It Wasn't (really) Sunny in Philadelphia, But It Was Full of Brotherly and Sisterly Love

It's been a week, and while I spent most of that intervening week trying not to get kicked out of grad school in a furious term paper writing marathon, I still haven't gotten over the amazing weekend that was SSCXWC13Philly. I'm going to try to remember the highlights to share with you, but I'll forget stuff. Nevertheless, this is going to be a massively long post. It was that much of a barrage of awesome...

When I left Lincoln on Thursday, it was a balmy 6 degrees outside. I made it effortlessly through O'Hare and onto my second flight, and emerged from the plane in Philly to an actually balmy, humid, please-get-me-out-of-these-fleece-tights 55-degree evening. The bike made it just fine, which was a huge relief, and my gracious host Chris was there to pick me up. This was but the beginning of having the most wonderful chauffeurs, hosts, and superfans in Chris and his partner J-Vass, who is my college roommate and one of the finest humans on the planet. We headed back to their place in South Philly, I put my bike together, and we did some work while waiting for J-Vass to get home from his fancy lawyer job. We proceeded to have an amazing dinner in their neighborhood at the Royal Tavern, then went home to watch Female Trouble. Nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels...

Seriously, don't even watch that trailer if you're easily offended. John Waters at his early, weirdest, finest. This film got watched twice over the course of the weekend...

The film kept me awake long enough to pick up my companion in weekend shenanigans, the internet-famous Erin Young, flying in from Minneapolis. Did I mention how great J-Vass & Chris are? Thanks for letting us take over your car for the weekend. Also, thanks for having the cutest dog ever.

SHELDON. The love.

Friday morning, we made our way to Mark Elsasser's place (conveniently just a few blocks away) for some homemade breakfast en route to a special private tour of the venue for Sunday's race. I met Mark last spring at TransIowa, when I picked him and Corey up at the 180-mile mark. Over breakfast, he told us about being the hinge between rogue trail builders and the city parks department in establishing Belmont Plateau as a legitimate trail system, and about how he'd secured none other than the Mayor of Philadelphia to open the races on Sunday with a declaration that in the City of Philadelphia, Handups are Not a Crime. Seriously impressive, getting city leaders to not just ok but actually serve as dignitaries to open up something so shenanigan-rich as SSCXWC. Chapeau, fellas.

So, compared to Erin and my home surroundings, high 40s to low 50s and rainy felt warm enough that we were basically in summer kit. This was a bit silly. We were a wee bit unprepared, and hadn't even packed water bottles. Ooops. We rolled over to Bicycle Revolutions to meet up with some other folks, including Jeff Frane from All-City and my new buddy Charlie Southgate, source of knowledge on all the secret dirtbag spots to ride a bike in Philly. At first glance, I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that this fella was full of mischief. Sweet. After buying some too-small knee warmers in a pinch, we rolled down to "graffiti pier" to recon a course for that night's Bandit CX race. The area we were in was an abandoned coal mine, and little rogue trails criss-crossed the landscape, full of little pump track rollers, glass, and other urban detritus. Oh, and a massive pier under a bridge covered in graffiti. So cool. We helped those guys set up for awhile before heading off with Mark to Fairmount Park and the site of the Worlds course. It had started raining a little more solidly, and we wanted a chance to see the sections of singletrack that wouldn't be used if it kept raining.

Charlie at Graffiti Pier

SSCXWC course recon. Rainy, muddy, leafy, awesome.
We got to the park and hit the trails, which were wet and covered with leaves. Mark led us into the singletrack and let me take a moment to say, holyyyyyy smokes, can that man ride a bike. He was jumping over things with such ease it was like they weren't there. Like dancing. Like magic. It was nuts. Erin was doing a pretty good job keeping up with him, but I couldn't hold a candle to that. I was getting nervous at every log, doubting my ability to hop over them. (Really need to practice, concertedly, getting over that.) After doing a lap of the course and seeing some of the alternate paths, Erin and I were hungry, cold, and tired, so we sheepishly asked about heading back to South Philly. Besides, it was really raining by now.

