Wednesday, September 12, 2007

SSWC07: Worlds Away in Scotland...

Note: I intended to capture all kinds of race pictures but, unfortunately, my Canon Elph s230 mysteriously crapped out on me the day before the race (pix don't appear to be writing to the card—who knows?). What follows are the pictures of others and some pre- and post-race shots I took using my Nikon D40. More pix can be found here.

“You’re going the wrong way!”

It’s a woman’s voice, a Brit if I’ve got my accents down. The tone is, impossibly, soothing and plaintive at the same time, a pleasant lilt that masks the dire message, a bomb in a gilded box. I glance back for an instant, a wink in time, and that’s all it takes. My front wheel plows a large rock near the side of the short, steep downhill I'm negotiating with some trepidation. The bike revolts with a jarring buck, and suddenly I’m airborne, pivoting around the bars in a classic endo. Instinctively, I thrust out both arms in a handstand-cum-tuck-and-roll that saves my head, neck, and spine, but can’t change the random trajectory of my left leg. My shin strikes a rock and drags along its pointy surface like a rudder in shallow water. My impromptu somersault leaves me flat on my back, staring up through the trees I narrowly missed in the tumble.

I reach for my fallen bike to drag it off the trail, mindful of approaching racers looking to avoid the same fate. And that’s when the Brit adds insult to injury.

“Could you do me a favor, love? Could you move your bike?”

In this context, "love" conveys all the affection of a well-placed kick to the groin. All the same, I pull my rig aside, and the single speed siren zips past me in a colorful blur, like I’m an old stump. I get up and quickly survey the damage: a long, pencil-thin gash that is just beginning to ooze blood overlays the anterior crest of the unlucky leg. Painful and ugly, but no show-stopper by any stretch. I look at my bike. The fork has spun around what seems like a half-dozen times and the brake cable is coiled about the stem clamp and spacers like an overzealous anaconda. I unwind the fork, assess the bike's health, then hop back on it to continue the race. It isn’t till later that it dawns on me the Brit chick was speaking to another rider the first time. The strategy was accidental, but she profitted from it nonetheless. I don’t mind. Give and take in racing is as ancient as the spirit of competition itself. It happens. And the way she was riding, it was likely only a matter of seconds before she would have overtaken me anyway.

It’s the Single Speed World Championship in Aviemore, Scotland—home of peat bogs and black pudding and left-hand drive and arguably the finest single-malt scotch available on this mortal coil. I'm halfway through lap two of a scheduled five-lap race, picking my way through a stretch of technical singletrack. I'm one of six SSOFTies who've made the long trip from the states, and who are now several rolling links in a colorful chain of other one-gear worshippers hellbent on finishing up in one piece. Aside from a total dearth of fallen trees and logs—features so ubiquitous back home in the Mid-Atlantic area that their absence here is almost surreal—the course has it all: rocks, roots, mud, drops, bridges, steep climbs, swift descents, and gravel-strewn fire roads. And at the margins, blanketing the ground between cliques of birch trees, is heather. Lots and lots of heather. It's the veritable skin of the Scottish motherland, and its purple flower clusters are the perfect accompaniment to the gun-metal gray mountains rising up all around in the dusky distance.

The bike behaves well beneath me, taking masochistic pleasure in all the random pounding my lack of finesse encourages. The rigid fork finds the right line—when there is one—almost on its own, the portly Geax Blade up front slices through brackish mud while the slimmer Kenda Nevegal in the rear resists the dreaded power-slide over the wet knuckles of roots skinned clean to the bone by the mashing of countless rubber knobs. I'm alone now, but I hear swifter riders approaching and, up ahead, I see another rider faltering in a rock garden.

Less than an hour ago, I joined a throng of other single speeders in a half-spirited Le Mans style start that took us up a fire road, around a stripped-to-the-skivvies Dr. Jon (one of three race promoters), and back down again to our waiting bikes. From there we rode downhill, then started the first climb, a long fire road peppered with loose gravel that soon began to force space between riders. Then it was a hard right into the woods and up another climb, steep and long and technical. Many riders began to push here. I got about a third of the way up and was forced to dismount after jamming up on a slower-moving rider ahead of me. Fine with me. My lungs were still warming up and the climb wasn't letting up anytime soon, from what I could see.

At the top, we dropped into a nice piece of sloppy singletrack. The conspiracy of mud and roots along this section was so slick that it almost—almost—made the rock slabs on the downhills that followed it a welcome relief. But the rock slabs themselves often made for moments where the choice of a bad line meant a nasty faceplant or, at the very least, the sordid prospect of bulls-eyeing one's britches on the way down. Riders began changing places as the more technically proficient of the lot blew past those who balked even for a second. Most segments of technical singletrack ended with a drop to a fire road for some more climbing. Spectators gathered at these transitional points because of easy accessibility. That, and the increased likelihood of carnage that comes with a high-speed descent over scabrous, rocky terrain that segues into a tight turn on gravel. Lap one went down well for me, with dismounts dictated by choice and not chance.

