racing to the top
of Snake Alley a biker
pants, tongue hanging out
Over 700 bikers come from all over North America to pit their muscles and endurance against one of the most physically challenging races in the Midwest. The Snake Alley Criterium is held on a 15-block course in downtown Burlington, a historic town on the Mississippi River.
What makes the races especially challenging is a one-block climb on a nineteenth century brick street named Snake Alley. The 276 foot (84 meter) street has seven switchbacks in 60 feet (18 meter) with an average grade of 12.5 percent in that one block, making it one of the crookedest streets in the world.
Snake Alley was built in 1894 by three of the town's German founders (a landscape engineer, the city engineer and a paving contractor) as an experimental street design and a shortcut between the business district on the river and the neighborhood shopping district on the hill. The locally fired, blue clay bricks and limestone curbs are still in place after more than a century.
However ingenious and practical, the street proved too challenging for horse-drawn carriages. There is a legend that the fire department used the alley to test horses. If a horse could take the curves at a gallop and still be breathing when it reached the top, it was considered fit to haul the city's fire wagons. Unfortunately, many teams ran out control or stumbled over the limestone curbing, sometimes resulting in a broken leg.
For the past 30 years Snake Alley has been used to test bikers. The Criterium, one of several qualifying races for amateur cyclists to compete against the top professionals at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, includes races for bikers ranging in age from 10 to 60 plus, with a separate race for women.
The test on the alley involves racing up and around seven steep serpentine turns on a corrugated surface to the top of the hill, not just once but ranging from 4 times for the youngsters up to 20 times for the final men's race.
It's breathtaking to watch the racers in their colorful gear come barreling up from the river in a pack of up to 150, spread out across the wide city street, then charging up the narrow alley, wheels nearly touching. Amazingly, there are very few collisions.
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the Snake Alley Criterium, and the race is made even more challenging by an unusually hot day for late May, 95 F (35 C). The last race of the day, the hottest part of the day, features the men's class 1, 2 and pro teams, competing for the top prize, $10,000 for ten places.
Thousands of spectators line the winding curves of Snake Alley.
Coaches and fans yell their encouragement from the sidelines.
Some even run alongside to give a boost to a racer.
While others spray the bikers with water to cool them down.
The grueling event was won by Paul Martin, who started out in 84th place in the 118-man field. At age 39, this was Martin's fifteenth try. He and his Panther teammates held hands as they crossed the finish line.