by David Hutton
(this story was one of many published in our print Issue 5)
We all know how ‘cross is a spectator-friendly sport, and regardless of rider turnout, fans can make or break the atmosphere of a race. From local racing to big-time UCI battles, it’s not just the in-race action that brings the race to life, but those cheering, heckling and, um, “hydrating” that really breathe life into the race.
It’s not very often that I get the opportunity to go and simply watch a ‘cross race. As an avid ‘cross fan, a cycling junkie and a “categorically fast” road racer, my weekends normally consist of racing or at least lining up in the elite 1/2 races in the Southeast (or wherever I can manage on a limited chunk of gas money). Having a chance to head to the USGP’s Derby City Cup in Louisville, KY, was a last-minute decision that I was glad I was able to make. There’s nothing like bluegrass music, a little bit of mud and a few adult beverages to make a typical fall weekend a two-day vacation.
Walking around the course was rejuvenating. Watching the ten-year old juniors lugging their oversized bikes up the “green monster” and seeing the category 4s crash over the barriers would put a smile on anyone’s face. But when I was approached randomly by a ‘cross-crazed spectator and asked if I would paint my chest for Georgia Gould, it only seemed logical to fully embrace the weekend for what it was. When in Rome. . .
Gathering a few more foolish, fun-seeking ‘cross fans, we made our way over to the most appropriate place to view any ‘cross race: the sandpit. Undressing in front of strangers-some guy in lederhosen and a gorilla wearing a Giro D’Italia tee-would make even the most outgoing person uncomfortable. Not me. Not today. Today I was drowning myself in ‘cross-ness. After carefully completing the “A!” in “GEORGIA!” the women’s race was off, and soon they were barreling through the sand. Through the cowbells and waving fists came our inspiration, Georgia Gould. Looking up, slightly startled and wincing either from the effort she was putting in or the glare of the sun reflecting off my pale, white body, she gave the most sincere smirk anyone could ask for. Success!
As you may know, for most mortals, the brain-dead, pain-filled time we spend fumbling around in a field on our bikes making fools of ourselves as we claim to be racing is done in an incoherent, oblivious fog where even the slightest slip of concentration results in an un-enjoyable mess of course tape in bike and dirt in the mouth. But for those who can breathe enough to take the time to realize what is going on around them it is inspiring and motivating. It is art.
Shortly after the pro women blew by us in the sand, Georgia returned the favor and put in what seemed to be the race-winning move. As she ran the barriers, we were there, and she smiled. As she negotiated the off cambers, we were there, and she smiled. Sadly, in the final stages of the race, Georgia encountered a problem and slipped from the lead to her eventual finishing spot of third.
Disappointed with our inability to drive Georgia to the win, we made our way to the podium to show one last bit of support before saying our goodbyes. What happened next, I will never forget. Following the podium presentation, amidst the post-race scrum of journalists fighting to get a quote, Georgia looked up, scooted back her seat and walked over to us. Smiling ear-to-ear, all she said was “Thank you so much!” and gave each of us a hug. She asked our names, asked if we were racing tomorrow and told us she would be out rooting for us in the morning. Then, we finally exchanged “good luck”s and went our separate ways. Mission accomplished.
The beauty in ‘cross is clear. Or, at least, after this weekend, it is to me. Far too often, people like me are too caught up in the competition to realize how special the sport we suffer through on a regular basis really is. In what other sport can such a situation be common practice? I can assure you that Lebron James or Tom Brady aren’t going to be hugging me with a big smile on their face, thanking me for cheering for them any time soon. If they did, I would be rightfully freaked out. You see, even when things go badly for the biggest racers at the biggest races, in the end, ‘cross is still ‘cross. The passion for the sport is not confined to the bike or the rider. It is so much more. It is the atmosphere, the surroundings and the dedicated fans that make ‘cross complete. So, to you everyday ‘crossers, spectators and, most importantly, the hecklers, keep the cowbells ringing and the chest paint flowing. I can promise, when you see that mid-race smirk peek through the suffering face of that one rider who realizes you’re there supporting him, it is well worth the 70 dollars of gas and weekend of Waffle House breakfasts you’ve invested.