Grasshopper Adventure Series emprasario Miguel Crawford has, after 20 years of predictable challenge, begun expanding the ‘Hopper ethos of adventure to other Northern California locales. What began as a way for a bunch of aspiring racers to get in shape for the summer mountain bike season, became an end in itself. Now that riding road bikes on dirt roads has been accepted by the industry as a pursuit worthy of top-notch equipment, the Grasshoppers have become an adventure of a different sort.
The season began with Low Gap, a half road, half dirt loop out of Ukiah, in Mendocino County. Last weekend’s ‘Hopper, Jackson, returned to Mendocino County, just the fourth time a Grasshopper has started in Mendocino County, but if Low Gap and Jackson are any indication of what Mendocino County has to offer … well, I’ll get to that.
Jackson is so named for Jackson State Demonstration Forest, where the majority of the event took place. Jackson is known for a rich network of dirt roads with mountain biker-built singletrack lacing its way throughout.
On paper, the ‘Hopper seemed reasonable enough: a 67.5-mile loop with a bit more than 8000 feet of climbing, starting and finishing from Fort Bragg. We were told the route, unlike the typical Grasshopper, would be 95 percent dirt, with two stretches of singletrack. I didn’t expect I’d be out there more than seven hours, but then there was no way for me to estimate the residual fatigue from Dirty Kanza; all I could really do was rest … and hope.
Riding a big event for the first time has the quality of an odyssey. Even the very best course descriptions paired with detailed maps and elevation profiles do little more than give you a silhouette of what is to come. Around each turn is the unknown, the length of each climb impossible to guess, the descents full of danger, until you’ve done them enough that they aren’t. The effect of a day so full of the unknown is fatiguing in a way that can scarcely be articulated. How many times can you ask yourself, “What now?”
There were two pieces of advice that Mig gave us in the event description that were telling; he said a hardtail was the bike of choice for the day, and for those on gravel bikes, mountain bike gearing would be smart. I opted to run my Seven Airheart with the 46/30 subcompact crank and swapped the 11-32 cassette for an 11-34, giving me a 30×34 low gear, which was low enough that I dismounted only twice due to a combination of steep grade and loss of traction. The steep grades that are such a feature of Sonoma County are every bit as common in Mendocino County; fire roads didn’t waste time with switchbacks, they just got on with it. This owes to the fact that Jackson is a demonstration forest, meaning it is logged, and logging trucks can’t do switchbacks. Pitches of 16, 20, even 24 percent kept me seated, torso forward and pedaling as smoothly as I could manage to avoid breaking the rear tire loose.
The quality of light in a Redwood forest is soft, clear, even gentle. I wear glasses for only two reasons—to keep pollen and dirt out of my eyes and to tame the sun’s harsher rays when we do emerge at rare intervals into full sunlight. The effect of the reduced light is less magical than mystical. It’s rare to see more than one or two other riders because the roads amble so much, so the setting creates a kind of intimacy, one where I feel less that I’m competing against the rider ahead of me than sharing an ordeal. That line about early competitors of the Tour de France being convicts of the road comes back to me.
From the start at Noyo Headlands Park in Fort Bragg, we rode just a couple of blocks before turning onto a logging road owned by Geoorgia Pacific, and because it was a logging road, it went to dirt as quickly as a private jumping from his bunk at reveille. We quickly encountered one short hill followed by a long false flat. Just shy of the 10-mile mark we encountered the big climb Miguel warned us to expect. As only Northern California seems to do, the climb turned steep with the immediacy of a light switch. I continue to marvel how after sustained pitches upward of 18 percent that 8 percent will feel like a false flat. In just more than two miles the road climbs 950 feet. The respite was nonexistent, though. The next 15 miles, shrouded by deep forest, we gradually gained elevation over a sawtooth ridge: up 200 feet, down 100, up 100, down 50, up 300, down 200.
Following Dirty Kanza, I did all that I could to recover. Few miles, easy miles. That ridgeline revealed a few different truths to me. The first was that I was not nearly as recovered as I’d hoped. The second was that Miguel was right about a hardtail being the better strategic choice. The third was that as much as I try to rid myself of the corrosive effects of my ego, it’s never quiet for all that long.
The road surface lacked the smooth pack of so many fire roads in this part of the state. It was dusted with pine duff and distributed in waves that the hallmark of water running downhill. In as much as a 40mm tire is better than a 28mm one, a 2.2-inch-wide mountain bike tire beats the gravel tire. Front suspension would have been welcome on that climb; anything to stop the bucking of that road. And so why was my ego so thoroughly online? I found myself wishing that this Grasshopper had a rule. Grasshoppers are light on rules. They can be summed up as play nice and be sensible. But I wanted one saying we all needed to ride gravel bikes. Whatever was going on in my head was less about leveling the playing field than sharing the ordeal. These events are different on a fundamental level when ridden on a bike with a drop bar, different the way a lime is not a lemon.
