Art, or Something Like It
Nov. 15, 2010
Total mileage: 3,098
Last Saturday night the Grand Prix cyclocross race was held in what organizers termed “epic” conditions. Lest that sound like hyperbole, let me confirm their assessment. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was larger than life, it was a heroic mudfest.
I arrived early at Heartland Park’s Gate X with other volunteers and the racers pre-riding the course. The Grand Prix is run on and around Heartland’s auto racing dirt track. This year the course opened on pavement and took a sharp turn onto grass, zigzagging up a steep banked hill, then coming back down to cross the dirt track and meander around the infield before crossing the dirt again and exiting the stadium. There were two sets of stairs for riders to negotiate, one concrete and the other wood.
The soil at Heartland’s dirt track was dry and hard-packed in the weeks leading up to the race. The ‘cross course should have been fast and easy, but it had rained the day before the race, all day, and turned the dirt into mud. Or, rather, clay–modeling clay, putty, Play-Doh.
Several of us spectator-volunteers had a prime vantage point from which to watch the cyclists take their first practice spin across the dirt track. Rider after rider rolled easily down the grassy hill onto the mud, slid quickly through the first part of the dirt track, then gradually slowed until coming to a stop on the grassy infield.
There, the cyclists straddled their bikes for a moment, frozen in place. The mud had built up on their wheels and brakes in the way a sculptor builds up clay around an armature–art, or something like it. Invariably, they’d crook their necks and gaze back up at the hill as though trying to understand exactly what had happened. Then they either found a stick to scrape off the clay, or carried their bikes back up the hill to the power-wash station which was quickly becoming the most popular spot off the course.
Most riders had figured out how to handle the track by the time the races started. They chose to carry their bikes a good 300 feet over the worst of the clay before leaping back on. Their shoes quickly became heavy blocks of mud as they ran across the track. Let me rephrase that: at first they ran, then they trotted, and by the end of the race most of them walked or trudged. The wooden steps and ramp became a slick, dangerous mess within minutes.
We spectators stood by the sidelines and spoke in awed tones about the exceptional race conditions. The woman standing nearest to me looked very familiar, and after a minute or two we realized we’d met on Bike Northwoods during the summer of 2009. Her name was Donna, and her husband, Bert, was one of the competitors at the Grand Prix that night. Donna and I caught up on each other’s news while the racers completed punishing laps. Up and down the track they ran, their weight–both bikes and feet–increasing with each pass on the mud. The sun set and the course lights came on, and we could see the breaths of gasping riders hanging in the cold night air.
Finally, the 40 minutes was up and Donna and I made our way to the finish line to watch the riders come in. Bert crossed at a respectable position, although his appearance spoke volumes about the difficulty of the race. Sweat dripped from his face and neck despite the fact that his hands were so cold he could barely move his fingers. A thick string of saliva dangled from his lower lip and swung in the air as he staggered around trying to keep the bike from falling over. You couldn’t tell what color the bike was painted. The pedals were big fat balls of clay, and the brakes were so stuffed with mud and grass that they looked like sea urchins. Bert’s face wore a combined expression of relief, disbelief, happiness, and utter exhaustion.
“Bert,” said Donna, “This is Rebecca; we rode together in Wisconsin a year ago.” Bert shuffled his cement-block shoes my way and embraced me in a huge bear hug while Donna and I laughed. There are no strangers in bicycling.
Congratulations, Bert, on completing an epic race. You’re a marvel. You’re a work of art.