Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Post Hopper Blues

One advantage of ten years of Hoppers, haven't missed one yet, is that I know what to expect from my own body. This year I expected pain and suffering and very little glory. Amazing showing this year; Team NorCal ladies, DFL, Gianni, Organic Athlete, Whole Athlete and do we dare say BMC and Astana? Good thing I planned the Grasshopper around the Giro this year so Levi was able to make an appearance. Scott was there as well but suffered the fate of so many others, multiple punctures. I got my flat on the descent to Salt Point, raised my hand for a wheel change and nothing happened. I'll need to talk to the director about this! Matthias promised to wait for me but I wasn't surprised to find myself alone on Hwy 1. Sat up and waited for some riders to come from behind. Great company with Gabe, Drew, Dan, Jason and a couple of others, kinda like a hard ride with your buddies. I guess that's what this really is, only no waiting at the top of the climb. Having spent time at the front, back and now middle of the pack throughout the years I'm impressed by the depth of talent and ability to suffer. On a bad day anyone who drops back from the front will receive no sympathy for those battling for 20th or 30th. There is no "omnibus" of sprinters waiting for the flatter stages. It is the embodiment of "tough love". Saturday's race saw a unique attack on Austin Creek let by NorCal. Not a bad plan considering Levi and Scott were along for the ride. I like Roger's description of riding along King Ridge with Levi, "wheezing through his pie hole", looked over to see Levi poker-faced calmly breathing through his nose.Group was caught and I understand they worked successfully to put Shane in the lead (behind Levi of course). Thing is, Shane is battling for the victory with Chris and they're on the same team...guess it's up to them to figure it out. Should be a showdown at Lake Sonoma for double points. Anyways, survived Fort Ross climb and had a ripping decent down Meyers Grade and Russian Gulch, does it get any better than that on a road bike? Had a clear mind on the beginning of Willow Creek but there was some trouble in the engine room. As my foot pain began to intensify I felt my "legs" beginning to cramp. I spent the next 40 minutes avoiding total body failure. Stopping was not an option, for one, Josh and Jason who heckled me for walking the Twin Sisters (it was my recovery strategy) needed their dose of brotherly love and besides if I stopped it would take me longer to get to the finish. During this time I was experiencing, I think ,six cramps; thus "legs" is in quotes. Let's face it, we have multiple muscles in our legs and sometimes the whole freakin' thing feels like it's gonna' seize up. Like when your quads cramp so bad you slowly dismount and discover that your hammy was nearly as bad, seizes up an you find yourself in a fetus position suckling the last drops of your water bottle and slurpin' a GU, hoping to avoid convulsions. This only happened to me once in the Humbug Hurryup years ago on a single speed, still finished 3rd and nobody got to see it! Managed to finish the ride and avoid getting caught by Brett and Giampalo. Just as I predicted; much pain and very little glory as I rolled in at 27th, more than a half hour off the pace.


At 8:45 AM , Blogger Andrew said...

spot on, man. the pain is the same for 20th as for 2nd, the battles as hard-fought and the satisfaction as deep. and the beer tastes just as cold.....

At 7:22 AM , Blogger Dario said...

We’ve all had big days on the bike at one time or another and used words like “epic” to describe the odyssey. But then there are the experiences that virtually defy description. They are the reason we wake up early, ride in cold and wet weather, and suffer discomfort. These adventures are transformative, self-revealing and confirmation that those hours and days pedaling mean something. While language may not do justice to such an experience, I risk self-contradiction in using one word to sum it up: Grasshopper.

In its 10th year, the “hopper”, as it’s endearingly known by regulars, is an adventure series not meant for the faint of heart. It’s a series of ambitious rides (or underground races, depending on your perspective) throughout the spring in Marin and Sonoma Counties that requires road, ‘cross or mountain bikes, depending on the route, and brings out occasional guest star appearances by national- and world-class racers.

My first Grasshopper experience came about Saturday in the form of the King’s Ridge version. While this route is considered a “road bike” course, don’t think for a moment that we’re talking about smooth roads, follow vehicles, feed zones and course marshals. After all, it’s called an adventure series for a reason.

