The XTERRA off-road triathlon series has been coming to Richmond since 1999, and for the past six years, as the Times-Dispatch outdoors columnist, I covered the professional and amateur racers as they swam the James River, then mountain biked and ran the riverside trails in the East Championship. It’s always been a blast watching these elite athletes hammer the same ground we Richmond outdoors lovers do all year long.
Over the past couple of years, there have been two developments that aided the XTERRA race experience for both fans and racers. The first was Luck Stone coming on as the presenting sponsor. You wouldn’t think of Luck Stone as a technology company, but they’ve added features like GPS tracking, live streaming video from the course and, this year, drone footage of the race (Click here take a look at this year’s coverage). Very cool stuff.
The other development is the rise of the insane, European-soccer-fan-quality spectators who now line portions of the Buttermilk Trail — the narrow, slickrock area with a rock face above it. They dress like Mexican wrestlers, babies, Minnie Mouse, ex-presidents. Many crossdress, with hairy dudes copiously stuffing their bras and donning Daisy Dukes. Brats and dogs are roasted on a grill. Music blasts from a giant stereo, and everyone cheers as the riders come through. It’s become quite a spectacle. According to the veteran racers, there’s nothing else like it on the XTERRA tour.
This year I, along with a few other writers and photographers, got a ride in the media van to the “Party Rocks” from XTERRA VP and PR maven Trey Garman, who wanted to catch the leaders coming through the area. I realized as I scrambled down the bank from Riverside Drive, that this year for the first time I wasn’t bound by the usual journalistic decorum. No longer a T-D employee, I could indulge my inner George Plimpton, my inner Hunter S. Thompson. It was time for a little gonzo journalism.
There are actually two sections of the “Party Rocks” area. The slickrock section, and then further east, toward downtown, another group of yahoos at a creek crossing. Knowing I had a a few minutes, I hightailed it to the creek, getting high fives from a guy in a Lucha libre mask and bike spandex. The sound of vuvuzelas greeted me at the creek, as did the offer for a Miller Lite from a guy dressed like Ric Flair. This is participatory journalism, I thought. I’m “Andy S. Thompson” now. What the heck, a quick beer won’t hurt!
As we waited for the top pros to come through on their second bike lap, a guy showed me the pics he snapped of a female pro who wrecked in front of the crowd on her first lap. He had set the camera to take multiple bursts with each press of the button and captured every horrific milisecond of her face plant directly into the mud and rocks. I’m sure the blood she surely spilled will make her a legend among that crowd for years to come.
With no sign yet of the pros, I decided to hoof it back to the slickrock section. It was about a hundred-yard run on Buttermilk, but XTERRA great Conrad Stoltz chased me down before I got there. I had to jump off the path into a patch of poison ivy to get out of his way. I was really starting to get the hang of this gonzo journalism, I thought. And I hadn’t even dropped any acid.
Last year’s Richmond champ Dan Hugo arrived shortly after Stoltz, and then there was a small gap that allowed me to make it back to the party. Some sort of country/rock travesty blasted from the speakers, and the revelers were in full throat. You’d be shocked to hear the respectable jobs these people will go back to tomorrow. I talked to school teachers, arborists, city employees, and other moderately sturdy pillars of our community. But on this day, they were crazier than 10 drunken Frenchmen chasing the Tour de France peloton up Alpe d’Huez.
It was truly impressive to watch these athletes — human lungs, really — navigate this tricky section at warp speed with guys in blonde wigs and banana hammocks on either side of them on the trail. I had a front seat for the show as Stoltz, then Hugo, then Craig Evans, then XTERRA series points leader Josiah Middaugh zoomed by, but I had to share it with a guy in a full-body lycra jumpsuit and a red wig. He looked like a Dr. Seuss character.
The media van eventually left the Party Rocks and caught up with the leaders on the run. Hugo narrowed the gap, then caught Stoltz, a 7-time winner in Richmond, in the forest atop Belle Isle. Bermuda native Flora Duffy absolutely blistered the women’s field from start to finish. On the men’s side it was probably the closest Richmond race in memory, with a number of lead changes and Hugo’s final pass not occurring until there was half a mile left. With Duffy, we might have witnessed the rise of the sport’s next great female champion. (Click here for full results and here for a sweet photo gallery.)
After the race, both winners answered many questions from the media about strategy, how they felt at which section, when they passed whom, etc. And they answered those questions, of course, but both also went out of their way to mention the “scene” along the way. What they saw was likely a crazy blur, considering how hard they were riding. Knee deep in poison ivy and Miller Lite, what I saw, to paraphrase the aforementioned gonzo journalist, was both decadent and depraved.