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Pain, knee-deep mud just part of all the fun

Erika Krumpelman, left, Charlie Miller, above, Tommy McGrath, second from right, and Mike Gaertner are members of Team Vertical Earth's cyclocross team. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Erika Krumpelman, left, Charlie Miller, above, Tommy McGrath, second from right, and Mike Gaertner are members of Team Vertical Earth's cyclocross team. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

ERIKA KRUMPELMAN RUNS up hills covered in mud that reaches her shins while she carries her bicycle on her shoulder, and she’s not even escaping from anything. She’s just playing with her friends.

She plays so hard that she broke her shoulder in a bike crash once and didn’t notice for four days. Doctors stitching up her leg from another bike crash noticed her shoulder wasn’t working right.

“I knew I’d done something,” Erika says lightly, as if she’d ripped her jacket. “But that’s how I met my husband.” He took her to the hospital emergency room after she crashed during a group ride in which they’d both participated.

The high school substitute teacher powers her bicycle through foot-deep mud, jumps off it while it’s moving, leaps with it over foot-high barriers, then laughs about it all later.

“She’s quite a rider,” says Mike Gaertner. He owns Vertical Earth Performance Sports in downtown Coeur d’Alene and organized a group of riders to compete in Portland last weekend at the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships. Erika, 37, was the lone woman in the group.

Cyclocross is a rough and tough bike event that’s a mix of road riding, trail riding, running, weight-lifting and jumping. It takes muscle, endurance, coordination, determination and ultimate fitness.

European cyclists created the event back in the 1950s to continue training during winter months. They put fatter tires on their road bikes and alternated between street and dirt riding depending on road conditions. Eventually a cyclocross bike was born. The United States adopted the event in the last decade.

The grueling sport appeals to Mike. His modest character overshadows his impressive athleticism until he’s pedal to pedal with a competitor on a race course. Mike’s love of cyclocross inspired him to start annual fall races in Coeur d’Alene last year. His enthusiasm captivated several riders who participate in Vertical Earth’s weekly group mountain bike rides.

Mike spread the word about the Portland races and seven other North Idaho riders, including Erika, and a few from Spokane wanted to race with him.

“It’s fun to see it keep growing,” Mike says, grinning.

The Portland race was about as nasty as it gets. A week of rain drenched the course, turning dirt into mud thick as pancake batter. Mud coated gears, chains, wheels, clothes, even faces. Jumps ended in deep puddles. Riders had to plow on foot up to a quarter mile at a time through the mud. They repeated the course as many times as they could in about 45 minutes and each time the mud was worse.

“It was so muddy, I decided to try to have fun, not take it too seriously,” Erika says. She finished 16th out of 18 riders in her category. “Running up the first hill of mud, I sank in up to mid-calf.”

Charlie Miller, 24, went with Mike’s group and raced in the open category with 110 other riders. He finished ninth. Charlie rides for the University of Idaho bike team and ran track and cross country for North Idaho College.

“The mud was up to my shins,” he says, but he’s not complaining. “I dismounted into a puddle. It was lots of fun.”

Mike, 34, wasn’t as pleased with the mud. He raced in two divisions, finishing 13th in masters and third in the open category.

“I do better when I can pedal and stay on the bike,” he says. “It was just brutal on Saturday.”

Luckily, pit crews waited in the center of the course with fresh bikes.

“Each lap, I grabbed a new bike and someone washed the other bike,” Erika says. “It was so muddy, the bikes were breaking.”

Which leads one to wonder what the attraction to the sport is. Erika, Mike and Charlie don’t hesitate to answer. It’s the challenge and the camaraderie.

“The first time I did it, I laughed all the way through,” Erika says. “I felt so uncoordinated.”

But she was determined to learn. Mike, who won Spokane’s race series one year and was a top finisher in Washington’s state championships, helped her.

“Mike makes it look so smooth. He just flies,” Erika says. “When he jumps onto his bike, it’s a leap of faith. I haven’t quite gotten there.”

Mud, pins in her shoulder and the stitches in her leg are small prices to pay to spend weekends with people she adores.

“When you’re racing, you don’t really have fun. Your lungs hurt. You feel like you want to throw up,” she says. “What’s really fun are the conversations you have afterward. Everyone agreed the mud was awful. But when you’re not racing, you’re cheering for everyone else. It’s a fun weekend with friends. What’s better?”


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