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Waiting for a wipeout

From issue 47 • Words/images: Heidi Swift

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Kruger’s Kermesse is supposed to be fast and dry. It’s a summer farm crit of the first order. For the better part of a day, hard-packed dirt roads normally the domain of tractors and working vehicles are overrun with bicycles. Located on Sauvie Island, 12 miles north of Portland, Oregon, the 150-acre farm is a local favorite. The market is flush with gherkins, carrots, beets, beans and corn. You can spend the day picking your own berries, if you’re into that sort of thing. A few times each year the farm opens to cyclists—a road kermesse in the spring and summer and a cyclocross race in the fall.

The crit course shoots off in a series of loops skirting the boundaries of the property, flat and open, corners ripe for the railing. Here an imperceptible grade that will kill you in the end, there a slight descent—just enough to spin you out if you’ve made an unwise selection. Cyclocross bikes are preferred. Run a file tread and—if your bones are still young—don’t shy away from a bit of extra tire pressure for speed.

Adolescent pumpkins line the course, just now beginning to show splotchy orange patches through the dark green of their skin. In early fall they’ll be systematically hunted and butchered by children. The Internet will fill with quaint photos of Portland families dressed in tall rubber boots, plaid shirts, expensive sweaters that are meant to look vintage, and low-profile down jackets. If the weather has gone crummy, factor in technical raincoats with bonded seams. The fathers will have beards. The mommies will have braids. The babies will be plump and smiling, hoisted aloft onto shoulders or arranged carefully in red Radio Flyer wagons.

But right now it’s late August and Kruger’s is still lush with the last of the summer crops. Three months’ worth of unprecedented heat has been suddenly interrupted by a storm. The downpour started on a Saturday in the sleeping hours of the morning. Rain in wild walls slamming into rooftops. It was loud enough to wake nearly everyone and we groped in the darkness to throw open a window to take in the smell of it. Flashes of sheet lightning reflected in startled pupils, the light giving momentary texture to the sounds. Even those born and bred in the rain country formed their mouths into little wow shapes. And some of us, who were thinking about Kruger’s Kermesse, thought “mud.” Out on Sauvie Island the dirt roads drank and softened.

A day later on Sunday morning those roads are snot-slick and glistening—suddenly the file tread and high pressure seem ill advised. Road racers hoping to school the field with pure fitness reconsider their prospects. Rubber boots, skinsuits, race nutrition, umbrellas, pop-up tents, beer, sandwiches, folding chairs, embrocation, helmets, glasses, gloves—all packed into trucks and sprinter vans and Subarus.

In some ways this is the cultural kick-off of Portland’s ’cross season, though there isn’t a barrier to be seen. Fall is three weeks away, back-to-school is just around the corner and the air is sweet with so many new beginnings. Everywhere the anticipation of change. Transition in dose: the kids with their new clothes, notebooks and pencils; the racers with freshly glued tubulars and redesigned team kit; and communities switching gears and gearing up.

Across the infield, bodies of all variety stand next to half-open car doors squeezing into superhero outfits, the announcer’s voice drifting above it all, calling a race or announcing a staging time. Signatures on registration papers…pockets full of safety pins…strategically pre-crinkled race numbers (the easier to place and pin)…a parade of blue porta-potties. Sporty toddlers are passed from one hip to another; daddy’s race is at 11 a.m., mommy goes off at noon. The kids will have their own chance too—an abbreviated version of the course tackled with scoot-bikes and handlebar streamers.

I’ve been away from these races for three years, and pulling into the grass parking lot feels a little like coming home. I found the sport when I moved to Portland and the sense of community was almost instantaneous. It was my own Island of Misfit Toys—I’d finally found my people.

A volunteer in an orange safety vest waves me in and I steer my old CRV into the center aisle. The man parked in the slot next to me is already undressing, his shirtless, ribby frame hunched over as he rifles through a bag. Smiles and hellos. He’s running late. His pre-race nerves are palpable. I can’t relate today because this is the first time I’ve ever come to a local bike race without a bike—without any intention of pinning on a number. It’s a strange sensation, this calm. I could get used to it.

There is a race in progress—beginner and C men, maybe some masters? Promoters put so many fields into a single timeslot that after the first lap the course is a baffling stream of pedaling cyclists who potentially could be winning their field, but are more likely somewhere in the middle. Who can tell? Confusing for spectators maybe, but a relief to the large majority of us who specialize in mediocrity and just want to have a little fun. The grace of amateur races like this is in the anonymity.

Cones mark the course—yellow to the left, red on the right—the same in this crit as they are in all our local ’cross races. Cones have always reminded me of soccer practice, and they have a charming way of making the whole production seem a little less intimidating. Definitely less pro than the tape-and-stakes execution you see in national events, our cones have been the subject of some ridicule by our East Coast cyclocross counterparts over the years—ridicule that We the Average Amateur ’Cross Racers of Portland have answered with a collective shrug of the shoulders: “Hey, man, relax. Here, have a beer.”

It’s not that we don’t take the sport seriously. We do. And over the decades the region and its programs have cultivated a talented little army of pro-level athletes. It’s just that most of us know we aren’t them. Some of our people just want to ride until we puke, wear knee socks and use our shabby little red cones as megaphones to heckle our friends.

At the end of the day, the “A” racers line up on the start line in front of the yellow Oregon Bike Racing Association truck to show us how it’s really done. The rain has come in earnest now, sky gone gray and sullen. Their riding is an act of physical elegance, marked by power and fluidity. Pure athleticism wrapped in spandex. Impressive musculature and even more impressive technical skills. Huddled near the end of a soggy straightaway with a front-row view of a slippery right turn, an old man sits with a small child who’s dressed like a pirate. A large black golf umbrella is propped up between their lawn chairs against the rain. From 50 yards off I can see, but not hear, the gentleman laughing. The pirate is all business, staring intently at the turn, waiting for a wipeout.

From issue 47. Buy it here.