As we transition into the second half of the road season here in Chicago, the all-too-predictable malaise has set in. Be it burnout, boredom, or the ever-popular “real life beckons”… the excitement and buzz that percolated in early spring (despite, or perhaps because of the frigid temperatures and treacherously icy roads), resulting in very strong showings at preseason crits, has gradually melted away. It’s difficult to say if the rise of cyclocross is to blame in all of this, and even if it is, perhaps it’s not the problem that some of us believe it to be.
The racing demographic is changing. It’s older. It’s wealthier. It’s more pinched for time. As a result, fewer and fewer folks are willing to travel to regional hallmark events. Most train specifically for 45 minute crits/cyclocross, partially explaining the falloff in road racing participation and interest. And while these are all national trends, they do seem to be especially concentrated in the urban markets, Chicago being a prime example.
For years, I’ve worried about this. I’ve worried about the death of stage racing, then road races, then circuit races, then technical crits… I’ve worried about the sport shifting from blue collar to white, from a devo focus to a masters focus. And for the most part, it’s why the Tatito crew has generally been young, poor, and focused on… an approach to the sport that is either dying off, or at least, becoming less important.
But at a certain point, it becomes clear that no amount of rending of garments or gnashing of teeth is going to change the culture. It becomes clear that the local grass crit disguised as a cyclocross race will outdraw a regional UCI event by 50:1. It becomes clear that flat, four corner crits with soft fields full of familiar faces are preferable to NCC events with amazing courses and and evenings filled with free, fast, and fun pro racing. It’s true that we must all choose to write our own narratives.
Last summer, a friend from St. Louis invited us to check out the Edwardsville Rotary Criterium. A technical twilight crit held in mid-August, once upon a time this sort of event would have been in the heart of the road season. Instead, it’s a coda for some, and a conflict for the many who will long have since switched to cross. In any case, we drive down, unsure of what to expect. Edwardsville turns out to be one of those lovely, idyllic Midwestern towns built around a central square, peppered with small parks and independent businesses. The weather was so terrible (triple digit temps and maximum humidity) that it was fantastic! It was misty and muggy and soupy, and there were thousands of spectators (many of whom were already a little buzzed when we arrived) lining the sidewalks and outdoor cafes and bars. There were two live bands, college kids in jorts and tank tops, beer-bellied dudes in Nascar caps, fathers carrying their kids around on their shoulders, and plenty of ice cream: there was so much ice cream.
As darkness fell, I realized that Edwardsville, despite technically being in Illinois, didn’t feel like any Illinois bicycle race I’d ever experienced. It felt a bit like Tulsa, or even Speedweek. While the pro fields lack the starpower of these larger events, the purse is still large enough to draw regional talent. The men’s race was a non-stop attack-fest in almost total darkness, with Colton Barrett, Chad Hartley, and Brad Huff trading body blows all night. Local boy Devin Clark took the win, in what would be his final race for Qdoba, before signing for Athlete Octane. In the women’s race, Vanderkitten’s Jeannie Kuhajek took advantage of the technical course by breaking away with four to go. With the rest of the lead pack lacking teammates, a lap of disarray was enough to foil any attempt at a concerted chase. Britta Siegel outsprinted Carrie Cash Wooten for second.
Afterwards, as a Slayer cover band played in the distance, I shared a melty vanilla ice cream waffle cone with Brian Ellison and Liz So. Neither of the young shredders placed particularly well, but both were sweaty, exhausted, and smiling from ear to ear.
“I learned SO MUCH in that race tonight. Brad Huff yelled at me!” said Brian.
“Was that the Jelly Belly guy?” asked Liz.
“Yeah. After I got dropped from the break and I was falling back, he was like ‘I’m the caboose of this train, so you’d better hop on or say goodnight!’ and I was like SSSSSSSIIIIIIIIIIKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!” said Brian.
“Aight Playa.” I said.
The Edwardsville Rotary Criterium is on August 16th of this year. It’s not part of the Illinois Cup, or Pave Liga, or for that matter, even listed on Chicagobikeracing.com - but it’s a fantastic event put on by folks who LOVE bike racing and know how to put on a show. As a racer or as a fan of bike racing, It’s worth your consideration.