A MAN IN A BORAT UNITARD RIDES past me like some sort of gravity-defying, sexually perverted superhero, easily climbing the rocky Northern California incline up which I'm struggling to push my bike. I paw at my dusty water bottle and watch his bethonged ass shrinking in the distance. In about an hour he'll be named the 2008 Single Speed World Champion. All I want to do is survive.
What the hell am I doing here anyway? Well, it all started years ago, when my mountain bike's rear derailleur decided to disassemble itself during a ride. Naturally, this occurred when I was as far from the trailhead as possible and, shrewdly, had packed none of the tools I'd need in order to make the thing rideable again. Even if I had, the various pulleys and bolts had scattered themselves along the trail like so much gorp. So as I hiked through the woods, back to the relative civilization of suburban New Jersey, walking my bike up climbs and then coasting down, I resolved to convert it to a single-speed.
A single-speed, if you don't already know, is a bike with a single gear ratio: one chainring up front, one cog in back. Like a BMX. No shifters or derailleurs to fail on you, no granny gear to bail you out, and nothing to think about while you're riding except riding. Instead of hunting for the right gear on hills, you attack them at speed so your momentum carries you to the top, and on all but the steepest and most technical climbs you get up there faster and more effectively. Basically, single-speeding is both totalitarian and meritocratic, in that it offers you neither choices nor a safety net.
Over the years, the single-speed "movement" has attracted a large number of mountain-biking devotees, whose intricate facial-hair patterns and tattoos counterbalance the simplicity of their bicycles and whose disdain for things like officially sanctioned races, spandex, and sobriety runs as deep as their aversion to gears.
It's in this spirit that the Single Speed World Championships were born, best anyone can guess, in 1995. Despite the name, the SSWC is sanctioned by no organization except for a consensus of dedicated single-speeders, and every year it bounces from international locale to international locale like the fugitive from decency and legitimacy that it is. This time around, it's in Napa, at Skyline Wilderness Park.
When you win the SSWC, you don't get a jersey, a trophy, or cash. You get a tattoo. It's mandatory; you pick the spot. And while the SSWC is a party, it's also very hard and, believe it or not, highly competitive. The 2007 winner was national cross-country-mountain-biking champ Adam Craig, who's in Beijing competing in the Olympics while we're here in Napa. It's tempting to think a race like this isn't as difficult as a "real" race, but the fact is it's even more difficult. An epic-length mountain-bike contest is going to hurt, even if, like some kind of Lycra-clad Mormon, you've been watching your diet, going to bed early, and tapering according to Chris Carmichael's instructions in Bicycling magazine. But doing one hungover and ill-prepared, as SSWC custom dictates, is absolutely excruciating.
Especially when there's nothing between you and your torturous race saddle but a pair of cotton briefs. Ridiculous costumes are an SSWC tradition. Accoutrements like frilly dresses, neon unitards, Helga wigs, fishnets, feather boas, and faux fur almost outnumber traditional cycling kitsand that's just on the men.
IF PRO CYCLING IS RIDDLED with dopers, amateur cycling is riddled with whiny, preening, posturing people who take their sport and themselves waaay too seriously. (And also with dopers.) And while I love to race, I have a particular disdain for the noxious atmosphere of pretense that permeates bike racing. You've got to try to relax and have fun on the bike.
So it was that on the evening of Friday, August 22, I found myself standing in front of American Cyclery, a bike shop at the edge of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The big race would be taking place on Sunday, and the shop was hosting a "pre-event rally [and] fiesta...a unique opportunity to mingle with the seedy underbelly of San Francisco's bicycle culture and ride with them off-road in the urban environ." If things like gratuitous tattooing and stickers reading ONE F*CKING SPEED count as culture, then this was nothing short of a renaissance.
The sidewalk was brimming with 40 or 50 riders, from as close by as the Mission District and as far away as Europe, who were passing the time chatting boisterously and guzzling beer. Nearby, someone produced a joint and was immediately pounced upon for a hit. "It's got tobacco mixed in with it," he warned, but the pouncer was undeterred.
This being San Francisco, it started to get legitimately cold after a while. Thankfully, everybody soon mounted up and, with a great deal of whooping, wheelies, and merriment, headed the wrong way down Stanyan Street to begin an assault on Golden Gate Park, which was massed with people awaiting a Radiohead concert. As was clearly apparent from our riding, a good percentage of us were intoxicated.
