Sunday, August 31, 2008

SSWC08: Wine Country Worlds...

In which, in the interests of time, space, and a dwindling supply of creative juices, a recap of this year's Single Speed World Championship event (Napa, California edition) appears as a series of journal entries—recorded by an unreliable narrator—on pages flipped through at random by an impatient and rather dimwitted reader. Blame televison.

Page 2 - Lap 1
like overgrown insects, trundling our way up the loose earth and rock as if programmed by some ancient, unremitting instinct. The mandatory hike-a-bike section. This one is exclusive to the first lap, the hosts having routed it out and replaced it with a much longer, less steep, partially rideable "climb" for the last two laps.

There is no hurry, no worry, on the faces of the horde marching with me. We all push with the same determination, with the same smiles that threaten to decay into grimaces if the hill persists. It doesn't, leveling off somewhat at a sharp left turn, and more a little further ahead. It's hard to believe that this crowd—its members equalized only for the moment by the same plodding task—will soon thin out as feet are traded for wheels and speed and technical prowess become the orders of the day. At least for a while.

I reach the semi-peak, throw a leg over the saddle, and begin the first lap, confident that the pushing is over for a while. I stand on the pedals and rock the bike under me, back and forth in a mechanical rhythm as I climb, trying to put a little distance between me and the growing line of riders slowly stretching out behind me like the body

Page 4 - Lap 1
first lap's bonus loop. Before the start, it was described as being two miles long, technical, and loaded with tight switchbacks. The description doesn't disappoint. Like the steep hike-a-bike mentioned earlier, this is a first-lap exclusive, designed to pare away the posers and offer a good primer to everyone else as to the type of terrain we can expect for the remainder of the race.

After some tight, dusty singletrack, I start in on the choppy stuff behind a rather callypygean chick dressed comme un petit lapin. Already, riders are hopping off and walking the rocky switchbacks, along which onlookers gape and jape, hoping to catch a spectacular stack-up. She's a welcome sight, this lycra-clad bunny, amid the smattering of tighty-whitey wearing riders whose sartorial decision assures them plenty of room on the pass. She rolls well, keeping a good pace, but suddenly has a bit of trouble at a tight turn, taking the outside line and losing her balance over some baby heads. I sneak by her on the inside, careful to maintain enough speed to overcome the rocks, and close in on another rider.

Page 6 - Lap 2
catch up to the arguable godmother of mountain biking, Jacquie Phelan, who is dressed improbably (given the near triple-digit heat) in a brown tweed suit that has seen better days. A tie flaps from her neck like a flattened eel as she carves the occasional curve. I first met Jacquie last year at the World's in Aviemore, Scotland, where she mingled with riders at a pre-race event, chatting and dispatching any lulls in the conversation with a quick flip of her homemade skirt, from which launched a large and insistent paper-mache phallus (also homemade) to the sounds of snickers and gasps. Jacquie knows how to have fun.

We talk as we ride together, she in front, and between my own ebbing attempts at control, I manage to comment on her enduring grace over the rough stuff. Jacquie rides an old steel bike, painted pink and sporting drop bars—the same one, I think, that she rode on the course in Scotland. It is the oldest bike on hand today, and for this dubious quality its owner receives a healthy chunk of post-race shwag: a brand-new frame.

I stay on her tire, poaching her line as she leaves it behind like an invisible wake. We pick our way through a desertlike section of the course, where the soil, bleached by an imperious sun, is as dry and sterile as moondust. Leafless shrubs frame the trail-side, their roots clutch the infertile earth like twisted talons. It is here where the heat sets in, pulling sweat from our bodies as we wrestle the rocks. Nomadic dust-plumes, stirred to life by passing tires, settle on our dewy skin like a crusty coat of paint, or seek shelter in the hollows of our laboring lungs.

