The Grasshopper is NorCal’s most unruly, truly epic, but somehow well-organized ride. It is based in Sonoma County every winter, taking place along obscure backroads, decrepit dirt routes, and steep lung-torching climbs. The race is 15 years old in 2013, but every year, it attracts mountain bikers, cyclocrossers, and roadies for a character building day in the saddle. The variety of riders is not accidental – if one looks at the Old Caz Grasshopper, the profusion of alternating dirt and pavement makes it unclear what machine works best for the course. Bittner Road and the ascent up Old Caz are paved and can be quickly assaulted on a road bike, as can the intermittent flat sections of darkened highway curtained by redwoods. The Old Caz descent is fast on a mountain bike, but can also be ridden on a road bike. The Old Caz descent culminates with the Austin Creek crossing, which is rideable in dry years, but extremely challenging when winter rainfall is normal.
The Grasshopper’s exact event type is ambiguous, which contributes to its beauty and chaotic nature. Legally speaking, the ride is nothing other than an intense adventure ride, while on the other hand, it has been a de facto race ride among NorCal’s strongest riders for years. “The Hopper” is also unsanctioned by USA Cycling and the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association. Nevertheless, many enjoy the ride both as a race and an exploration of NorCal’s remote coastal mountains, and either way, a results page is maintained by the organizers.
This year’s Old Caz Grasshopper was characterized by unusually icy roads, extraordinary rides by amateur riders, and controversy. More than 300 riders began climbing through the blanket of morning cold on Bittner Road from Occidental, a small town situated in the belly of a big steep-sided gulch. The riders flew upwards and then turned right onto Joy Rd, passing the UC Davis collegiate team’s training camp ride, which had just paused after a crash on black ice. It was only shortly after when the Grasshopper encountered its own patch of frosty roads. The result was an enormous crash that involved as many as 50 riders. The Grasshopper organizers generously offered a compensation for the ride’s entry fee to everyone who went down in the early catastrophe.
It was no secret that Levi Leipheimer would be there. Leipheimer loves where he lives – the little roads and climbs he trains on are featured in his own Gran Fondo that has attracted thousands of century riders. Levi has ridden in many Grasshoppers over the years, and NorCal’s best amateurs have usually looked forward to trying to hang onto him as long as they physically can.
Leipheimer was not the only name in lights this year, he was joined by Garmin pro, Peter Stetina. The two have accompanied each other on training rides in Sonoma County this winter, accumulating a strong base for the European racing to follow in the spring and summer. Other local professionals, like Phil Mooney (Team Jamis – Hagens Berman) and Max Jenkins (5 Hour Energy p/b Kenda), were also in attendance. While it was challenging to sort through the chaos of flat tires and crashes that occurred at inopportune moments on the ride, the massive Grasshopper was eventually whittled down to just Leipheimer, Stetina, and Keith Hillier of the NorCal amateur team, Marc Pro – Strava. Hillier summoned an outstanding effort to stay with the big-time professionals as long as possible. Ultimately, Hillier was dropped, flatted, and rejoined the chasing groups composed of various other amateur crushers who produced sterling rides, like Jim Hewitt, Glenn Fant, and Aren Timmel (2nd, 3rd, and 4th, respectively).
The Grasshopper was touched with controversy in the aftermath of the race when VeloNews published a story about Leipheimer competing in the event, which included a link to photos of him fording Austin Creek. For those unfamiliar with the recent “Trail of Tears” in American cycling, Leipheimer doped during his peak years in Europe with U.S. Postal. He received a 6 month ban this past summer in exchange for a grand jury testimony against Lance Armstrong, among others. Readers expressed a variety of opinions about Leipheimer’s apparent flouting of the 6 month ban for having participated in the Old Caz Grasshopper. Statements ranged from “who cares” to “break his rear derailleur next time”. Leipheimer commented to VeloNews, “I just followed along and followed the strongest guy”. A number or riders in the race revealed otherwise. While Leipheimer did not pull through or ride on the front of the group during flat portions of the race, he was pulling up the climbs, cutting the hangers-on in half every time. Leipheimer left his name out of the results in what he claimed was a show of respect for anyone who might have been offended.
The ambiguous nature of the Grasshopper ride makes it indefinite whether Leipheimer was truly racing in spite of his 6 month ban from competition. However, the spirit of the ban and the notion of real consequences for past misdeeds are at stake. NorCal stalwart and domestic professional racer Andy Jacques-Maynes remarked on Twitter, “Somehow LL and fanboys can’t figure out what BANNED means. No events. Not even fun ones. He lost the right to do so”. Jacques-Maynes spoke about principle, indicating that a ban is more than a portion of days crossed off the racing calendar of sanctioned events. The suspension of the right to race goes deeper and leads one to ask if Leipheimer’s redemption can be possible after ignoring the moral underpinnings of his punishment. From that standpoint, Leipheimer’s new “life of redemption”, as he described in an interview with blogger Fat Cyclist in early December, may be more challenging than he initially anticipated. In the eyes of some, he has already failed. The 2013 Old Caz edition of the Grasshopper provided a compelling meditation on what it truly means to serve one’s punishment for doping and what true remorse does, or does not, look like.
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