We turned onto some dirt footpaths where signs informed us that cycling was strictly prohibited. The guy in front of me, riding a brakeless fixed-gear with cyclocross tires, was quickly undone by the sandy terrain. He wiped out almost immediately, taking others down with him. No sooner would we dart into a copse of trees than we'd emerge back onto the pavement, much to the bewilderment of the many pedestrians on their way to hear the plaintive whimpering of Thom Yorke.
As we swarmed toward the Golden Gate Bridge like angry bumblebees, I was elated to be riding in San Francisco with a bunch of half-crazed cyclists, but I felt a little pang of guilt every time we tore past some fleece-vest-wearing, designer-dog-walking couple trying to enjoy an evening stroll in the park unmolested. But, then, the pedestrians didn't really seem all that upset. Some even found us amusing: Small gears, though perfect for technical trails, leave you spinning with a comical urgency on pavement.
We crossed the bridge and made a left, immediately hitting a pretty steep paved climb into the Marin Headlands, where there was supposed to be a cookout. By this time gaps had formed in the ride, so at the top of the climb we stopped long enough to regroup and consume more beer. Once back together and further emboldened by alcohol, we blasted heedlessly down a steep and twisty fire road to Kirby Cove, a small clearing on the bay with a beautiful view. There we found not a grand feast but a pathetic offering of cold veggie dogs. Fortunately, someone passed around a bottle of Jack Daniel's, and another busted out a joint nearly as fat as his top tube.
The sun began to set, turning the fog and the Frisco skyline orange. Ibis Cycles founder Scot Nicol showed up in a jacket emblazoned with a talking acorn, which suggested that onlookers should SUPER-RELAX. As it got darker, all that was left was to climb the long, steep fire road back to the bridge, a preview of the many arduous climbs that would follow. As I headed back, I thought I'd finally settled into the spirit of the event. I'm usually wary of anything bearing the hallmarks of adolescence, including "movements," "cultures," and wearing costumes, but I was happy to be on my bike, dazzled by my surroundings, and somewhat drunk and stoned.
I will not worry about acting like an adolescent, I told myself. I will do as the talking acorn commands. I will super-relax.
WITH MORNING CAME sobriety and the drive up to Napa, and with sobriety came apprehension. This was no jaunt to the Marin Headlands; this would be something like 30 miles of steep, technical climbs and descents on a former World Cup mountain-bike circuit. And while I had no designs on a high finish, I still wanted to acquit myself well, and to me that meant finishingand not in last place. The prospect of returning to New York without a finisher's SSWC bottle opener was horrible to contemplate.
My apprehension was not assuaged by a painful pre-ride of the course after checking in. I picked up my number plate (literally a paper picnic plate with a numeral scrawled on it with a crayon) and post-race burrito ticket, then headed out. There were course markers, but they were contradictory, and querying others revealed that nobody really knew exactly which route the course would take. The only sign that made any sense was the one that warned you to beware of mountain lions.
I followed some red arrows and found myself on a very long, very steep ascent. The previous evening's festivities didn't help my performance, and the air and terrain were so dry, I was afraid the slightest pedal strike would set the entire park ablaze. Finally, after stopping numerous times, I reached the top of the climb, surveyed Napa Valley as forlornly as the guy in Cormac McCarthy's The Road surveys the road, and began a nasty, rocky descent that felt a lot like riding down a spiral staircase.
I was reminded of an entry on the SSWC blog that had asked, "How do you feel about feeling like shit the next day? Like it? Go rigid." Despite this, I had opted to ride a rigid fork, partly to be badass but mostly because I don't own any suspension forks. As I picked my way gingerly through the stony switchbacks, I realized that I would indeed be feeling like shit. The pessimist I thought I'd left in San Francisco had returned.
Tomorrow, he predicted, is going to be ugly. Nonetheless, I arrived the following morning ready to do battle with the terrain, dehydration, mountain lions, common sense, and hundreds of other single-speeders. Unlike a great many of the men, however, I was wearing neither a dress nor ladies' undergarments.
At a nearby 7-Eleven, I queued up behind a man in blacki.e., a black bandito mask, cape, and bikinipurchasing a bear claw. By the time I fastened my number to my handlebars, I'd also seen a skin-tight orange bodysuit, a leopard-print leotard, a Mexican wrestling mask, and a golden Speedo with, of course, matching cape. Almost half the field was campily attired, and many of them were dangerously close to exposing their genitals.
It was to be a Le Mans start, so race organizer Curtis Inglis had us all go about 200 yards out, deposit our bikes, and return to the start. He then gave us a briefing on the course and informed us that only the first 150 finishers (out of 350 entrants) would get a bottle opener with their placement number on it.
