“Where you going, buddy?” Somebody asked, maybe a little too pointedly. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable for a minute, with the rest of us?” I can’t remember who said it, but we were all thinking it.
The guy—a spandex-clad bike racer that none of us knew—sheepishly turned around and resigned himself to taking some refreshments— in lieu of taking the race lead. By then there were perhaps 9 of us racers standing in the brilliant late morning sun on the broad hilltop of Feed Zone 3. And among us there was some real talent: US Olympian Grotts, Marathon National Champ McElveen, my Giant Factory teammate (and personal dark horse pick) Stephan Davoust. And, well, myself—I’m not too shabby—among others.
At mile 22 of an arduous 38 mile MTB race, it’s unusual for the lead group to take such a casual and lingering break. And it felt great. Stretching our backs, leisurely filling water bottles, eating red vines and potato chips, considering another beer. Oh, the mid-race beer. It feels so good on your lips.
But riding fast is not made easier by alcohol. Those old Tour De France posters are full of shit. Beer makes you slower, and keeping up becomes harder. And dilly-dallying at all in a feed zone is anathema to winning races. But on this day, the leaders had decided on a rather casual approach. And for better or worse, some of the chasers had not.
So on that Aid 3 hill, I was happy one of us spoke up and peer-pressured this poor fellow into adopting the lead group’s strategy. Now, I’m not much for hassling a guy that’s trying to do his best—I aspire to be that guy—but I was covertly pleased to know we wouldn’t have to re-catch and pass this latecomer in the remaining miles of deeply dusty Central Oregon single track. Trying (which comes naturally to professional bike racers) while trying to be casual (which is, not trying) is awkward work. But that’s occasionally the nature of riding to win at the Singlespeed World MTB Championships.
Winning Sinsnglespeed Worlds means nothing, really. And at the same time, it can mean a lot. An SSWC tattoo is evidence—not necessarily of World Class talent (though it might require a bit)—but of a certain temperament. If uptight, Type-A Pro road racers arouse disdain, SSWC riders are their fun-loving antithesis. And the SSWC tattoo serves as prima-facie evidence of at least some modicum of personality—in a sport where being interesting has become nearly as valuable as being fast. As riders try to set themselves apart and define “personal brands” worth investing in, the SSWC might be something worth fighting for— delicious icing on a fun and often wild race weekend cake.
I’ve raced 7 Singlespeed World Championships. One to balance each of the legitimate UCI World MTB Champs I’ve ridden—come to think of it. A yearly tradition since the 90’s, it’s no small wonder that it happens at all. The right to host the following year’s race is traditionally won via the “Decider”—some competitive mix of strength/drinking/cunning the night before the SSWC race. So, every year, a new (and generally woefully unprepared) group of (sometimes barely functioning alcoholic) single speeding degenerates takes the reigns.
Last year at the SSWC in New Zealand, those Decider winning degenerates were several of my good friends. And by dint of their successful efforts down there to bring the race Back to Bend, Oregon (namely not vomiting while ingesting disgusting local “delicacies”) we held the rights to host the SSWC party in our backyard this year.
The SSWC is bike racing, un-filtered: With no rulebook, no federation, and no guidelines, race organizers can shape the event to fit their venue or their personal whim. The courses are long, short, easy, hard. Once, in Alaska, there was no bike race at all—just a hung-over game of Foot-Down decided the victors. To be a SSWC competitor means to surrender some amount of one’s expectations, and to go with the flow. If you take it too seriously, you just might be doing it wrong. The people who cotton to this idea are necessarily laid-back, nonjudgmental, up-for-whatever bike riders. These folks pay the fee, pack their bikes, and travel—sometimes across Oceans—to attend. And then they operate casually, without any insistence that The Event be worth their often substantial investment of time and effort.
Expectations for the event might not be met. So the SSWC racer suspends expectation.
In bringing riders to Bend, Oregon though, some expectations were probably warranted: There should be single track, because Bend has plenty. And—contrary to Single Speeders’ usual MO of drinking warm Pabst Blue Ribbon from hastily perforated aluminum cans— there should also be ample cold micro-brewed beer. Because, with 22 breweries, Bend has plenty of that too.
So with the bar set low, and with medium stakes, the stage was set for our crack team of mostly inexperienced bike race promoter people to create something memorable.
