I leaned on my saddle as I walked. The steps were small and despite the lugs on the soles of my shoes, my feet slipped a tiny bit with each step. I can’t say that I felt hot, but it was a warm day. The fatigue I felt was enough that leaning on the saddle made sense to me, even though any pressure on my belly made me wonder if I might puke.
Note to self: keep your ribs on the saddle.
The hills, which came like kids on Halloween, surprised me with their pitch. I’d been on the same trail just two weeks ago, but going in the opposite direction and while I recall plenty of steep climbs then, I honestly didn’t remember the descents being so vertiginous. Just as I’d get a good rhythm going on some rolling terrain following a stomach-on-saddle descent, I’d hit another hill and with my quads as checked out as a high school senior this time of year, I had little choice but to get off and walk. Or maybe hobble is the more appropriate verb.
Such are the closing miles of the Super Skaggs episode of the Grasshopper Adventure Series: singletrack laid over a sawtooth profile. Lake Sonoma is difficult riding on a mountain bike. On a gravel bike? Hell, that terrain would have been hard at the beginning of the race.
In an effort to make some of the Grasshoppers more palatable to the uninitiated (read intelligent), Mr. Hopper—Miguel Crawford—began offering all-road versions of a few of his events. Those smart enough to avoid the dirt had to contend with a 95-mile course, nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, and a fair number of roads that I think are too rough for 28s. Local pro Pete Stetina and teammate Kiel Reijnen used Skaggs as training for their upcoming rendezvous with the Amgen Tour of California. They rolled in, side by side, in a nick over five hours.
Those of us looking for something more likely to induce an existential crisis selected Super Skaggs (instead of plain-old Skaggs). Its 96 miles include the climb of Sweetwater Springs, the steep pavement to dirt climb of Old Caz, the drop to Austin Creek, the climb out and the descent into Cazadero, followed immediately by the climb of King Ridge. At the top of King Ridge (with feet still wet from the creek crossing) riders turn right and head into some of the most remote reaches of Sonoma County. The centerpiece of the day comes but a few miles later—Skaggs Springs Road. It’s the sort of road that either you mean to be on or you have screwed up in a big way. I’ll get to what the road contains in a second, but for now, just think of it as an ordeal that ends by dumping you onto singletrack. It’s an outcome that is nearly unthinkable. Ten miles later you arrive at the boat launch and following a short hill you get to coast to the finish.
Our 200-strong peloton sped down wine country roads, headed in the opposite direction of century riders calling, “You’re going the wrong way!” In the mouths of some, it was funny, but in others it had a strangely angry edge. Go figure. With such a narrow road and such a nervous bunch I gave up on trying to reach friends to chat and instead just focused on keeping my front wheel out of trouble. Given the number of times calls of “slowing” went up, I’m glad that all of the riders near me were using disc brakes.
What had been cohesive as ground beef exploded on the early rollers ahead of Sweetwater Springs. I made my way to the gutter and just rolled my tempo. Sweetwater is one of those climbs that, unlike what you encounter in the Santa Monicas or Colorado’s Front Range, is deceptive; it dips and flattens and can fool you into thinking it’s over three or four different times before you finally reach the descent. From there, I nearly have the next step memorized: spin the flat to the turn onto Old Cazadero Road. Just past where the rest stop is normally assembled I dropped my chain and managed to get it jammed behind the chainring peg. I was stopped only a couple of minutes, but it felt like an eternity and I so blackened my hands I was afraid to touch anything, up to and including my bottles.
The effort required to reach the descent of Old Caz is its objective corollary—proof that it’s that much fun to descend. I passed the riders who had pedaled past me as I battled my chain, attempting to say something cheery as I did all I could not to touch my brakes in all but the sharpest turns. You cross the creek and then make your way up another short climb before dropping to the base of King Ridge Road.
Made famous by Levi’s GranFondo, King Ridge is one of those roads that is, in itself, an initiation. I don’t know how many times you have to climb it before it stops being an initiation. I’ve ridden it more than a dozen times and I’m still not there. And as rites of passage go, there’s little to congratulate you on the other side.
Near the top of the main climb our rest stop waited for us. I grabbed a couple of bites of food and a drink, and picked up the hydration pack I’d given to the guys running the stop before they’d left the start. Just as I was about to roll out my friend Christine Culver asked me to hang just a second and she’d roll with me.