This was followed by the most massive of naps. Between hungry and tired, tired won, because, blankets. By the time we woke up, it was dinner time. Got some food, then braved the rain once again to head to West Philly for the check-in party. It was funny to walk into a super packed bike party like that and not really know anyone, being so far from home and the home scene. We got our bracelets, our beers, our swag, and hung out for awhile before meeting up with our buddy Craig Ethridge, positive singlespeed ambassador extraordinaire. It was also close to this point that we realized the Belgians making a bid for SSCXWC14...were actually Belgians. I thought it was a joke, and then suddenly there was this guy next to me passing out Chimay and speaking in a thick accent. Amazing.

Lots of white dudes. A few ladies. Strangers.

Eventually, Erin and I were hungry again, and we made our way to the bar where J-Vass, Chris and their friends were drinking and dining. Yay for gay bars, especially classy ones with good food. We probably drank a little too much for our early morning, but we made it. Then home in more rain and into bed...we did not want to miss the group ride through North Philly to Bilenky Junkyard Cross...

So, we got up. It was sunny-ish. Not raining. Thankfully. Crisp, but not cold. Also a bonus. While Chris had made drunken pledges to make us breakfast, he was in blissful sleep, and we headed out the door to find coffee and a bagel en route to Love Park. There, we assembled with probably 40 other cyclists to ride north through some pretty decayed, impoverished, and industrial parts of the city to Bilenky Cycle Works and the auto scrap yard adjacent to it. This was a sight to behold, especially for many bewildered residents of North Philly, emerging from homes and businesses to take pictures of this strange parade of white kids on bikes riding through their neighborhood early on a Saturday morning. What I would give to find the right combination of search terms to find those photos...

Finally, we get to Bilenky, pull up the road, and I suddenly have this really overwhelming feeling. In the lead up to this, in going back and forth over and over about whether or not to risk racing in a junkyard the day before SSCXWC, I had watched a bunch of videos of past years' races, over and over again. To be there was just...surreal. I was immediately so glad I'd decided to do this race. It was pretty chaotic with all of us arriving at once, but we got checked in and I got numbers for my singlespeed and women's races. I ran into Chad, a Philly local who'd made the trip to Lincoln for Gravel Worlds in August. Instead of taking my bike on a pre-ride lap, I just walked the course the first time, looking for bits of ground to avoid. After all those videos, I was relieved to discover that nothing really seemed too crazy to me. Of course, this is all relative, since we'd still be 1. running through two vans, 2. going over a car barrier, and 3. shortcutting through the cab of an excavator. After walking, I took the bike for a lap, and proceeded to get really excited about this race.

My singlespeed heat was somewhere in the middle of the many, many heats of singlespeed races...something like 150 people registered. I got a decent start, seeded in somewhere in the middle of the guys, and just had fun with it. During that race, there was a whiskey and soft pretzel shortcut around the 2 vans, and I did that each of the two laps. On fire from the excitement of that first race, I proceeded to jump around a bunch to try to stay warm until the first women's race. Erin did well enough in his singlespeed race that despite dropping a chain, he was advancing to the semifinals. Then I had the preliminary heat of the women's race. Knowing how much the start mattered, I hammered it, second off the starting stretch into the turns. The course was tight, and I defended my line, making it into the two vans -- now being rocked back and forth by a bunch of fellas -- still in second position. Um, it's really hard to stay upright and moving forward while carrying your bike through two 15-passenger vans, especially when you're a tall girl.

Women's preliminary heat #1

Going over the Buick barrier. Photo: http://alleycat.phanfare.com/2013/
 When we got to the Buick barrier, Liz So from Chicago's Tati Cycles was hot on my heels, and made a quick and deft last-minute pass. Then her chainring got stuck under the hood of the car. Damn. As another woman opted for the trunk route, I freed Liz's bike and got over the car as quickly as I could behind her. Dropped from 2nd to 4th, but held that position to the finish to qualify for the women's finals. Score.
Coming out of the vans and through the Belgians. Photo: Dirt Rag

Erin flashing me. For motivation. Photo: http://alleycat.phanfare.com/2013/

Watched more races, including the trick bike riders doing unbelievable backflips and stuff over the car. Just nuts. Tried to stay warm. Failed while sitting in one of the junk cars that turned out to be soaked full of rain from the last day's storms. Made friends. Wandered around looking at parts. Cheered on Erin. And then, lined up for the women's final...

