I think this might be the hardest blog post I’ve ever had to write. It’s not that I’ve got writer’s block, or that what I’m trying to speak about is a painful subject. Nope, it’s that I spent an hour of last night sleeping in a car park somewhere in the East Midlands, and when I finally did make it home I had to be at work about 4 hours later. In the last 12 hours I’ve driven from Verona to Venice, flown to Gatwick, driven to the Peak District and then cycled to Salford. Before all that I was battering my body at the Single Speed Cyclocross World Champs. In between that I was battering my mind at the various parties in between the races at the Single Speed Cyclocross World Champs. As bad as I’m feeling I can take solace that somewhere in Europe there is at least one Belgian who feels a lot worse than me, my money’s on the one handing out all the hash cookies and advising people that it’d probably be a good idea if they “just eat half.”
The Single Speed CX World Champs, or SSCXWCs, began about 10 years ago and they’ve mainly been held on the West Coast of the USA, with some incursions into Canada. Their birth place and spiritual home, like most things of this nature is Portland, Oregon, a place where I believe tattoos are mandatory, and possibly administered at birth. For the uninitiated the SSCXWCs are a bike race, a 2 day party, and the goofiest good time you can have. Riders take it both seriously and not at all seriously at the same time. Maybe this was best exemplified by the Tigers-BPC team, who had some of the strongest riders in the race, but sat up en-masse midway through the final to form an honour guard and salute every rider.
Before we get to that, let’s rewind a little to see how the fuck I got here. This year’s SSCXWC was to be held in Verona, Italy, the first time they’ve been held outside of North America, and so a perfectly affordable opportunity for me to combine my 2 favourite endeavours... Eating things from Italy and doing rad stuff on a bike. As much as I’m a fan of doing rad stuff on a bike, it only dawns on me the day before the race that I’ve forgotten to practice a lot of the rad stuff I might need to do, namely learn how to get off a cx bike, learn how to jump back on to a cx bike, and learn how to actually ride a cx bike. In fact my entire preparation for the race involves Will, in my local bike shop, telling me that “grass is grip”. Essentially I’m basing all my chances of survival on a meme, which is a bit like how Americans elect their president. For all my luck this meme will be more fake news, generated by some scoundrel in Russia to destabilise Europe. I don’t need much more destabilising as, by the time the weekend is out, I’ll have crashed half a dozen times.
Rather than learn how to ride CX I’ve spent most of the time before the event trying to secure a bike that is rad enough to compete, and luckily I’ve been hooked up by Sam and Judith at Stayer Cycles. They’ve built a sweet single speed cross machine, in a salmon-y orange colour with piratical decals. It’s stunning and deserves a way better rider than me.
I stay in Venice on Thursday before getting a hotel in Verona on the Friday. In both places my room number is 201 and both rooms contain the same self help book. The book is either in every single hotel room in Italy, or the universe is giving me a none too subtle hint reach for my rainbow and unlock my inner unicorn. It’s obvious from the last sentence that I didn’t read either copy, I did flick through both of them, but in trying to help me reach my full potential as a human being, the author neglected to include a chapter on how to not be totally shit at CX.
Friday evening, the day before the first races, is a chance to socialise, eat pizza, and try and find someone to fix my rear cantilever brake. The bike is so pretty that everyone wants to help out, but it is Fish, who has driven down from Holland and is sleeping in his van, who has the right spanner. With that name, that van, plus his long hair, he should smell way more of josticks and patchouli than he does. It turns out that he used to ride for the Netherlands national track team and he’s good pals with Laurens Ten Dam. He also runs the madmen bike store in Amsterdam and drives around Europe doing cool events like this. I think he has the high score for being a dude.
Before the evening is out I’ve met riders from Holland, Switzerland, Japan, USA, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and a shit load from Belgium. Most of them seem to have brought a bottle of spirits from their homeland and insist on giving them to me until my insides are a pissed version of the UN.
One other thing, you know what single speed riders love? I’ll tell you. They love stickers. They’re insane for them. Literally everyone I meet is keen to give me a bundle of adhesive backed logos for brands that I’ll probably never buy anything from. I ended up with so many that I think I’ve completed the Panini Single Speed ’17 sticker album, without even trying. Hit me up for swaps.
