The Roar: the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper

The Roar: the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper

The first thing you have to understand about the day is just how loud it was.

I don’t mean this in a Who concert sort-of-way. In the previous two weeks rain has fallen in Sonoma County so frequently and with such intensity it is easier to number the days it didn’t rain rather than the ones it did. And while the locus of activity in our county—the city of Santa Rosa—has seen a whopping six inches of rain in just 10 days, there are spots in our county that the clouds prefer to hover over. As a friend put it, Venado, a spot southeast of Healdsburg, buried deep in redwoods announced to the rest of the county, “Hold my beer.” It recorded enough rain in 24 hours to cause some of the residents to start building arks.

So when we rolled out from Healdsburg around 10:30 am, I can tell you I recall us zig-zagging through the residential streets of Healdsburg and the visual of seeing the front of the pack two turns ahead of me and being grateful that the streets were dry as I threaded my way through riders who didn’t share my sense of urgency about not letting gaps open.

I’d started at the back of the group because I was having some shifting issues and while I had resolved them to a great degree, I thought a more experienced touch might help. It was a good plan, but the mechanic working on my bike actually made things worse, and the derailleur ceased shifting into the 34t cog moments before we rolled out. It was incomprehensible in the same way that racing on an unglued tubular is. The upshot being, I rolled out at the very back of the pack, with the riders who treat a Grasshopper as a guided tour. I love that some folks come out just to ride the course and see the sights, but riding three abreast at 15 mph while the rest of the pack is doing 18 in tight residential streets can cause other riders (me) consternation.

That we were even starting in Healdsburg (following a neutral roll from registration in Sebastopol) was the unfortunate intersection of hostility from the town of Occidental and flooding on the tiny roads we intended to take to our traditional staying spot at Riverfront Park.

So by the time we turned onto Westside Road everything about my typical preparation for this Grasshopper had been thrown off. Already, I hadn’t drunk enough and had more miles in my legs, not to mention being anxious and frustrated. As I can already be an anxious sort, my heartrate was near threshold by the time I slotted into the back of the main pack. It was there, on Westside Road, a newish run of asphalt that winds south out of Healdsburg and for folks touring wineries is one of the primary drags. We passed vineyard after vineyard and only then did I register sound. It was the shhh of tires slicing through rivers of water running out of the hills to the west and across the road. I’ve come to discern the difference between the roadies nervous in the water and on dirt vs. the riders who regularly ride drop-bar bikes in the dirt. The former brakes before a pile of gravel, while the later runs right over it. And while I can appreciate that one’s opportunity to ride dirt can be influenced by one’s address, I couldn’t pin the different reactions of riders in the pack to a particular jersey. Knowing that riders had varying reactions only served to make me nervous, which probably didn’t make my wheel a joy to be on, either.

I can tell you we were going pretty quickly down Westside; my heartrate was high, though I never bothered to look at our speed. We passed over hills far more quickly than I do on my own. And then we went bdbdbdbd over the cattle grate that signals the beginning of the climb of Sweetwater Springs. The namesake of this Grasshopper is one of my least favorite climbs on the planet. After an initial rise, there’s a deep, a few potholes, standing water deep enough to hide potholes and then the climb really begins. This is where I embarrass myself. After working to be solid pack fodder, the pack rolled away from me, giving me a chance to look at the tan oaks, the cows munching on grass Crayola green. A minute or so went by and then folks dropped on the narrow road began to climb past.

Sweetwater Springs contains a series of ranches on its north side, with the occasional home of note. After getting over the initial climb we drop down a steep descent punctuated with undulating asphalt and turns salted with sand. It’s not a place for 23mm tires pumped to 8 bar even on dry days. Once deep into no-person’s land (there were plenty of women in the group), the road rolls slightly up with occasional respites that serve to confuse. We passed a ramshackle home that signals the beginning to the second, longer climb. Hilly pasture gives way to thick forest and turn so frequent I always lose count of the switchbacks. Upon spying one left hander ahead, a woman next to me said, “That’s it!” with hope in her voice. I was momentarily unsure of whether I should correct her, but I figured she deserved to know.

“No, not quite. We’ve got a few more switchbacks.” Even my estimation was wrong and it was a few turns longer. At last I caught a glimpse of Furia Ranch and I turned to her and announced, “That the top.”

I honestly can’t recall when rain started or stopped. Both happened. It rain on the climb, on some of the descent, and deep in Armstrong Woods as we headed for Guerneville. Sweetwater Springs is so beastly, I didn’t take a single drink or eat anything while on that road; I’m either working too had climbing, or focusing on my line on the descents and just trying control the bike. The switchbacks are steep, often off camber and the straighter sections ripple like the rings that spread from a pebble dropped in a pond.

