If you haven’t heard of the Grasshopper Adventure Series, relax — you’re in the majority. Furthermore, you’re also probably not from Sonoma or Marin counties, so allow me to back up and introduce the cycling event. Its concept is simple: the Grasshopper is a series of “off-season” local rides designed to push the limits of each participant on courses both familiar, and unfamiliar. Naturally, this vague definition leaves plenty of “artistic interpretation” on part of the course organizers, and boy are they creative. While some have called the ‘Hopper a “big club ride” on an “insane” course, the reality is that nearly 400 participants are jockeying for position on a course that no mythological deity could have designed to be more difficult. To the lone winner of each ‘Hopper go indomitable bragging rights and a continued place in local cycling lore. To everyone else who doesn’t succumb to misfortune along the way, the self-satisfaction of simply finishing will have to do.
The challenge of every ‘Hopper is twofold. First and foremost, is the beautiful, oft-surreal, and positively hateful course layout. But secondly, it’s the riders. As a mecca for cycling, Sonoma is home to an entire population of extremely talented amateur and professional riders alike; all of whom are much too happy to dispense of routine formalities and turn the Grasshopper challenge into an unapologetic slug-fest where getting dropped on a leg-burning radio tower climb or missing the hidden turnout on its sketchy descent could spell the end of your race. That is, of course unless you’re already well familiar with the route — on paper or from previous experience.
The very first Grasshopper of 2013 (in a series of six total rides) was held last weekend on the rolling Redwoods fire trails and dilapidated farm roads around the northern California town of Occidental. Fun fact: the roads and trails around Occidental also happen to be home for one of our founders, and thus the town was the original namesake for our company in its infancy back in 2011. And with the majority of the “Old Caz” course slated to be on dirt parcours unfamiliar to most, the event seemed a perfect fit for those with ride proclivities to dirt, such as ourselves. Needless to say, Grasshopper #1 was an event not to be missed by Kitsbow.
We set up early, with our La Marzoccho coffee machine and a stockpile of fresh beans from local Cafe Costa Rica in tow. Even with plenty of challenge ahead and chill in the air, the atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful. Riders trickled out from the registration table while swapping strategies gleaned from the experience of “last year.” Those who stopped by the Kitsbow Sprinter for a free espresso were introduced to our new Mixed Shell Jacket — which would later be offered as a prize to the top finishing first-timer. In just a few short hours, it would belong to Max Jenkins, a longtime resident of the area riding in his very first Grasshopper.
I’ve done several “adventure” style races like the ‘Hopper before, and while they all tend to vary dramatically in total elevation gain and ratio of dirt vs. road sectors, they do share a common thread in that no matter what bike you choose (where the 29er vs. ‘cross bike debate rages on) to ride for the event, at some point you will painfully regret that choice. Now, it’s important to note that this regret differs slightly from the regret from having entered the event in the first place. The difficulty of the race was evident on the drivetrains, and on the faces of those lucky to have survived the perils of the course.
Despite having chosen to ride on a hopelessly over-geared 1×8 ‘cross bike when I had a perfectly capable 29er waiting in the wings, it was the hair-raising descents, miserable climbs, and the bone-chilling river crossing that made this memorable Grasshopper an absolute blast. Granted, it helps to not have any prior knowledge of the degree of difficulty you’ll experience in the ‘Hopper, but the spectacular scenery and post-finish rider camaraderie are simply not to be missed should you find yourself in Sonoma for the winter and hankering for some hurt.
Feel free to check out the rest of our photos from that day here, on our Facebook page. The ‘Hopper series continues on February 16th with the Chileno Valley ride, which is expected to be a road route so the only potentially regretful decision you can expect to make with this event is simply one of entering. Details are found here if you’re feeling particularly masochistic. Fair warning though, expect a generous helping of pain if this guy also happens to know how to ride skinny tires: