After spending three months doing progressively longer events, stretching those riders who commit to the full series with ever tougher challenges, the fifth—and formerly final—Grasshopper is King Ridge Dirt Supreme. The event comes in two flavors: one at roughly 80 miles and with 8000 or so feet of climbing and the other at 62 miles and with 6700 feet of climbing.
The event for the last few years has had a different start than it used to, historically speaking. The Grasshoppers started as an Occidental thing, related to Gianni Cyclery, the one bike shop that used to exist in Occidental. Alas, Occidental is one of those communities that is perfectly happy not to have an influx of tourists, so the Grasshoppers are increasingly starting elsewhere, like Duncans Mills, an also practically not there village just inland from the coast. Unfortunately, gone is the final climb back up Willow Creek that shattered legs and hearts alike.
When we rolled out of Duncans Mills it was obvious that people were antsy. We took up far too much of the road, rattled over last winter’s (and this spring’s) potholes and then began the initially gentle climb up Bohemian Highway toward Occidental. This early part of the course is encapsulated with Redwood forest and is dark enough that dark glasses can be a problem. As is my habit, I stayed toward the back and out of the thick of the action and the worst of the braking, surfing that ragged edge of exhaust. I had the simultaneous reaction of feeling both relief and dread when we reached the sunshine in Occidental. I knew that the turn onto Coleman Valley, the start of the real climbing was just 100 meters up the road.
The opening several hundred meters of Coleman Valley is double-digit steep, though not so bad as other spots we were to hit, but with everyone fresh, it was hard not to think I’d blow long before hitting the coast. I know the climb from the base of Coleman Valley to the top of Willow Creek better than any other climb in this county, so I knew where I needed to conserve and where I could hope to make up time, the latter being almost nowhere.
We got a surprise upon diving back into Redwood forest on Willow Creek. A large group of hikers, disgorged from church vans lined both sides of the road as we approached the yellow gate marking the start of the dirt descent. I began passing other riders and came around a bend only to discover a giant Ford Econoline 16-person van making a 35-point turn in front of the gate, shortening my stopping distance by a good 15 feet or so.
Not everything that came out of my mouth was water vapor and carbon dioxide.
I learned some time back that I’m a leopard who can’t hide his spots, so I bought a long pole for my freak flag. Case in point: Willow Creek is my favorite road in the world. As a descent it is ceaselessly challenging and stupid amounts of fun. As a climb it’s long enough and technical enough that unless you’re a super-fit rider, you can never be cavalier on it.
Willow Creek was the only spot where I made up time on other riders. I passed hikers lining both sides of the very narrow road, squeezed by fellow riders and vaguely registered the great many riders off to the side fixing flats. So many flats, and we hadn’t even gotten to the fresh gravel at the bottom. Due to a giant, fallen Redwood, there was one mandatory dismount; listeners of the Paceline Podcast have heard me talk about all the damage to that road. There are two new landslides (on top of the two existing ones that narrow the road significantly) plus a section of road that settled two feet. The settled section had transitions carved into it so I was able to ride down into it and back out.
Once at the bottom and out of the forest, there is a four-mile stretch that mixes dirt road, decaying pavement and stretches of fresh gravel. The gravel, however, isn’t likely to pack in very well. Rather than pieces the size of peanut M&Ms, this gravel is on the order of chicken eggs and is prone to moving under bicycle tires.
The reason I continued to see riders lining the road changing flats is that given the amount of pavement in this event, calling it a gravel ride is a distinct misnomer. Mixed surface is a much more appropriate monicker. As a result, a great many people decided to run road bikes with 28s, sometimes 25s if clearance was an issue. I stuck with the 40mm Donnelly USH which has become my all-time favorite tire for conditions like these.
It takes a special kind of dungeon master to send riders north on California’s Highway 1. The prevailing winds run with the current from Alaska to Mexico. The best a rider can hope for is to get a day with less wind. The coast winds and undulates, offering occasional shelter from the blow, but also shielding other riders from view, leaving riders to wonder just how great the gap is.
