Following a winter that can easily be described as too much of a good thing, spring has settled in Sonoma County. Saturday morning 180 alternately ambitious, brave or foolhardy souls drove to Lake Sonoma just northwest of Healdsburg. This is serious wine country and the vineyards in these parts produce wines people are happy to drop $50 for a bottle. Truly, with the Grasshoppers, it’s not a stretch to say it takes all types.
Skaggs is the next to the last of the Grasshoppers in the annual series. Like Super Sweetwater, Skaggs comes in two flavors—with dirt and without. Both versions are just shy of 100 miles, 96 to be exact. The road version conquers a whopping 9300 feet of climbing, which makes it among the toughest century rides I’ve ever run across. However, Super Skaggs with Lake Sonoma not only scales 10,500 feet, it goes full Hannibal and subjects its pilgrims to 10 miles of singletrack at Lake Sonoma.
As the series unfolds each year, the Grasshoppers get harder with each installment, until the last one, King Ridge, back off the distance in what I have occasionally theorized is something like peaking, and get you ready for the rest of the season, which, given that the Grasshoppers started as a training series, makes a kind of demented sense.
In broad strokes, the road version of Skaggs contains three challenging climbs: Sweetwater Springs, King Ridge and then Skaggs Springs. The dirt version adds Old Cazadero in between Sweetwater and King Ridge, and then tacks on the insane single track of Lake Sonoma.
The peloton headed south from Lake Sonoma, over wine roads that would mostly be traveled by people wine tasting in another couple of hours. It’s some of the best asphalt in Sonoma County, because tourists. After an hour of a dwindling pack accordioning with each rise, the bunch turned right to head west into a slot valley and begin climbing Skaggs Springs. Between the abandoned mines and the ranges, it’s easy to have the impression you’re riding through the foothills of the western Sierra. Now that I’ve ridden this road 10 times, I’m beginning to get a feel for it, though I’m powerless to follow the climbers when they go. Memorizing landmarks will make any stretch of road go more quickly; expectations have a way of compressing distance.
The descent of Sweetwater could only have been dicier if it had been raining. A number of new potholes have reduced patches of asphalt to spills of gravel, shrinking braking sections and in some cases delaying the entry to a turn.
One of the reasons I like to do truly difficult events is I truly love the opportunities for introspection they provide. Each of the big decisions I’ve made in my life for the last 30 plus years—those regarding marriage, graduate school, moving to California, getting counseling, accepting antidepressants—I made while on a ride. And yes, I do give each of those events roughly similar psychological weight. In one or two cases I will magnify that not only did I make a difficult decision, like moving from a small town in Massachusetts to Los Angeles, while riding, I made my peace with my decisions while on subsequent rides.
However, the truth of that notwithstanding, when I decided to move, to ask her to marry me, to call the psych line, I wasn’t on a four-mile climb with my heart rate simmering mere ticks below full boil. Which is to say that I may have forgotten my own method. Of course, I wasn’t thinking about that at all on Saturday.
What was I thinking about? I have no idea. To say I was in the moment is to imagine one can be present for the whole of a day. There were moments that seemed impossible, or indicative of tragedy. Somewhere on the climb of Old Cazadero I was passed by a car on its way down the road. While it was still above me, gradually winding into view from between the trees that rise above me. The car is a liftback, the hatch open. And something, a whole lot of something protrudes from the rear of the car. It’s dark, blocky. I wonder now if it was a couch, though I don’t see how a significant piece of furniture of a car that size. I meant to look at the back of the car, at its contents, when it passed by but I was unable. The car wasn’t moving too quickly to look. The issue was the concave section of the front windshield. It looked as if something the size of a beach ball and the mass of a heifer had fallen on the passenger side of the windshield, beneath which not a person, but armfuls of stuff. I was too stunned by the windshield to shift gears mentally and look at the rear of the car. I allowed myself a moment to wonder how long it would be before law enforcement pulled him over and asked where the body was.
The descent of Old Cazadero was more adventure-y than I anticipated. Technically, it’s a fire road, but for most of its distance the most rideable line is singletrack. In my previous trips down, the way was smooth and veering off of it made for a bumpier, more slippery ride. This time no matter where you chose to ride the way was bumpy. At one point, as I was catching a rider ahead of me, I had to abort the pass and slow down because I couldn’t see well enough to tell how good the surface was. With all the rainfall, flooding and associated trauma to this part of Sonoma County, once we found the trail that takes you into Austin Creek, I realized that the path back out was reasonably overgrown and of the various legal ways up (i.e., not through a guy’s back yard), they all looked to have their share of poison oak. The itch on my ankle tells me I’m not wrong.
