Mud Lake: the Lake Sonoma Grasshopper

Mud Lake: the Lake Sonoma Grasshopper

It was a day I should have been in bed. After traveling to Denver and Sacramento, I came down with a virus; I wouldn’t have left home that Saturday if not for one simple need. I didn’t want to be eliminated from the series for those planning to finish all six of the Grasshopper Adventure Series. I messaged friends the night before, claiming I was on the fence, but I suspect I’d already made my mind up to do something stupid.

Lake Sonoma is a man-made reservoir and the singletrack that encircles the lake is comical. The up, the down is nearly constant. Not only that, the grades are, true to Sonoma County fashion, gentle as the Incredible Hulk.

The opening 2.4 miles are all uphill, save for one brief flat spot, an ascent of more than 500 feet, making the introduction short on the friendly handshake thing. No sooner were we onto dirt than we hit mud the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was last living on the East Coast. Between the winter/spring rains and the equestrians, we soon hit a shin-deep mud bog that required speed and poise to ride through. And for those who didn’t manage that, well there was the bonus fun of reaching into the mud to retrieve a shoe.

So bad was the mud (my brain goes to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the audience shouts, “How bad was it?”), that the 1x drivetrain on the mountain bike I rode gathered so much mud that the chain derailed four times in roughly two miles. The mud was filling the wide-spaced links and the wide teeth on the chainring would just push the chain right off. And with everything mud-covered and colored, it was not easy to figure out how to line the chainring up with the chain. I lost at least five minutes early in the race due to dropped chain issues.

But I was sick. I wasn’t racing by any traditional measure. I just want to finish the series and get that medal. That means something to me, though I can’t entirely say why. And I can’t say why it means enough to get out of bed when staying in bed was, for once, really the thing to do. I told myself all I had to do was finish. That’s it. Just finish.

Finishing a mountain bike race that’s 22 miles and contains 3200 feet of climbing is no small feat any ordinary day. That the course profile looks something like an EKG chart. As chief Grasshopper Miguel Crawford put it at the start, the course was wetter where it is typically wet and fast where it is typically fast. The upshot being that bikes flung tiny mud clods skyward after the handful of wet spots we encountered following the opening mud bog. Seriously, I haven’t seen mud like that since the NORBA National at Mount Snow back in the early 1990s.

Were I to reduce the race to a single challenge, the mud wasn’t really the thing. Nor were the water crossings (one of which was knee deep and maybe 20 yards across, so Mig strung a rope across). No, the challenge on the serrated course was how to do battle. I’m sure up front riders were racing against each other. For those of us a half hour or more in arrears, we weren’t racing each other, even if we were in sight of one another. Our race was, like all Grasshoppers, fundamentally against the course itself. There are 19 different hills of at least 200 yards or more. Most of them contain stretches with pitches of 15 percent or more—a few run higher than 20 percent. At some point, the question for everyone becomes, how hard are you willing to dig to ride up those steepest pitches and risk being too scorched at the top to pedal the lesser grades?

The course alternates between relatively thick forest with little understory to open meadows of emerald grass and the first hits of wildflowers blooming. It was nearly like spring in Sonoma County; an overcast sky allowed temperatures to rise from the 40s into the 60s, but despite a forecast for no rain, those of us out there for more than three hours got a reminder that rain is never off the menu; at one point, high on a small ridge, I even got a tiny dose of hail, because, why not?

Lake Sonoma is a beautiful place, but the beauty always seemed too difficult to process in the moment; the lumpy jade hillsides, the singletrack winding through trees, the boats traversing the lake, you’d think it would be possible to take it in. I can recall thinking at one point, that would be beautiful if I could focus on it.

Riding the Grasshoppers seems to be an increasingly existential pursuit, and that seems true not just for me, but for many of my friends. Ambition can provoke many questions, but one of the most basic is, how badly do you want to accomplish that goal? I’m not sure how to answer that in any definitive way. All I can do is point to my willingness to race a mountain bike for four hours, while sick. The strangest part of all? I was 31st of 40 finishers in my category. I wasn’t even last.


Images: Jorge “Koky” Flore, JustPedal

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  1. Chris L Cochrane

    This makes me think of those “If you don’t love me at X, you don’t deserve me at Y” memes. If you can’t love cycling in tough conditions (but in a shockingly beautiful landscape) when you should probably be home in bed, then you might as well quit.

    I’ve never managed to develop a taste for winning which, like caviar, is a commodity that enters my life rarely, if at all. But the struggle, the endeavour, is what brings me back every time.

    1. Author

      Terrific point. That mindset really speaks to commitment. If you’re in, be in. As to winning, for the vast majority of us who don’t win, I think it really is because that’s not why we are there in the first place. The thing about the Grasshoppers is I don’t think winning one would really improve my experience. I might be wrong, but I’m unlikely to have the chance to find out.

    2. Chris L Cochrane

      Padraig, it sounds like the Grasshopper series would be right up my alley. Truth be told, I’ve suspected as much for years having read about your adventures on those roads. It would be a bit of a commute for me but I think I’d better make the trip one of these years.

    3. Author

      These events are special. If I’d moved to Northern California in ’96 when I first got to this state, I might not have bothered to renew my license. I was always chafing at how uninteresting so many of the race courses were in SoCal. I get the challenges that a promoter faces, but still; I want to be challenged by a course. The Grasshoppers are an unbelievable mix of challenge, camaraderie and beauty. Srsly, friendliest bunch you’ll ever race with.

  2. TomInAlbany

    And the question is, several days onward, how are you feeling? Did your cold improve or did your health regress?

    That’s always my mental issue. I don’t feel I can tolerate the regression.

    1. Author

      My recovery was … extended, but I’m good now. I somehow concluded the setback was worth it.

  3. Adam

    The 2019 lake Sonoma Grasshopper was my first mtb race. I thought I could hammer the whole loop with one water bottle, with some Hammer Heed. I was like nah I’m not going to have to stop at the aid station, don’t want to loose the time. It was a good learning experience for me. I started off the race strong, was with the lead pack for most of the paved road climb, averaged like 11.2mph according to Strava on that section. Which was Way faster than I’ve ever gone in training up a hill. Went over the bars in the first deep mud sections. Went to stand and pass about 5-7 miles in and my legs wouldn’t bend do I sat down and had to spin a mellower pace the rest of the race with cramped legs. Ended up with an avg speed of about 7.5mph, way slower than usual speed for me. Learned alot about race pacing. It was a fun race though and I look forward to racing it again.

    1. Author

      You should be proud of the pace you managed. That’s an exceptionally difficult course and for most riders, the more elevation change there is and the steeper the trails are, the lower the average speed. You definitely jumped in the deep end by choosing a ‘Hopper.

  4. Allison

    Just out of curiosity did anyone note the emergence on the scene of Steve Larsen’s son? He hasn’t raced much at all and not cx mtb since before Steve died 10 years ago. He’s U20 still too! I call a Hopper win pretty damn impressive.

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