Coming through the cab of the 'dozer. Photo: Urban Velo

A.E.LANDES PHOTOGRAPHY: 131207 Bilenky Cross &emdash; 1312070112
Racing through parts. Steering columns. Radiators. Containers of things.

Again, holeshot is everything, and this time, I nailed it. While I lost position to Liz and Sue after a few turns, I knew the lines to take and was drilling it this time, riding super defensively until I had a bit of a gap on 4th place. The crowd was so loud. Coming over the Buick, a guy was holding out a lei, which I obviously took, screaming at the crowd how stoked I was I got lei'd at Bilenky. I came out of the 'dozer cab and rode clean into the finish to secure the third step on the podium. So awesome. I wanted to do it again. Not too long after, Erin raced in a singlespeed final full of cheating and crazy shenanigans, and he, too, rode his way to third place.

A.E.LANDES PHOTOGRAPHY: 131207 Bilenky Cross &emdash; 1312070199
Obviously, I convinced my competitors we needed to take the shots on the podium.

All of the stoke. And you know what's extra awesome? When your good buddy J-Vass drives up to North Philly to pick you guys up and drive you home. Yay, friends!!

We got cleaned up and went to eat Mexican food with J-Vass and Chris, who'd been nursing the brown bottle flu all day. It was delicious. We walked back through a street of Christmas light decorations in South Philly that was just insane. Crazy amounts of lights everywhere. Inflatable abominations right on the sidewalk. Then Erin and I got ready to head into Old City for the Last Chance Qualifiers and party. Because, damn, these Philly folks knew how to party.

J-Vass had warned us that the bar we were going to was one that was likely to be filled with suburban woo girls. When we got there, though, it was clear that the bike nerds had taken over. The fence outside was covered in bikes. We locked up and forced our way into the crowd, where a goldsprints set-up had guys vying for a few remaining spots in the championship race on Sunday. This party was crazy amounts of overstimulating. Met a whole bunch of folks, and chatted forever with a rad woman named Ali who lives in SF. Then we proceeded to have a dance party, thanks to the excellent ladies on the 1s and 2s. It was reminiscent of the LVfoamparty at CX Worlds in February, but with a little more room to move (but not much). And a bunch of us danced our little booties off. Sure, you could go home and go to bed, considering you're racing the next day, but that, as Dave Pryor, the organizer of the whole SSCXWC13Philly event came on the mic to thank us for being out to party told us, is "doing it wrong." So yeah, we danced a lot longer.

And we were rewarded, for when we returned to our bikes, they had been adorned with beer jawns! This koozie-case with a shoulder strap was filled with beers and birch beers. How cool is that? Erin and I rode home and had a birch beer with whiskey...while watching more of Female Trouble, of course.

Thankfully, Sunday morning didn't start quite so early. We got up and walked to breakfast with J-Vass, Erin shocking the locals with his shorts and a t-shirt as the flurries were starting to show up in the air. J-Vass described another breakfast patron's look as one of "utter disgust" at his clothing choice. We might've been a little hung over. Got down food and coffee and headed back to the house to pack up, to once again be luxuriously chauffeured to the race venue. It was starting to snow in earnest. It was starting to stick. We sped to Belmont Plateau, parked, checked in, and got Erin lined up to race.


Erin proceeded to charge down the hill to take the holeshot, flying up the first climb in all his technicolor glory. Pretty awesome to watch him lead out 99 other riders...and then drop to pretty much DFL by the time he came around for lap 2. I needed to change and try to unfreeze my toes, so I headed to the car and left the heckling in J-Vass's very capable hands, as he reminded Erin not to overextend himself and that it looked like he was trying really hard and such. J-Vass, of course, is a natural at heckling.