There was a cadre of eight-ish riders I rode in the rotating company of as we dealt with the ascending ridge. I’d get passed by some on the climb, only to overtake them on the descent. We had the same average speed and yet our riding wasn’t coordinated in the least.
After such a long succession of peaks when we reached the highest of the day at 1800 feet, I took a moment to turn my head to the left and take in the view to the east. Redwood forest spread unabated, no signs of civilization ready at hand. Unfortunately, I was so excited to see the long descent ahead that I didn’t take more time to actually look around more. Even though the descent wouldn’t be easy, I wanted to enjoy the end of the climbing and nothing could convey the respite as well as going downhill.
The ensuing nine-mile descent cornered the market on reasonable grades. It’s as if the landscape finally threw a curve ball of a road to keep me guessing. I can’t recall a single steep pitch that resulted in white-knuckle braking. Near the bottom, we joined Route 20, which led us to the first fuel stop of the day. I grabbed a quick bite and drank a couple of cups of Guayaki and filled my bottles. As friends were manning the stop, I had the inclination to stick around and chat, but I made my way as quick as I was able.
Up to this point the entire event had occurred within the confines of Jackson State Forest, but following our fuel stop, we spun on asphalt for a couple of short distances over rolling terrain and then turned into Mendocino Woodlands State Park. And lo, what should we encounter, but singletrack. Lazy, winding, sheltered singletrack. I couldn’t help but wonder what else was in store for us.
To this point, in the 1980s this would have been a mountain bike race, straight up. The grades, the fire roads, the easily navigable singletrack, it was just the sort of odyssey promoted by 8.5 x 11 photocopied flyers displayed on bike shop bulletin boards. Then came the climb up to fuel stop number two and a return to stiff grades, but with a better surface this time. Color seemed to be the least constant aspect of our day. There’d been the deep brown of the duff covering the road early on, the peanut butter brown on the big descent, the black of tarmac followed by the gray of the dirt road and gray-brown of the singletrack, a sort of noncolor that I imagine zombie skin might appear.
At the top of the last notable climb, something I gutted out despite the usual double-digit grades, volunteers stopped us because paramedics were on their way down to a crashed rider. I sat for a few minutes then began to wonder just what we were looking at; when I learned the rider was a mile down the descent, I looked at the guy who was insisting I couldn’t ride and simply said, “I’ve been out here seven hours. This is a race. I’m effing tired and want to finish. Bye.”
I then dropped into the most another piece of Jackson State Forest into which one could wander for weeks and not emerge.
It was the second section of hand-cut singletrack that took the event out of the realm of difficult and into the absurd. Over rolling terrain, with the odd whoop and closely encroaching poison oak thrown in for good measure, someone, or many someones had cut a singletrack trail, even walking in blocks of granite to place in one wet spot. I recall thinking that whatever reserves the climbing had sapped from my legs, leaving me on fumes, the singletrack had done to my brain. The concentration required on the narrow ribbon of dirt was enormous and more and more I wondered if I wasn’t destined to run off the trail only to belly flop into a great spread of poison oak.
Upon emerging from the singletrack onto another gray-tan snake of road, I had the strange sensation that it looked familiar, that I’d ridden it before, which seemed patently ridiculous, considering I’d only ridden in the forest twice before. The rhythm of the bends echoed in my memory. Could all of Jackson Forest contain such reminders? Around a bend I rolled, and there, at the top of a false flat was Mig’s wife Tera, taking down numbers of finishers, along with two friends. After saying hi I rolled up to the intersection that would lead back toward Fort Bragg and what did I see? The spot where I parked my car 18 months ago on my only mountain bike ride there.
The ride on Hwy 1 back to Noyo Park seemed to take an eternity on legs that were as empty as some YouTube stars’ heads. I remember eating another gel even as Fort Bragg eased into view. Back in the park the taco truck served up tacos, bean and rice and the al pastor was just spicy enough to call for another beer.
The Grasshoppers have been going for more than 20 years now. The events started as a way to train for summer mountain bike racing, but became a goal in their own right for many. And while they are the oldest gravel events in the country, the fact that they can be punctuated with long stretches of asphalt always meant that people looking for a predmoninantly gravel event held during a nice time of year skipped the ‘Hoppers. Jackson is the event that can and will change that. The weather was perfect and in 72 miles, fewer than ten of those were on pavement, including the post-finish ride back to the park.
This is the event that should see people flying in from all over the country to try a Grasshopper. Whatever you think of how hard a gravel event can or even should be, this will redefine what you think you can experience in 72 miles. Humility was my companion and without it, I might still be out there. In my head, there are times when I swear I am.
Images: Ana Pimsler