2016 Salem Witches Cup

photo by Katie Busick

(Written in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

IN THE CENTER of one our New England towns, anchored on the one hand by the Salem Witch Museum, the brick facade of the old East Church cast in shadow, the windows staring vacant and hollow upon the world, and on the other hand by the venerable Hawthorne Hotel, resides the broad, grassy expanse of the old Salem Common.  The Common is circumscribed by Washington Park, a collection of streets facing the various points of the compass, composed of alternating degrees of rough and smooth paved road surface. A creaky wrought-iron fence of questionable integrity rings the inner plot of the Common, hewing in the souls, present and past, that might have gathered there in bygone days for events, which if worthily recounted, would form a narrative of no small interest and curiosity to the reader.

The aspect of this green space and the moniker of the bicycle race which had lead me, among numerous other New Englanders, to journey here, year upon year, to make numerous passes around the perimeter of the Common, had always evoked dark and sinister feelings drawing from the town's dark yet well-known associations with the trials of several young and gentle women under suspicion and eventual execution, for being practitioners of witchcraft. Thus, the Salem Witches Cup had come to be a cornerstone of the racing season, migrating from cooler climes of the calendar and the complicit attraction of All Hallows' Eve, to the balmier evenings of midsummer.

To further complicate the already intense matters of considering the high-speed affair of competitions of riders and their machines, the town and the race course, in particular, had been previously and repeatedly subjected to brutal deluges and torrents of rain which had left the streets pooled with murky brown water, streaked with granular runoff from the soil along the edges of the roadway, slick and of tenuous grip.

We riders of the Pro-1/2 classification had been spared, as if through divine intercession, the worst of the tempest while other souls, in the earlier races, had not been so lucky and had been forced to promenade through sheets of heavy rain which made both road and rider barely visible. I had pined desperately in the secure confines of my vehicle while rain droplets thrashed against the windscreen, and town folk scurried for protection and shelter from the storm, ducking opportunistically beneath porch and gable.

By and by, the storm moved seaward and the water receded from the paved road surfaces, leaving a quiet, humid calm among the streets yet creating a sense urgency in me to prepare for the coming competition. I had still to retrieve my bib number, traversing the flooded pathways of the Common, attach it securely to my tunic, and commence the effort to heat up my muscles and elevate my heartbeat, a task which had grown to become less and less likely or desirable as I sought inspiration within my perspiration.

Inexorably, my fellow competitors and I assembled at the prejudged time, in the shadow of the Hawthorne Hotel and, dispensing with the greater and grander formalities due to the disaffection of the race schedule by the aforementioned storms, we undertook the tourney to settle upon the fastest rider and steed by way of completing multiple circumnavigations of the Common's periphery, a distance of no less than six-tenths of a mile, containing no more than three corners, all of which were spotted with forged metal manhole covers and painted road stripes that were cause for reticence when approaching with speed and diminished the confidence of even the most stalwart riders for at least the first few laps.

Thus, the speed of the race increased from lap to lap and man tested the limits of machine, the traction of pneumatics on the macadam. Inevitably, the limits of goodwill were exceeded and entering the second corner, tire separated from road, and racer and bicycle collided with pavement, creating a shower of sparks which briefly illuminated the approaching twilight.

"Rider down, rider down!" cried the trailing racers who had seen the poor gentleman's loss of control, perhaps silently questioning the judiciousness of his approach, and sought to alert the following group and, thereby, avoid further injury and delay.

I had to swallow hard, encouraging myself to navigate the treacherous inner radius of the corner, fearing all the while that my front tire would liberate itself from its contact with the road and send me careening to the curbside to join my fellow cyclist.

Eventually, I would find within myself a fountain of strength and surge into the final corner, creating a small chasm betwixt myself and the other riders, and pass with solitude across the start-finish line while the assembled spectators provided a raucous orchestra of cries, shouts and cowbells, and while the announcer called out my name as if in disbelief that a rider of a certain age would once again be able to free himself from the bonds of the larger, more anonymous mass of riders.  I extended my limits to remain ahead of the chasing peloton, while my heart thundered in my chest cavity and my lungs alternately inhaled and exhaled, my legs pumped up ways and downwards, and my tires maintained their stated agreement with the pavement.

Much like a fire that has burned down in the old hearth on a cold winter's night, my valiant journey left little more than ember and ash. The balance of racers approached and, by and by, consumed me, all within the traverse of a singular passage, while I struggled to steel my will and resolve for the remaining forty-two laps, and to settle my stomach which had threatened to erupt its contents at the least appropriate moment.

I would recover and, in the end, would rally to gallop into the finish closer to the front end of the pack of riders and to twist and turn the bicycle to arrive among the top sixteen which was respectable, but unfortunately, was six places too many to line my purse with some currency for the journey home.

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