Chris is one of those women the world would do well to produce like injection-molded toys. She’s smart. She’s fit. She’s kind. She’s tireless. And she has a heart of such keen warmth you might be forgiven for thinking it was a summer day even as it snowed, so long as you stayed in her presence. She’s strong enough that she was one of the women flown to Long Beach for that recent Zwift competition, and while she didn’t win, I suspect women 20 years her junior would be stoked with her fitness and competitive drive. That she wanted to ride with me was just the perk I needed.
While I apologized at the finish, I’ll apologize once again for prattling on about the right parietal lobe when she asked me about what I was working on. I went less rabbit hole on her than sink hole. I’m fascinated by all the stuff we think is magic that turns out to be real phenomenon that occur in the brain and can be measured. To me, that doesn’t negate the mystery, but validates it. If it’s in the brain and can be measured, then it really happened.
King Ridge gathers its name from the fact that the road, following an interminable climb out of Cazadero, follows the ridgeline on this particular stretch of earth. You climb a bit, then descend, climb more, descend again, and so on. The vistas near the top of each peak reveal golden hillsides, vineyards of prized Pinot Noir, stands of Redwoods and houses of such rarity they were surprises. We traded leads on the descents, but I realized that except for the stretches I knew blindfolded, I should let her lead. She is, among other things, a former pro downhiller. Give her a tight turn and lousy pavement and she can gap me in 12 feet.
My buddy Christine. (Andrea Wells)
The darkness always descends in the second half of a race. With half the course complete, and legs leadened by five hours of effort, we discussed the enormity of what lay ahead, how we had little choice but to continue even though we were both intimidated and tired. She told me how the previous year it had rained the whole day and with the cold temperatures added in, she had pitched the Terrycloth on Skaggs Springs Road.
The sky was gray, the air cool and damp; I’d never pulled my arm warmers down, so when Christine remarked that she was going to pull hers up and put her vest on, I realized I didn’t have any options. At this point in our ride we were farther from Santa Rosa than Santa Rosa is from San Francisco.
Tin Barn, because it runs through Ewok forest and passes homes that have stood since the homesteading of California, is too interesting a road to be a purgatory, but because of what it precedes, it is something of an anteroom. Turning onto Skaggs Springs is akin to skydiving; the road drops, quickly hitting double-digit grades before peaking at 16 percent in a breathtaking run of such speed that you find yourself braking on the following uphill just to make the turn.
The next 14 miles climb, gently at first and then finally, with severity. The Redwood forest gives way to the yellow of grasses and greens of scrub oak. And nearly as soon as we finished the climb we were dropping again, this with Christine gapping me in the first turn and stretching it like so much taffy with each successive bend. And believe me, I felt like I was going well for a road I didn’t know.
But that singletrack. I’d managed to convince myself that Crawford had managed to find some entry and exit that allowed for a stretch of trail that didn’t jump around like the stock market. Isn’t self-delusion grand? Chris both out-walked and out rode me on the singletrack and disappeared into the park’s poison oak and my delirium.
I was left with nothing to consider other than the battle with my body. The course was nearly secondary. Because the course was so hard I’d gotten behind on both food and water and with just miles to go, food and sometimes water made me nauseated. The course was too hard to wing it to the finish, but I’d rather completely bonk than puke. I think.
In that final mile of singletrack I got the very thing I hope to find every time I line up for an event. With the world stripped down to the moment in front of me, I get to see just what I choose. Of course, I’m not thinking about that in the moment. Among the many layers peeled away is self-reflection. Staring at a bunch of roots and then looking back at my bike to calculate if I can ride it or not and then deciding that all I want is the surest answer for not falling, not injuring myself. Without the worry of style or method, just the desire for an honest finish is its own kind of style.
Crossing the finish line wasn’t the end of the journey, though. I’ve realized that how I treat others when I’m laid bare is a measure of how I’ve grown, whether or not I’ve moved in the direction I wish. While there was a moment of impatience, most of my recollection of the finish is one of gratitude and congratulating others on their strong finishes. I’ve been the guy irritated with everyone and everything when there’s nothing left in reserve, and my great hope for those around me is that today I can show how grateful I am to have someone waiting for me at the finish. It’s good to come home.
Images: Grasshopper Adventure Series
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