We remain in this formation, taking what comes along until we arrive

Page 9 - Lap 3
the moment when it all goes wrong. On the final technical switchback, on the final lap, less than a mile from the finish, it happens. (That whole freeze-frame arrest of motion seen so clearly in the rear-view mirror of the mind's eye is only a neural echo contrived as a mnemonic device. In reality, shit happens fast. Abracafuckingdabra!—present is past, and in a flash we are all rubes at our own little magic show, wondering what the hell just happened even as the afterimage fades, talking wildly among ourselves and, in our baseless conjecture, conjuring more than the magician could hope to muster.)

I take the worst line (a habit): several large rock slabs stacked helter-skelter as though under the guidance of an impetuous and emotionally disturbed child, and forming a crude, jagged staircase. In a word, ugly. The fact that I've already successfully cleaned this postage-stamp rock garden—this exact line—on the previous two laps does nothing to deter me or wizen me up. I'm on autopilot now, the switch thrown by an unknown agent...and this is the first mistake, the one that opens the floodgates for the others that pour through in rapid succession.

In my weariness, in the surge of confidence that comes with the knowledge that I'm almost finished, knowing that beer is waiting, I fail to (mere speculation)

Page 10 - Lap 3
slide back far enough behind the saddle, fail to adequately shift my weight against the imperious pull of gravity, and bike and rider rotate around the front hub like a broken coupling arm as the front tire taps the last slab-step. Shit happens fast.

Parody of a handstand. Parody of a somersault.

Inverted in mid-spin, I'm vaguely, impossibly aware that some of the spectators' cheers have turned into "whoa!"s. My left hand-wrist-arm-shoulder take the brunt, give way, and something comes perilously close to punching out my left eye, settling instead on the lens of my sunglasses for a trophy. I tumble to the rocks, bike on me like a predator. A more discriminating rider—a rider I just passed—passes me on the left, on the line.

I get up quickly and pull my bike as far off the course as seems prudent, given the border of poison oak on either side. Something is wet, and I notice that blood has begin to coat my left hand like a stylized latex glove, oozing slowly from the wound in wayward tributaries that meet again in the valley between thenar and hypothenar. The gash in my wrist is a flesh wound; there is no tell-tale spurt timed to the beating of my heart arcing onto the stone all around me, and l see right away that the arteries are unharmed. I

Page 12 - Post-race
has removed what seems like yards of compression wrap and is busily spraying Betadine on the wound from a needle-less syringe. I ask around from my seat at the picnic-cum-surgical table for a beer—a good beer—and am all but enjoined to accept a URC1 from a gentleman at the Soulcraft tent next door. I take a sip of what turns out to be Lagunitas IPA and I'm happy. Happy enough to forget about the five or six riders who passed me just minutes ago as the field EMTs were wrapping me up post endo.

Heather punctures the area around the now-bloodless gash with a needle, numbing the skin in preparation for the sutures. She threads up what looks like a modified fishhook (an instrument with the rather disappointing name of "½ Circle Needle"), and I snap some pics as she plays seamstress, pulling the lips of the wound together and deftly knotting the monofilament. The beer tastes like another, and the boys at Soulcraft are only too happy to oblige.

I've got a knot on my shoulder2, some stitches in my wrist, another cold beer in my hand, and thoughts of Durango, Colorado already whirling around my brain. This one's over. Damn, it was fun!

Photo credits: 1, 4 - ahbrooks; 2, 3 - ibikergal

1. Ubiquitous Red Cup.

2. Type II shoulder separation.


b1umb0y said...

Man, the problem with taking in your brilliant write-ups is that I end up really wishing I had been there. :(

Durango... here I come.

Ikon O. Klasst said...

Thanks, man, you're too kind. And yeah, you should have been there. You'd have torn up that trail and had a blast. And the beer wasn't too shabby, either, ha.

Next year, to be sure...

Tim Wise said...

Super post. I find your words keep me reading which can be tuff for a guy with ADD like me. I miss the basement in the Brewers Art and the dark nooks and crannies.. Great pics as well.