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St. Johns is a small community north of Portland, Oregon. At the north end, near where the Columbia River meets the Willamette, is 87.43 acres of cyclo-cross lore called Pier Park. In 2002, Portland Parks and Recreation officially prohibited cross events on the course there, and ended a racing legacy of more than 10 years.
Races would start and finish in a narrow grassy low spot, sandwiched on the right by the long slope of a hill, where everybody would camp and spectate, and on the left by an open field where the next group of racers warmed up and rolled around in nervous circles. Sixty feet beyond the start, the traction-less low spot vanished and the course became narrow and paved as it dived into an enchanted forest. The old pine trees here are seven hundred feet high and naked from the waist down. With no undergrowth, boughs or branches, the low streaking winter sun casts magical spotlights on everything. Among the trees, in the light and shadows, everyone traversed in and out of existence as they made their way around the east half of the park.
Down the backside of the park, a speedy downhill mixed single-track and double-track, it's flow broken in spots by the odd chicane and barrier. This ended with a sweeping left hand turn that tightened impossibly on it’s way past the backyard of an apartment building, so close you could smell the washing powder. The turn gave way to a punishing hill punctuated at the top with a run-up, not too long or steep but serious enough to hurt.
The course then dropped into a naturally formed bowl come half-pipe, a quarter mile wide and forty feet high. Momentum was paramount and if maintained, the entire run was rideable. Back and forth, six maybe seven times, across this massive wooded ravine, the course slowly made it’s way north. From one side to the next, descending one side over secret drops and jumps, then up the other, cranking over the flats, tracking impromptu lines. Unseemly body English was in order to overcome inertia.
A steep drop down a dirt road ended in a gravel section and a sharp banking left turn before bringing you back around for a 200 yard straight sprint to the start/finish line.
Each lap was roughly a mile and half long and most races ran you eight times around. Rick Potestio, co-founder of Portland’s Cross Crusade, one of the country’s most successful and well attended cyclocross series, started racing Pier Park in 1985. The series then was called the Fat Tire Farm First Mud.
Pier was epic because it had it all. Long flat stretches, rolling semi technical sections, spectacular run-ups, gravel roads, paved roads, dirt roads. The ‘bowl’. And it was the exact right distance. We started racing there in the 80’s and for a long time it was the kick-off, the season opener.
I remember one year when Jeff Hayes, race director at the time, was running it, there was this jump in the middle of one of the steep downhill sections in the bowl. Rich Slingsbee, a manager at River City Bicycles and long time Portland racer, and I were dueling for second to last. We were throwing elbows and trying to box each other out, just fighting with everything we had to not be last. And so we both forgot about the jump, or drop-off, or whatever you want to call it, and hit it at totally the wrong angle and all off balance. We went sprawling and rolling, tangled in each other’s bike, down the hill together. Both of us laughing hysterically the whole way down. We landed in a pile at the bottom, still laughing like crazy.
[ Ira Ryan shoulders his bike ]
Brad Ross is part owner of the US Cyclocross Grand Prix, Technical Director of the Cascade Cycling Classic and Race Director of the Portland Twilight Criterium, Tour of Utah and Cross Crusade. He also has everything but nothing to do with the Portland Ronde, an unsanctioned and unnecessarily masochistic celebration of the Tour of Flanders.
I’ve travelled all around the world for cross, I’ve been to the World Championships and races all over Europe, in Belgium and Italy. And I can say with some experience and authority that Pier Park typifies cross. The climbs are the right length, it’s not too hard, it’s not dominated by overly long run-ups, it has this amazing ravine. And because of the way it’s laid out, essentially it’s a giant loop, it’s even fun to spectate. It’s perfect.
But we’ll probably never race there again. By the early 90’s the scene started to grow from 60 to 80 racers, to over four hundred racers and their cars. First parking became an issue, especially on the main street that paralled the length of the park. The neighbors got tired of us taking over their driveways and parking spots. Little old ladies in house dresses were greeted on their way to get the paper in the morning by cyclists naked from the waist down, dancing on one foot half in the bushes. People got tired of cyclists peeing on the side of their homes, the usual pre and post race stuff.
Then it was the park itself, they’re just not set up for this kind of event. They need to be ‘open’ for business at 7:00am Monday morning but if it rained (and it always rained) or snowed, the park would just get worked. I mean devastated. Even if we were willing to fix and clean and restore it to as good as new, which we were and did. We planted grass and scoured the park for trash from top to bottom. But it all took time and the neighborhood association was getting tired of their park getting trashed and their roads and driveways taken over. The whole thing. By the end it got to be so bad that if you so much as mentioned the word ‘cyclocross’ to Portland Parks and Recreation, they would flinch or scowl or likely both.
One cool thing is that since it’s been shutdown it’s become the de facto training course for just about everybody in town. You see teams and groups of guys out there all the time, especially leading up to and during the cross season. It’s part of the ‘loop’; Willamette out to St Johns, laps around Pier Park, over the St Johns Bridge and up into Forest Park and then Saltzman and Leif Ericson then home.
Awhile ago we were talking about organizing an official ‘practice’ venue for cross, when it hit us that we already had one. In fact, every now and then Rick and I talk about trying to get the city behind making it an official thing. Maybe we'll never race there again but at least we can all still ride it.
On September 11th at seven in the morning, Aaron Erbeck, Ira Ryan (Rapha), Alex Criss and Ryan Weaver (River City Bicycles), Molly Cameron (Vanilla Bicycles), Max Milverstedt, Slate Olson and Joshua Creem (Hup United), poured into what’s often been described as Pier Parks enchanted forest. The light was streaked, low and orange. For two hours they rode and ran hard. Dismounted, mounted and attacked. Pier Park was followed by coffee and pastries at James John Café before riding over the bridge and up into Forest Park. Nobody didn’t have a great time on what might be the world's greatest cross race-not-race course.
Photos and writing by Daniel Wakefield Pasley