The climb of King Ridge is roughly 11 miles, but comes in chunks and heaves. The downhill respites can easily fool someone not familiar with the climb into thinking the worst is over, so while you climb from just about sea level to 1700 feet of elevation, the climb demands riders ascend more than 2000 feet
Conditions Saturday were as nice as the previous weekend’s. Temperatures were in the 70s for the most part with occasional, spotty clouds. All those California poppies I pined for a week ago were served up once I emerged from the forest on King Ridge. On most occasions, when I’ve traversed King Ridge, I’ve done it in October, deep in fire season when the surrounding mountains and hillsides are bleached the yellow of hay. This time everything was painted the rich jade of Redwood forest and the gleaming emerald of healthy grass. Raptors circled on thermals, reminding me that no matter what I thought of my grace as I whizzed past cows, floating birds would always have me beat.
There’s a 600-foot drop on King Ridge westbound, heading toward the coast that requires me to choose between looking at the rippled landscape and the task at hand, which is handling the many turns on a road that undulates as if the grader had hiccups. It’s the perfect place to be a stoker on a tandem, but with a friend on my wheel, I needed to choose a good line not just for me, but for her. There was a moment when I flashed on people who have told me they plan to ride the Levi’s GranFondo loop on their own, so as not to line the coffers of a doper, misconceptions notwithstanding. This region is so remote that unless you have the ability to ride through at the pace of a pro rider—or nearly so—the only way to carry enough food and water is with the aid of a hydration pack, which is exactly what I did. In fact, I’d traded my first for my second at the feed zone earlier on the climb.
Remote in California isn’t the same as remote in the South. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible to find remote places in the South—it is, and is it ever. What is different where I grew up is that when the suburbs gave way to the country, it was sudden. In this part of California, lightly populated can stretch for miles and miles. By the time I reach something that feels truly remote, well, I’m a half-hour drive to an outpost. It makes me wonder how, why, these roads were ever paved. I can ride for miles and not see a single house, which would be unusual in almost any part of Tennessee.
When I turned on to Skaggs Springs Road, I did so with a certain air of wonder. Among the casualties of last winter’s rains was this very road. A landslide somewhere along its length, but near enough to Annapolis that it could have been either east or west of where I turned onto the road, occurred several months back. A significant work crew made the road passable once again, but with this being the outer reaches of Sonoma County, I wasn’t positive I knew exactly how to define that term.
Soon enough I encountered a stretch of road bordered on the right side with a gigantic mound of bulldozed landslide. That must have been what remained of the original slide—a brown wall at least 12 feet high in places and the remnants of everything from trees to bushes floating atop it. Trucks had carted out thousands of cubic yards of earth and broken trees. What was left was so great as to suggest the enormity of the work the crew had undertaken. I mean, if this mass was okay to leave behind … hell.
Soon after the road turned to gravel, a feature I didn’t recall from last year and I soon found myself wondering why I didn’t remember. Was it that because last year it was smooth asphalt (seems legit), or was it because I was so totally fried by that point in the day a stretch of hard-packed gravel didn’t much register (also totally legit)?
My doubt only grew after our second rest stop where I stopped only long enough for a soda and some peanut M&Ms. I hit the long climb up Skaggs, an ascent my friend Christine was dreading. I simply couldn’t remember. Not that I couldn’t remember how long the climb was, or what its grade and exposure were like—I couldn’t remember the climb at all. And one does not simply forget a 4.5-mile climb that ascends 1500 vertical feet unless one has a very good reason. Of course, that got me to wondering if the event itself wasn’t one very good excuse for amnesia. Or maybe a clinically documented cause.
This was the place where going hard wasn’t the obvious answer. Three younger guys who left the rest stop after I did, caught me and passed me, then opened a gap of only 20 to 30 meters. They were even having a conversation. I decided to shut the gap down, that riding with them would be better psychologically and maybe even physically. Then I noticed as I brought them back I was just deep enough into stockade that bringing them back, and keeping them, would require something from my nearly empty reserves. I’d burn one of my last matches.