As we assembled behind the Union Hotel in Occidental listening to Grasshopper founder Miguel tell us about the route, I see Levi Leipheimer (yes, that Levi - US national champ and Tour de France podium finisher) and Scott Nydam (winner of the climber’s jersey at this year’s Tour of California) queuing up as well. Team NorCal Bike Sport had a full contingent of riders, and to them this is as much a race as a mass-start group ride with a finish line and recorded finishing order can get. The Whole Athlete team was well-represented with Josh Litwack, Peter Nicholson, Charlie Schneider, Ted Thomas and myself. Honorary members Steve Cherry and Don Lindsay also donned the blue WA kit. John Hunt (Cal Giant), Davis Bentley (Specialized Junior Team), Ken Husband (Team Northside) and a number of other friends came along to join the fun as well.

With three large water bottles, a laminated map of the course and enough power food to choke a horse, I rolled out with dozens of riders as we descended from Occidental to Monte Rio. Once we reached the flats, attacks began. NorCal was going for gold and this was their backyard, their training grounds, their turf. A group went up the road with six NorCals, Specialized MTB pro Glen Fant, and one or two others. They motored away even before the first climb began.

I opted to stay with Levi, Nydam and my training partner John Hunt, as this seemed like the smart thing to do. After all, we had over 8000 ft. of climbing to do in only 75 miles (with the last climb on dirt), and the kicker of a climb was to come at about half way in the form of Ft. Ross road. If you’re not familiar with the Ft. Ross climb, let’s just say that it’s steep…and it’s long. Oh, and did I mention that it’s steep?

We take Cazadero Hwy to Kings Ridge Road and the climbing starts in earnest. A couple of NorCal riders and another pro MTBr are at the front pushing hard. Levi and Nydam are barely breaking a sweat. I stay in good position, following Levi and John. After only a couple of climbing sections, our group is down to less than twenty. We see two NorCals coming back to us from the break. They must be hammering up there. The road is beautiful, the scenery breathtaking (or was it the pace taking my breath?). It was worth looking around.

We did a couple of fun, short descents, a few rolling sections across the ridge, and then a slightly longer descent. I was riding Scott Nydam’s wheel, about sixth back from the lead rider when we came into a corner with a cattle grate strategically placed in the apex of the turn. Scott nearly rode off the road crossing the grate as I squeaked by him on the inside, avoiding possible disaster. I can only imagine the carnage if it was wet…At the next leveling out, I decide I want to be closer to the front on the descent to take my preferred lines. I see NorCal pro MTBr Shane Bresnyan surge ahead and I follow his wheel as we drop down the wicked-steep descent to Hauser Bridge at mach speeds. Damn, this guy can descend! The perfect wheel - clean, fast lines. Wow, what an incredibly fun road!

We cross the metal bridge and start the last King’s Ridge climb and I realize we opened a gap behind us. Shortly after Shane and I started climbing again, Levi, Scott, John, Todd Weitzenberg (NorCal) and a couple of others join us. Levi goes to the front, effortlessly dials it up and it’s down to four of us. John looks good on Levi’s wheel, Nydam rides easily alongside, and I start to wonder how deep I’m gonna need to dig to stay with these three - also not knowing how long or steep the climb is from here. I start to enter the red zone, and decide to save a couple of matches for Ft. Ross road and wait for Shane as he knows the upcoming, semi-hidden turnoff onto the 5 mile dirt single-track descent to Hwy 1.

Shane and Todd roll up over the top and I see John waiting for us at a split in the road. Nydam took Levi’s cue at the top and those two took off together, looking to bridge to the break without any of us hangers-on. John joins us moments later as Shane takes a hard right onto the dirt with me on his wheel, throws his bottles to the ground and reaches into the trees as he picks bottles like ripe apples off a fruit tree. Nice feed stash! We start ripping down the dirt as I pick up a stick in my front wheel. I almost need to stop to pull it out and then pull out all the stops to bridge back up (actually down) to Shane. He looks back to see that it’s only me and no one else in sight, and we blaze downhill toward Hwy 1. I am grinning ear to ear as we slide and hop around on our road machines. Unbelievable dirt descent…The forest surrounds us, creating a tunnel-like route. Shane knows this road well, so I just follow his lines again. Did I already say this guy know how to descend? It’s a pleasure to ride a wheel you can trust – and fast. We pass Nydam with a flat as Shane tosses him his pump.

