Cascade Cross – Tacos and Slippery Peanut Butter
By Chris Stevens
Taco truck worker: “You must be tired.” Muddy racer Collin Van Slyke: “Yes. I’m really tired. I need the biggest, best burrito you got.”
The second event of the eight-race Cascade Cross series delivered as advertised at Bellingham BMX on October 25: technical challenges, fast reconditioned grassy flats, a sand pit, and muddy mud hen lovin’ mud were all present. Held at one of only three “perma-courses” in the country (the others are in Louisville, Ky., and Boulder, Colo.), it is located adjacent to the youth BMX track, which occupies only 5 of 30 acres on the privately-leased land. An added bonus of not being on a city park or public school site is that racers and spectators can slurp $5 pints of local Kulshan Brewing Company’s ale alongside the course without worrying about “Imperial Entanglements.”
The first two races of the series took place at the permanent course in order to capitalize on the many hours of volunteer work that was needed to get the site ready before the weather turned truly nasty. Work parties of 6-8 spent two to three hours over several weekends in late summer, while race promoter Ryan Rickerts planted grass, mowed grass, and roto-tilled the soil. All of this was done without the city backing dollars enjoyed by Louisville and Boulder.
To create the desired level of challenge, part of the circuit goes through an abandoned golf course — not that anyone could tell anymore — with a short detour into a dark, twisted forest reminiscent of “The Hobbit.” Tree stumps lurked around blind corners, ready to knock the knees of ‘crossers who followed the muddy ruts plowed by previous racers who had chosen poor lines.
Rickerts designs his courses to adhere to international standards as far as width, quality and variety of terrain and surfaces, and certainly a rider who succeeds here could succeed anywhere.
The series started the series in 2006 under the Cyclocrazed moniker and later changed the name to Cascade Cross in 2008. Like many Northwest cyclocross series, USA Cycling does not sanction it, so no racing license is required to participate. Ridership has increased to the point that in 2013, 630 people competed in at least one of the eight events, averaging about 200 per race. On this particularly muddy Saturday, I counted 127 entrants in 13 categories, and only 15 who did not finish (DNF).
Rickerts theorized that after such a long, beautiful summer, some potential racers might be “outdoored-out,” ready to stay indoors and work on drier hobbies and crafts. Certainly the dedication to ‘cross showed in the low number of DNFs, since if one has gone through the effort of getting out of bed and driving to Bellingham, why would they let something like a broken derailleur or snapped chain stop them?
“The Pacific Northwest scene isn’t really about the Elites,” Rickerts says, even though top UCI pro rider Courtney McFadden got her start at Cascade Cross, for example, and top Canadian riders drive long distances to race in Bellingham. He also adds, “We cater more to singlespeed mountain bikes.”
This definitely would have been my choice for this race, as I had to dismount and claw mud out of my chain and cassette; I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Mountain bikes may not have given riders any particular advantage, and disc brakes weren’t necessary on the flat course that required little, if any braking. Most of the racers I saw used cyclocross-specific bikes, some with tubulars, and the wiser opting for a mud-specific tire like the old-school green Michelin Mud tires run at low tire pressure. In fact, I started at 35psi and kept letting some out during a practice lap.
In conditions like this, the course itself is more the opponent than the riders in your category. Changing conditions brought on by on-and-off rain required a quick decision at each obstacle: ride or run. The one large sand pit was not rideable by most; shouldering the bike before entering the sand would save time and energy. The two slimy sections at the beginning of each lap presented an attractive challenge, but my decision to ride them rewarded me with a mud-caked drivetrain that slowed me to sub-running speeds. One slog through standing water reminded me of old footage of World War I infantry battles. Even the lightest singlespeed bike got heavier with each lap. Two muddy sections were neutralized by rideable plywood since Rickerts didn’t want the ratio of running to riding to be too high. A number of racers jogged gamely to the pits for a wheel or bike change, which also provided the opportunity to enjoy some refreshments while the pit crew made the swap.
All Cascade Cross races feature timing chips ($10 cash deposit needed at race time) that are attached to helmets, with backup hand timing in event of chip failure. The timing chips enable precision, and from the point of view of the racer, it’s a great way to evaluate pace and performance by comparing individual lap times.
The men’s A category had to do nine laps, women’s A six laps, and B men’s completed` seven laps. In the women’s A field, Kirsten Jensen (Jack’s Homegrown Racing) rode away from the others, followed by Cassie Ross (Audi Cycling) and Natasha Cowie, who dueled through the first three laps until Ross pulled away during the fourth. In the men’s A field, Kona pro rider and Bellingham’s own Spencer Paxson jockeyed with a small but highly competitive group of three that stayed together until lap seven, when Paxson pulled ahead to win by 20 seconds. Tony Swanson took second and Kona teammate Erik Tonkin finished third.
The race day atmosphere was enormously positive, with small but enthusiastic groups of spectators cheering the pros, kids, and people they didn’t know. I received an unsolicited hand-up of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which even though I could only slurp about a Dixie Cup worth of the workingman’s lager, the kindness of strangers kept me rolling through the difficult second lap of the Master men’s B race, when the glacial silt and clay turned to a substance more like peanut butter than any mud I’ve ridden through. The community spirit of this group of racers and volunteers is infectious.
“There’s something about this group of people. It’s so much more community-minded than any of the other athletics that I’ve done, and this is who I choose to support with my time,” said registration volunteer and women’s A 5th place finisher Christin Clawson.
Some racers may have been disappointed that the course was completely separate from the BMX track. I was relieved, as my last experience with BMX-style “pump track” had me riding a nose wheelie through the barrier tape and through the spectators.
At one point I lost my front wheel in a muddy turn and went down with an involuntary “whoof” of air. The racer in front of me actually looked back and asked, “Are you okay?” That’s a level of courtesy I’ve never experienced in a decade of ‘cross, and I don’t think it’s an exception. I observed none of the negative testosterone-fueled energy I’ve seen at races in California. But don’t be fooled by the laid-back mountain biker attitudes, the caliber of competition is high. A DNF rate of only 12 percent in conditions like these speaks to the hardcore nature of the racing. Most riders were certainly plagued by mechanical issues, but the mud seemed to eliminate the pinch-flatting common to dry weather racing, and I was impressed by the mental and physical toughness of all the competitors.
While this type of racing is clearly not for the novice or the less than committed, I should point out that kids race for free. Friends will heckle you and strangers will encourage you, and if you’re lucky, someone may hand you a tasty beverage when you’re feeling low.
For a great overview of this homegrown scene, check out the short video “Everyone is Friends”.