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January in Northern California is wet and chilly, not cold like a place with a real winter, but not the sort of day that causes anyone to take up cycling. In other words, the perfect day for the first gravel event of the 2020 season. The first race of the Grasshopper Adventure Series was Low Gap, a loop out of the town of Ukiah, in Mendocino County, roughly two hours north of San Francisco. On the line, at the start, were previous winners of Grasshopper events, including Geoff Kabush, Pete Stetina, Laurens Ten Dam, Katie Hall, and Alison Tetrick, as well as NICA-graduate, and the winner of last year’s edition, Sandy Floren.
The temperature hung in the low 50s, as the peloton made its way up the climb of Orr Springs. Socked in with fog, there were plenty of us who were grateful not to be able to see the road curling around the hillside and into the distance.
At 48 miles, with more than 6,200 feet of climbing, the course was punctuated by two large climbs. The first was up Orr Springs Road, just a few hundred yards into the race. I knew the climb felt longer than it was, due to its steep grade. The ascent was a bit more than four miles and climbed 1,700 feet, before a one-mile descent, followed by another mile-and-a-half to the summit; grades were frequently double digit.
A steep, four-mile descent, followed by an additional six-mile false flat downhill. Then, a short climb which took riders to the first fuel stop for the day, at the turnoff to Low Gap Road. Here, the pavement gave way to dirt. Only, this year, there was little dirt, and instead, there was plenty of mud. Low Gap takes riders up a five-mile, rolling climb punctuated by a mile-and-a-half drop, another mile-and-a-half hill, then brief descent before the three-mile pitch, up to Low Gap. The descent from the top of Low Gap to the finish was nearly nine miles, with only a few token rises breaking up the drop. For most of us, the race was less against anyone else present, than it was against the mud.
The forecast was for rain, but it held off as Stetina soloed away from the field, on the Orr Springs climb. I watched as the field went from four wide, to three wide, to side-by-side, to eventually single-file, with gaps between the riders. It was as thorough a sort as I’ve encountered.
Other than the road ahead and the hillside to my right, there was little to see; redwoods disappeared into gray. Near the top of the climb, the fog finally began to dissipate, which made seeing on the descent much easier.
I’d told myself before the start that no matter how inclined I was to go hard on the opening ascent, I needed to save as many matches as possible for Low Gap, because pedaling through mud isn’t easy, especially when climbing in mud is required. Miguel Crawford, the organizer of the Grasshoppers, had done some scouting the weekend before and warned us to be prepared for mud. When I checked with him two days before the start where he thought things stood, he warned me to go with the bike that offered the greatest mud clearance.
The plummet to Orr Springs would have been treacherous on 23mm tires pumped up to 100 psi. But on a 35mm-wide tire pumped to 45 psi, even the roughest, wettest turns weren’t dicey. The rest of the drop to Orr Springs was chilly, and the granite sky threatened to open up any time it wasn’t obscured by the towering trees.
Osmo Nutrition provided a sag stop at the turn onto Low Gap Road. It was a reasonable moment to take a quick bite and fill a bottle before tackling the mud. The mud. Good grief. The last time I saw mud like this was in the 1990s during the NORBA National held at Mount Snow Vermont. Name a kind of mud. Baby food? Had it. Peanut butter? Yep. Personal lubricant? That too. There were moments on climbs where half of each pedal stroke I took resulted in the rear wheel spinning. My hamstrings and hip flexors are sore from sitting so far back on my saddle to try to simultaneously generate more power and shift more weight over the rear wheel. When I think back on the muddiest cyclocross races I ever did, this shamed them like a ruler-wielding nun.
Keeping a bicycle upright in a two-wheel drift is, in my estimation one of the cooler skills a cyclist may develop, short of going full Danny MacAskill. In the muddiest sections, it was important to line up perfectly straight and in turns I found myself apexing hard and allowing the bike to drift wide through the turn. I slid more on Low Gap Road than I ever did in any two races combined. Fog rolled back in near the top of Low Gap and the view south over the emerald forest was obscured from view.
Eventual third-place Floren recounted, “Pete Stetina and I hit it hard on the first climb, and got a good gap over the field. We were working together through the fast valley section when I had a flat tire. I figured that the race was pretty much lost at that point, as I had dropped nearly two minutes fixing my flat, but I still rode my hardest for the next hour, because you never know what can happen in conditions like this. Once I got to the top of the final climb Pete was still nowhere to be seen, so I was a little careful on the descent, to salvage my second place, and avoid flatting a second time. But then, near the bottom of the descent, I spied him a few corners ahead of me and thought, ‘Wow, I might still have a chance to take this!’ So, I poured it on, and made it up to him. I tried to put in a gap on the downhill, but I was spun out, and couldn’t shake him off my wheel. At that point, we both knew it was going to be a sprint for the line so we started playing games a little bit, when out of nowhere Geoff Kabush comes flying by on the left hand side of the road, catching us with our pants down. It was the exact perfect moment and there wasn’t enough road left to react in time, and make it back up to him. It hurt to see the win slip out of my hands twice in one day, but if anyone deserves that win, it’s Geoff, showing everyone once again that he’s an immensely impressive athlete and bike handler.”
Women’s second-place finisher, Lauren Cantwell, was impressed with the event. “This was my first ‘Hopper, and I was blown away by the friendly, laidback atmosphere. Even though both the men’s and women’s fields were superb, the whole vibe was low-key, and anyone could make the day whatever they wanted it to be, whether a full-on race or, adventurous ride with friends, which was rad.”
Former Euro-pro Stetina said, “Saturday was what we call a proper ‘Hopper. That’s what made it fun and unique. It was an absolute mudfest.” Stetina rode his Canyon Grail, with 36mm IRC tires, pumped to 42 psi front and 45 rear, and confided that he went with, “way too much pressure.” When Floren flatted on the descent Stetina said he didn’t expect to be on his own, and ended up soloing for two hours. When he got to the top of Low Gap he remarked to himself, “I don’t see those guys, I don’t know where those guys are. I had almost mentally switched off. I totally underestimated how fast those guys would be ripping that descent. Sandy surprised me when he came back in the final mile of the race. We’re finishing on the road when Geoff came out of nowhere. Had an immediate gap. That was a cagey move. That was fun; it was proper racing.”
Kabush said he had been in Northern California only a few weeks, and didn’t expect to be competitive, which was why he let Stetina and Floren go on the opening climb. Near the top of Low Gap he learned that his gap was but three minutes; sizable, but not impossible. “I could actually see some of the tire tracks in the mud and I could tell I was carrying a lot more speed. I still couldn’t believe it when I caught a glimpse of a few riders, as we approached the end of the gravel. With 60 seconds to go, I still didn’t know if I would be able to catch them by the line; Sandy was pulling hard, and Pete was stretching his back getting ready for the final sprint. I just had to fully commit and on the final tiny rise, I was able to surprise them with an attack, and just hold on for the win. That is definitely one I’m going to remember for a while.”
The next Grasshopper is Super Sweetwater on February 29.