The unholy grail stands about three feet high and is likely the most coveted prize ever built out of a beer keg and repurposed bicycle parts.
Once upon a time, as the legend goes, the chalice was created to inspire Northwest men and women to ride their trusty carbon-fiber steeds through mud and over obstacles in a burgeoning sport called cyclocross.
When Washington riders won, a Space Needle sat atop the “Grail Della Grunge.” When Oregon won, the needle flipped inside the keg and a pitchfork-wielding knight emerged. The knight symbolized Portland’s Cross Crusade racing circuit.
But as the respective cyclocross scenes grew, little time was left for annual duels and ownership of the Grail was determined by another method – theft. Whoever stole the Grail got to keep it until it was stolen back. As a result, the Grail became the stuff of legend and came to further symbolize the quirky, fun-first spirit of cyclocross.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” said Craig Undem, a former pro cyclocross racer from Gig Harbor who now owns Seattle’s Cycle University. “I almost lost my life once wrestling the Grail from a Portlandian. I was dragged behind his car or maybe he was dragged behind my car. One or the other. I can’t remember.”
But somewhere along the way the Grail vanished. Some believe it’s in Portland. Others say Seattle. The only thing cyclists seem to agree on is that wherever it is, the Grail served its purpose.
As the season gets underway this month, the Northwest is one of the nation’s undisputed cyclocross hotbeds. Events drawing 800 competitors – twice as much as most road and mountain bike races – are common. Portland’s Cross Crusade is the largest cyclocross series in the nation. Western Washington is so crazy for the sport, two series, MFG and Seattle Cyclocross, thrive.
“Most people got into the sport in the last five years or so,” said Chris DiStefano, an accomplished racer from Portland and marketing director for Rapha North America. “They’ve never seen the Grail. Some have never heard of it. I don’t believe in nostalgia so I think it’s almost irrelevant.”
Maybe so, but the Grail is an important part of cyclocross history. Such an artifact belongs in a museum or at least a bike shop where it can be enjoyed, admired and cleverly stolen.
So, earlier this year I launched my own grail quest.
I started where I figured Sir Lancelot or Indiana Jones might – Google.
I found pictures of the Grail on a car rooftop in California circa 2005. I found a hostage photo with the Grail from 2008 (according to the newspaper displayed with the trophy). I found the Grail has its own Twitter account, which hasn’t been updated since Nov. 7 when it tweeted “We don’t even know where we are these days ... .”
No good leads, so I called Brad Ross, director of the Cross Crusade. His series has a “Grail Hunt” contest, but he says it has nothing to do with the actual trophy.
He’s certain the Grail is someplace in Oregon. He thought it was at Portland’s CyclePath bike shop, but when he called, the owner said the trophy wasn’t there. Ross says Grail law states the trophy must be on public display at all times so rivals have a chance to steal it back.
“We are probably in violation right now,” Ross said.
I asked Ross if he’d do some digging and in the spring he posted a message on the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association message board. Racers around the Northwest started making calls.
Apparently the Grail was last scene in 2010 and many believe DiStefano was the last to have it.
When I called him he admitted to stealing the Grail just before Christmas, but he couldn’t remember how many years have passed since the heist.
“I remember putting lights on it and putting gifts under it,” he said. “And then I passed it on.”
Ironically, DiStefano thinks he gave it to Ross, one of the men who points at him.
“I don’t have it and I find it intriguing that so many people think I do,” DiStefano said. “I’ve only had it in my possession for one day in my entire life.”
“That’s the problem,” Ross said. “That one day is the last day anybody saw it.”
DiStefano made some calls of his own to Portland and Seattle without any luck. But he’s confident that if Ross doesn’t have it, the Grail is stashed someplace in Seattle. The most likely suspect, DiStefano said, is Brian Fornes, a racer and the marketing manager for Raleigh.
I’ve been unable to reach Fornes in recent days, but when I asked him last spring he laughed off the accusation.
“They (Portland) claim to have lost it,” Fornes said. “I don’t believe them.”
This is where I should probably admit that during my noble quest I rarely left my home office. I went to a few cyclocross races, but I only interviewed Fornes, Ross and DiStefano over the phone.
For all I really know, one of them was polishing the Grail even as they tried to throw me off its scent.
“I’m kinda angry,” Ross said. “It should be on public display.”
Tim Rutledge, a Renton resident and cyclocross pioneer, kind of likes the idea of it sitting forgotten in the dark recesses of a warehouse waiting to be rediscovered like the Lost Ark in the original “Indiana Jones” movie.
“It just adds to the mythology,” Rutledge said.
Whether or not the Grail re-emerges, those who rode for it in the past say one thing is certain: The sport it symbolizes isn’t going anywhere.
Some highlights from the 2012 Cyclocross schedule. Organizers say spectators, veterans and first-timers are encouraged.
Sept. 9: Kick-Off Cross, Big Finn Hill Park, Kirkland, 9:30 a.m., MFGCyclocross.com.
Sept. 16: Seattle Cyclocross Series 1, Fort Steilacoom State Park, Lakewood, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com
Sept. 23: Lake Sammamish GP, Lake Sammamish State Park, Issaquah, 9:30 a.m., MFGCyclocross.com.
Sept. 30: Seattle Cyclocross Series 2, Arlington Airport, Arlington, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.
Oct. 6: StarCrossed, Marymoor Park, Redmond, 1:45 p.m., StarCrossedCX.com.
Oct. 14: Seattle Cyclocross Series 3, Sullivan Park, Everett, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.
Oct. 27: SCCA/Starbucks GP, Marymoor Park, 9:30 a.m., MFGCyclocross.com.
Oct. 28: Seattle Cyclocross Series 4, Sprinker Recreation Center, Parkland, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.
Nov. 4: Seattle Cyclocross Series 5, King County Fairgrounds, Enumclaw, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.
Nov. 11: Woodland Park GP, Woodland Park, 9:30 a.m., MFGCyclocross.com.
Nov. 18: Seattle Cyclocross Series 6, Fort Steilacoom Park, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.
Nov. 25: Seattle Cyclocross Series 7, Evergreen State Fairgrounds, Monroe, 9:15 a.m., SeattleCX.com.