By Whitney James
We only had about two miles left to go. My full-suspension bike had provided a plush ride, and unlike the poor souls wearing top-hats flying down the wash-boarded road on Striders, I was beginning to feel like maybe I’d missed out on the party. But before the thought could fully sink in, I heard a yell from the back. My friend was shouting with a newfound sense of excitement and gesturing wildly behind her. “They’re coming! They’re coming! Get out of the way!”
We were in the middle of Crested Butte’s annual running of the Chainless World Championships, held every summer in June. Said to be part of the oldest bike festival in the world, Crested Butte Bike Week, the chainless is for some a drunken debauchery and for others the crowning event. It’s a seven-mile route from the top of Kebler Pass that runs down a fairly easy going, partially paved road into Crested Butte’s main street, Elk Avenue. Everyone is in costume, and everyone is having fun. With no real rules other than your chain must be either zip-tied or removed and you shouldn’t roll down the hill before the clock strikes 4:20 pm, this was a world championship unlike any other.
I had already participated in another odd-ball event in Crested Butte earlier this year; the 21k cross-country ski race in February fittingly dubbed the Alley Loop. In that race, skiers of all abilities push and glide around the town’s world-class trails and side streets. I went into that race in a similar fashion––without costume and having little to no idea what to expect. I was safe in a sea of similar skiers, the pack dotted with bananas and chickens but most of us wearing sport-appropriate gear. And while there was a certain amount of small-town crazy palpable at the Alley Loop, the race did nothing to prepare me for what I was about to experience.
We were carried up to the top of Kebler Pass, elevation 10,007 feet, in one of Crested Butte’s classic hand-painted buses (ours was the beautiful aspen mosaic, not the lime-green aliens skiing down the local mountain). Forty-five of our closest friends squeezed in next to us, most in carefully executed group costumes, singing renditions of Britney Spears hits while a mandolin strummed a happy background tune. In a desperate attempt to fit in, I hastily blew up an inflatable pool toy–an unassuming penguin–that I’d picked up at the market the day before.
Our final destination was baked in early-season, late afternoon heat. We quickly found a spot on the hillside to watch the foray and drink the beers we’d packed in our camelbacks (pro tip: don’t bring a mountain bike pack unless you want to look like a total tourist). A herd of cows clomped by followed by a cowboy in full leather chaps and boots. Circus freaks with feathers in their hair and painted faces wandered past. An entire Mario party cavorted in the trees singing fight songs from high school. There were even some little kids, riding atop the shoulders of dads or safely tucked into bike trailers with helmets and sunblock slathered on thick. And the fan favorite of the event, a presidential motorcade complete with a middle-finger-waving president, secret service agents, and fake bullet holes in the paint, was getting situated right at the starting line.
Photo: Crested Butte News
As luck would have it, our bikes had also been positioned near the front––right off the left wheel of the Trump-mobile. We considered moving but before we knew it, we were securing our helmets and lining up slightly off the backside of Kebler. It was five minutes until go time and my friend and I were more than ready. Someone patted my penguin on the head, and as the clock struck 4:18 pm, a group of derelicts yelled with convincing enthusiasm, “GO!!!!!!!”
Fast forward five relatively uneventful miles to my friend’s urgent warning. “They’re coming! They’re coming! Get out of the way!”
I turned in my saddle and there they were––five men bearing down on us dressed as characters from Mad Max, covered in armor, long black wigs that flowed in the wind, spears and shoulder pads brandished in aggressive display. It turns out they weren’t kidding. The rig–two tandem bikes fixed together with plywood and surrounded in cardboard sheathing–had neither brakes nor very reliable steering. At 25 miles per hour with a steep section ahead, they needed us to GTFO. But we didn’t realize they were serious until they were close enough for us to see the water guns.
They nailed my friend, who took it like a champ. It was clear that my penguin and I were next. I tried to avoid the onslaught with a technical swerving maneuver, but they got me anyways and immediately dropped character out of fear that they almost caused an out-of-towner to crash. With a friendly apology for the water works they shouted out, “Hey, want a beer?”
The last two miles of the race passed in a blur. As we turned the final corner into the steepest and loosest section yet, Mad Max made their pass. I attempted to chug a Coors Banquet and avoid sliding into a posse of (real) police officers. Mad Max kicked up dust, their boots dragging in the dirt, a vain attempt to slow their descent into a roaring crowd of fans on Elk Avenue. Riding past the finish line eating the dust of heroes, we were met with a deafening roar.