For three months every year the water is drained from the world’s largest man-made river. And every year the dry river bed sits idle as the staff clean, repair, and refill it, getting ready for next whitewater season. Every year until this year that is.
On Jan 12, over 100 cyclists representing multiple disciplines registered and raced in the appropriately named “Rumble in the Concrete Jungle” at the US National Whitewater Center, Charlotte NC.
The first race of its kind at The Center (and possibly anywhere) made for an eclectic mix of participants. Some were clad in jeans and t-shirts. Some wore baggy shorts and flannel. And a few were encased in black composite armor, apparently from the Darth Vader Spring collection.
BMX, downhill, and trail bikes competed in two race formats. The downhill speed trial was all about guts. Each rider had two attempts with the fastest time going in the record books. The switchback filled course and high concrete banks of the competition channel, normally the domain of kayakers and rafters, provided ample opportunity for the best riders to climb and build momentum for a burst of speed on the return ride down. Many chose to show a bit of flash with a jump and mid-air twist. Neko Mulally took the Men’s open race with a 45.5 second run, setting a track record. Actually, it was the first one so everything was a track record.
Since most of the riders were gassed after the ¼ mile speed trial, the short track race that immediately followed was a true test of endurance and skill. Each loop was approximately 1-mile long and included the same channel used in the speed trial plus about ¾ mile of gravel road. The riders completing the most laps in 40 minutes were crowned the winner. Riders spread out on the initial road ride but bunched up when they entered the channel. The crowd watching at the river’s edge responded with gasps, cheers, and, of course, more cow bell. James Heycraft of Charlotte won the open short track race with a lung busting 14 laps completed.
Some of the inspiration for the insanity of racing your bike down a concrete riverbed came from urban downhill races in South America, race director Doug Fogartie said. “Check it out on Youtube.” (I did. He’s right. Insane). Three years of planning lead to last September’s decision to approve the first race. Logistics weren’t easy. The amount of water left in puddles was a bit of a surprise and required construction of some temporary wooden bridges. “We had a one week window to prepare and run the race,” said Fogartie. In fact, they had already starting filling part of the lower channel before the race and were continuing the process shortly after the last rider left.
The work was well worth it. Fogartie described the response as “phenomenal. The goal was 50 to 60 registered. We had 90 pre-registered and 10 to 15 more register on race day”.
Participants came from up and down the east coast as far as Pennsylvania. Even pro downhill rider Jeff Lenowski made the trip. Lenowski finished 8th on the short track race and 4th in the downhill. Five female riders competed in the downhill race and 2 competed in the short track.
In March the water and paddlers return to the river making the 24 miles of trail at the Center a safer bet for bike riders. With such a positive turn out to the inaugural Rumble, however, it is likely we’ll see their return to the channel next winter.