Tina Brubaker, a cheery, petite powerhouse, fondly remembers racing cyclocross in Oregon in 1994, just one year after the Cross Crusade series was established.
With a roaring fire, cold beers and even a brother-sister duo that sang and played the banjo, those early races, which attracted approximately 50 racers and were often held at a fellow racer's farm in the Willamette Valley, were easy-going affairs.
"They had a very home-towny kind of family feel," says Brubaker, who splits her time between Bend and Salem. "No one was on carbon tubulars," she adds, referring to the expensive, high-tech carbon fiber race wheels once used only by elites and now common among all categories of cross racers.
Back in the early '90s, few Oregon cyclists understood the European sport of cyclocross, a fall and winter discipline staged on a lap-style course and littered with various barriers and challenging terrain. Hills, mud, pavement, singletrack and even stair climbs—it's all fair game in 'cross. In those days, Brubaker recalls racing on a rigid mountain bike with narrow tires, much like everyone else. She also remembers being one of only about 10 female racers.
Today, the Cross Crusade, a race series that runs from October to early December, has reached its 20th year and is a sprawling festival—as much a carnival as a bike race, replete with unicycles, sparkly costumes, unicorns and, of course, the impossibly strong. And that's just a normal 'cross weekend. The annual Halloween race, which will once again be staged in Bend's Old Mill District, is an amplified, intensified and completely zany version of the Cross Crusade's weekly iterations. And that festive and inclusive environment is precisely why the Cross Crusade, now the biggest 'cross races in the world, has become so popular.
A welcome byproduct? The proliferation of female racers—Brubaker's peers—who have flocked to 'cross in ever increasing numbers.
It's women like Brubaker who deserve credit for the impressive growth of women's 'cross. Through the years, the fit, blonde 40-something (who looks at least a decade younger) has been a mainstay on the Oregon 'cross scene: Brubaker hasn't missed a 'cross season in 19 years, and last year had a race series named after her. She remains a competitive elite racer, but these days Brubaker spends more of her energy leading women's only cycling clinics, coaching kids and generally encouraging other female 'cross racers who are new to the sport.
"It's easy to live in your own head at races, but you have to look up and say, 'Oh, there's 10 other women here that are scared out of their minds'—you need to be supportive of that," explains Brubaker, who races for a made-by-hand bicycle frame company in Portland called Speedvagen. "It's your duty as a woman."
The Oregon 'cross icon outlined exactly how and why the Cross Crusade races, which regularly draw 1,200 participants—from beginners to professionals—are so popular: the familial feel cultivated by Candi and Mike Murray, the Oregon Bicycle Race Association's leaders, the convenient race locations (for Portlanders, anyway), race organizer Brad Ross' outstanding organization. But mostly it's the contagious energy.
"It's hard to not get sucked in," says Brubaker.
Consider Bend's Serena Bishop Gordon, one of the Pacific Northwest's fastest racers and one who, so far this season, has won three of the four Cross Crusade races. Bishop Gordon, unlike Brubaker, is relatively new to the sport and has only been racing 'cross for four years. But the 34-year-old All Access Racing-Giant rider remembers idolizing experienced racers like Brubaker, who welcomed her to the start line with open arms.
"I looked up to Tina [Brubaker] when I started racing," Bishop Gordon says. "I remember thinking, 'This lady rocks!'"
Similarly, Bend's Laura Winberry, Brubaker's Speedvagen teammate, is another area racer who was "sucked in." Winberry, 29, moved to Oregon from New Jersey specifically for 'cross. That was four years ago and she's now one the state's top 'cross racers, as proved by her recent second place result in which she finished just seconds behind Bishop Gordon. [Full disclosure: Of course I think Winberry is great—she's my fiancée!]
Point is, Brad Ross and the other Cross Crusade organizers are clearly doing something right. In 2003, there were fewer than 80 women racers at Alpenrose Dairy, the annual season opener. This year there were more than 250 women and about 1,360 racers in all.
In 1993, Ross, a mellow and affable 47-year-old Alaskan transplant, took over Oregon's fledgling cyclocross race series, then called First Mud. He describes the fun and fulfillment associated with cutting in new courses and decorating and partying on that same farm Brubaker mentioned. He had help from some of his best friends and together they worked and raced and then celebrated. It was an inclusive family feel, but more funky.
"It was like Burning Man," recalls Ross of the early days. "The sky was the limit."
Through the years, Ross has remained the man in charge and pushed through the 90-hour work weeks (in 'cross season) for a simple reason—it's fun.
"If it had of been like a road racing series, where you show up, pay, race and go home, I would have lost interest a long time ago," says Ross.
Cross Crusade races are not at all like stuffy, cliquey road races. Instead, they're a party and everyone is invited—an invitation that many Pacific Northwesterners have accepted.
Of course, it's not just the ranks of women that have grown—all the categories have swelled in size. Thanks to a logistics change four years ago—one that allowed juniors to race on the courses alone, without having to navigate bumbling adult racers—youth participation is more robust than ever. A few years before, race officials made a similar accommodation for the less-experienced women categories.
"We went from having 20 to over 100 junior racers," says Bill Warburton, Bend Endurance Academy's cycling director. Warburton noted that five years ago BEA didn't have any junior women 'cross riders enrolled in its program, now they coach six girls (and 24 kids in total, most of whom are taken to the races every weekend by Warburton).
"Tina and Laura and Serena—they're the role models," Warburton says.
Cross Crusade Nos. 4 & 5
Saturday, Oct. 26 and Sunday, Oct. 27 (Halloween, costume race)
Old Mill District, behind the Deschutes Brewery warehouse, 901 SW Simpson Ave.
Racing starts at 8:40 am both days and ends around 4:15 pm.
After party: Deschutes Warehouse Bash. 8 pm-2 am. Saturday Oct. 26 at Deschutes Brewery warehouse. Live music and DJs. 21+. $10.