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While the professional peloton was starting its season in far-off places like Australia, Argentina and Europe, a group of former pros, weekend warriors and cycling enthusiasts began their cycling season this past weekend in Northern California with the epic, season-opening Grasshopper Adventure Series: a unique blend of road and gravel racing.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Starting in the picturesque town of Occidental, in the heart of Sonoma Valley, the Grasshopper is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And this first event—“Old Caz” as it is called—makes its way up to Cazadero before swooping back down toward the finish at the summit of Willow Creek Road. But what was found in between on this 52.3-mile course included paved roads, gravel roads, single-track paths and even a challenging river crossing.
Some clearly came to the event to race, while others just came to ride. But everyone at the start last Saturday was in a festive spirit.
On the front line it was easy to spot one-time pros like Levi Leipheimer and Ted King, along with current pros such as Courtney, all visibly fit. But, further back, riders of all levels of experience could be seen. And some even used the event to make fashion statements all their own.
Taking off in Occidental, the pack quickly climbed Coleman Valley Road before making their way up Bohemian Highway toward Cazadero. And if such place names don’t resonate quite like the Oude Kwaremont or the Arenberg Forest, fear not, as you are not alone. The truth of the matter is that for many years the Grasshopper was one of the region’s best-kept secrets. But today that secret is clearly getting out, because what was once little more than a group ride now boasts more than 600 official starters.
“It’s amazing to see how it has grown,” says Shane Bresnyan, a three-time winner, who is the general manager of Trail House, a unique café, bar and bike shop in nearby Santa Rosa. Bresnyan was at the inaugural event 20 years ago and remembers it well: “It was more of a get-together back then. But that said, all of the rides finished as races. This was no different, other than the fact this was an organized loop. But the core group was already there. You might stop along the way, but it ended up as a race at the end, with an all-out sprint. But that was the foundation for what it has become today. It’s amazing to see how it has grown. People are coming in from all over the place for what was just our backyard ride.”
“You get WorldTour pros out there with people riding their bikes for the first time in such an event,” Bresnyan continues. “Some people have no idea what they are in for, but everyone does the same course. The top guys finish in under three hours but for some people it is more like six or seven hours.”
As the riders approached the much-anticipated river crossing, somewhere between Cherry Street and Old Cazadero Road, King and Leipheimer appeared locked in a tight duel. The river crossing is roughly at the halfway mark, but clearly the race was already taking its toll as the pack was stretched out for miles. Yet despite the increasing levels of exhaustion, spirit appeared high. There was no consensus as to how best cross the river. For some the water was cold, while for others it was warm. Little matter, the river crossing is clearly a landmark in the event, not to mention a moment in the day that is discussed by everyone long after the finish.
“Old Caz is always hard because of the varied terrain,” says Yuri Hauswald, who has competed in all 20 of these events. “You have pavement in various states of disrepair, gravel, mud, creek crossings and gates. This year’s conditions were nearly perfect, so I found the course to be fast. The added horsepower of pro riders like Ted King, Kate Courtney, Levi Leipheimer, Alison Tetrick, as well as lesser known local crushers, means that the pace keeps getting faster every year!”
And while the two former pros dueled through much of the first half of the race, King eventually opened up a lead on Leipheimer, who, returning from a ski accident, faded gently to fourth by the finish. But then considering that top prize was a bottle of wine and a water bottle, any results here were mostly about bragging rights.
King, who has moved from New England to Northern California, enjoyed the warm sun after the hilltop finish, greeting many of the other finishers, who he knows on a first-name basis. Clearly King has been accepted into the Grasshopper community.
“Grasshoppers are now in, what, their 20th year?” King says. “We think of gravel riding as a modern-day tangent to the sport of cycling with so many facets of cycling trying to cater to gravel direction. So to think that these guys were creating that groundswell event two decades ago is so ahead of their time. I think my favorite part is that it always keeps you on your toes. There’s no perfect bike for a ’hopper, because within any given day, a road bike, a ’cross bike or a mountain bike might be the perfect tool for the job. It’s not purely gravel, per se. It’s a little single track, it’s fire road, it’s paved road, it’s gnarly pot-holed road, it’s climbs, it’s descents, it’s flats…quite simply, it’s everything that’s right about the sport of cycling!”