Saturday morning is the first chance we get to see the course. I see it from about 2mm away after crashing on the first serious kicker. It’s ok, I’ve got about 45 minutes to work out how to do this. The setting is the Bastioni Vallo Città di Nimes, a park containing the ruined ramparts of a 19th century fort, and it is stunning. The first part of the course is some rolling grassy mounds, followed by some barriers that you need to run over, and then a couple of really steep banks. The second looks like a wall and so I assume you have to run up it. By the end of the weekend I’ll have mastered riding up it, but it’ll be way too little, way to late. After that there’s a fast downhill before a set of shallow steps, another place where I’ll be running, before a wicked fast, single track descent. From the hillside you can see riders take the descent and then exit through an archway into an open field where they then take on the spiral of death. On exiting the spiral there’s a chance to relax and ride in a straight line between 2 of the ancient walls before a trip into some deep leaf litter where I’ll crash later on. The final real difficulty that the course provides is a cobbled tunnel, the exit of which is obscured by hanging sheets of a black material, making the inside of the tunnel almost pitch black.
By the time my warm up is finished I think I might have mastered how to do a CX dismount, but sadly I’ve had no time to attempt a proper remount. I’m off in heat 1 of 4, and the top 15 will make Sunday’s final. All I remember of the race is an increasing grin growing across my face as I started to get a feel for the course. That grin would be reset each time I crashed, but it always regrew. My road legs mean that I’m not even tired by the time the 40 minute race is over, and I feel strong every time the race goes straight and involves actual pedalling, but sadly my lack of skills means I’m always vying for position with guys in fancy dress who’ve been drunk since the night before.
At the communal dinner that night, in the amazing setting of the Porto Palio, the 16th century gates of Verona’s medieval walls, I discover that I’ve miraculously made the final. I’m pretty sure this is a clerical error but true to the spirit of the event, no one cares and I’m welcome to vie for a world championship.
After dinner the Belgian hash cake fiend starts corrupting everyone. A stoner rock band plays and things start promising to get weird. Poorly timed administration of the space biscuits means that the weirdness only really starts during the DJ set that follows the band. A skinny italian stays on stage well after the band has finished and simply mimes playing every instrument. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that brings a new element to The Fratellis’ Chelsea Dagger. Literally nothing good has ever happened to that song, until now. I bail in the hope that the different hangover levels might even out the playing field a bit in the morning.
Despite the administrative error I give up my place in the final. I just want to watch these riders rip the course to bits, and also because they’ve added a set of flaming logs that need to be jumped over. I’ve spent the morning perfecting my remount and not working out how to jump my bike over obstacles that are on fire.
The loser’s final starts with a Le Mans start. We each remove a shoe and leave it on top of our bikes before heading to the park gates. After a painful sprint over gravel we’re up and racing. I may have made some improvements in my CX game, but I’m still being schooled by a guy on a child’s mountain bike. Luckily for my self-esteem I’ve dropped the guy carrying an inflatable crocodile.
As well as the flaming log pit, another modification has been made to the course, flares have now been set off in the tunnel and a stereo inside is blasting out doom metal, I’d be making serious devil horns if I wasn’t riding over massively irregular cobbles. Other modifications include a member of the illuminati hanging around the centre of the spiral of death, and a forced beer stop. I decide to only crash once in this race, but I do it on the descent in front of most of the crowd. After that my humiliation is complete and I’m a couple of beers deep, so I think nothing of jumping the flaming log obstacle for the first time in the race.
When I’m done dicking around on the course it’s time to let the skilled folk have their fun. The DJ plays Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction and the riders sprint up a 1 in 3 hill to get their bikes. The difference between them and me is night and day. The eventual men’s winner is taking lines that I never knew existed as he carves down the descent. There’s been some friendly rivalry between the Belgians and the Italians with the Belgians suggesting that the Italians are fast but have no technical skills. The guy out front is Italian, he’s super fast and I can’t see a single thing wrong with his technical skills. This is underlined when he laps his first rider, who waits for him, lies down on the gravel, and lets him jump his bike over his prone body. If you’re going to get lapped then get lapped like this.
By law, the winner of the SSCXWC has to be tattooed after the race. I catch our Italian friend, who rides for the Super Nova team, at the finish line and he tells me he has no tats, and that this will be his first. At least now he’ll be able to go and race in Portland if the race ever goes home. Speaking of which, Megan Chinburg who wins the women’s race is a Portlandian, and when I catch up with her whilst she’s being inked, she seems to be perfectly at home. She describes the pain of being tattooed as "kinda like a cross race. It hurts for a bit and then it's over."