The dirt tunnel ejects us onto smooth asphalt and we turn south onto Hwy 1. And there’s the breakaway at 50 meters (Tim Farnham, Jonathan Lee, John Staroba, Glen Fant and Levi). We roll up and Levi, Farnham, Lee and Staroba are motoring at the front. Glen, Shane and I sit on, as the other four rotate a strong pace in the cross-tailwind. I am biding my time for Ft. Ross, hoping my legs can come back under me for the heartbreaker to come. Not having done the climb before, I consciously build my motivation and confidence as I conserve whatever energy I have left, eating and drinking as we speed south. Levi occasionally puts everyone into difficulty when he pulls on the slightly uphill sections. NorCal asks him to dial it back as we start to drop both Fant and Shane.

We swing left onto Ft. Ross Road, and Levi and Farnham go to the front. I follow them as we are assaulted by the first pitch. 20%? More? Whatever, it’s steep. Levi looks back at the carnage and dances away (probably in zone 3). Later dude. Farnham tries to go also but realizes that he’s not quite at Tour-level form…yet. I am in self-management mode, not knowing the climb, but knowing and feeling that it is hard and long. I am slowly turning over my 27 cog, wishing for a lower gear. Jonathan claws his way back up to me, soon followed by Shane. I stay behind them, just trying to keep the pedals turning over. Farnham looks back and encourages his two teammates. The three come together, as I struggle a couple bike lengths behind. Finally, the road starts to level off and I see an opening in the foliage up ahead. I accelerate back onto their wheels, then the road opens to the steepest pitch of the climb. Ouch! I guess it wasn’t steep enough already. The NorCals put in an acceleration, I am gapped, and the road finally levels as they immediately start working together. Later dude. I am alone in no-man’s land. Ft. Ross, the widow-maker has claimed yet another victim. I have thoughts of bridging, but my legs bring me back to reality. Ok, time to regroup. Eat, drink and spin until you feel you can push a bit harder. Of course, heavy on my mind is the other challenging dirt climb to come before the finish. Just then, Scott Nydam flies by me like I’m standing still. I guess that’s why they pay him to race his bike.

I pull out my map so that I know where the hell I am going. Meyers Grade is next. A sweet, fast, fun descent back down to Hwy 1. Then a small hill, then another epic (there’s that word again) descent on Hwy 1 to Jenner, across the Russian River and left onto Willow Creek Road. The final stretch. The final climb. Another date with the dirt - and destiny.

I enter the Willow Creek Watershed, and seem to accelerate with a second (or third, maybe fourth) wind as the flat road degrades into broke pavement, gravel and dirt. I see Nydam stopped with another flat. I give him my tube and keep going expecting him to come flying by me again soon after. The road turns into the forest and tilts up. Here we go. Four guys up the road: Levi solo, then three NorCals doing a TTT, then me. I tell myself I can do this. I can keep it together. Everything I've got left without blowing. I focus on my rhythm, cadence, effort, breathing. I sing a reggae song in my head. I eat another bar, drink my remaining water and settle in for who knows how long this damn climb will be. A few 16% pitches, barely able to keep traction but I stay on it. Beautiful road. Steady climb, quiet, no civilization in sight except for the dirt road. Seems to go on forever. When is Nydam gonna fly by me again? Then the dirt becomes pavement again, climbs a bit more and then levels out. Then it starts to descend. Fast. I look at the map again not sure if the next road is the final left to Occidental. It is. After almost 4 hrs, I finish. 5th place…Epic.

Everyone else finished, a few took wrong turns, but all the Whole Athletes survived the journey. Nice job everyone!


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