The darkness comes. I was still more than a mile from the coast when I realized that the wind had blazed to life wildly earlier than usual. All the coastal grasses and wildflowers were flattened and swirled, simultaneously, as if a helicopter hovered overhead. For the Pacific Coast, afternoon wind is a given. Onshore winds gave rise to skateboarding because of the way the wind kills the waves, making afternoon surfing impossible. You can almost always count on the wind to blow from the northwest as well. The direction of the wind was as it should be, out of the northwest, which was no selling point; I was headed up Highway 1, into the maw of the beast, as it were. But to face such a robust wind before lunch seemed insane. It was the first time in my life I’d ever regretted riding Zipp 303s.
I felt like a man who’d just picked up a pound cat only to find out it was a skunk.
Lining up for the start, when everyone was still hopeful.
This is not what I signed up for.
But of course it was. I signed up for a Grasshopper. I signed up for the most brutal event I could find within a day’s drive of me. I just don’t like contending with wind, no matter what the circumstances are. I was less than 25 miles into the race when I understood just what I was going to be up against for the day. My legs still weren’t full recovered from the Super Skaggs ‘Hopper two weeks ago, but I hadn’t known that until an hour before when on the run up Bohemian Highway from the start in Duncans Mills, my legs began to fill with lactic acid as the pace hovered at 27 mph. Even before we hit the first real grades in the Redwood forest of Camp Meeker, I’d elected to drop out of the group so that my legs wouldn’t be used detonator cord when I finished the gradual climb into Occidental, whereupon the peloton turns right onto the infamous Coleman Valley climb.
With my buddy Jeremiah at my side, telling me how happy he’d be just to finish with me, we both talked with an air of hope. The double-digit ramp that opens Coleman Valley gave me a newsflash I didn’t want to read. Within a minute, Jeremiah had a gap, and even as I could see him soft pedal, he stretched the distance between us. I wanted to tell him just to roll, but he was far enough ahead that I couldn’t yell to him.
The Duncans Mills general store stocks local meats and wines, plus amazing homemade cookies.
I’ve got enough experience with being dropped that I know how the back of a pack thins to single file, then gaps appear, then a few groups, then single riders, then the odd trickle of riders occasionally. I was far enough back that eventually I could see no one ahead.
I shouldn’t even be out here. I forgot the right helmet and worse, I forgot my legs.
By the time riders reached the good pavement on Willow Creek, the big selections had been made.
Of the cruelties I’ve suffered, no one can match me for sheer brutality. If you’re going to hit below the belt, you need to know the layout and no one knows the territory of my body like I do.
From Coleman Valley, the course turns right onto Willow Creek Road, for a select group of rollers that take riders by small plots of Pinot Noir, stands of Redwoods, dying Tan Oaks and more Redwoods. A woman from the Bay Area Roaring Mouse team caught me and promptly rode past, as did a guy on a mountain bike.
On any other day with less wind, this descent is fun.
Just shoot me.
I know the descent of Willow Creek reasonably well, and as I rolled into it, I barely noticed the potholes or the transition to dirt. In my memory, it’s all a stream of crappy surface. I simply focused on the radius of each turn. I’d call to riders as I approached and passed, knowing these would be the only occasions I’d impress anyone all day. For every rider I passed on the drop, there were two more pulled to the side changing flats. A great many riders had decided to risk running 28s, which would be great tires everywhere on this course, except for the next eight miles.
Fort Ross is so steep in places even strong climbers can be surprised.
At the bottom, where the road allegedly returns to pavement, what riders actually encounter is a road that is being allowed to return to dirt. This is a comic field/figure problem where the potholes dominate the road surface. I could see a trio of guys ahead that I’d almost caught on the flat of the fire road just before the gate. Once the road returned to reasonably good pavement I managed to latch on, but not for long. Once we made the turn onto Hwy 1, I got peeled off the group like a string cheese wrapper.
After climbing up the switchbacks near Little Black Mountain and passing the turnoff for Meyer’s Grade Road, I caught the brunt of the wind as the road hugs the coast, but sitting some 600 feet above the waves that crashed against the cliffs. Seep Monkeyflower, Red Larkspur and California Bay swept back and forth as currents of wind mocked their whip-like stalks. I cussed constantly. As I entered the right-hand bend of one of the loops of road around an inlet, I spied the densest riot of California Poppy I’d ever seen—a blossom of orange sherbet. I wanted to pull over and photograph it, but feared stopping—even for a moment—would wreck what little determination I had left.
It was hard to focus on the beauty because the wind was so strong on Hwy 1.
The darkness comes. It almost always comes. With any ride or race lasting four hours or more, there comes a point when you begin to wonder just what you’ve bitten off, that hunk of apple so large you can’t quite chew it yet, so you just move your jaw a bit, hoping that your gums will will begin erode it.
In discussing the darkness with other riders and in considering my own experience, I’ve concluded that night falls somewhere after the mid-way point in an event. Roughly 60 percent is a fair rule of thumb. Often, this is the most remote part of the course, or nearly so, and the roads are least familiar.
Riders about to cross over the Russian River, which gives the area its name.
But this day was different.
For Part II, click here.
Images: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal
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