The Huffmaster: a Special Grasshopper

The Huffmaster: a Special Grasshopper

Grasshopper Adventure Series empresario Miguel Crawford has gradually begun adding events to his calendar that are beyond the borders of the Grasshopper Adventure Series. The two-day Mendo Hopper last summer was one such event, as was the Usal Hopper last October. The new Huffmaster Hopper falls a week before the most challenging of the events of the series, Super Skaggs, so in theory, it’s not bad preparation.

The event is the first to be held outside the confines of either Sonoma or Mendocino Counties. Early Saturday morning I loaded up with a friend and headed for Colusa County, a region of California on I-5 north of Sacramento. Colusa is one of the nameless counties of California, a place undistinguished by wine, tech or recreation. Without any of the usual draws, it is to California what Nebraska is to the political map of the U.S.—unfairly derided as flyover country.

I write unfairly because now I’ve been there. It is nowhere, to be sure. But it is the sort of nowhere that is increasingly somewhere to cyclists. And now I sound like Jeremy—Nowhere Man—in Yellow Submarine. Crawford offered two distances, and the sheer fact of choices shows an evolution of the series. Increasingly he is gearing his events to your idea of a good time rather than what has traditionally been the preferred method for him and his friends to get fit for the season. Truly, the ‘Hoppers, the veterans tell me, began not as racing but as prep for racing.

The long course was 88 miles with a very reasonable 4800 feet of climbing, while the short course was 54 miles with 3000 feet of climbing, a challenging ride in its own right. I’d originally intended to do the long course, because I’m unclear on my limits, or I’m ambitious. Pick one. It was after talking to a friend I elected to do the short course. Why? Before starting the Huffmaster I’d done six events this season, which isn’t bad for mid-April. The thing is, it’s rained for five of the six. I hadn’t done a single event where the whole of the day was balmy. It just seemed time.

I’d decided to spend the day riding with my friend Andrea who is still relatively new to gravel riding; she and I have something of a fitness disparity. I knew that the challenge for me that day would be riding with her and not allowing me to appear bored, frustrated or waiting. Trust me, even when people are wrong, it’s easier than you think to ride in a way that another rider will conclude you’d rather be pedaling harder. So for me it wasn’t enough just to ride with her, I needed to ride in a way that conveyed I was having exactly the day I wanted to have. That meant frequently riding next to her, asking if a draft was desirable before pulling in front, and riding in back any time she decided to bring the hammer down.

There was a time in my life when this would have been difficult. My manhood was precariously balanced atop presenting myself in the fastest possible light. Riding any less than all-out except when on a recovery ride was unthinkable. I’m truly glad to be rid of that guy.

Maxwell is exactly one exit off of the 5 freeway. Armed with a Bugatti Veyron you could pass through the whole of the town while inhaling. So why was it the destination for a Grasshopper? Crawford spent several years there while his father worked as the principal of the town’s school. It was also the closest location he was willing to organize an event to where the Camp Fire burned. The event was, in part, a fundraiser for victims of the Camp Fire.

When I climbed out of the car I was surprised. The temperature was already in the 60s and the sky was blue with a few randomly placed clouds, though there was a somewhat ominous-looking front to the west. The forecast did hold a chance for rain in the afternoon.

Both fields left Maxell headed west. The big group soon turned north as they headed toward their first big climb while we headed west several more miles before turning northwest into ranching country. Most of the traffic I saw on the ride was of the recreational variety, either pulling a camper or some sort of recreational device, like a boat, jet-ski or camper.

Our course gradually picked up elevation until we entered a slot canyon and the constant 3-4 percent climb gave way to a much stiffer incline. For the next 2.5 miles, the road ascended at often double-digit pitches, including one long ramp at 15 percent not far from the top.

What I love about California is that it is a place so full of beauty that even the places considered unremarkable can surprise you. The state is in the midst of a serious wildflower bloom, one that seems not to care what latitude one visits. In the valley we spied large fields of mustard, blooming a Crayola yellow. As we climbed we saw the light purple of arroyo lupine; it often dusted broad emerald meadows. As we gained elevation we began to see the dark purple of wooly blue curls. I’d never before seen silverpuffs, a kind of spikier dandelion, as if someone crossed a dandelion with a mace.

I’ve been asked what I thought of the climb up Sites-Ladoga Road; what I’ll say is this: it calls for gears lower than most riders will consider. Even with a 34×34 low gear, I had to give some thought to my pedal stroke so that I didn’t just head for the suffer chamber. It’s not a climb that encourages moderation.

