So what do Michigan cyclocrossers do when the long, cold, white fingers of winter start scratching at the frost on the window? Get the shanty out and ice fish? Sit around the stove eating mac ’n cheese, drink PBR and play euchre? Sew suede patches on the elbows of our brown corduroy Sunday go-to-meeting jackets?
Thankfully, none of the above.
To fix the inevitable ’cross racing jones of winter, they get out the tractor, plow a course in a handy field, plop down some barriers, chill the beer in a snow bank, grill some brats and have themselves a good old fashioned Snowcross.
Nate and Shari Versluis, along with Farm Team Racing, host two races right smack in the heart of Michigan’s notoriously long and snowy winters. Their race venue, Versluis Orchards, a commercial farm that offers you-pick blueberries, strawberries, peaches, corn and more in warmer months, has been home for the Versluis Snowcross for eight years and has become a winter bike racing institution in West Michigan.
“When we started,” Nate (The Farmer) Versluis says, “we had 15 people riding around in the snow and then just headed back to the barn and drank beer.”
This year’s races were drawing up to 70 racers per day, with plenty of “newbie’s” coming out to discover the joy of ’cross for the first time. Pretty hardy stuff these newbie’s, when you remember this is winter racing in Michigan.
The races are casual affairs. Racers count their own laps and put their nametags on a stake to score their finishing spot. Categories are simple and straightforward: A’s, B’s, Women, and Kids. Prizes are beer and team sponsor swag. Bikes are evenly divided between cyclocross rigs and 29er mountain bikes.
Next to the racing (or maybe the other way around) the biggest draw is the post-race party where racers and fans pack Versluis’ big and well-heated barn-garage and share a few beers, brats, chili and stories about their “off-season” – and of course a detailed replay of all the snow bank and mud bog crashes that are standard for Snowcross racing.
The two races fall in January and at the end of February. Conditions for the races can run the gamut from four feet of snow, to icy ruts, to deep peanut butter mud. The first race of this year, on January 22nd, saw brutally cold conditions with 9˚ F temperatures along with a snowstorm that blasted racers from start to finish. Being able to ride in deep snow and icy ruts was key to a good finish – and to limit the bruise count.
The February 19th race saw a complete reversal in conditions from the first race. After being pounded for weeks by heavy snows and temperatures in the teens, a blast of warm air, in the 50s, hit the area and within just a few days the snow had vanished and the hard surface below was turned to ankle-deep slop. To match conditions, on race day the course was altered from its usual near two mile “snow loop” to a twisting, turning, climbing and cambered ’cross course – no barriers needed, Mother Nature provided her own natural run-ups.
While the Versluis Snowcross may be light years from the polish of a USGP race, the glitz of CrossVegas, the cosmic weirdness of Portland’s Cross Crusade, the storied roots of New England, or even the craziness of a Chicago Cyclocross Cup, it still has what American grassroots cyclocross racing is all about. It’s racing for racing’s sake. It’s about riding your bike as fast and as hard as you can in the worst weather, on the scariest and sometimes the loveliest surfaces a cyclocross nut could ask for – and not feeling silly when you fall over and slide down the hill on your ass like the Artie Johns bicycle guy – yeah that was me crashing in the video [See below]. But it’s also about coughing up a lung, having a beer with your friends and thawing your toes by a smoking iron stove while the beer starts working on all the body parts you just beat the crap out of. Hey it’s February and it’s the day before the last ’cross race in Europe. What the hell else are you going to do? Sew those suede patches on your corduroy jacket? I don’t think so.