First came the French maid. She charged up the hill, kicking globs of oozy mud onto her dress and hefting a bicycle over her right shoulder. A small woman in a blue leotard hustled not far behind, leapt up and over a coffin and attacked the slick turf with teeth bared, sucking for air. About 20 spectators stood in the grass and brambles on each side of the course, by a keg of beer tapped and flowing, and cheered savagely for each rider as she passed.
This is cyclocross, a sport made of mud, pain, endurance and grace. For 45 minutes to an hour, men and women, young and old, with heaving lungs and trembling legs, race around a loop full of tight, muddy corners and hills too steep to ride up, or down. The riders must leap 16-inch wooden barriers, often set in pairs just a few steps apart. Winning means going full throttle for the entire course. Bruises and memories are more common prizes than cash or sponsorships.
This once-obscure sport has flourished amid the downpours and muck of Portland's bleak autumn; our city draws more cyclocross racers than anywhere else in the world. The main event is the Cross Crusade, a six-race series that has drawn 2,575 participants in its first four races—most recently the annual Halloween competition Oct. 30, held at a usually bucolic horse ranch in the foothills of the Coast Range.
As with all good secrets, the masses have discovered cyclocross. And as the sport catches
on, it's losing a little of the exclusivity that made it appealing in the first place.
Erik Tonkin sits hunched on a metal stool at Sellwood Cycle Repair, his carved thighs hidden beneath loose gray pants. Tonkin, a co-owner of the shop, has raced for the United States in international cyclocross competitions and even has a sponsorship from bike maker Kona USA. But Tonkin doesn't fit the stereotype of the preening, clean-shaven cyclist. He rarely uses a razor on his legs or his face and can't scrub away the grease left under his nails by 60-hour weeks of fixing other people's bikes. At 33, he is a 12-year veteran of the Portland cross scene.
Tonkin came late to Portland's first events, the First Mud Cyclocross Series, which started in the mid-1980s at North Portland's Pier Park. No more than 40 riders would show up to race on trails through rocky gullies and mud pits—conditions often referred to as "jungle cross."
When Tonkin entered his first race, he says, competitors were still "making Frankenstein monsters," retrofitted road bikes with knobby tires and cantilevered brakes that wouldn't get caked with mud. Cross racers stuffed their sneakers into road-bike toe clips, a sure way to get tangled in a crash. Tonkin even tried to find ways to bolt his soccer sneakers to clipless pedals.
In the late 1990s, bike manufacturers began selling factory-made models designed for cross. Kona sold its first cross bike in 1998 for $1,150, and sales have increased by double digits every year, according to spokesman Mark Peterson. Now, it's not uncommon to see a beginner racing on a $5,000 cross bike.
From the start, Tonkin says, cyclocross has hooked beginners and seasoned cyclists alike, so long as they have a taste for dirt and pain.
"Falling down in the mud is part of what's attractive about the sport," he says. "It's sort of incongruous. People think, 'That's something I can do,' which is...bizarre because it requires a super amount of grace and strength."
That love of mud, and a lack of pretension, is what attracted Mark Jenkins, a 45-year-old administrator at Marylhurst University. Jenkins has raced cross for the past five years, even after a collision with a tractor-trailer this summer. "The mud, really, is the whole point," Jenkins says, sitting in a sunken velour chair in Tonkin's shop. "It splashes up on your butt and it's really cold and your shoes get wet. It's not like 'Ew!' at that point. It's really just fun."
Elite racers like Tonkin have had to make way in recent years for the swelling ranks of beginners. And while Tonkin celebrates that openness, he has a soft spot for the old days, when all the racers knew each other. "It used to be a lot simpler," he says. Race organizers, he says, "are suffering from their success."
At the Halloween race Oct. 30, the Flying M Ranch began to bustle at 9 am. Fleets of station wagons opened their doors to emit black labs, puddle-jumping toddlers and men in spandex. Workers transformed the parking lot into a tent city for coffee and registration.
Crusade promoter Brad Ross, 39, was up at dawn, dressed as a priest in a black graduation robe with a long yellow towel draped over his shoulders. A gauze bandage covered his knee, which he'd wounded the night before in a tipsy junker derby (see glossary, left).
During a break between two heats, Ross stood glowering with his arms crossed and confessed, "I'm still too hung over to really be enjoying myself. I'm jonesing for some food." But a cold slice of pizza was still an hour away. Ross had more work to do.
More participants means more logistics. Each race has to start on time to avoid finishing late. Then there are complaints from riders: Elite racers carp that the crowded course makes it harder to pass slower riders and cuts down on practice time. Venue owners must be carefully wooed, and warned. Hundreds of tires carve grassless ruts in private land, and even though Ross and his crew promise to reseed each field they destroy, they got stuck this year with one $15,000 bill.
Then there's the drinking, a tradition that runs to the core of cyclocross in Portland. As Ross says, "It's all about the beer." At an Oct. 8 race at Alpenrose Dairy, celebrating finishers cracked open a few cans even after Ross warned them to wait. The family-friendly venue didn't appreciate the violation, and may not welcome the crusade back next year.
Ross may run out of locations to choose from. Many courses the Crusade has used in the past—like Portland parks and public schools—are either too small to accommodate 600-plus racers or won't stand for beer-drinking-'n'-turf-tearing antics. "We've just kind of worn out our welcome at those venues," Ross says. "It's really hard."
