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Of Crashing – Cyclocross in Chicago

November 26, 2014

About Chicago, Illinois:

Since the 1860s, before the chains came stock on racing bikes, Chicago has been a cycling city. Two-thirds of America’s bikes were made in Chicago during the early part of the last century, but even though industry has moved out of the city, small-batch producers continue to weld premium machines as part of the growing custom bike industry. With more velodromes per square mile than any metro area in the country, and millions of Department of Transportation dollars going towards cycling infrastructure, Chicago is on the way to becoming the greatest cycling city on the continent.

Cyclocross, or off-road cross-country bike racing, was invented by French professional cyclists as a fun way to trash their old racing bikes during the cold months before their sponsors gave them new ones in the spring, and has become a fun way for bike shops to keep in the black while customers are out breaking parts in the mud and snow.  As a seasoned, ambitious racer working for a capitalist bike dealer, it is my duty to both encourage my competition to reach for their full potential, challenging themselves and their peers to fight past the pain towards new heights of athletic prowess ­­–and then crash them into the black Illinois dirt. Good job, bro; here’s my card, service rates on back.

Two things scare me. The first is getting hurt. But that’s not nearly as scary as the second, which is losing.

-Lance Armstrong

Knowing how to single a man out of a group, knock him and only him to the grass, avoid entangling myself, and make it look unintentional is a sacred skill I’ve honed through practice and do not wield unjustly. In cyclocross, a sport as wet with testosterone as a country bar after all the girls leave but one, bullies abound. When I see a bully, or get pushed around, I think it’s fair to be an enforcer, to apply certain consequences to certain situations.

I once saw a grown man yell to a kid (they let teenagers race with the men in the lower levels), “C’mon tubby!” and “Ta-ta-today junior! This is a race!” The man, smuggling a little stomach padding himself, wanted to pass but he couldn’t find a clean opening. I shouldered my way between them and at a tight curve turned hard in front of the man, forcing him to turn with me. There was a tree at the apex of the corner on a collision course with my right shoulder, but I ducked it by the hairs of my arm; the man, stuck on my right side, couldn’t.

There is a certain satisfaction which tickles me when I do a just action and make others content.

-Michel de Montaigne, father of the essay, French

I saw the man again at a switchback walking back to the pit, bent front wheel in hand. The boy ended up placing second in his category (of three total). Now that’s me using my skill for good, but it would be a lie to say that I’ve never taken a fool out to settle a grudge, make room for myself, or just for laughs. At state championships a guy tried to put me into a curb using the method I described above. I was able to hop the obstacle, but it cost me some extra sweat to get back to my former position. On the next lap I did the exact same thing to my adversary, knocking him out of contention for the upcoming sprint to the finish, which I got twelfth-place in.

There are some defeats more triumphant than victories

-Montaigne, again

I learned how to take people out by a semi-pro who saw me lose position to some other racers with pointier elbows. He raced for a local shop and had an impressive collection of shiny streaks of new flesh on his arms and knees. He taught me that in the pack whoever’s ahead decides who stays upright.

The way to have power is to take it

-Boss Tweed

On a field we practiced passes and I found that indeed, once his handlebars were ahead of mine he could push me with his knee, reach a hand back and squeeze my brake, bump me with his hip, and make me turn by swooping into my path. “Bike racing is not explicitly a contact sport” he assured me, “But this is how they do it in Europe”. To that end, whenever I’m questioned about my tactics I’ve found that saying ‘that’s how it’s done in Europe’ turns out to be a pretty effective defense.

The old French racing adage goes, “Do we look like we’re doing this for our health?” to which most people would wonder, “why are you doing this?” Cyclocross is a niche activity, like a cult or fringe religion. I do it because I like to and I don’t expect outsiders to understand. It meets every cold Sunday through fall and winter, the church of amateur bicycle racing, where we day-job laden athletes of Chicago pay our alms in sweat and grease. What we get out of it is pride? Satisfaction? An excuse to buy new bike parts? All those things, sure, but at least for me there is also the chance that I might do something memorable. In sport, if not in life, I can be a hero.  Picture me, an old man in front of the fire, telling the little ones, “In my day when I wasn’t working I used to ride my bike though the mud in circles with about forty other people for an hour every week. Sometimes one of them would annoy me and I’d get to crash him out. It looked great on my Fly6. We called it cyclocross, and filming it made it more fun”.

About the Author:

            Scott Wilson is a student at Columbia College, working on his masters in nonfiction writing. A lifelong cyclist, Scott has toured across the state of Iowa, mountain biked down the Tualatin Mountains, raced BMX, Road, and Cyclocross, and worked as a shop and race mechanic for close to a decade. He lives near the former site of the historic Humboldt Park Bike Racing Track -where the 1940 Olympic tryouts were held- in Chicago, Illinois. He writes music reviews for and regularly updates his bike blog: