Fifth Street Cross
“Hey, since you’re up here for the Mercer Cup you might as well come up a day early and do Fifth Street Cross.” And with that spontaneous thought from my BFF Cush, I decided to load two duffel bags with enough cycling clothes to be prepared for any type of adverse weather conditions. “There might be rain, so over-pack,” was his last bit of advice.
The Mercer Cup race in New Jersey is the third stop on the USGP of cyclocross tour. The past two years it has been a mud-fest with almost equal parts running as well as riding. The crowds are thick and boisterous to say the least. However, in the town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania there is an equally well known race with a crowd that is also in various degrees of sobriety, Fifth Street Cross. To quickly summarize Fifth Street Cross, aka “fsx”, is to imagine a European World Cup cross race with a course thick with drunk spectators. Now imagine the drunk spectators are given race bikes and put onto the course to compete. That’s “fsx”.
Fifth Street Cross originally started in Bicycling Magazine’s Bill Stricklands’ backyard. The course included single track, technical sections and goats. Of course there was beer hand-ups. But “fsx” became a victim of it’s own success as too many people started showing up for the Thursday night cross race/party. What went from a loose gathering of friends getting together to drink and race, to a real race and the legal complications that came with it. Not to mention that his backyard and house was getting trashed by the additional racers that were now making the “fsx” a Thursday night tradition. So the race was moved to a grass field, a racing license became required and forms needed to be filled out. But just because the race became more legit, it didn’t mean that the vibe of the race had changed.
The Fifth Street Cross course is a windy track that loops through a grass field, around trees, and includes a short run-up followed by barricades. By it’s self this is a tough course. Race promoter/ring master Strickland described to me that the track is a pedaler’s course that required strength. The grassy sections require power and the many switch backs demand technical skill. What separates “fsx” from traditional cross races is a the short cut option and the theme of the night. Each lap the racers have the option of either taking a short cut route or a longer option. However the short cut option comes at a price – you need to eat, drink or do whatever the race volunteers/referees give you. This is where “fsx” again deviates from the normal ‘cross race. Also each race night has a theme and the theme was Mexican, which meant all the food and drinks that were going to be eaten or drank in order to take the short cut were Mexican in origin. Extra style points were given if you wore a sombrero or poncho. On one lap if you wanted to take the short cut you had to eat a chili pepper. Other laps it was hot sauce, tequila mixer or refried beans. On the last lap a four-question quiz about Mexico had to be completed (What is the body of water on the eastern side of Mexico?) and answered correctly before you could pass. Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the knights had to answer questions before they could cross the bridge and you get the idea. Oh, and most racers indulged in some pre-race liquid carbs, so quick and intelligent decision making might be a bit hampered. It was going to be one of those nights.
I arrived at Mountain Cycles bike shop in the heart of Emmaus and was almost immediately given a beer as part of the the pre-race “fsx” ritual. The small shop started to fill up with local racers. One local was Team OUCH rider Bobby Lea. For 2010 Lea is riding for the Bahati Foundation team, and was doing the “fsx” race for the hell of it. He’d been winning every week to no one’s surprise. Another local was Army Jim who in full camo gear, including World War II era style helmet. Yep, it was an eclectic group.
The evening races are split into two separate races, the first race is four laps with a winner. There is a 15 minute break so everyone can pound a few beers and then there’s the second race which is three laps. By the second race I’m fairly buzzed from pounding beers at the shop on virtually and empty stomach, racing and then pounding another beer in between races. The serpentine nature of the course started to get to me and my stomach, which was also not helped by the fact that I had to eat a chili pepper in order to take the short cut option and gulped down an shot of tequila. However, the highlight of the race was when Bicycling Magazine’s own Fit Chick pushed me into one of the many plastic poles that the race tape was tied to as she swooped beneath me. She later said that driving me into the pole was, “pretty easy.”
In the end everyone survived the race (which was a surprise to me) and the after party started at the only Mexican restaurant in town. Awards were given out and I won a razor for “smoothest move”, a nod to the fact that I’d been crashed by the Fit Chick and I had driven 10 hours to participate in the Thursday night madness. I had ridden for a little under an hour for a total distance of 10 miles. Next stop New Jersey. Good times…