Gravel racing returns with a vengeance this weekend with the second round of the Grasshopper Adventure Series at Super Sweetwater on Saturday, February 29. Once again there is a stellar line-up, with Geoff Kabush and Peter Stetina set to go toe-to-toe in the men's race. In the first race of the series in January, Kabush blazed by Stetina on the long descent to the line – closing a four-minute gap in the process – to take a dramatic win.
The pair aren't the only two high-calibre riders in the field, with Sandy Floren – third in the first race at Low Gap – also taking part in the 145km race. There's also a highly competitive women's field, with Amity Rockwell and Alison Tetrick on the start line. The race organisers have also hinted that cyclo-cross star Katarina Nash may appear.
Speaking from his native home in California as he brewed his morning coffee, Stetina explained to Cyclingnews why Super Sweetwater stands out as an iconic gravel race.
"Super Sweetwater is one of the original and most iconic Grasshoppers. This Hopper is unique in that it's all road, so I'm not sure you can call it a gravel race in the grassroots format. It used to finish with a dirt climb, but we've had a few washouts, although the Hopper Series always gives you something different from one race to the next. Some are pure mountain bike routes, some have roads with creeks in them. You just have to choose whichever bike you want to play on for the day," he said.
Stetina will ride his road bike for the race and the parcours should, in theory, give him an advantage over his rivals. The former WorldTour rider is arguably the best climber in the field but, as he explains, road tactics could also play a part in the race.
"I expect this one will have some road tactics," he said. "I'll be on my road bike, my Canyon, and I'll be on the IRC 28s [tyres]. They're super grippy on chunky stuff."
Stetina and Kabush may come from different cycling worlds, but they both have complete respect for each other, and hold the same admiration for gravel racing. The terrain might change but cycling is still cycling, and whether it's on the dirt, the track or the Alpine mountains of the Tour de France, racing outdoors on two wheels is still the greatest sport in the world.
"We'll see if Geoff even shows up, now that it's all road," Stetina joked. "But he's a familiar face here. We were supposed to have that gnarly climb at the end, but last year we did it in torrential conditions and it was complete mayhem, but I won. I guess you can say I'm the defending champion.
"As far as Geoff goes, it's fun because we all have different set-ups," continued Stetina. "He got me on the downhill in the last race but now we've got the uphill finish, so we'll see."
'Hopefully my older legs will be up for a fight'
Kabush, 42, is well aware that Stetina starts this round as the favourite, but the experienced all-rounder is still not going to lie down. Still buzzing from his jaw-dropping win in January, the two-time Olympian is looking forward to taking on Stetina and the rest of the field – while at the same time having a great time out on the course.
"These races are always a fun time, so I'm looking forward to the second Grasshopper this coming weekend," Kabush told Cyclingnews.
"I spent the last couple of weeks up in the mountains, mostly Nordic skiing, so I'm excited to get back on the bike and see how the riding legs feel."
Kabush has already dialled in his set-up and equipment choices for the race, too.
"The course is more or less all pavement, with a few rougher small roads, so I'll just be switching my tyre set-up on my OPEN UP. I'll most likely use some tubeless-ready 28c Maxxis Padrone tyres I have on Stan's Grail CB7 wheels. The Grail CB7s have a wide internal diameter, 21.6mm, which gives some more volume and comfort compared to a typical road rim."
As Stetina made clear, Kabush believes tactics could be crucial in the outcome of the race, especially when the race explodes on the early climbs.
"With a hilly course and an uphill finish, there aren't many places for me to use some of my tricks," he said.
"Especially against a rider like Pete, who'll be pretty motivated not to see a repeat of Low Gap. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try, and hopefully my older legs will be up for a fight.
"This Grasshopper is named after a particularly nasty little climb called Sweetwater, which we'll see quite early on in the race," Kabush explained. "It usually detonates the group, and I'll hope to survive or at least bridge back up on the descent afterwards, which I was able to do last year.
"The course continues to have a lot of challenging rolling terrain, which takes us out to the Pacific Coast and some of the most spectacular scenery. There is a stunning descent down to Highway 1, and then we head south along the ocean with beautiful coastal views the whole way. If I have any chance, it'll probably be to regroup there before we finish up one of the classic coastal climbs called Coleman Valley," Kabush said.
"It will be a really beautiful ride regardless, and we get to start and finish in one of my favourite little NorCal towns called Healdsburg."
Win or lose, the field will be greeted by well-earned beers and food at the finish, and while Kabush and Stetina will be in full race mode for a few hours, they'll still find time to catch up after the race and share their latest gravel adventure.
"I just hope Pete wins this one because it will really be embarrassing to lose again to an old Masters mountain biker," joked Kabush.
"No excuses, really, so the pressure is definitely on for him."
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