Back to lap two. At some point late in the lap I run into fellow SSOFT members Rick and Donna, who've stopped by the side of a fire road to refuel. Rick's on his second lap, and Donna is closing out her first. We chat about the prospects of the remaining laps, each of us wondering how much we've got left for the finish. Then we're off again, Rick pulling the lead and Donna dropping back. A sharp left turn has us leaving the fire road for another steep ascent over dirt and rock. Rick slowly disappears ahead of me as I try to keep up, my lungs threatening mutiny with every turn of the cranks. I lose Donna behind me as I chase after Rick. The climb tops out at a jeep trail—two narrow tire tracks sandwiching a forelorn swath of nondescript flora that lead down the mountain. I choose the left side and let it go, hoping to gain a little ground with the speed. Though the surface seems relatively smooth to the eye, the body learns the truth, as the rocks and ruts set upon the rigid frame and fork with the ultraviolence of a pack of leering droogs*. Most of the rocks are flat and level with the ground, but there is the occasional sun-bleached block that sits half in the trail like the skull of a Longhorn long since gone. The jeep trail quickly surrenders to another stretch of singletrack in the woods. I'm passed here by a couple of speedy racers who are looking much stronger than they have any right to. The singletrack ends with an easy transition down to the final fire road and, beyond the peak of its gentle slope, the start/finish line, where a huge crowd is milling about.

As I pass through the crowd, I notice that many riders seem to have hung up their cleats after only one or two laps, trading handlebar grips for cold cans of Tennents and the like. I head out for lap three without stopping, keenly aware that a pause now would have the legs feeling leaden in no time.

The third lap is the worst. Unlike other riders, I don't dial in on the laps very well, even after repeated passings. Consequently, I'm now more tired but with no offsetting eidetic benefit of what's to come at each turn. I manage to ride some of the more aggressive rocky drops I'd either passed on or scotched (there's your pun) earlier, perching my ass mere inches off the rear tire and stretching my arms to the bars for control. No yard sales, though it's ugly at times. Finishing up a double drop onto a fire road that had me all over the place, but with the bike still between me and a world of pain, I notice Rick up ahead, pulled off to the side. He's laughing aloud at my stellar form and technique. We chat again about the laps ahead. He tells me about the persistent muscle cramps in his legs that visit him every time he's off the bike and pushing.

I share a bite of an energy bar with Rick. Seconds later, we're back on the bikes, repeating the scene from lap two with little variation. It isn't long before I get my first cramp, a sharp, stabbing pain on the inside of my right thigh (the gracilis for you anatomy buffs). I notice it first when I dismount on a climb and swing my leg over the saddle. I pound on the muscles to break up the opposing contractions. But the fix is temporary, and the pain returns immediately the second I hop back on the bike. I pedal a bit, trying to ride it out, but it's no use. Up ahead, Rick seems to be having the same issue.

Eventually, we both seem to get past our problems, and Rick disappears again. It's the last time I see him until after the race. I move on, riding over the technical spots with the same lack of grace that's almost a strategy at this point. At times, I hear onlookers cheer and laugh at my persistent luck on the steep, sketchy patches. I come out of the woods and onto the last fire road, then climb toward the finish line, feeling physically capable of a fourth lap but wondering how long my luck can hold out on the technical sections.

The finish line is crowded. I mean, really crowded. I weave through groups of riders like a drunken sailor on his last day of shore leave. I wonder whether these people have forgotten that a race is going on. Then I notice Kera, Mike's wife, in the throng and decide to pass off on her the rain jacket and light woolie I'd been needlessly piggybacking all race long. As she's graciously accepting my stuff, some SSOFT members politely inform me that the race is over, called after the winners, Kelli Emmet for the women and Adam Craig for the men, wracked up their five laps in record time.

It's 2:30, the 2007 Single Speed World Championship is officially over, and I've got three laps to my name amounting to about 15 miles after discounting the 11-mile ride to the start. Worn, weary, and with the ghost-twinge of muscle cramps haunting both quads, I breathe a small sigh of relief as the thought of post-race pints at a local pub already begins to ease aches and pains that are only just beginning to emerge.

Thanks go out to Dr. Jon, Marty, and Chris for all their hard work in hosting a fantastic, fun, and very challenging event that will be hard to top next year in Napa!

*See A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess.


Mrs. Outlaw said...

Fantastic write-up Steve - for a moment I felt like I was back in Scotland!


YuriB said...

A most excellent adventure

Tubeular Visions said...

Good read,
I want more,
sounds and looks like you guys had a really good trip.

AteMrYeats said...

Best web log entry in a while. Thanks.


gwadzilla said...

I need to come back

I do not have my dictionary on hand