And what comes as respite is a sadistic joke. Fort Ross Road goes exactly nowhere and does so with some circumstance, but zero pomp. Double-digit grades are the rule on this climb, making it the one of the ugliest 2.5 miles in Sonoma County, if not my life.
Our first sag stop of the day sat atop the climb and it was nice to see friendly faces and fill up my bottles with Osmo, rather than Country Time lemonade, which still seems to be a thing at local centuries. After just a couple of miles on Seaview, we turned onto Timber Cove, a road more immediate in its need to get from A to B, which is to say that when I hit 47 on the descent, I did so during intermittent braking and if I’d allowed gravity to have its way with me, I’d have gone much faster.
Back on Hwy 1, I was left with a distinct deja vu, or worse, Groundhog Day. Didn’t I just do this? I was lucky to have a group of half a dozen other riders to trade pulls with, but even this limited group broke up by the time we reached the turn onto Kruse Ranch Road. This dirt road is one of a handful of climbs in Sonoma County that can be relied upon for single-digit grades. Sheltered from the sun and the wind, it may climb, but I treated it as a chance to ride tempo and save some matches for later.
Back into sunlight, Kruse Ranch meets Seaview for the drop down to Hauser Bridge. It’s a quick drop to the Gualala River with switchbacks both in and out. And the 700-foot drop is answered with a palindromic ascent back out of the canyon of 800 feet to the intersection with King Ridge.
When taken from east to west, King Ridge is a big climb with a couple of points of relief before a significant descent and then a final short climb up where King Ridge dead-ends into Tin Barn and Hauser Bridge Road. But taken the other way, as in this Grasshopper, King Ridge offers a brief drop to shake the legs out before the 15 mile traverse of the ridge where each slight dip is followed by more climbing. It’s a seemingly interminable series of insults. The challenge here isn’t so much to see just how hard you can dig on each of the sections of climb, but to see if you can liberate your spirit enough to look around. The views from King Ridge take in the rolling terrain of Sonoma County and all that it has to offer, from grassy hillsides still green from the spring rains to towering Redwoods, to dirt roads that wind out of view, to wildflowers lining the road and marching across nearby slopes. For all the California Poppies I didn’t see at Huffmaster, King Ridge made up for it.
When the descending toward the town of Cazadero begins it’s easy to thing that you’re home free. I have to remind myself that’s not the case. A final three kickers break up the drop; it’s easy to lose momentum with tired legs.
I’d spent much of the day riding with a rider in the 30-39 category, a guy who would pull, but was content to let me lead into the wind; he was a quick descender though. However, when we reached the drop for King Ridge I asked him if he’d ever done it before and when he said he had never ridden the road at all, I offered to take the lead. Between the occasionally blown-out pavement and the often vertiginous grades, this is one of those descents I have yet to comfortably cruise.
Upon rolling into Cazadero it’s easy to feel like the race is over, and while the final six miles are essentially downhill, I mark the run down Cazadero Highway with the knowledge that we will turn onto Austin Creek Road and still have three miles to the finish. Cazadero is thickly forested and the highway a two-lane affair with just enough twists to keep riders scanning the road for traffic while trying to stuff down the last of their food.
Somewhere up on King Ridge I spotted a rider up ahead and after my duo made the turn onto Austin Creek we began to see him. Bit between my teeth, I undertook to reel him in because without some incentive, I was liable to soft pedal to the finish. I got the gap to four or five meters only to have him take note and up his pace slightly. But after coming off the final roller, I used gravity to accelerate and we passed him with a quick enough pace to prevent him from getting on. I could even hear him exclaim as we came by.
Alas, my legs were empty as a dry water bottle. With less than a mile to go, as we passed the last of the homes with a Caz address, they both dropped me and I limped into the finish. Six seconds later another rider rolled through and told me he’d had me in his sights.
With many of the Grasshoppers a great many people simply struggle to ride the distance. It’s not easy to put together the fitness to be strong enough to select where its possible to go hard rather than conserve. For me, this was one of those rare days, where little took place in my head aside from asking myself if I was able to go harder. It’s a recipe for doubt, as each time the answer comes back, “No, I can’t possibly go any harder and not blow up,” a new question arises.
And to that question there are no easy answers.