While Ross stressed, racers focused on more important things, like analyzing the mud left by a day of steady rain. Most agreed the muck fell somewhere between peanut butter and chocolate sauce in consistency.
With just an hour before her race, Dani Dance screwed half-inch spikes into the soles of her cycling shoes, hoping they would give her at least a little traction.
Dance has bright blue eyes and pale, freckled skin that's creased with soft lines from hours spent outdoors. She is a prototypical female cross racer: quiet and friendly in a down-home sort of way, so polite that her maverick behavior on two wheels comes as a shock. This is the same 33-year-old redhead from Pocatello, Idaho, who prevailed against several male competitors in the midnight junker derby.
Dance, who works as a saleswoman at River City Bicycles, trained hard this year to move from Cat B to Cat A (see glossary), where she usually finishes in the middle of the pack. She won third place in the Halloween race, when several of Portland's best women were at another event on the East Coast.
"I used to have a day job and the gym workout. I totally had that life," she says, explaining why she races cross. "Once I started working in the bike shop and got exposed to racing, it was really cool because I realized I could get involved. Before, I thought it was just an elitist thing."
Attendance among women racers may be one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Cross Crusade. The Alpenrose race alone attracted 80 women—more than the total draw at many U.S. events.
The female turnout may have seemed larger on Halloween because of all the men in dresses and wigs. While Ross said the ranch was still too small for his swelling pack of racers, a little overcrowding didn't dampen the mood. Just to make sure no one took the race too seriously, 10 members of a team called the Gentle Lovers rode a few laps on cycles mounted with unicorns. One Lover on a BMX also wore a giant plush penguin suit.
The cult of cyclocross has reached a tipping point—at least in the sense that, now, the BMXing penguin has to share the course with a weekend warrior from Lake Oswego. But lest aspirants fear the curse of Yogi Berra—that cyclocross will be the sport no one joins because it's too crowded—keep in mind that this is Oregon, and few other states breed amateur athletes so willing to throw themselves into the cold, wet and mud just to achieve an hour of pain.
"Living in Portland, I start to think cross is going crazy everywhere," Ross says. "But it's not. It's just going really crazy here."
The appeal of cross in Portland may have as much to do with our cycling fanaticism as with our everyone-wins dedication to participation. "Portland people are competitive," says Dance, "but at the same time they want everyone out there and they encourage other participants." No one gets turned away from cyclocross—a tee-ball ethic that troubles some racers. Erik Tonkin suggests that promoters silently rue their success. While they're busy recruiting new racers, he says, "they're secretly hoping fewer people will show up."
Tonkin himself admits, "I'd like to have it both ways."
The last two races of the Cross Crusade will be held Nov. 13 at Barton Park on the Clackamas River, and Nov. 20 at Estacada Timber Park. For more information, go to www.crosscrusade.com.
cyclocross: The sport originated about 100 years ago in Europe as a way for road racers to train during the off season. Although cross grew into a popular spectator sport overseas—where it attracts fewer racers but more fans—the sport didn't emerge from obscurity in the United States until the late 1990s. The American version melds the rebellion of bike culture with a physical test that demands extreme fitness and agility. These aren't the Zoobombers. They're serious athletes bent on not taking themselves too seriously.
the course: Usually set up in the early morning before a race, the route is always under two miles long. Typical features include run-ups—uphill slopes so steep you have to dismount and haul your bike on foot—and off-camber terrain, a horizontal path along the side of a hill that's tricky because it makes it difficult to maintain speed without falling.
categories: The Cross Crusade welcomes men and women at all skill levels, from Category A (referred to as Elite or Cat A) down to Cat C and beginners, plus separate categories for juniors, masters and a handful of unicyclists.
single speed: These purists strip their bikes down to one gear and force themselves to climb hills without the possibility of shifting down. Single-speeders often cherish the job of protecting cyclocross's easygoing etiquette, railing on others for taking the competition too seriously. Of course, some racers think single-speeders take themselves too seriously. Shannon Skerritt, one of Portland's most elite cyclists, calls them "a bunch of jokers." "It's like owning a VW bus," he says. "You have to be one [an owner] to understand it."
fixed gear: A bike with one gear rigidly attached to the rear wheel hub. Whenever the bike is moving, the pedals turn; coasting is impossible. Fixed gears are the ultimate hipster bike, but they aren't well-equipped for racing cross. Fixies who race cross are considered either crazy or heroic, depending on who you ask.
sandbagging: Competing in a category in which you consistently win instead of moving up to a higher level. Often, other racers will stand on the sidelines and taunt such racers with catcalls of "Sandbagger!"
bunny hop: A BMX move that uses sheer force of muscle to yank a bike into the air. Often used in cyclocross as a flashy way of jumping barriers. Local racer Matthew Slaven is famous for bunny-hopping obstacles—as well as taking one spectacular fall.
junker derby: A contest on a circular course using the cheapest bikes possible—children's BMXs, thrift-store hoopties—in which the winner is the last rider who hasn't set foot on the ground. Tactics for knocking opponents off their wheels range from throwing elbows to throwing heavy objects. —AV
The last two races of the Cross Crusade will be held Nov. 13 at Barton Park on the Clackamas River, and Nov. 20 at Estacada Timber Park. For more information, go to www.crosscrusade.com .