You never know who you’ll meet at a cyclocross race. At the first-ever cyclocross race at Lighthouse Field State Park in Santa Cruz, while most spectators were at the barriers or at the finish, I saw one fan standing by himself in the shade, watching the racing action with some interest.
When you bring a cyclocross race to a populated area like downtown Santa Cruz, you’re bringing it to the people and making it easier for people unfamiliar with the sport to stop and check out the spectacle of cyclocross.
It appeared to me that this might have been the case with this gentleman.
We started chatting, and I couldn’t have been more inaccurate in my initial assumption. The man I was talking to was very much a part of Santa Cruz’s rich history of cyclocross, and had roomed with and raced with the cyclocross legends of the 70s and 80s.
Laurie Schmidtke came to watch cyclocross in Santa Cruz not because it was a curiosity, but because it was in his blood—he had raced during the formative years of Santa Cruz cyclocross, and in the U.S. in general. Before the first USCF Cyclocross National Championships in 1975 in Berkeley, California, and before the legendary Surf City Cyclocross series kicked off, Schmidtke was riding and racing with the legends, National Champions and Worlds racers like Laurence Malone, Dannie Nall and Gary Fisher.
Schmidtke competed in his first cyclocross race in 1971 in Tilden Park in Berkeley purely by accident, and even though gravel racing and riding wasn’t yet invented, he was way ahead of the times.
An early cycling mentor introduced Schmidtke to training on dirt and gravel climbs for road racing. “By riding on loose surfaces you learn to apply steady, smooth power, and your agility and bike handling skills improve,” said Schmidtke.
Schmidtke was on a winter club road ride in 1971, and its route went through Tilden Park in Berkeley. As luck would have it, a cyclocross race was about to start. “My training partners knew about my weird habit of riding on dirt—with sewups!—and suggested I enter,” recalls Schmidtke. “We managed to get the rear fender off my road bike in time for the start. I don’t have a copy, but I’ve seen a photograph of the start line and [I have] the only bike with a front fender. I guess that makes me an accidental cyclocross pioneer.”
“My training partners knew about my weird habit of riding on dirt—with sewups!—and suggested I enter” -Laurie Schmidtke
You know how the story goes from there. After trying his first race, Schmidtke would come back for more, using it as winter training for road racing, his main focus. “My big cyclocross season was ’74 when I entered seven ’cross races. At the time I was sharing an apartment with Dannie Nall and Charlie Dixon.”
Schmidtke not only has great stories, but the photos to back them up. His father, Hermann Schmidtke, came out to a race in Mill Valley in Marin in 1974, and shot a roll of film to capture his son racing. I was grateful to get my hands on a few of the images, and they’re here for your enjoyment.
As for Schmidtke himself, he’s no longer racing cyclocross but still riding. “To this day I still seek out semi-paved goat tracks,” he revealed. He doesn’t own a gravel bike or use 40c tires, but still likes to explore and work on his craft of applying “steady, smooth power” and fine-tuning his “agility and bike handling skills.”
If you see an older mustached rider go by as you ride Northern California’s Bay Area dirt roads and trails, it just might be Schmidtke. Say hello, and listen carefully. You’ll likely learn a lot about cyclocross.