A man shoves two index fingers into his nostrils and grins while attempting to set his freshly broken nose. His black teeshirt is soaked in sweat and beer and blood. It’s 2:40 AM and it’s raining in the parking lot of a dive bar in Anchorage Alaska. Inside, a pair of Russian prostitutes makes a 4th lap of the Carousel lounge. No takers yet, but closing time’s coming in 20 minutes. A shitty metal band belts out the last of it’s set to a packed house. All the taps have run dry, and the bar has resorted to buying beer from a competing bar down Spenard Street.
At 2:50 the band is finished and the owner of the Carousel, out of greed or civic duty to a mob that might not yet be drunk enough, assumes the PA and begins hard selling the remains of his freshly acquired supplies. “Get your drink on! Beer is available for 8 more minutes! Get Drunk! Get that pu55y!” The countdown continues to 1 minute and then the wait to get pressed by the crowd through the front door and back into the rain begins.
Once outside, Dejay, the drunkard who’s beck and call we’ve all been awaiting allows me an audience: “You Fu**er.” he says. “You haven’t been here all night.” I reply: “You haven’t been looking”. We exchange disgusted looks and he reluctantly hands me a 5 cent bead that proves I was there and allows me entry to his event the following day. It’s an event I paid $117.85 and flew to Alaska for, yet I’m singing for my supper–in the rain outside a closed bar on Spenard at 3:05 in the morning. My friends and I return to our car, and later, our beds, still not knowing when or where to meet for the event. We’ve been at the whim of this megalomaniac for two days. His compulsory “fun” and his organization, or lack thereof, has worn thin. We’re a little pissed, but exhausted, and sleep comes quickly. Good thing–rumor has it there’s a 7am start.
By now you’re probably wondering “Why is Carl pledging to a fraternity in Alaska?” Or “When did Carl start buying and selling methamphetamine?” But this is the 2014 Singlespeed Mountain Bike World Championships. I’ve been away from the SSWC for a few years. And things have gotten weird.
We awake at 6:20 and start muttering expletives about Dejay while the coffee brews. We decide we’ll be safe to show up 40 minutes late, as there’s no way this “race” is going to start on time–not that the 7am start is any more than a rumor. We drive by the Carousel at 7:40 and see a small hoard of hung-over and surly single speeders sitting on the curb. No sign of their Humble Leader. We meet up with some riding buddies from Salida and hit the pastry shop in no particular hurry. At 9, we make it to the rumored venue for the “race” and find a surprisingly small crowd of racers having some hair-of-the-dog and comparing costumes. Still no sign of the organizer.
Eventually, and against incredible odds, Dejay shows up and directs the meager crowd in how to participate in his “NOT A F’ing RACE, we’re gonna have fun! The fastest person WILL NOT F’ING WIN!” bike ride. My buddies and I have costumes and bikes and we’re there, but by now, none of us is interested. We stick around to see the half-hearted start of the convoluted group ride. Maybe 100 riders roll out. We roll back to the house and our beds. We’ll go for a decent ride after some sleep.
This isn’t what we came for. This isn’t the way it should be. Many people will fault us for having “expectations” of the SSWC. The uninitiated will say “that’s what SSWC is like!” Well, not really. This was my 6th Singlespeed Worlds, so yes, there were expectations. Every other event I’ve done has exceeded my (pretty meager) expectations. Excellent courses, fun ancillary rides, great planning, and lots of opportunity for debauchery. Also, the people running the races were articulate, smart, funny, fun-loving bike rider types. How do I know? Because they communicated. Not only when and where this-or-that was happening–they would also talk to you as if you were a person. This instead of showing disdain for your very existence and questioning your worthiness of their special event.
In addition, every SSWC I’ve done has involved real racing. Sure, people are a little hung-over, or maybe they’re in costume, but the pointy end is loaded with National Champs, World Cuppers, and other legitimate talent, and they are pushing hard and taking chances. Which is what racing is all about, really. The event is illegitimate, but the competition can be stiff and a SSWC tattoo (the prize usually given to the first male and female finishers) kinda sorta means something. If you don’t want to push hard and take chances, the SSWC always provides a fun atmosphere regardless of fitness or priorities; beer hand-ups, blow-up dolls, bad language and good times abound. What the SSWC doesn’t usually do is exclude. Fast, or slow. Alcoholic, or teetotaler, everybody has their place and enjoys the race. A bike race and a weekend of carousing are not mutually exclusive.
