Occidental, California. Seemingly the curious mashup of occasional and accident, that pretty much sums up cycling in this bohemian Californian town. Not accident like a crash, although that’s a safe guess since most months of May Occidental sees the flurry of the Tour of California come screaming through its otherwise quiet streets. For a brief 60 seconds, a streaking parade of color pairs with the metallic clicking of gears as racers plunge down Coleman Valley Road, hit a sharp left, sprint onto Main Street for two short blocks, then as quickly as they arrived the group furiously sprints out of sight. The fleeting peloton is immediately followed by the squeal of car tires paired with acrid smell of burning rubber as team directors rally through town in hot pursuit. Seatbelt off, the occasional a cigarette in hand, speaking on their cellphones concocting strategy with other directors with the end of the race looming, this isn’t their first time around the block.
The couple hundred fans lining the street, chatter for a bit about their favorite racers they saw and the dynamics of the race scenario as they excitedly clip in and pedal down the hill towards nearby Santa Rosa to see the conclusion of the stage. Just like that, the sleepy town of maybe 1000 residents, is back to its tranquil self that it was five minutes before.
If you were an unknowing passerby in town for the afternoon, you’d be utterly baffled by the heightened five minutes of action sandwiched by the lethargic hours, days, and weeks. Almost like a flash-mob, it’s so quick and seemingly random, that it seems as though to have happened by accident.
WorldTour bike racing is a spectacular site to behold, but Occidental hosts a one of a kind cycling event of arguably greater excitement, the Hoppers. Also called ‘hoppers, more thoroughly Grasshoppers, or by their full name, the Grasshopper Adventure Series, Hoppers consist of a half dozen races all over western Sonoma County on terrain that I’ve dubbed Froad. Contemporary cycling has already been overrun by the word gravel, yet gravel doesn’t fully apply here. The action characteristic of the Hoppers takes place largely off-road, ergo, ‘froad. Sure, there’s gravel, but mud, grass, sand, and river crossings are all featured in new-age froad.
While froad events are popping up like spring dandelions throughout the country, original adopters like the Hoppers have been carrying the torch for years. First started in the late 90s, it remained a relatively underground operation over the next decade. At the start of my career I would often train in Sonoma. I caught wind of a nearby “training ride”, although thought it bizarre to fork over $20 for just that. I can train for free, thank you very much. Skeptically I showed up, 80 some-odd others did the same, I paid up, and experienced the best twenty bucks I’ve ever put towards cycling. Winding over iconic Sonoma climbs, racing along river banks, on long since closed roads with car-eating potholes, after hours of spectacularly unique riding we were greeted to artisanal cupcakes at the finish atop Pine Flat.
I’ve dropped in on a Hopper or two in the years between, but now living in California, the Hopper’s are now in my relative backyard. Word has gotten out from those 80 brave souls a decade ago, now 400 people immediately max out registration with a long wait list anxiously at their heels. On the morning of a Hopper, Occidental is again packed with cyclists. Although, instead of featuring the WorldTour’s lightest bikes with the most tricked out wheels and the flashiest components, Hoppers are a bicycle smorgasbord. Cross bikes make up the lions share, mountain bikes and road bikes are speckled in the mix, and plenty of cobbled together Frankenbikes complete the peloton.
The Hoppers are an open, mass start race, no license required, they’re as fun or as competitive as you want them to be, and the most spirited race is who can get their hands on the finish line beer and mountain of chips. Science shows an optimal post-race protein to carbohydrate ratio; Hoppers show that barley, hops, and potatoes are optimal post-froad recovery food.
What formerly was a handful of friends occasionally getting together, taking a page out of Yogi Berra’s book — finding a fork in the road and taking it, pointing their bikes off road, being ever so slightly out of their comfort zone, yet having an absolutely blast by accident, that is a new aged Hopper. That’s everything that’s right about cycling. It’s that mashup of an an awesome occasion happening by accident.
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