Dirty Little Secret
We’re all lined up at the start, awaiting the pop of the gun. You could call us a peloton, in as much as we are a group of riders huddled together, but spandex is less common than cut off Dickies and old wool jerseys. We’re rubbing elbows and kissing tires, but not in an effort to get to the front, just for a lack of space.
We are a motley crew of cyclists, riding mismatched bikes. There are skinny single speeds next to full suspension mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes beside fixies. Some of us are carrying beers, others have Camelbacks full of water. Most of us have helmets. Some of us just have hats.
One guy, directly in front of me, is riding a 1960s cruiser with kickback brakes. He’s going old school, like Gary Fisher and the Marin bikers who began the sport 30 years ago. His brake will likely fail. He knows this – he’s seen the grainy footage of the early years. If he goes really fast, his hub may start smoking after burning up all its grease or maybe the arm will weld to the frame. But he doesn’t care. He’ll probably fall. Hell, we’ll all probably fall at some point. You can tell from the scars on our pointy parts that this is nothing new.
Soil Saloon is a series of off-road bike races held in parks around the city. By their own account, it’s a place “where dinosaurs live and cowboys thrive upon stallions of steel and aluminum. Where, due to hoopty course markings and information, racing and exploration tend to be one and the same.” In short, it’s about having fun – on bikes.
But don’t take us for a bunch of degenerates who don’t know how to ride a bike. We’re serious riders who love the dirt, who had to decide which of our six steeds we’d take out of the stable today (I chose my trusty steel hard tail over the full suspension). And we love San Francisco because we can ride from our houses to the racecourses and never leave the city.
It’s our obsession with bike culture that has brought us here today, that makes us drop all other plans when we see the text message roll in at the last minute. Last night’s message: “McLaren Park, High Noon, bring bike and something to grill.” We’re like the Mavericks surfers – always on call for the big event, always ready when the boys of Soil Saloon call our names.
Soil Saloon is a secretive series because it has to be. If the events were publicized on racing list serves, it would become just another race in the NorCal circuit. It would be competitive, permits would have to be issued, the city would become involved and the organizers would have to be responsible adults in pressed shirts sitting behind neat folding tables, rather than fun-loving kids in torn jeans jumping up and down on picnic tables. And we like it that way.
Writer’s Note to Regular Soil Saloon Riders : The cowboys have given me the green light to write about the event. However, I won’t give away too many of the details. Cyclist’s honor.
Writer’s Note to Prospective Riders : I am not giving away all of the details. I already said that. Heck, I don’t even know who sends out the texts that go viral. Maybe no one does. But read on and I’ll give you some hints so you can find out the details yourself.
The races aren’t long, maybe 5 or 6 miles. Today’s race is only 4.7 and should take about 50 minutes. That sounds like a pretty slow pace, especially for serious cyclists, but when you factor in five stops to pick up poker cards, time to take a shot of booze, shoot a weapon, answer a survey, “shred the gnar” in a jumping competition, and pay homage to Jerry Garcia, well you better bike fast to make it under an hour. Oh, and today’s course is hilly. Really hilly.
The gun goes off and in a Pavlovian response brought on by my high school track days, I sprint out of the gate. It’s mostly guys in the race – it always is. So besides having a good time and hoping for a strong poker hand, my goal is to be the first woman through the stops. Or at least to tie with my cycling buddy, Isabella, who is far faster than me and a real racer. Ideally, we’ll go through the finish line together and share the winnings.
I’m already breathing heavy from the first set of steep hills. Those with cyclocross bikes jump off and sling their lightweight frames over their boney shoulders. Those of us with fatter tires try to ride up the skinny trail. I make it up, despite the cruiser guy who is spinning his balloon wheels on the trail in front of me.
We get to the first stop – Jerry’s memorial. I bow my head to the hippie god and collect my card: The Ace of Spades. I stick it in my sports bra because I’ve got no pockets, no bag and in poor planning, no water bottle. I’m the first girl through the checkpoint and I’ve got a great card. Good start all around.
Isabella’s still on my tail. I only know because I can hear her singing “The Ace of Spades, The Ace of Spades.” And she’s doing it without a choppy breath. She’s just hanging back on my wheel, singing and whistling her way through the trails.
The course is shoddily marked – it’s part of Soil Saloon’s leave-no-trace mentality. There are only white powder arrows in the dirt marking the turns. If you’re near the back of the pack, the marks may be all worn off by the time you get there. If you’re at the front, you might miss them altogether and find yourself in the middle of a little league game on the edge of the park.
While some people, mostly hikers, think that mountain bikers destroy their pristine trails, it’s actually the bikers who maintain them. The SF Urban Riders – a group dedicated to trail riding in the city – cut back the brush, even out the trails, add wood edges to prevent erosion, and generally give the trails the love they deserve and don’t get because of budget cuts.
The course continues on an intestine-like route, making its way to the second and third stops. I answer a quiz about artists at one stop and do the requisite shot and shot combo (rum, followed by a slingshot) and make my way to the final stop – a jumping competition. If you “shred the gnar” (pedal fast, tear it up, jump high) you get a drink token for a local bar (I didn’t shred it well enough so I can’t tell you which one, but judging from the wood tokens, my guess is the Elbo Room.
I’m still in first place, despite getting lost between the third and fourth stops. I’m guessing Isabella got off track, too, because she’s no longer right behind me. My poker hand has gotten progressively worse with every stop, so my only prize winning possibility now is to stay in the lead.
I race toward the finish, a steep decent back into the picnic grounds at McLaren Park. I can hear the party already underway. I know there’s a keg of beer and lots of meat on the grill.
Overall, the finish is anticlimactic. A few people look up, give me the head nod and go back to their beer. I stand in line to show my poker hand to the organizers: An ace, a jack, a two, and a seven. “You got nothing,” says the guy behind the table. “What about first girl?” I ask. “Oh shit, yeah, first girl.” And then a few people look up. “Right on,” says one guy. “Good ride.”
And it was a good ride. Not because I won, but because I got to spend a day outside with a group of like-minded (read: bike-obsessed) people, shredding the gnar in a beautiful park that’s only three miles from my house.
Do It Yourself
Want to race in Soil Saloon?
Follow the hints: Start by scouring Soil Saloon’s website for clues, volunteer for trail maintenance with the SF Urban Riders, visit your local, friendly biker dive bar, and your final clue – contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In your email, briefly explain why you want to ride in Soil Saloon (a picture of your favorite bike goes a long way, as do some nice comments below). If you’ve done all of the above, you’ll likely find yourself with a last minute text message inviting you to join the race. Once you’re in, bring $5 for race fee, your bike, and something to grill.
How to get on the SS text list:
Hint 1: Scour the website ( www.soilsaloon.com ). They have pictures from the past few years of races. Chances are if you live in SF and own a bike, you know some peeps in the pics. The best way to get on the Soil Saloon text list is to have a friend forward you the info.
Hint 2: Volunteering for trail maintenance with SF Urban Riders might help. There is a lot of crossover between the two groups.
Hint 3: You’ll likely (and logically) meet Soil Saloon folks at an outside bar that loves bikes.