24: Ring of Fire

There's a local underground race series in Sonoma County (Ibis' home from 1983-2002, we're in Santa Cruz County now) called the Grasshopper Adventure Series. Some of them are on dirt, some on pavement, some are a mix, all are hard and fast with a talented field. For any given Grasshopper, you might choose a road bike, cross bike or a mountain bike. Often you'll see both bikes in the field. That makes for very interesting racing. Oh wait, except these aren't technically races. Makes for an interesting group ride.

The most recent Grasshopper was nearly 100 miles of rigorous hills in the westenmost and northernost reaches of Sonoma County. If followed part of Levi's Gran Fondo route but added some serious extra credit to the outer reaches of the county. Did I mention hills? You can always count on at least 1000 feet of climbing minimum for each 10 miles. Fifty will get you 5K, a hundred will get you ten grand.

If you want to get a tiny sense of what the riding is like in Western Sonoma, check out the pictures on this most recent Grasshopper ride report: http://www.grasshopperadventureseries.com/?p=177

On any given Grasshopper, you might be racing against Levi Leipheimer, Ben King or any number of other pros who are here taking advantage of the great terrain for training.

The reason we mention the Grasshopper is that the winner of the season finale was none other than the good doctor Roger Bartels, who raced for Ibis for many years and grabbed a national title for us along the way (not to mention being a bronze medalist in the 1996 World Championhips in Australia and 6th in the Worlds in Switzerland 1997). Roger is still mixing it up in these races with pros. And what's studly, is that Roger turned 50 last year, but he has not slowed down one little bit. Way to go, worlds fastest dentist!

Ring of fire

In an earlier post we talked about racing 'back in the day', that day being actually a year or series of years around 1981-1985 or so. Now we're going to take another look 'back in the day' but only back as far the mid 90's or so. We're not sure exactly how far a date needs to be to qualify for 'back in the day' status. I suppose it depends on your point of view. If you've got Alzheimer's, 'back in the day' might be a minute ago. If you're a formerly breast feeding baby, 'back in the day' is probably pretty recent as well, maybe just a bit before your sharp little front teeth came in.

The Ring of Fire was a mountain bike race held on a friend's property at the end of rural road in West Sonoma County smack dab in between Occidental and Bodega Bay. There was nothing like it before, and there has been nothing like it since. You could see the ocean from parts of the course, but the Ring of Fire did not refer to the Pacific Ocean's ring of fire.

Today we enlist another guest author whose memory is better on this subject than anyone still awake at Ibis. His name is Don Winkle, and he has already appeared in a previous post, check out the first picture on this here post, that's Don on the lower right sporting a mustache he could probably wear with a somewhat straight face in a town like Portland even today. Behind Don is Roger, world's fastest dentist mentioned above, and behind Roger is Chuck/Scot, having yet another bad hair day in his bad hair life. For a slight regression and more chest thumping about West Sonoma, check out Chuck's lengthy report on Don's 50th birthday ride (held in the same general vicinity as the Ring of Fire), that took place a couple of years ago on a May day in which the underachievers in attendance chose to ride instead of work. Elsewhere in the country that day was known as National Ride to Work day, but we were adhering to the old Ibis adage of 'ride more work less'. This was back when Chuck was writing for VeloNews, and Don starts out with a quote from his VeloNews story about the race, take it away Don....

"Best use of a cell phone ever seen…when the fifth keg ran dry, an emergency call was made for more." This was the concluding thought of Chuck Ibis in his Velonews review of the 2nd Ring of Fire mountain bike race.

It was the late 90's; the Ring of Fire was the brainchild of one Tom "Snap" Gonnella, the "Mayor" of Occidental California and the official unofficial leader of the Gianni Cycling Team. From its inception the Ring of Fire was destined to be different than any other bike race; it was to be a community event and it was to be as fun as it was epic…and epic it was. The name Ring of Fire came from the fact that the race course was covered with poison oak - but rather than worry about it, we celebrated it. The race course, about five miles long and practically all single-track, was literally carved from the hills of western Sonoma County by a small army of Gianni riders. As work slowly progressed on the course, what was painfully obvious to all of us (all being very experienced outdoor types) was that none of us had ever waded through that much poison oak. There were causalities. One quarter mile section of trail was forged by weed whacking through a dense forest of glossy, oil dripping, old growth poison oak. We set up a decontamination station at Snap's house where, after each work session, we would strip off our Tyvec suits, masks, gloves and boots; our clothing went straight to a washing machine and we went straight to a shower for a Technu dip. The final step in the decon procedure was to move to Snap's hot tub, where we rested our muscles while quaffing craft beers and fine Sonoma County wines, and the occasional martini lovingly prepared by the leader of the Burrito Babes Kate Gonnella.

Overview of the race scene

The Burrito Tent at the Ring of Fire

The course was built, the flyers went out, and local produce, local beers and local wines were procured. A bevy of Burrito Babes rallied to hand-build, football size grilled organic veggie burritos. Artisans appeared and constructed stages, podiums, barricades and whatever last minute items we needed. Registration, parking, and staging areas were set up. Vendors, medical support, mechanical support, massage therapist, palm readers all showed up and set up shop.

Emil with some local goodness. Not your typical bike race fare!

Legendary Burritos in the Making

An extremely rare photo of camera-shy Ibis painter Erika, stirring something, we're not sure what.

Looks like the World's Fastest Dentist riding by the start/finish. Wanna bet the band in the background is playing Ring of Fire?

At the last minute we had to find a life guard (certified) for the swimming pond and find a PA for the band ("dude we though you had one…") that showed up without one. We had to station a gate guard to alert us of any county officials (or other revenuers) coming on to the property. Because I was the only one with a cell phone, I became the Direttore della Comunicazione. We parked hundreds of cars, the scene was set…we had a bike race.

Leo! The legend.

We started each category of riders with a cannon shot and different version of Ring of Fire. The only real mishap occurred when the beginner's field rode into a particularly ill-tempered swarm of hornets. Several riders literally dropped their bikes and ran screaming into the poison oak-filled woods. Luckily we had a hornet whisperer on-site who calmed and relocated the enraged insects. We gave the victims their entry fee back and all the beer they could drink…all good.

As the day progressed, with the band (now equipped with a PA) providing a continuous background of reggae from a stage decorated with hops and poison oak, we handed out awards (one went to Fast Freddy Rodriguez), we handed out Ibis Handjob bottle openers and cobalt pint glasses, we handed out Gianni socks, we handed out Bustelo hot sauce, the Burrito Babes cranked out 700 burritos, we raffled off a spanking new Ibis Mojo frame with a custom team (Tony the Tiger) paint job; we handed out Technu; we treated hornet stings and road rash; we found lost kids. We charged a buck for beer, however, because our beer hostesses (one of which I married) were also drinking…collection was somewhat hit or miss. We gave away copies of our official soundtrack which included every version of Ring of Fire we could find.

As the day waned, it was obvious - the race was epic and the event was epically fun for all.

Late in the afternoon, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Chuck watching me talk on my cell phone. Detecting a sense of urgency, Chuck walked over (being careful not to spill any beer from his red cup) and asked me what was up…"is someone hurt…do we need an ambulance…do we need a helicopter…" I took him out of earshot of some people nearby and told him "don't panic, but we're almost out of beer; I just called in two more kegs."

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