Savage Wind, Absent Legs: the King Ridge Dirt Supreme Grasshopper, Part II

Savage Wind, Absent Legs: the King Ridge Dirt Supreme Grasshopper, Part II

For Part I, click here.

With only 25 miles completed of an 80-mile day, I was having thoughts of turning around, heading back to the 116 and pedaling the couple miles back to my car. It was that close. I can’t recall ever having thought I was so thoroughly in over my head. Somehow, I kept pedaling—and cussing—and made it to the turn inland and up Fort Ross Road. Barely 100 yards from the turn there was a tiny pullout. In a moment uncharacteristic of me, but perhaps characteristic of anyone suffering the way I was, I pulled over. I took a few swigs of my bottle—I was behind on my hydration already because taking my hand off the bar with all that wind struck me as foolhardy—downed a gel and then took a few more swigs. And before I could second-guess what I was doing, I’d clipped back in and rolled up to what makes Fort Ross Road such a menace. It is truly a one-lane road. Not one lane as in a single lane in each direction, but one lane as in the pavement was 10-feet wide in the broad stretches. For two vehicles to pass, they had to do so in a spot where the road wasn’t lined with bermed earth or Redwoods, which wasn’t often. And I just don’t see how most drivers could back a quarter mile up a road with an 18-percent pitch. That only one car passed me—also going up—was a matter of some relief.

I know the reasons my fitness is off. And most of the reasons owe to factors that were deliberate choices, selections I don’t regret. The bottles of wine and beers I used to numb the fires are, in my view, inarguable. That I missed rides that could have been harder or longer or both while in service to others is fine by me. But when confronted with a GPS that announces I’m going 3.9 mph, even the acknowledgment that I’m on a 22.3 percent grade doesn’t make me feel better. There’s a disconnect between what I want to do with my life and what I want my fitness to be when I’m actually on the bike. It means setting aside my ego, and there are times when both id and ego are tired of being polite. No platitude can set me at ease over the dread of seeing my name last place in a long list. The ego, by its very nature, is proud and mine has been in time out more days this spring than my eight-year-old son has.

The combination of a climb and headwind can be utterly demoralizing.

Sea View Road doesn’t often offer up views of said sea. It weaves through groves of dead Tan Oak, office building Redwoods, secluded homesteads and only the occasional view of the Pacific mere miles west. And for reasons on which I’m not entirely clear, the dirt descent back to Hwy 1 had to be 86’d in favor of Timber Cove Road, which brought us back in view of the ocean and into the ugly reach of the wind. I recall thinking I was being cautious on the descent only to see a top speed of 47 mph on Strava.

Just seven miles up the coast the course turns right, and into the northern reach of Salt Point State Park and onto Kruse Ranch Road. This is the dirt climb that features in the long route (previously known as the “Panzer”) of Levi’s GranFondo. It is, of the entire set of climbs, the gentlest of the bunch, the only one that isn’t typically measured in double digits. The road winds through an area that was quarried for stone following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. I try to imagine mule teams bringing giant stones out of this terrain and then coaxing them down to San Francisco and shake my head in bewilderment. This is what happens when you give Sisyphus a taste of success.

It was hard to find relief from the wind out on the coast, especially on the descents.

It was on Kruse Ranch that I passed the home of a friend and I realized I’d completed nearly 50 miles, nearly 5000 feet of the 8000 feet of climbing. Finally I felt something other than looming defeat. There’s a brief dip less than a mile from the top, followed by the only double-digit grades of the climb, but it’s the signal that the intersection of Sea View (again?) and Hauser Bridge Road is imminent.

With a quick drop to the recently replaced Hauser Bridge (the metal grate surface which posed so much danger to cyclists is gone), I faced the final installment of hell: the mile from the bottom of the bridge to the turn onto King Ridge. The lower portion of the road is shrouded in thick forest but the trees eventually give way to the rolling meadows so typical of the higher elevations of this part of Sonoma County. I can’t imagine why they didn’t just pour concrete down this ski run. With one brief exception, the entire climb is double-digit steep and that exception is eight percent. There was a rest stop at the top and when I pulled up I simply sat on my top tube for a minute before even speaking.

Fort Ross is the sort of road to make you contemplate golf.

King Ridge Road measures 16 miles, and roughly 10 miles of this balances on the knife edge of this mountain. There’s a quick initial descent that got my hopes up, followed by the longest climb on the road in this direction—three miles. These distances messed with my head. Somewhere in my gray matter is the belief that the climb up from Hauser Bridge is longer than this climb on King Ridge. Following that peak—the high point of the race at 1762 feet—there are four more rollers to get over before the six mile descent back to the outpost of Cazadero. I didn’t see another soul this entire stretch.