For me, work for SSWC18 began in earnest way back in spring. At the first SSWC “Board Meeting” (so inaccurately professional sounding), I’d been appointed “Course Guy”, which at first meant long, rambling MTB and moto rides through the vast Crown Pacific logging property West of Bend. When eventually, the lay of that land was understood, then the fun fun stopped and the difficult fun began: building trails to allow the existing network to suit our race course needs. Bend Local, friend, and longtime Giant Factory Teammate Adam Craig was my partner in this challenge. Adam has immersed himself in trail work since he left the racing world a couple years ago, so it was neat to glean a thing or two about how to shape a decent piece of trail from him in our hours in the forest. We toiled intermittently for months together, and also apart, and with other volunteers to make maybe only 4 miles of single track. But it was good single track. Some parts of which we’d wanted to build for a decade or more. As the months of time to get it done turned into weeks and then days, it became real honest-to-God work. It felt good. But it was consuming. And that’s before other last-minute tasks bubbled up. Like devising a system, involving a modified Army stretcher, to transport kegs to the top of a volcano for Feed Zone 2. And sourcing living room furniture for Feed 3, for instance.
I’m not great at juggling, and there were a lot of balls in the air. But everybody involved with hosting the SSWC was catching them on the fly and doing a damn good job keeping them aloft. And local people came out of the woodwork to pick up whatever we dropped. It took a village, but come race day, SSWC18 really was a sight to behold.
Sometimes when I’m racing my bike incredibly well, I have to blink back tears of pride / joy / excitement welling up in my eyes. The exertion turns cathartic as I realize an opportunity I’ve prepared months or years for lies before me, there for the possible, but with much effort, taking. But on SSWC18 race morning, I felt that sensation in a different context: At mile eight, as I rode up a long climb just aft of the race leaders, I came within earshot of live music. And I suddenly found myself feeling strangely emotional.
The presence of this young drummer and trumpeter was no surprise. They were from a local High School Band, and I’d personally described to them where to set up and personally agreed on the price we’d pay them. But when I came around that bend to hear not the awkward sounds of high school musicians that I expected, but music reminiscent
of Miles Davis’s Blue Note years, I was more than a little awestruck. They. Sounded. Amazing. And I got a little misty at what their music meant to me: We had done something. And it was good. And it was all somehow working out. Feed zones were appearing where people had promised, top riders were pushing each-other on a challenging course, and things were largely going according to plan. It was all happening. Against some odds, we were pulling it off. Not against all odds— but against some.
There had been setbacks. As there always are— or so the real race promotors tell me. But I’m wholly unaccustomed to hiccups of SSWC18 magnitude. Take course marking, for instance…
On Wednesday, I’d show our Lead Moto guy, Hopper the course while we marked it with pink surveyor’s ribbon (the color will become significant later). We met up at 10am and were out on motorbikes all day marking the junctions and posting the occasional explanatory sign. It was hot, and we were out for longer than we’d hoped. After we’d run out of water, we refilled our hydration packs at Bull Springs as the sun set. And just as it
became truly dark out, we completed our loop and finished our job, arriving at a place we’d signed and marked around noon, earlier that day.
Except there were no signs at that junction. Or markings of any kind. And a quick ride up to an adjacent junction revealed the same: no ribbons. No sign we’d been there at all, except knobby tire tracks in the dust.
The private land we were holding the event on is home to about 100 miles of renegade motorcycle trails. And some reprobate local throttle twister had likely decided he didn’t want the whole World knowing his little secret.
Dusty, hungry, exhausted, we hunched silently on our bikes in the dark and stared at our gas tanks for a few long seconds. We’d have to re-ride and maybe re-mark the whole track. And anything we did could easily be erased far more quickly than we’d done it.
So, understand my joyous relief at seeing that pink tape still hanging in the manzanita before and after each corner as we began racing on Saturday. Of course, aside from
Hopper, I was the only person who knew where I was going, so for me, the course was easy to follow on race day. Still, I was surprised to hear that many people had made wrong turns. Sure, it was (heinously) dusty, and visibility was–at best–marginal, but there were reports of groups as large as 50 who went off course and became momentarily lost. And included in that number was Adam Craig, who had built the course with me. So apparently I’m not the World’s best course marker.
In the finish area though, nobody was heard complaining about the misdirection –another testament to the SSWC tribe and their laid-back ethos. There were grumblings when we ran out of beer—but that seemed appropriate. I honestly can’t remember seeing more happy people at the end of a bike race. Racers stuffed burritos and hoagies into faces caked in dust and rimed in salt, reminiscing about a day spent riding trails they’d never seen, miraculous saves they’d managed, and difficulties they’d overcome.
