Katie Hall races the WorldTour with Boels-Dolmans. Kate Courtney is the reigning mountain bike World Cup champion. Alison Tetrick is the course record-holder at Dirty Kanza 200, and Amity Rockwell is the reigning winner at gravel cycling’s biggest race.
Besides their obvious badass accolades, what do these women have in common?
The Grasshopper Adventure Series.
On Saturday in Ukiah, California, all four of these women will compete in the Low Gap, the opening event of the 2020 Grasshopper Adventure Series.
“It’s a great community event and often filled with a lot of my friends and training partners,” Courtney said. “We have a lot of local fast ladies which is really valuable and allows us to challenge each other early in the year before we begin traveling to compete.”
One of the longest running off-road events in the country, the first Hopper was held in 1998 in Occidental, CA. A lot has changed since the first riders set off over Sweetwater Springs Road, but much has stayed the same. The Hoppers have long been known for their challenging courses, tactical and navigational decision-making, and lack of support during the race.
“I think that format appealed to people,” said Miguel Crawford, the founder of the series. “People who live in NorCal, these very accomplished riders – road, cross, mountain bike – we ride year round. It made sense to these people.”
For Crawford, “these people” have always included a strong female contingent.
Women’s participation percentages rates in gravel events often teeters in the teens. Crawford said that, depending on which ride in the series, he often sees 20 percent women at the Hoppers. And Crawford has a plan to boost his female participation even higher in 2020. For the first time this year, he offered women a special deal: 50 percent of the cost of registering for the full seven-race series. Historically, however, Crawford hasn’t really marketed toward anyone.
“I always relied on word of mouth,” Crawford said. “If someone was gonna come, then someone else had described to them what it was like. I expected people to be helping get other people into it that way.”
Pro roadie turned pro gravel racer Tetrick remembers feeling like she was missing out when she heard reports from Hoppers while spending time abroad in the World Tour. Whenever she was in California, she’d prioritize getting to a Hopper.
“As soon as my schedule allowed, I signed up, and by signed up, I mean I bought the season pass,” Tetrick said. “It was powerful women in my community like Katerina Nash and Olivia Dillon that encouraged me to sign up for the Hoppers. For them to kick me in the teeth and show me what a good time looked like.”
At Low Gap, 82 women (of 407 total) will line up to ride the 43 mile, 5,633 foot mixed terrain course, which Crawford describes as “the epitome of Nor Cal adventure riding.” Some will be there to tear it up. Others will show up simply to have fun.
“I think one of the beauties of the Grasshoppers is that they can be whatever you want them to be,” said Hall, who’s completed around a dozen of Crawford’s rides. “You can race them at the front, or you can wait for you buddies and have a really relaxed day with your friends.”
Rockwell, another regular at the Grasshopper rides, said the series fosters a competitive environment, even though the competition doesn’t necessarily set the tone of the day.
“I think [the Grasshoppers] are where I’ve pushed the absolute hardest – but it’s a competition against myself, and it’s always dwarfed by the location and the friends and the sheer fun,” she said.
Rockwell said that, while the Dirty Kanza 200 victory gave her a career in gravel, it was the Grasshopper Adventure Series that made her a racer.
“They’re what convinced me to take this bike thing a little more seriously, and they remain the essence of what I love about cycling,” she said.
In recent years, the Grasshopper Adventure Series has been on the radar of more California-based pros. In this way, the series isn’t unlike some gravel events, where pros from other disciplines have begun to line up in earnest.
For Courtney, whose peak has been adjusted to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics, the Grasshoppers will serve as early season training rides. Low Gap, she said, will certainly hurt this year.
“Often they are my first dose of intensity for the season,” she said, “and a good way to get some faster miles in with great people, exciting routes and a little extra motivation riding in the bunch.”
Twenty-two years in, Crawford’s philosophy of making a fun and inclusive event continues to be the sole driver behind women’s participation numbers, but offering 50 percent off the series to women didn’t hurt. Crawford said he sold 22 series-wide passes after announcing the deal.
He attended USA Cycling’s gravel symposium earlier this month, and said that the presentation on increasing women’s participation did give him pause.
“I’m one to act and not plan, but I am good at hearing feedback about stuff,” he said. “It was mentioned that women would like separate portapotties or portapotties at a feed zone. It hadn’t crossed my mind. But truly, if you have a large event, not everyone wants to pee in the forest.”
Rockwell, whose first Hopper was King Ridge in 2015 and who won the series in 2018, said that she’s seen the women’s field grow in the past four years, and would like to see even more female representation in the series.
“I think the less-serious attitude and focus on aspects outside of pure competition makes them [the Grasshoppers] more accessible and approachable,” Rockwell said, “but until races are 50 percent women then no, not enough women show up.”
For now, word of mouth seems to be working: at Low Gap on Saturday, the field will be stacked full of fast, fun-loving women.