Looking to my left at the successive ridges that filled my view to the north, I briefly allowed myself a gloating, “well of course this is why I live here.” But I don’t actually. I get to these reaches a handful of times a year because I live in a city that’s an hour’s drive away. This county feels small until you try to ride all the way to the Gualala River. Those views are the scenes for which we go on vacation, and to know they are at least this close carries a satisfaction that can soothe the anxious, like me. Upon topping the final roller I gave myself a moment to spy the crowns of Redwoods one final time then put my hands in the drops for the elevator back to Cazadero.

The bulk of the King Ridge descent, some 700 feet, is knocked out in just 1.5 miles, though I swear it feels longer, but that may owe to the half dozen switchbacks plus other assorted bends that punctuate the double-digit grades, and while I wondered how aggressive I’d ride the descent what concerned me most weren’t the steeps but rather the moments when sunlight pierced the canopy and made seeing beyond that patch of gold on the road impossible, and, yes, I’ll admit that while I have my own internal terminal velocity, it is the fact that potholes are a rule that caused me to temper my plummet out of concern for how a new hole in the pavement could have emerged since my last trip on this road, but two weeks prior.

One final bump reminded me just how destroyed my legs were and then I was into Cazadero, and its 400 or so residents who I’m led to believe don’t much like bicycles or the people who ride them. Finally, a road where I could simply leave the chain in the big ring and attempt to hold 20 mph on the sandpaper pavement. I ate one last gel and drank the remains of my bottle. Just beyond the reaches of the village, a final turn took me onto Austin Creek Road and here I swallowed my pride and accepted that I was too destroyed to keep the bike going more than 18 mph. Miguel’s wife, Tera, was at the finish, recording times, alone. Everyone else had headed back to Duncans Mills for the post-race feast. By the time I changed and hobbled over the pizza and beer were gone, but there was pasta salad and chicken Caesar, and honestly, each flake of parmesan that graced my tongue sent me into grins of delight.

King Ridge is a place of such gape-jawed beauty it’s hard not to pull over and stare.

On the drive home I put on a song by the Tubes, one that had been my ear worm for the day. The lyrics include the lines:

Let me look you in the eye
’til the spell comes over me

Turn me on
Making the colors bright
Turn me on
Making it go all night
Turn me on
Making it spin around
Turn me on
Sing and dance for me
Turn me on
Keeping me company
Making it fast and hot
Turn me on
Give me a different shot

It’s a love song, right? Yes, but because it is the Tubes, it’s a satire of and social commentary on popular culture; it’s a love song to TV. Hidden in its cracking tempo and barbed melody is a tragic character with no real outside life. I contemplated an existence spent on the couch and snapped my attention to the greens and blacks that curtained my view as I passed through Camp Meeker. I love this place like I love chocolate. And then I began to think how there would be no more Grasshoppers for eight months. I was sad about that character, sad about the end of the season, sad about my fitness. The lazy way to say what happened next is to tell you I was overcome with emotion, but that’s shitty writing; it’s trying to escape admitting my depth of feeling with a cliche, and you, dear reader, deserve better.

I cried.

Fewer than two dozen of us did all the Grasshoppers this year. I was the slowest of the set, but I did them and the only way I could manage to continue, knowing I was the lanterne rouge was to set aside my wayward ego. Objectively, what I see is a kind of humility, a willingness to keep showing up, no matter how slow I am, and in that I take some pride.

Miguel with his wife Tera, who is indispensable to the Grasshoppers.

Doing all six Grasshoppers this year is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I can’t wait to do it again.


Images: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal


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  1. Max

    Similar ending here, with the Arizona Endurance Series – full-day unsupported mountain bike races. This season I’ve done them all, with the finale set for this weekend. Except it’s been cancelled due to a National Forest closure covering most of the course.
    Of those who have done them all, I must be last place. But apparently my ego is not as.. developed. I haven’t tried to figure out my series standing, and either way I’m neither embarrassed, nor proud. Probably some of both. In the context of these races I don’t really belong. My highest finish was middle of the pack, and I also rolled into at least one finish to find a dark and empty parking lot. At the same time, in the context of mountain bike racing, I’m badder than the hundreds of capable racers who did not enter, the scores who registered but did not show, and the dozens who showed but did not finish. Right?
    I am amused though at the ego in others. The guy who wins every time he enters stayed away from a couple races, I suspect, because he wasn’t assured the win in those fields. I’ve seen that in enough people to want a name for it – the I only enter what I can win syndrome. But then I’m more focused on the “fun” – aka too slow.

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