Once over the top we were gifted with a short descent into a high valley (high being 1200-1500 feet of elevation) that began serving up wildflowers in earnest. I caught an outcropping of the lipstick red of Indian paintbrush. Larkspur seemed to grow in all the locations where the wooly blue curls didn’t.

At our first rest stop the volunteers asked if there was anyone behind us and in an unguarded moment I let slip, “It would be hard for there to be anyone else behind us.” I didn’t need anyone to tell me it was the wrong thing to say. The moment the words left my lips I knew it was the wrong thing. I’d just done the opposite of the very thing I’d hoped to do that day: help a friend have a special day on the bike.

I’ve never been a cutter, but if I was…. I suppose confessing to the world your dumbest moment in a weekend isn’t far off.

The thing I wanted most from the landscape—and I recognize that allowing my will to be heard while looking at a landscape is a sure recipe for dissatisfaction—was a giant field of California poppies. Were anything to be planted on my departure, I’d ask for California poppies. I adore their bold yellow-orange to deep orange blaze, a hue that doesn’t apologize for its brilliance. You might say they fly their freak flag high and with pride. And as a wildflower they remain untamed and ever hopeful; anything that can grow back undaunted year after year reflects the heart of a cyclist.

Alas, we got a dozen here, four there, nothing like the riot that my heart yearned to encounter.

On a dirt road deep in a valley I can’t imagine sees tourists, we came upon a herd of cattle. The herd was being moved and they were being moved on the road. Toward us. We rolled up a way and then unclipped. I sat down on my top tube. Just as I did, the two leaders of the full distance coasted by, threaded between a couple of heifers and proceeded to big ring their way up the gravel. I had a moment where the thought, “Just chill out,” flashed through my head and a split second later I remembered, “Oh yeah, they’re racing.”

I couldn’t tell you if it was 40 head or 60 head, but it was plenty and the only difference between the guys moving the heard and the cowboys in the movies was that they guys worked on quads, not horses. One red calf got a look at me and required some serious goading to stay with the herd. We sat; they passed. Easy-peasy.

When we reached the second rest stop Crawford’s father—the former Maxwell principal—was there and was as relaxed and delighted as I can recall seeing someone standing behind a banquet table in the middle of nowhere. I had this urge to share a beer with him and listen to stories.

A short distance later we encountered the other notable climb of the day, the road for which the event was named: Huffmaster. The three-mile climb turned, switched and bent so that little more than 150 feet was ever visible.

Huffmaster is a case study in why water bars are a good idea. The road was rutted like a tabby has stripes. The only question was where to cross them and how fast to approach them.

I do what I can to be respectful of other people’s limits. That is, my idea of a good time is (in the grand scheme of world population) unlikely to be the same as yours, so even within cycling, what I find fun is something I know not everyone will dig. All that said, Huffmaster Road reinforced a lesson in why speed isn’t necessarily a risky thing. There were any number of occasions during the 21-odd turn descent where I came upon a rut running perpendicular to the road and with the lightest of bunny hops simply sailed over an erosion channel deep enough to twist a hiker’s ankle. There were also a few rocky spots where at a lower speed I might have risked having the bar turned or the front wheel simply stop.

Simply allowing the bike to run was, in my view, key to having as uneventful a drop as possible.

At the bottom of the descent the land opens up into grazing pasture, with the buildings of a farm sitting low in the valley. I took a moment to chew on a gel—why I chew the goop I’m still not sure, but I chew every time—and allowed myself to wonder what life in this remote locale might be. Is it a snowy winter? How hot is the summer? How much defensible space do you need in the fall (and now the summer, too)?

The road turned from the mocha of earth to the near-white of cheap paper. This was a gravel road worthy of Dirty Kanza. The double track cruised right up the middle, with loose pea stone lining both sides and the hump in the middle. Changing from one track to the other required a bit of focus and choice timing. At one point, I watched Andrea forced to the left and into the soft stuff by the crown of the road. What I don’t often get to watch is that gentle nursing of the bike to continue straight and not toward the shoulder, the subtle weight shift, the delicate pedal strokes and then the gradual movement of the bike back into the firmer gravel. It was just the sort of moment so many riders fail to negotiate at their first encounter. She got through it with grace and I’m guessing some gritted teeth. I swear it was as beautiful a thing to see as any of the wildflowers; I got to watch someone succeed.

This portion of Huffmaster, passing farms and ranches, sloped gently downhill, but punctuated the elevation loss with rolling rises, the sort one might choose to punish their buddies. We were sheltered from the worst of the wind here, and even after we turned back onto the pavement, it wasn’t until we were out of the hills and the road bent left to head due east, back to Maxwell, that I began to detect a quartering crosswind.