It’s actually incredible that the SSWC is run as well as it usually is. This unofficial race isn’t awarded to the best applicant by an international federation. The host for every SS Worlds earns that right by competing in the “Decider” the year prior. Usually held at a bar the night before the race, the Decider often mixes beer and bikes, or beer and video games, or beer and archery…you get the point. Hardly a predictor of organizational skills. Yet, this year aside, SSWC have always been well run. The decider winner in Anchorage was a contingent from Japan. Instead of beer and archery, they endured beer and total public nudity while doing things with dildos. I wish I were kidding. The best thing the Japanese interpreter said all weekend? A quiet “Our event will not be like this.”
Since the organizers were coy about the start time (or even day), we were loosely held captive in AK. On Saturday–before the Carousel–and despite a distinct possibility that the race was happening that night, 11 of us SSWC competitors made the long drive down to the Kenai Peninsula to ride Lost Lake. It was an incredible ride on a perfect day with a fantastic group of riders. Conditions were prime, the sun was out, and we all shared something special that day in Alaska. When we popped back out at the trucks, we had some beers. Some of us took a plunge in the lake. It was in that parking lot that someone summed up the view that most of us shared: “I came to AK to ride bikes and drink some beers. Not to drink beers and maybe ride bikes.” Cheers to that.
It’s hard to plan any good AK adventuring if the race could happen at any time. I’m not sure what is gained as an organizer by being opaque about your event’s schedule and making people await your word. But from a tourist’s standpoint, a lot could be lost in a place with as much to offer as Anchorage. The best part of my trip to Alaska would be that big ride on the Kenai. I’m so glad the 11 of us took that chance and stepped away from the SSWC guessing game long enough to enjoy it.
I think the Singlespeed bike pile in front of the Carousel is an appropriate symbol of the entire event (see photo). It’s customary for SS riders to stack their bikes like so many Jenga pieces in front of bars at night. There’s a lot less to damage on a bike without gears and the resulting transient sculpture lets passersby know where the SS party is at. The difference this year was that kinda scary looking people were taking bikes that WEREN’T THEIRS and heaving them onto the pile. Sometimes they would stick, sometimes they would tumble. Amidst the lowest common denominator rigs were several incredibly nice bikes. Bikes that were obviously the pride of their unwitting owners. “Surprise! Somebody has disrespected and possibly damaged your bike! And you’re not going anywhere until the party ends! Welcome to the SSWC14! If you’re not okay with this, you must be up-tight and shouldn’t have come!” My buddies and I agreed it was a little hard to watch. And we’d driven to the bar.
So the event wasn’t my cuppa tea. But there were a lot of folks that participated and had a good time. Some people hailed Dejay’s non-timed, three loop course as “genius” and enjoyed the special tests included in each loop, like throwing stones into a garbage can or hitting a target with a slingshot. And there was a gong and people banged on it. The bottom line is that riding bikes is fun. Riding bikes with a bunch of single speeders is more fun. And riding bikes while quite drunk with other quite drunk single speeders is funner still. So the people who participated had a good time, by and large. But really, when I murder a day and start drinking at 9am with my friends, I always have a good time. And I don’t have to travel to the north pole to do it.
I think it’s necessary to do some math here. Maybe 300-400 people paid 118 for entry to this year’s SSWC–keep in mind the first SSWC was 20 bucks… 100 or so showed up to Kincaid Park and “competed”. Forget for a minute that the promoter took in as much as $40,000 in entries and additional sponsorship cash from several bars that we were REQUIRED to patronize. Most of us took time off of work, paid for airfare, lodging, etc to be in Anchorage for the SSWC. Collectively, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly 4 years of weekends. All to come to Alaska and be given a big F-Off if you actually wanted to ride, or–God forbid–race. This, despite the fact that the SSWC14 Facebook page indeed calls the event a “race” (and so much more!).
The Irony is that the “up-tight racer establishment” that the hard-core, non-racer faction was railing against in Anchorage was the most laid-back group of rider/racers there is. It was the Singlespeed World Championships for crying out loud! People go to the SSWC for a good time. A few go to win and have a good time. Nobody is there to land a big contract or show the world that they “are without peer in all of the world at riding mountain bicycles without shifty bits.” Guys like me ask our team managers to let us go to these events. We’re on vacation–from the UCI. Ride some bikes, make some friends, maybe get a tattoo.
But perhaps I am too uptight. I love good beer. I even brew it on occasion. But I’ve never ended up in handcuffs because of it. And it hasn’t ruined any friendships or kept me from showing up to work on time. Is that the measure of a single-speeder?
In addition to riding single-speeds, I also like riding kick-ass brand-new bikes with gears and cutting edge suspension and carbon fiber doodads. And I like to race them! Am I not pure enough?
I, for one, think I am a worthy member of the single-speed tribe. It will take more than a long night on Spenard Street to convince me otherwise.
See you in Japan.