"What?!" I gasped. As I've mentioned, I had to have one of those bottle openers. Now I would actually have to be competitive. I glowered at a nearby man in a bra and bunny ears.
Inglis then announced that there were some tighty-whitey briefs with the SSWC08 logo printed on the rear end. Anyone who wanted a pair had to race in them, with the best finish scoring $600 in swag. A group of riders rushed forward, grabbed their undies, and went off to change. I winced at the ungodly crotchal chafing and taintal bruising they would soon experience. Then, after a few more words, Inglis called out "Go!"
And off we went.
THE ENSUING hours of hot, dry, ugly undulation I can compare only to (1) being trapped in a sauna full of corduroy-clad, dry-humping college students on ecstasy and (2) moving a love seat into a five-story walkup by yourself on a hellish summer day.
Once I found my bike, which I'd strategically left next to a tandem, I hit the fire road. I've been in many races in my life, and, being a rider of meager skills, I've been forced to stare at lots of posteriors, but never have I beheld such an assortment of grotesquely attired ones. I'm thinking particularly of the ones wrapped in official SSWC08 briefs, which almost immediately became soggy, saggy, misshapen, and brown.
The first climb was too steep for most of us, so we dismounted and trudged up it, finally reaching a flattish section of "flowy" singletrack that could have passed for the Serengeti had it not been for the bagpiper by the fork in the trail. Next came the twisty, technical, gnarly descent I'd ridden the day before, which was lined with spectators in all manner of ridiculous attire. Some cheered, others heckled, and pretty much all of them appeared drunk. It was like a bizarro Alpe d'Huez, in that, instead of going up, on a road, in France, we were going down, on a rock-strewn trail, in wannabe France.
It was around this point I realized that, for the first time in my racing "career," I was truly a part of the main event. I've raced (poorly) in national championships, but always with my age group. I've raced in the most competitive category at an event, but only at local races, early in the morning, when nobody's watching and nobody cares. I've raced at a track during a cookout. I've even raced cyclocross in the middle of a state fair, but the only spectators besides friends and family were bemused passersby. Never before had I been an essential component of the thing that everybody had come out to see, one of the hundreds of people who'd surrendered themselves to humiliation and pain all for the love of the bike. At last, I was part of the show.
It dawned on me that, pain notwithstanding, I was actually super-relaxed and having fun. It didn't hurt that the trail was gorgeous. Due to the extremes in elevation, the course took us through a variety of landscapes, and had I not been concentrating so intently on staying upright I might have taken more time to savor them. But even in my anaerobic state I was moved. At its lowest, the trail took us across streams and through deep, dark woods. At its highest, it led us over arid, white, rocky peaks with sweeping views of the valley.
Spectators served to further distract. There were sexy women, dressed as referees, administering spankings. A guy in dreadlocks and a blue leisure suit displayed ambiguous cue cards in the manner of Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back. Most distressingly, when I was forced to run up a small incline after not carrying enough speed through a stream crossing, a guy in a pink rabbit suit called me a "failure." I felt like a madman degraded by hallucinations.
AT SOME POINT, the 7-Eleven bandito blows by, his cape fluttering imperiously in the wind. The masked man, I'll later discover, is pro rider Carl Decker. When I encounter him, he's lapping me en route to victory.
As I complete lap two, I'm hurting. The trail has become the world. But I still have a rhythm and am in the proverbial groove. Number three, however, is a slog. I know I'll finish, so I tell myself to treat it as a victory lap, but I'm hemorrhaging strength. And the spirit of the event has become significantly less buoyant: By the time I'm deep into my last lap, many of the spectators have already moved the party back to the start/finish, to shower the first finishers with beer as they roll in. What's more, all those rocky descents on my rigid fork have finally turned my arms to overcooked linguini. I'm getting sloppy.
A little while back, an English guy asked me how many times I'd crashed. I refused to answer, because I haven't crashed at all and, in my cosmology, talking about crashing makes you crash. Nevertheless, I soon crash at a rocky switchback. Fortunately, the lap is almost over. Decker and women's winner Rachel Lloyd are almost certainly already getting tattooed. I successfully negotiate the final and most treacherous descent and then, like only half of those who started, cross the finish line. Somebody hands me the item that's been guiding me through the race like a lodestar: the bottle opener. It's wonderful, as if my pain has manifested as a small piece of machined aluminum, like an irritating grain of sand transformed into a pearl.
Ironically, the many, many beers I consume all come in a can.