Padraig, you should head down for the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge in the summer. Great ride, great SAG, beautiful terrain.

    1. Tominalbany

      I had intended to copy this between the arrows, which, apparently, do something I wasn’t expecting!

      ‘I turned to Dan and said, “Our definition of a good time is extremely suspect; we shouldn’t be allowed to plan a party.”’

    2. Author

      For a second there, I thought it was a pretty good joke about silence. Thanks for the kind words (says the guy planning a party).

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