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Kate Courtney overcame a late flat to successfully defend the women’s title at Low Gap gravel race in Ukiah, California, while Christopher Blevins (Specialized) held off a charge by last year’s winner Peter Stetina (GRVL PRVTRS) for the men’s victory.
It rained for days in northern California leading to the opening round of the Grasshopper Adventure Series, now in its 27th year. Organisers confirmed that the soil would not be “too gooey”, with all the off-road challenges packed between miles 22 and 46 on the 48-mile route. This year featured a new start venue hosted by the City of Ukiah, the riders were led out by a police escort before turning onto the 48-mile mixed-terrain course that included roughly 6,400 feet of climbing.
The first climb came fast after the first 3.5 miles from Ukiah, with pavement on the first half of the event and one-third of the total elevation gain on the opening nine miles. Once at the first hydration and nutrition stop at mile 22, the gravel and more climbing took over at Low Gap Road. Once past the second feed area at mile 31, the dirt turned to thick clay on Miller Ridge, grabbing tyres and components.
Even with a puncture to her front tyre, Courtney coasted on the final one mile of tarmac into Ukiah for back-to-back wins. Flavia Oliveira Parks secured second place by outsprinting Katerina Nash to complete the podium, the pair finishing more than seven minutes behind Courtney.
“I managed to make it within one mile of the finish without flatting and coasted across the line,” she said about the non-sprint finish with a laugh after the race on the Grasshopper Instagram video. “I especially like to mix it up with the men a little bit. We always have good, respectful battles out there.”
Her time of 2:52:02 was three minutes slower than last year, but fast enough to put her in the overall top 25 of all pros.
“It was a blast. These races are always such a great way to start the season. We always say it’s like training, it’s January, but you know, it’s a bike race. There’s a start line, there’s a finish line and we work really hard all winter, so it’s fun to get out there and feel good on the bike, test the legs and get the stoke level to the maximum for the season,” Courtney said at the finish, with sunshine poking through the clouds.
Courtney said she ran 40mm as her tyre choice on Saturday, as the rain that drenched the area from days before held off and she was able to go faster on the pavement section with her setup.
Pro men’s race
Blevins also said his selection of 42mm tyres gave him the grip he needed, and he didn’t forfeit speed at the end, his winning time of 2:28:40 six minutes slower than his runner-up time last year and another two minutes slower than Stetina’s 2:20:36.
“It was a great battle. The mud helped me. Especially in conditions like this, it’s becoming more and more about equipment choices. I haven’t done too much gravel racing, but it’s fun when it’s technical like this. The more technical, the better. The first climb is as hard as you can go,” said the former short track mountain bike world champion and last year’s winner of Cape Epic with Matthew Beers.
The key to his ride on Saturday he attributed to his mountain bike background, “I think I get gaps on the descents and use that to my advantage”.
The men’s race saw a selection of three riders after the first paved summit, Blevins and Stetina joined by former WorldTour pro Sean Bennett, who was dispatched before the big climb on Miller Ridge with 15 miles to go and he held on for third place.
“It’s such a vicious start to the year. You start with a full-on threshold, a 20-minute test up a paved road climb. Everyone sets their PRs here, it seems,” Stetina recounted. “Chris was on a new level this year. I couldn’t shake him on the climbs, so we were really evenly matched.
“Chris was real cagey. He made a move where he attacked me before the muckiest downhill and used that mountain bike expertise to dance away from me. So I had to be on the defensive on climbing and use a lot of my effort to get back to him on the final big dirt climb. I went all in and threw the kitchen sink at him on the final climb and I couldn’t shake him. Accelerations, hard tempos, he just held it.”
The duo submitted Miller Ridge together with a final logging road tipping the scales to the mountain biker. Stetina said he then closed down a small gap to Blevins in a “purgatory pursuit”, where he could see Blevins just ahead for the last handful of miles, just 10 seconds separating the pair.
“Dang, he held me off. It was a joy. I think we went faster than even last year. The biggest thing for Low Gap for a lot of us, it’s the rekindling of everyone coming together after winter. Also it’s a test to see who did their homework. I would have loved to get him this year, but the signs are good that we’ve done our homework.”
The men’s race featured the return of last year’s podium, winner Stetina, second-placed Blevins and third-placed Tyler Williams (Miami Nights), who finished well back out of the top 20 this time out. Ian Lopez de San Roman, who was fifth last year, trailed Bennett by two and a half minutes for fourth, while Brennan Wertz (Mosaic Cycles), who finished second in 2022 and 11th last year, trailed another 28 seconds to round out the men’s top five.
Among the stacked women’s field, Jennifer Tave was fourth while Anna Hicks was fifth. 2023 podium finishers Niky Taylor and Maude Farrell (Pivot / Easton / Pas Normal Studios) finished in the top 11 this time, Farrell in ninth and Taylor two spots back. Anna Yamauchi was 14th and Alison Tetrick (Specialized) was 17th.
Results – Top 10s
|Rider Name (Country) Team
|Flavia Oliveira Parks
|Rider Name (Country) Team
|Ian Lopez de San Roman