I went to the car, which was already covered in a couple inches of snow, and tried to sort out what to wear. Everything I had on was kind of wet, so I switched around for dry items, put embrocation on my freezing cold toes, and stayed put in the car for as long as I could. Throwing rain pants and a coat back on over top of the absolutely stellar unitard, I headed back to the start. It turned out that the two leaders in the men's race had decided to go mano-a-mano for an extra lap, and meanwhile the women -- who for the first time in any race I've ever been to were taking top billing as the last race of the day -- were lined up and shivering. There was a blanket of snow on the ground. You couldn't see more than maybe 200 feet. It was hard to tell where we'd even be turning to get onto the course from the start.

Shoulders covered in snow just standing there... Photo: J-Vass
Dave Pryor gave a nice little pre-race chat about wanting to make sure the women didn't get shortchanged of time in our race, seeing as though that apparently had been happening a lot at local races. With the current conditions, however, I think we were all ok with them erring on the shorter side of things. We ditched our coats and charged down the hill, with lots of ladies going down in the first hairpin turn onto the course. I had a fairly decent position climbing up the hill, but I was definitely in a steeper gear than lots of the other women (more on that in a moment...).

A.E.LANDES PHOTOGRAPHY: 131208 SSCXWC &emdash; 1312080256
Coming through the barriers on lap 1.

The race proceeded in a blur, as races usually do. I opted for the singletrack rather than the grassy section with pinwheel, struggled to clip in (but fared better than some, thanks Time pedals), hit my head on the Liberty Bells (thanks, being tall), made jokes with fellow racers about wanting my skis, and had an amazing time riding through deep and heavily falling snow. I'd spent a bunch of time thinking of clever costumes for the race (costumes are kind of mandatory unless you're really lame), but never got to the point of making one. With the snow, this was perfect, since people were yelling "IT'S A SNOW LEOPARD" all over the course. Perfect. Meow.

A.E.LANDES PHOTOGRAPHY: 131208 SSCXWC &emdash; 1312080272
Probably just before taking off completely fogged up glasses and sticking them in the front of the unitard.
It was crazy to ride in snow like this on a cross bike and on a mix of singletrack, gravel, and grass. I was so thankful to have put in so much time riding the bike at Wilderness, because my handling skills kept me upright the whole time. And the crowd, oh my goodness. Coming up Parachute Hill, the spectators were all the way in the path like you see on the mountain climbs in the big Euro road tours. It was just nuts to ride through that. I got a darling puppy's leash caught on my handlebars. I took so many handups. I had to climb over human barriers. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

Human barrier. Photo: Instagram.
A.E.LANDES PHOTOGRAPHY: 131208 SSCXWC &emdash; 1312080317
Smiling all the way up the hill
It was just magical. And then, suddenly, it became apparent to me that in all this, I was doing pretty well in the race. I went past J-Vass and Erin, who told me I was in the top 10 for sure. I found myself in front of a couple really serious racers. And as I came up the finishing climb the last time, I found myself in a little sprint for position. I lost it, not getting back into my pedal successfully, but I crossed the finish after 4 laps to see the top 5 women all still standing there as though they'd just finished. The race wasn't keeping official results past the winners, and as much as I'd like to know exactly what place I came in, I'm super happy to know I was up there. How amazing. Here's a video with more race footage. The only bummer about racing last is not getting to participate in the heckling shenanigans as much.

I proceeded to freeze while waiting for J-Vass and Erin to come back from the Hill. The guy with the cute puppy gave me a towel, and some dudes from Pittsburgh let me sit in their car. I was on such a high that I couldn't really process what had just happened. That was nuts. We drove home (oh my god, J-Vass, I love you so much for driving us around) through a magical winter wonderland.

After warming up, we had to take apart our bikes and face the reality of flying home in the morning. We ate all the pizza. We watched the rest of Female Trouble, laughing about the guys from Oregon who'd raced in Aunt Ida's costume. Then we headed to the final party of the weekend, which took place on a big boat. Strange things these coastal people do...

At the party, it was determined by poker game that Louisville will be hosting SSCXWC14. I'm good with that -- they threw one helluva party for CX Worlds last winter, and it's actually kind of within driving distance. Got to see Tim Anderson, which was cool, and then won myself a new U-lock by shaking my booty the way I know best.