Wind caused pollen to swirl up under my glasses and my eyes burned; I kept blinking so that I could read the GPS. With no turns remaining the only reason to look was to count down the miles to the finish, something I did just to encourage my riding companion, but surprised me by building my own sense of anticipation for the finish line.

In an empty lot by the firehouse people sat, some in cotton, some still in their salt-flecked kit, eating the catered Mexican lunch—bean, rice, chicken, pork and beef, plus tortillas for those willing to grapple with more than a fork—and gulping beers from Sierra Nevada. You don’t see that many smiles at a county fair.

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  1. TomInAlbany

    Your images help me understand the possible inspiration for the word ‘bucolic.’


    P.S. One for the future for you, Patrick: I got to draft my 13 year old son on a short, neighborhood, bike ride last night. Woah!!

  2. scott g.

    Patrick, think about a social bike, a bike to ride that is fun to ride
    at relaxed pace, but still can entertain at speed.

    Or as Coach said, train with the heavy bag.

    1. tominalbany

      Interesting idea. When I ride with my kids, I use my mtn bike with the 2.8’s that no longer shifts into the big ring. (It’s a triple.) If my son were so motivated, he’d leave me behind but, he currently lacks the stamina to stay away.

    2. Author

      That’s my DiNucci in a nutshell. That’s not what I asked for, but it’s the bike I got. To be sure, I got the bike I asked for, but the thing you mention, a bike that’s good for a social ride, one that I think you mean is just pleasant to be aboard no matter what the speed, well, that’s the not-so-Yellow Submarine.

      I’ve never considered that question before, but it’s a beautiful lens to look through. Bianchi does that very well.

    3. Marty

      Scott G is spot on. I call my social bike my Type B bike–the one I ride when I want to leave my Type A behavior at home.

  3. Mark


    For those of us who aren’t that far away from you, how about sharing your ride calendar so maybe we can get in on one of these rides instead of just reading about them in the past tense?

  4. Noah

    As someone who’s been riding for a long time, but probably isn’t much faster than your new-to-gravel friend, I’m glad that you had the opportunity to see what a ride is like from the slow(er) lane. It can be frustrating to hear how a 17mph paceline is standard, when I can’t imagine what it’s like to be comfortable at that speed for any significant amount of time. Breaking 18 hours at Dirty Kanza this year is my big goal, and it’s uncertain even though I’ve been doing plenty of long miles and high intensity workouts.

    1. Author

      I’m vaguely proud to say I’ve done my time at the back, the middle and the front. It’s not easy to be out there after everyone has seemingly dropped you and to worry that a rest stop might be out of food. And I know what it’s like to look at someone’s average speed and not be able to comprehend how they averaged what I was doing whenever there was a tailwind. Good luck at DK! Maybe we will bump into each other.

  5. Matt Muldoon

    Between the weather and the spring scenery, I can’t imagine how conditions for the Huffmaster could’ve been any better. The window of opportunity for such perfection is narrow. We hit the lottery that day.

  6. Dave Tricamo

    It sure felt like wild California out there. Verdant and unpeopled. In contrast we prerode the course last fall, a few days before the Paradise fire, and it was a different environment. There was a hot, dry, stiff north wind that made the first 30 miles brutal. No water was present anywhere; all watercourses were dry and there was nowhere to get water except Thunderhill Raceway. The grass was a golden brown and the soil without moisture. Fortunately this past weekend was truly a perfect day for our little jaunt. Thanks to Mig and Jason Hoorn and the crew!

  7. Miguel Crawford

    Beautiful piece Patrick. Love the photos. Special day on the bike in a place we may not have expected to have such beauty.

  8. Joanne

    Thank you for capturing the “other spirit” of the huffmaster—those of us who are new to gravel, who are there to enjoy it (aka smell the flowers), who prefer to avoid clouds of toxic testosterone, and/or for whom the usual grasshopper event is a bit beyond them or starts too late (10 am start?) for their speed. I’ve been following the grasshopper events for a few years, and this event seemed within my grasp (the shorter distance, given the 10 am start time). I loved every minute of it and hope that the grasshopper series considers adding similar events in the future to encourage more of us to participate in gravel events. I came way realizing that Maxwell and the nearby locales were beyond stunningly beautiful and grateful to have experienced another wonder of California.

    1. Author

      So great to hear you had a nice day. And agreed on how great it is to encounter fresh beauty in California.

  9. Chris Shultz

    It was a great day raising $ for fire survivors and drew a considerable Sacramento contingent (for whom other Hoppers are a logistical challenge). Great seeing you out there (briefly). Based on cow crossing, you were just behind us!

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