Earlier, at Aid Station 2, on the summit of “Hospital Hill”, and after a long and wonderful hike-a-bike (did I mention, I designed the course?) the front group of riders hastily gulped half-beers before dropping into a treacherous and invisibly dusty skidder-track descent. It wasn’t until the trail mellowed that I could feel my blood warm from the alcohol. Drinking and riding bikes is fun. Ill-advised fun—but fun nonetheless. Racing hard with a buzz is less so. So my cohorts and I in the lead group were thirsty by Aid 3, but not yet thirsty for another Double-Hopped IPA.
At Aid 3, we went without the beer and the margaritas and the smoothies—virgin or otherwise. But we luxuriated with our time. We lounged. We ate snacks and we drank sugar water and we slapped high fives and we talked excitedly about parts of the race already ridden. And we may have peer pressured that one guy into doing the same.
And then, through some mix of the generosity of my fellow group members (in letting me ride first through the abhorrent dust), and their collective desire to follow the only guy that really knew where he was going, I’d drop into the next section of trail first. And I’d lead our refreshed group and the race for the next 8 or so miles.
But, with 7 miles to go, the real “selection” would be made: I’d motion Davoust past and advise him that this was his chance to get away.
“Go.” I said.“Go Now–It’s 7 miles to the finish–I’ll try to hold them off”
Stephan jumped on the pedals in earnest, but it was a scant few seconds later that a watchful McElveen would ask to get by as well. I’d consider pulling Team Tactics and making him work for the pass, but I couldn’t muster my inner d**khead. I relented pretty quickly—pulling aside to let him go too.
My legs weren’t bad, but they had no response to this big of an acceleration so late in the game. I’d watch Stephan and Paysons’ individual Pigpen-like clouds of dust merge and then advance away and toward the horizon, while I set about consoling myself. Telling myself that it would’ve been awkward if I’d won anyway—on a secret course that only I knew. Which was true. Telling myself—If I really wanted to be up with those guys, I probably could. Which was a lie. I comforted my ego to some effect, but my legs still hurt.
In the final minutes, Stephan would fall from a close second position to third with a missed turn (did I tell you that I marked the course?) leaving Payson to finish a minute or so ahead of me, in second. McElveen, clearly the fastest man on the day, had ridden in a vintage full-length winter skinsuit from MTB Legend Travis Brown’s closet. Despite an ambient temperature of about 78 degrees. A worthy, if sweaty victor, Payson would receive the customary winner’s tattoo with pride.
In the women’s race, Rachel Lloyd would re-emerge as the SS World Champion. In Napa, CA in 2008, she and I received post-race tattoos together in a dark tattoo parlor somewhere convenient. It’s my only SSWC tattoo to date, and it was her her first as well—but not her last. Apparently, she’s still got it—she was ripping through that Central Oregon dust.
700 people would start the race, and most would finish the 45 mile “Long Option” course, despite my repeated warnings that it would devastate them. Some feed zones ran out of water. Some ran out of beer. A woman broke her collarbone. One guy was carted out with a possible concussion, but may have just been overly drunk. He was definitely drunk. Fortunately, nobody died. And I have yet to be sued for negligence. Or arrested for battery. Fortunately. So far.
The next morning, we’d learn that Crown Pacific had granted a permit to a second group to use the forest we’d raced in on Saturday. Apparently, several small teams were marking fresh routes through the usually lonely pines for an equestrian archery course. Which is kinda weird and pretty cool. But these horse-riding arrow-slingers were using—wait for it………………….…the same pink surveyors ribbon we were.
In the incredulous words of Gob Bluth, “C’mon!!” What are the odds?
SSWC18BendOR ended up being a great event shaped by the people who showed up—whether to help, to race, or just to party. The Singlespeed World Championships are like that. I have little doubt that next year’s event in Slovenia will be just as surprisingly good. The Slovenians didn’t actually win the Decider on Friday night. They were deemed too drunk to paddle a boat made from bike boxes and duct tape across the frigid Deschutes River. But the team that did win (Yeah, New York!) thought better of it and gifted the hosting rights to them. Perhaps the New Yorkers recognized real race promoting talent in that group of unintelligible and passed-out Slovenians. Or maybe they just decided they didn’t need the headache of putting on the SSWC, and the pressure of upholding such a great tradition.
But they probably recognized talent.
Thanks for the ride.