Once over the top of Skaggs, the ensuing descent will establish just how much you like to go downhill. Most cyclists I know enjoy coasting down a grade, especially if there are a few twists and turns thrown in. Some like going really quick and relish that centrifugal pull that comes in hard turns. And then there are those for whom no drop is too steep, too blown out, too undulating. I know very few who occupy this final camp and that may be because to be that particular species of descender one must possess a certain congenital sense of velocity. I sit somewhere between group two and group three, which is to say I’ve pushed group two as far as I dare and know that I simply don’t have the inimitable combination of skill and abandon to be considered genetically rad.
All this is to say that as I plunged down double-digit grades on a potholed road with off-camber turns, I did so with the consideration that comes knowing that another rider is likely to pass. That’s not to say I was going slow; I was ripping the blacktop and it’s ever-present dusting of … whatever … but knew that my friend Christine Culver, a former pro downhiller once sponsored by the likes of Richard Cunningham and Salsa Cycles, was behind me. She’d been pulled over near the top of the climb, taking a brief break and unless she’d elected to stick around another 10 minutes, I was going to see her.
As only the inevitable can happen, Christine came by me, and at a pace that was probably only two or three miles per hour faster than me, which was nice in that I didn’t have the sense that I’d been passed by a Ducati and also that she’d had to work to even catch me. Normally, when a quicker descender passes me on a road I don’t know well, I can follow their line and keep the gap tight. That worked with Christine for maybe three turns and then she began to open up a gap: two seconds, then three, then out of site.
Riders doing the dirt (the crazy ones) turn off Skaggs Springs Road onto Old Skaggs Springs Road, which leads to a boat launch at Lake Sonoma. This portion of the descent is even more chewed up and adds the excitement of confronting a giant pickup or SUV pulling a boat from the relative safety of the middle of a narrow road.
For riders taking on the challenge of the Lake Sonoma singletrack, there’s a final sag stop right where the entrance to the trail system begins. I chose to eat more of the food I brought with me and following a quick inspection of my legs I knew that the next 13 miles or so would be either comic or tragic. But definitely not triumphant.
That may have been because I realized I felt nauseated. I’d gotten something wrong in my eating or my hydration. Or both. Probably both.
There’s not much to say about how the next three hours—yes, three hours—played out. On the flat stuff, I pedaled. On the down stuff, I coasted and braked as if my life depended on it. At the technical water crossings I dismounted because I was less coordinated than my six year old. And the ups? The bits where the trail caterpillared up a hillside in double digits? Yeah, I walked those. I didn’t have anything approaching the strength necessary to turn a 1:1 ratio on those grades.
There came a point when I stopped caring. About the race. About how far back I was. About the series. About the rest of the day. About my family, friends. I contemplated laying down on the trail, and with so few people left behind me I figured there was little risk of getting run over. But laying down, quitting for any amount of time, would only delay my finish and I cared less about the finish line than the distance between my car and me.
I continued to suck on my hydration pack. My bottles were nearly empty and warm, but the mix in my hydration pack was still cool. A voice in my head admonished me to do all I could to hydrate, even if the thought of chews or gels threatened a revolt in my gastric system.
The way time slowed down made the entire experience even more surreal. In the minutes before hitting the singletrack, I’d been traveling at well above 20 mph, often above 30 mph. To suddenly find myself hiking up a hillside at a single mile per hour was difficult to fathom.
With the afternoon light beginning to glow orange, I emerged from the trail system and at the edge of a parking lot there was a cooler with a stick holding the lid open, like the animal traps in Buggs Bunny cartoons. I walked over, looked down and saw cans partially submerged in water. The ice had left the building. “Coke?” I wondered to myself and the answer came quickly: “YES.”
I took a minute to chug the cool syrup before remounting my bike to ascend the final couple hundred feet to the bomber descent back to the finish. Such is a Grasshopper that even though the caterer was packing up as I pulled into the parking lot, people cheered, some friends, others strangers, but people cheered, and I grinned like a kid on his birthday.
I’ve done a lot of stupidly hard rides, rides where you even begin to wonder what the point is. Super Skaggs is the hardest event I can imagine of less than 100 miles. Srsly, I’ve never encountered, or even read about, a cycling event of less than 100 miles where the terrain was all theoretically rideable that was any harder. This is not only the hardest sub-100 mile event I’ve ridden, it’s harder than most rides I’ve done over 100 miles. It’s so hard even my favorite surrealist author would be aghast. We all have a limit; on this one, I hit mine.
Photos: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal