Late on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in the heart of Santa Rosa, there are bicyclists of all shapes and sizes lining up to test their mettle for a few hot laps of good old-fashioned bike racing in Howarth Park.
The Dirt Crits, Santa Rosa’s longest running mountain bike race series, are in full swing. This is the eleventh race of the year, the penultimate battle before summer starts its gradual fade into fall. The smell of sizzling hot dogs permeates the air. The vibe is cheerful, laid-back and convivial as the kids line up to race, their faces lit up with excitement. Astride all types of mountain bikes, from steel hand-me-downs to carbon fiber racing machines, they listen intently as Chris Wells (current Dirt Crits organizer, Bike Peddler manager, and nicest guy in the world) announces the rules and prepares the young racers for takeoff. The crowd of parents, fellow racers, and onlookers cheer as the Juniors charge off the line in a cloud of golden dust.
The Dirt Crits began at a time when mountain bike racing was at a lull in the United States. Road biking was king, but even so, pre-Tour, pre-Fondo Santa Rosa was a ghost town when it came to cycling events. The mountain biking boom of the 80s and 90s had quieted down, and long-running races such as the Rockhopper were gone. Duncan Arnot Meyers moved back to Sonoma County in 1999 and decided to start an event similar to the ones he had been racing in Durango. “The City was very cool about helping me do everything to get it going. I pulled it off solo the first year, then Pedro Rusk and Chuck Scarpelli started helping me the next year. They ran it together for a few years before the Bike Peddler took over.”
Chris Wells started racing the Dirt Crits in 2002 after moving to Santa Rosa from Chicago. “I’d get off of work, race over there, and catch the A race. I’d get lapped by everybody, so I wanted to race in the B’s. So the next year, I talked the Bike Peddler into sending me there to support. I helped Pedro and Chuck out for a couple of years and then I took it over. Carlos Perez started showing up to the races, and then he began Bike Monkey after that. He wanted to try out some timing stuff at the Crits.” As it turned out, Carlos’ “timing stuff” became the foundation of Bike Monkey as the local race-production powerhouse responsible for well-known bike events such as Levi’s Gran Fondo, Boggs Enduro, and the Annadel XC.
That homebrewed, DIY approach to racing is a key element in mountain bike culture, an element which Wells is glad to share with riders of all levels and abilities. As he puts it, “The Dirt Crits are a way of introducing people to this culture, this community. It’s a race, but there’s not a focus on getting first, second, or third place. It’s not just an introduction to mountain bike racing, but an introduction to mountain biking in general. What’s cool about this course is a six-year-old can do two or three laps on it, but it can also be interesting for pro-level racers. It’s just ten bucks, you’re not going to lose anything, and you discover that racing’s not that scary. It’s about showing up and giving it a shot.”
If you’d like to give it a shot, the final race of the 2016 Dirt Crits takes place this Wednesday, August 17, at Howarth Park. For details and more information, visit Bike Monkey or the Bike Peddler (605 College Avenue).