Driving along the hilly and windy roads through the Ozark mountains of rural Missouri (more hills actually than mountains) I felt a little nervousness. We were traveling to a recurring, annual event that I had been to many times over the years. One might think that this would create a bit of ho hum, but actually, it can have quite the opposite effect. With thoughts of how I might do better this time swirling around in my head, one starts to care. There was something special about this one as it had become a ritual.
“Burnin’ at the Bluff” was a 12 plus hour long mountain bike race held at Council Bluff lake in a sprawling area of US Forest Service land. The campground consisted of parking spots in the woods with picnic tables and fire rings. The only modern amenities were water spigots, outhouses and a giant dumpster. In other words, it was perfect.
What made this event so fun was that it was a relay race. Teams of three would take turns racing one lap, taking you through some of the more rugged and beautiful wilderness of the state. Each lap took a little over an hour to complete for the fast people. This meant that, while you were intently waiting to take your turn, you had a lot of time to kill with your friends. No drinking was involved, the competition was serious. Another fun aspect of this race is that it allowed you to be both cheering spectator, and competitor. We all kept close tabs on our competition’s lap times, carefully calculating how it was likely to unfold as each took their turn.
I was racing in the coed division with my long time adventure race team of Jeff Sona, Carrie Sona, and me. We were “Team Alpine Shop”, for our sponsor, who supported us and paid many of the bills.
It was now dark and the competition was nearing the end. The race started at 9:00 in the morning, with a run around the campground to get to your bikes. What a brilliant way to spread out the crowd. The pure bikers cursed. The runners ran with glee. Near the end of the race, you could leave out on your last lap up until 9:00 at night. This meant that the race actually lasted until about 10:30 or so, depending on how fast your last lap was. You just had to start it by 9. We had carefully calculated that our main competition, team “All About Robin”, was not going to make it back in time to start another lap. This meant that when my partner, Jeff, got back, we were done, no need for me to take my turn. The bonfire was going, the kegs were tapped, the party had started. “No way he’ll make it” I said again, reassuring myself that joining the festivities now was a good idea. It sure looked like a good idea. I was wearing my bluejeans, my bike was up at the campsite and I was getting into my third beer.
Jeff turned himself inside out and got in before the “All About Robin” team member, as expected. He was cooked. “Congratulation Jeff, you did it!”
At 8:59 PM, the crowd started a countdown. “59, 58…”. Just then, somehow, the team member from “All About Robin” came in. Their next rider went out. “How did that happen?” I exclaimed. This was his fastest lap yet. Apparently, he had flats on his previous laps. We thought he was the slow one. He was not!
Panic. What to do? It’s hot. I’m in bluejeans. No bike, shoes or headlamp. The beer was good too. Just as I’m thinking that I totally screwed up, but I can learn to live with second place, I can see the look on Jeff’s sweaty face. He’s pissed! Think quick. The countdown is continuing. I have an idea. As soon as I pull my pants down, everyone gets where I’m going with this. One person is shoving Jeff’s left shoe on my left foot, another is doing the same with my right foot and a third is putting his helmet on my head. “Five, Four, Three…” With a push, off I go on Jeff’s bike, stripped to my whitey tighties, only they’re red. I’m grinning ear to ear and giggling at what had just transpired as I race through the woods at night. Every time I pass someone, I felt compelled to yell out “there’s a reason for this”. The burnin lap is long, the beer wore off, the cotton undies wore in, the giggling slowly evaporated. In my absence, back at the finish, and with the help of a couple of kegs, the legend was starting to form. I did manage to pass our main nemesis and took our spot on the podium. Jeff picked me up like I had just done something heroic.
About a year or two later, I was commuting to work on my bike and came together with another cyclist for a while. We exchanged pleasantries, I didn’t know him. After about a mile he said “aren’t you the guy who did a lap at Burnin at the Bluff in red underwear?” “Why, yes I am!” The legend.