Saturday May 24th, I was bitten by the snake.

In weeks preceding I had debated whether I would take on what many proclaim to be the toughest crit in the Midwest, but after some deliberation I made up my mind. I took Jim Barclay’s registration and with that my date with the snake was set.

On the morning of my demise I awoke from a deflated air mattress on the floor of my sister’s Peoria apartment. Feeling the lack of sleep from the preceding week, combined with 6 hours of sleep on a hardwood floor, Kevin Whitford and I set off to Burlington. On the drive over Kevin and I were rather quiet, each a bit nervous of the test to come, yet poised slay the snake.

Upon entry to the Mississippi river valley intimidation set in. From the gentle rolling hills of Southwestern Illinois we were greeted by things unbeknownst to those native to the Chicagoland; real hills. We had made it to Burlington, found parking and found registration with time to spare. Walking to registration and back to our car the extent of these “hills” really became apparent. My nervousness increased, and I hadn’t yet seen the snake.

Kevin was set to do battle first, so I made my way to the xXx tent at the top of the hill to watch my brethren set course. At the top of the hill I was introduced to the snake, and oh what a lovely snake she was, paved with red brick and lined with brilliant emerald grass under the seat of scores of spectators. This, I thought to myself, is what it’s all about.

Standing at the top of the hill with Brian, after finding a chicken avocado sandwich, minus the chicken- everything in Iowa has meat; we watched and cheered (well I cheered, he more-or-less kindly harassed) our fellow teammates as they climbed the snake. The first couple laps the group stayed fairly tight, the faces looked relaxed and the battle against the snake seemed fairly even. Yet, as the race progressed those faces changed and the snake started winning. About half way through the 30+ 1/2/3/4 the field split, and the faces changed dramatically, the snake was definitely taking its toll. The race came to a conclusion and I decided it was time.

I kitted up and took a run at the course. Starting on the downhill of course, I looked for that rumored “perfect line” and quickly found that there were strategically placed manholes on each turn. Making it down the backside, past the starting line my heart rate increased. I could suddenly feel my heart pounding, thumping, faster, faster… and there it was, looking ever so innocent, ready to attack. I made my way up the initial climb to the base of the snake and rode over the rough, windy brick road. To my surprise, it wasn’t THAT bad. I made it to the top, found my breath, and decided to take the decent again.

During my pre-ride I was thrown a bit of a curveball. I saw a couple familiar faces, and a couple more that I didn’t expect to see. To my surprise, my grandparents who live in Leighton, Iowa (about 2 hours away) had made the trip over to watch the race, so in total I had: Mom, Dad, Uncle, Aunt, Grandpa, and Grandma, all there to watch my race. If I didn’t feel pressure before, I certainly did now.

After taking the course a couple times, I looked down at my Garmin and the time had come. I made my way to the starting line and again my heart rate escalated. Sitting there, anticipating the race, I tried to stay as calm as possible while remembering what I had read about the race; to get a good start and make it to the snake before everyone else. Luckily Jim doesn't procrastinate the way I do, and my positioning at the start line was in the front row, a few spaces down from Brian. I sat on my top tube, said a couple Hail Mary’s and cleared my mind. The whistle blew once….. nothing. The first whistle was to be the signal for the lead car to clear the course. Apparently the geriatric driving the car didn't hear. The whistle blew again, and again. We all laughed nervously. The whistle blew again and the car took off. My heart beat, thump, thump, thump…. The whistle blew again and this time no one laughed.

I clipped in easily and took the outside line into the first corner. A couple young guns tried to sneak through to the front, but in general the pack stayed safe and upright. I took a deep breath as our first round against the snake began; left, right, left, right, left, right….

Making it to the top of the first climb I quickly made my way to the outside left, about as close to the curb as I could get. I took the line that I had practiced and fell in, about 3rd wheel. With the intentions of not tapping the breaks I quickly found that I would have to, a downfall of sucking off the wheel in front of me. We made our day through the streets of “downtown” Burlington, to the flats and the pace leveled out. We made it through the first round. I looked around and found that, as usual, no one wanted to pull. I did my best and stayed 3rd, and 4th wheel back from the front. 11 laps to go.

Round two started similar to the first, with people anxious to find their place to battle the snake, but again no one really wanting to take the lead. I kept my position and felt out the group. I remained calm and again, left, right, left, right, left, right. Making it again to the top of the snake I felt as though I was in control, that I had won round two and what, only 10 more? Easy.

The second decent went much like the first, and I soon realized that it wasn’t just staying on the wheel that caused me to hit the brakes, I was also twice the weight of the little 14 year old Hincapie kid pulling. We took another lap; I looked at my grandparents watching and again remained calm. Going into the 3rd round against the snake, left, right, left, right, left, right… this time instead of pulling up and waiting for the group I just kept going. I figured the little HIncapie kid wouldn’t do me any good anyway, so I put the pedal down, found my line and took the decent. As the decent leveled out I had about 10 yards on the guy behind me. Without thinking twice, I put the pedal down.

As I turned the corner into the straight before the finish line, I checked behind and waited; didn’t see anyone. I checked again, nothing. Finally as I looked over a third time I saw the group coming around the bend. There it was I had a break.

Though it wasn’t planned, I didn’t let up. I took my battle to be between myself and the snake, rather than myself and the group. I didn’t wait and kept the pedal down. After the first lap off the front I was feeling great, I looked over and saw the lap counter… 8 to go. I knew I had a decent break and all I had to do was not die, don’t die, but like a snake with slow venom it took its toll.

At points throughout the race I had about a 15 second break, or so my uncle had told me, but the venom caught me. With 4 laps to go I was taking the decent. That “perfect line” was much harder to find. This time I hit every manhole cover, and at one point I felt the back end kick out. I felt I was coming to my demise. As the course leveled out, so did my gas. I knew they were coming for me, and at this point the snake was doing the slaying. As we passed the finish line I was swallowed up by a group of 6, which included Brian, the rest of the field had thinned and I did everything in my power to grab on. I was able to hold on until we got to the snake. With three to go the snake and I butted heads. My legs were gone, and I wanted to quit. Never before have I wanted to pull myself from a race like I wanted to here.

I made it to the top and thought to myself, “two more!!! I don’t think I can do two more.” Cheers from the xXx tent echoed in my head and I did everything I could to get back up to the group, but I was spent. I had to recover. I made it around and at the base of the second to last climb I was seconds away from pulling up, from turning, breaking veg and buying a corndog like the spectator I should have been. Then I heard my mom and aunt, cheering from the emerald grass which so beautifully highlights the snake; I had to go on, and I did.

I made it to the top and with that I made it past my darkest place, only one more to go. Passing the finish line the bell went off, final lap, time to slay the snake one last time. Surprisingly, this time was easier than the last. I made it to the top, got in my big ring and found the line that I wanted. Took it like the first lap and carried my momentum into the flats. Looked around and gave it everything I had left, which wasn’t much, but I managed to catch one of those young guns and easily took the final stretch. I finished the day in 7th, but with that took a lot of experience and proved to myself that I could push through the darkest depths.

Waiting for me at the end of the race was my 82 year old grandma with a big smile. It made the whole thing worth it. I had battled that snake, given it everything I had, and though I didn’t come up with the win, I had emptied my tank and my grandma knew it.

Though I was bitten by the snake, I lived to tell about it and I am stronger because of it. I will definitely be back next year, and I look forward to yet another challenge.

-Mike Baldus