Racing in the dark, big crowds and flowing beer brought smiles. © Janet Hill

Racing in the dark, big crowds and flowing beer brought smiles. © Janet Hill

Among the Thundering Herd – 2009 Clydesdale Championship of the Universe

by Dave Queen

When Cyclocross Magazine broke the story of the Clydesdale Championship of the Universe taking place the Saturday night of Nationals, I knew coming to Bend was the right choice.  Brad Ross, Race Promoter for Nationals and the Cross Crusade, knows how to throw a party. After partaking in the rollicking SSCXWC held in collaboration with Ross’ Cross Crusade series for my second straight year, I knew that if I could make the weight, I had to ride the Clydesdale Championship race. Off to the training table, I had a race to qualify for.

Our team arrived in Bend late Wednesday evening.  Rather than reach into my quiver of superlatives, suffice to say, I discovered that the outside temperate sensor on my car registers negatives when the temperature gets below zero.  I’m not from Canada, so you should know I’m talking Fahrenheit. Yes Virginia, it was cold.

Thursday and Friday saw us racing in our age group races. One of our juniors had a podium finish and now owns a Nationals medal. Ice and snow and frozen grass made us feel like racers one minute and like hippos on ice the next. With the icy conditions and huge field sizes, unless you started in the first few rows, you had to reset your expectations.

Saturday it warmed up and the course saw some mud for the first time. It had been odd that after races on Thursday and Friday my bike was still essentially clean; snow and ice are good that way.

I love Cyclocross as much as the next OCD cross guy. I can talk frame compliance, componentry, and the fine points of brakes all day long.  But the scene here at Nationals is intense even for me. When I see a guy in the 15th row, digging for the hole as if it were the line in Roubaix, it makes me wonder what drives his ego. I want to think he is working hard because he loves the sport and wants to do his best, but I’m some of these folks take it way to seriously.

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That over-seriousness is where Brad Ross thrives, and after Saturday’s dinner, we stood in line under starry skies, stepped proudly on the scale, and had our numbers. Many of the riders were familiar. Some I had seen dejected at being pulled after being lapped in their age group races; others I had seen standing in line for more frites again and again.  Tonight they were more comfortable; they were among friends. Indeed, they were among family. This event had the camaraderie that in my opinion is Cyclocross’s essence.

While some of us claim height as the primary contributing factor to Clydesdale eligibility, clearly there were others who claimed beer or donuts as their major contributing factor. Those small guys can handle a cross bike around technical corners, sure, but when they encounter a course that instead of barriers has, let’s say, a tug of war that must be contested to continue, they will wish they hadn’t turned down that apple fritter.

At 9:00 PM, when all the big and tall shops in Bend were closed for the night, we lined up. There were riders in team kits, riders in Santa suits, two superheroes, a tiger and all manner of costumes. After last minute libations were shared, we were off. Like hungry kids racing for free donuts we ripped into the first corner. We raced on half of the Nationals course. For those of you playing at home, we raced on the fun half.  Banked corners, a scary downhill, an off camber created by Satan himself, and all in the dark. Lights on our bikes had been suggested and nearly all headed the advice.  The kind folks at Planet Bike contributed lights and the contestants who were lacking candlepower were grateful for the support.

Lights definitely helped as there was little light on the course. © Janet Hill

Lights definitely helped as there was little light on the course. © Janet Hill

All that had warmed and melted during the day was now frozen and the course was icy, challenging, but ridable. The crowd, like the racers, was large and loud. The drum corps from Portland was successful in whipping the fans into an absolute frenzy.

The off camber than had been rutted snow on Thursday became bare grass on Friday. This same real estate became wet and slippery under Saturday’s sun and was now a frozen sheet of ice. Racers hit the ground like bowling pins. Large bowling pins. Two hundred pound bowling pins, and I am told that when we fell, the ground shook.

The cheering fans held out beer and dollar bills to see who would take them. To their delight these offers were graciously accepted and racers with dollar bills in their teeth or stuffed into their jersey pockets were riding alongside other Clydesdales burping after gulping a few ounces of excellent Deschutes grain beverages.  We were cheered over the barriers and rung up the run-up by cowbells. Great roars were heard when some, including myself, succeeded in riding the entire hill up and down.

After a handful of quick laps it was all over.  I did well. My costume fulfilled its intended purpose and I finished with the same cape I started with.  Even after the race was over we were welcomed with cheers like conquering heroes. I felt like a rock star. One of the riders whom I had seen being consoled by his wife after he had been pulled from his age group race yesterday was standing taller and smiling a big smile. We quickly changed out of our large wet clothing and put on our large dry clothing.  The Deschutes Brewery opened up to a few hundred of my new close friends and the celebration continued. There are over two thousand racers here for the Nationals in Bend and only a fraction of them will stand on a podium. Somebody won the race tonight. I don’t know who it was and personally, it doesn’t matter. In my mind, tonight every Clydesdale was a Champion.

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