I mentioned earlier something about gearing. Turns out there was a bit of controversy in the women's race, due to the fact that the winner had zip-tied her shifters, rather than raced a true singlespeed bike. Now, this is perfectly legal according to the guidebook, but Sunday's race pointed out just what an advantage it might have been. During the race, I remarked once or twice on the climbs at women nearby what a more suitable gearing they had than my 42x19 as they spun up hills that I was struggling to stay on top of. "Yeah, picked it right before the race, easiest gear!" one said. What a luxury that must be. Sorry, I FLEW HERE FROM NEBRASKA WITH THIS ONE. One gear all weekend. One gear whether it was clear, flat and dry at Bilenky or snowy and full of climbs at Belmont. I committed to having a singlespeed season when I changed the bike over before Gravel Worlds. That meant I raced in Open races locally against women with gears. That was part of the deal. Did it suck sometimes? Sure, especially at Jingle Cross that second day. But I was committed to singlespeeding it. It came with its advantages, too, like the fact that I kept it cleaner and rarely dropped a chain (except when I crashed on trolley tracks in the rain Friday night).

I can see where you can make an economic argument in favor of allowing for zip-tie singlespeed conversions. And honestly, I have absolutely no problem with a woman with just one bike -- her commuter, her mountain bike, her everyday ride -- zip-tying it so she can participate. But when you take elite racers and give them the luxury of making a gearing selection right before the race, no bag of cogs necessary, it changes the game, and quite frankly just sort of, to use Omar Little's mentality, violates the code. Yes, I get that this is one funny little subculture that is not so keen on rules enforcing rules in reaction to the broader cycling subculture's creation and enforcement of lots of rules in a sport that used to not have rules...and blah blah blah. I think if I'd have been in second place, I'd probably be bummed out. It'll be interesting to see if they make any changes to the rules for next year...

Anyway, post-party, we headed back to our wonderful home for the weekend, ready to mellow out before getting up really early to head to the airport with Chris, who had oh-so-graciously offered to drive us there. However, one more surprise was in store, in wonderful "It's a Small Socioeconomic Class After All" fashion. J-Vass had posted a photo of Erin at the race, which his friend, who also knows Erin saw, asking, in turn, "how do you know each other?" And well, this friend just so happened to be at a bar 10 or so blocks away. So we trekked through the snow for Erin and Seth to catch up a bit, and to have one more local beer to put a cap on the weekend. It was a lovely, mellow ending to a whirlwind weekend.  

Despite crazy delays, about 5 different rebookings, and a bike that ended up at a different airport and didn't get back to me until more than 24 hours after I'd gotten home, I had an absolutely amazing trip.

To the race organizers, party planners, beer pourers, volunteers at everything, tour guides, and hosts, you all totally knocked it out of the park. When I found out this race was going to be in Philadelphia, meaning a trip to see one of my best buds, I never imagined how much of the city I'd get to see, and how welcoming you all would be. I now have so many more friends to visit in Philly. Good work. And to J-Vass, Chris, and Sheldon, thanks for letting two bike racers come and go from your beautiful home wet, muddy, and at odd hours.

Of course, thanks also go to friends who trained with me, taking me on nightrides through Wilderness to sharpen my handling, to Matt for helping me keep my bike dialed and making sure I'd know how to put it back together, to Sydney for the bike case and for encouraging me despite the timing at the end of the semester to stick to it and make the trip happen, to Erin for being an absolute blast to share the weekend with, to Megan and Diane for taking care of the house and cats, to Sam and Skip at War Axe for a bike that rocked the scene, to my women of Sheclismo and buddies in Star City CX for cheering me on from afar, my parents for taking me to the airport and my mom for biting her tongue about me racing in a junkyard (and then commenting that it kind of reminded her of her own childhood when she saw the pictures), to my classmates understanding, albeit with a little bewilderment, that I needed to do this right before finals and forgiving my lack of attention in class...Thank you all. It was an incredible way to cap my season, and it's going to be extremely hard to top that.


Caitlin said...

I was the one racing you until the finish in the Monkey hoodie. Awesome report and great racing out there. I tried to tag you in pictures on facebook but I couldn't find you or figure out how to tag your team. Glad you enjoyed Philly.

elisabeth said...

Hey Caitlin! Thanks for your comment -- I just found you on Facebook! That was some seriously fun racing.