Gathering in praise of the bicycle
Bike Derby celebrates its fifth go around

Chad Cheeney, sporting his best circus freak garb, barrels his way to the finish line in the semi-annual Bike Derby's thrift-store downhill. /Photo by Dustin Bradford When Chad Cheeney was seven years old, he wanted to be a professional football player. He yearned to be the star of his local high school team, make first string for the Oregon Ducks and eventually wear the same blue and orange uniform as his hero, John Elway. As a member of the local pee-wee football league, he planned to take ballet classes to develop balance, strong legs and an airy lightness on his tippy-toes.

His mother ecstatically signed him up for his first ballet class. She drove him to the local dance school in Bend, Ore., but Cheeney never made it through the door. He took one look at the little girls in pink tutus and tights and never uttered the word ballet in his parents’ presence again.

“There was nothing cool about ballet class,” he says. “And besides, that was before I got my first mountain bike.”

Mountain biking has been the primary focus of Cheeney’s existence ever since. With quadriceps the size of some people’s waists, physical pain and cardiovascular punishment are his fortes. Several years ago, he completed the Big Sur Ultramarathon without any previous marathon experience, just the time spent in the woods on his beloved bike breathing crisp Northwestern air.

The Tall Man, aka Patrick Buchanan, relenquishes his bike in the ghost-ride contest. /Photo by Dustin BradfordMoving to Durango, the venerated mountain bike capital of the world, eventually became Cheeney’s objective. Attending Fort Lewis College, the alma mater of his distant cousin, former Mountain Bike World Champion Greg Herbold, became his vehicle for coming to Durango.

Cheeney is now in his final year of study as an exercise science major at FLC and a member of the school’s cycling club. However, he has never shaved his legs to shave nanoseconds. He loves cycling purely for the feeling of speed and the exhilaration of exhaustion.

And for the past few years, Cheeney has shared this feeling with others in the form of the semi-annual Bike Derby – a loose conglomeration of bike enthusiasts who gather at a local mountain biking venue to participate in offbeat games of skill. It’s a wild longing from deep within for an unbridled celebration of bicycle stewardship.

Last week, on a Test Track concrete slab overlooking Durango, a multitude gathered to praise the bicycle. Cheeney was the official organizer, promoter and sponsor of the event. Participants found no doormen collecting cover charges and no figures of authority watching over them.

Every Bike Derby has a costume theme. For last week’s fifth bi-annual Derby the theme was “Carnies at the Carnival” with aficionados serving as clowns, magicians, ring-masters, hula-hoop girls, sideshow performers, game booth operators and bearded ladies in full drag. As a collective, they spent five hours in the woods laughing, screaming, singing and drinking beer.

A0If psychologist Carl Jung had attended, he may have commented that the Derby fulfills a primal urge to individuate oneself from the rest of society.

Sigmund Freud would have countered that it represents an unresolved oedipal complex. The Dalai Lama might have reminded Derby attendees to “Learn the rules so you may be wise in breaking them.”

To enter the three events, participants signed up on a clipboard full of dirty, beer-soaked notebook paper. The directions and instructions were then bellowed through a bullhorn, which may or may not be reported missing from an unspecified law enforcement official.

Once the sign-up was complete, a series of muddled yet efficient contests began. The first event, a warm-up of sorts, was the ghost ride. Riders pedaled toward a start line, abandoning the bike prior to the line. A step or fall over the line resulted in disqualification. The longest ghost ride won.

The second challenge, the thrift-store bike downhill, was the main event. Riders had to navigate a steep, twisty singletrack into a bumpy and dangerous root section before pedaling uphill to the finish line – all on the same $8, second-hand children’s bike. The boldest riders finished the course in less than 20 seconds.

A galleryA0congregated near the section where the most wrecks were likely to happen. The mob loved carnage and sadistically celebrated each time a rider crashed. There was even the occasional chorus of boos when a rider narrowly avoided driving his or her body into the hard ground.

Whatever remained of the ghost-ride bike was used for the third event: the Huffy toss. Using any method possible, the participant had to spin, run and huck the bike from behind the line. Once again, a contestant was disqualified if he or she stepped or fell beyond the line, and there are no second chances at the Bike Derby. Contestants who threw the bike into the crowd were quickly reminded that no one is safe from the reciprocity of karma, not even at the Derby.

When all the beer ran out and the last event rumbled to a close, the remaining participants cleaned up the mess. In darkness they stumbled, tripped and rolled down the hill to meet at Cheeney’s artificial wood-paneled minivan.

Using his dome light for guidance, he tallied up the results and awarded prizes, the grand one being a new bicycle frame courtesy of a local bike shop. Other prizes included vintage and retro bike clothing, bike equipment, thrift store clothes and wigs. As proof of his Derby mastery, defending champion Cheeney took top honors again this year. To show his generosity, he graciously donated his new bike frame to thrift store downhill winner Eric Porter. And when all the awards were handed out, everyone locked their cars and rode their bikes downtown to continue the festivities, with Cheeney leading the charge.

“Chad is the perfect guy to be ringleader of that circus,” Herbold said.





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