We were on the outskirts of Ukiah, the biggest community in Mendocino County, which isn’t saying much. We’d gathered at Ukiah High School to park and register. Wagons and SUVS with hitchracks alternated with Super Duty pickups driven by parents for the morning’s wrestling match. With numbers affixed, arm warmers pulled high, bottles and pockets filled, we rolled to Orr Springs Road just north of downtown and waited for the start.
Unceremonious. It means to dispense with the pomp, the circumstance of big celebrations. It’s a kind of anonymity of event, and in that, it can be cruel for its lack of communication. And that’s an apt description of how the new event for the Grasshopper Adventure Series went. We rolled past the start line and exactly one mile later we were climbing. To be fair, dungeon master Miguel Crawford told us, straight up, what was about to happen. He said there would be a climb. He might even have mentioned that it wouldn’t be short. I was far enough back that I couldn’t quite hear everything projected out of the PA system.
Ted King showed up, and didn’t even win.
I pedaled mere minutes before the road turned up. It was the sort of climb that reminds me of the canyon roads above Malibu. Often steep, eternally serpentine, visually unending. Around each bend no reprieve. To say I was unprepared is as right as it is wrong. I had trained. I’d been working on my climbing. I’d even been working on my climbing in cold conditions. But I really didn’t know how long the climb would be, and as a result, I didn’t know how hard to go. Would the climb be five more minutes, or 15? And did I even have 15 more minutes in my legs at this pace.
That opening climb sucked a whopping 53 minutes of my time and energy. And while the road was relatively well-paved, the same cannot be said for the descent. Initially, it wasn’t bad, but as we lost elevation, giving up more than 1400 feet of elevation in the main portion of the descent, the road decayed, potholed, held moisture in the shadows. The lower the elevation, the wetter the road. Oof.
Sandy Floren, the kid on the mountain bike, slayed all.
Navigationally, I’ve done only one race that was simpler. We raced out Orr Springs Road and then took a sharp turn … onto Low Gap Road. The one and only rest stop of the race sat at the intersection. Even after we’d completed the descent, the road continued down at a gentle grade, giving up 500 more feet over the next seven miles. The road continued to withhold our future, turning frequently enough to only give us a bite-sized view of our effort. This stretch was surprisingly brutal. We were sheltered by towering Redwoods. The road was wet enough to send spray off tires, but the worst part was neither that nor temperatures in the low 40s. Orr Springs was the most patched road I’ve ever ridden in my life. To be fair, there were very few open potholes, though when we did encounter them they always came on a quicker stretch of road, a detail devoid of surprise. But the patches. Blessed bovines. There were patches with patches.
I was riding 40mm tires (the Goodyear Connectors I reviewed recently), pumped to 40 psi. It was a mistake. And it was a mistake unlike any I’ve ever made. The natural order of the world is to want more pressure on the asphalt and less pressure on the dirt. This was the closest I’ve ever come to racing on the pavé of the Arenberg Forest. To pedal, I had to overgear and even then there were times when I had to level the crank and just coast, or bounce, as the case may have been. And coasting was the worst because it meant I wasn’t generating any heat, and I was dressed for the 50s, not the 40s.
Much as I wanted to look around at the Redwoods, there was no way to really see them skyscraper into the blue without sitting up and taking my hands off the bar to turn my head toward the clouds. The road made that a laughable fantasy.
No matter how addled our gray matter was from going so hard or being rattled against our brain pans, I suspect most of us could at least recall this much: the rest stop and the turnaround were around the 20 mile mark. The course was binary in its simplicity: paved on the way out, dirt on the way back.
But doubt can neutralize confidence, erode certainty. A mile or so into our second climb, I couldn’t resist the fright of wondering just how long the climb might last. And then I rounded a bend and saw some easy-up tents, the Osmo van, refuge. I pulled out my third gel of the day and finished off my first bottle. And even though a volunteer offered to fill my bottle, I passed, knowing that once I got to the top of the final climb, my needs for hydration and fuel would fade like the end of a pop song. Following a quick response to nature, I was back on the bike and immediately into another climb.
Low Gap Road was familiar to anyone who had done the two-day Mendo Hopper last August. However, that day was so hard, my memory of that road is that it went up and down and the down was populated with plenty of potentially day-ending ruts. What would have been helpful to remember was how there were four short climbs before the 1400-foot, double-digit-steep climb to Low Gap.
One of the details that separates Grasshoppers from other events I’ve done is Dirk. Bottles, Cokes, floor pump and tubes. He’s a one-man rescue unit.
I’d like to tell you Low Gap road is beautiful, but honestly, other than the tan of dirt road passing through the grays, blacks and green of thick forest, there were but a handful of views. However, those views were remarkable. They were a chance to look at the spread of forest clear to distant ridge lines, views devoid of civilization, vistas that reminded me of just how small I am.
My memory of the August passage of that road was that there was a long climb after the rest stop. I didn’t recall the small climbs before the big momma. All the people I’d passed on the previous short drops re-passed me on the climb to Low Gap. I shared with them how I didn’t remember that the big climb was last, how I rued my mayfly-like attention span.
I’d also promised myself that I’d let some air out of my tires when I hit the dirt, but that was a good hour ago and I’d noticed that what with the dirt being noticeably softer than the pavement, it didn’t seem quite so necessary. Of course, each time I hit a patch of mud caught in a shadow, I questioned my unwillingness to stop.
It’s this sort of shit that has awarded me countless bonks.
Local badass and NorCal Bike Sport manager Meghan Skidmore and I had been playing an informal relay, where she’d pass me and then I’d shadow her, then overtake her, only to have her overtake me once again. We did this going up, on flats, going down and the only interruption in our routine were her cramps, oh, and the time she pushed me because all the bouncing around on the road caused my fender to loosen. It was kind in a way that handing your final food to a buddy while treading water in sharky seas. I almost cried out, “Save yourself!”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Low Gap was that the descent was far smoother, far less rutted than it had been in August. It’s also possible that I was nearly as surprised that I could simply unweight the bike—not even a proper bunny hop—to sail over most of the trenches, only the most lengthwise of the bunch really caused me to slow.
Grasshoppers are small “D” democratic. Run what ya brung. I loved seeing this older Litespeed Blue Ridge.
Low Gap was also proof positive that if you want to be fast at a Grasshopper or any other truly hilly gravel event it is important to be riding dirt on a regular basis. A friend noted that the people who were primarily road riders were readily apparent due to their timid descending. And I mean that as no insult to anyone present, because truly, finishing that day, even if it soaked up six hours of someone’s day, was an achievement, but to be even mid-pack competitive, you have to be able to do more than climb well.
I’ve ridden bikes on a few continents and an assortment of islands. In the Alps, the Pyrenees, New England, Tuscany and Malibu, a hilly day runs 100 feet of climbing per mile. Finding a road or gravel ride that runs 120 feet per mile is rare. The Low Gap Grasshopper climbed 150 feet for every mile ridden.
In the final couple of miles to the finish I passed a few different riders who were so cramped they were unable to pedal. That says more about the course than it does them.
I didn’t bother changing before snacking on chips, downing a couple of sponsor Woodfour’s beers and eating some sublime al pastor tacos.
Images: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal.
If you value independent media, please lend your support to RKP.
To learn more about our new subscription program, please read this.