Entering the great stand of redwoods that is Armstrong Woods was like walking into a walk-in refrigerator. The temperature dropped perceptibly. Upon turning onto the 116 which would take us to our next turn for the village of Cazadero, I saw our first rest stop and skipped it. What I needed wasn’t food or fluid, but to consume more what I had. By this time I had passed more than a dozen people with flats; I saw way too many people pulling tubes out of skinny-looking tires. After talking with friends prior to the event, I’d opted for a 32mm-wide all-weather tire that I could run tubeless.

Riding down the 116 is the only place where we encounter much traffic. A few cars or pickups always squeeze you, but the road tends to shed water well. My legs were shot and groups of riders who I’d passed fixing flats overtook me at speeds I thought more typical of internal combustion engines.

Cazadero isn’t much of a town, which means you pass through it quickly, and unfortunately, that means that nearly as soon as you roll into town you hit the second big climb of the day, Fort Ross Road. It’s a 7.5 mile climb with a roughly two-mile descent three miles from the top. It’s a cruel deception; after working to climb 1300 feet, you give up 550 of it. Fort Ross feels like nowhere; when rain wasn’t falling, I’d look around at the redwoods and the moss growing on the bark or the streams running down in the ravines. The sheer amount of water running seemed unlikely, but also the necessary condition to have created these gullies, washouts and stream beds sometime in the way back.

Fort Ross is, generally speaking, steep enough to make riding with other people a challenge. There’s no point trying to draft and riding at any pace other than at my highest sustainable pace seemed antithetical to the endeavor. This may have been wine country, what with some of the world’s most coveted Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs grown within a mile or two from there, but this was no weekend bike tour in wine country. The upshot is that encounters with other riders were mostly brief. Either they were passing me, or I was catching them and rolling on.

The rest stop at the top was manned by the Osmo Sprinter as well as Kevin Gambini, the owner of Breakaway Bikes and some of his staffers. Gambini provided the single most surreal moment of the day when he asked me if I wanted a hot frittata.

“You’ve got a choice of cheese or spinach, cheese and …”



“Duh! I want the bacon.”

He’d brought a generator and a microwave. Full-0finger gloves kept it from burning my fingers. I can’t say I felt better immediately, but it made me believe I was going to feel better pretty soon.

As much as I love descending, Myers Grade remains one of the only roads in the world with the power to frighten me. The combination of off-camber turns, steep pitch and water running across the road in certain places made the drop especially dicey; just as I’d let the bike begin to run on a dry section, I’d encounter more water in a turn.

When I hit Hwy 1 I realized the sun was actually out, and seemed likely to stay that way. All that stood between me and the finish was a few rollers and one more climb, up Willow Creek.

The bottom of Willow Creek Road was a fair part of why I decided to run 32mm tires. I knew there would be a lot of water and the water would obscure many of the potholes. Another couple of riders were picking their way through at the same time I was; I did my best to stick to the edges except for when the middle was the place to be and that seemed to change with each bend in the road.

We made it through the gate and things broke up again. I didn’t mind; being on my own suited me. But I wanted quiet to think, to disappear into a rabbit hole of my own thought, but anyone could have been forgiven for confusing the Willow Creek watershed with a Class IV rapids. The water raged mere meters to my right, but I just couldn’t figure how that much water could be channeled into a tiny crease that would be hike-able most of the year were it not for poison oak.

As to slicks on a dirt road, I just made sure to keep my weight back until I hit the sisters. Without a 34, I rolled what I could before getting off to walk.

I heard that at the finish I was so pale they didn’t recognize me at first.


Images: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal

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  1. TomInAlbany

    Sounds like a helluva good time on the accidental 1-by. Would you have been happier stuck in your small ring than in your large ring?

    1. Author

      Oh, I still had two chainrings. What I lacked was the biggest cog in the rear, which was a 34, meaning my low gear was a 34×30. Not low enough for 18% pitches late in a race, for me, anyway. And if I had found myself with just one ring, it would definitely be the small.

    2. TomInAlbany

      I guess the good thing about losing a climbing gear very early in a ride is being able to come to terms that you’ll have to walk at some point and, when that time comes, just doing it.

  2. Austin McInerny

    Sorry I did not even cross paths with you during the ride… Having done many Hoppers over the years, I can attest that this was a particularly challenging edition.. Riding thru the rain towards Cazadero was testing my desire to ride as it was COLD. Hearing riders scream in anguish as they hit the deck in a big pile-up on the descent of Sweetwater was very unsettling…and to get passed by one of the downed riders later in the day was humbling…Why was I complaining of being cold when a rider passes me with legs looking like she had been mauled by a dog? Attacking the Willow Creek climb was a mental challenge and passing others who can only muster a grunt as you encourage them to hang in there reminds me that this ride shelled many a hearty soul!

    1. Author

      Wow. I’m glad I missed the pileup. For anyone who continued after hitting the deck, I can only saw wow.

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