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When I woke up on Saturday morning in Portland, Oregon, I listened to the pouring rain outside and felt the familiar dull pounding of my head. The 2016 Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships (SSCXPDX16) hadn’t even officially started yet and I was already slightly hungover.
SSCXPDX16: 1 – Me: 0
I had been training (read: drinking far more than usual) all month for this event, and yet I was already falling behind.
The festivities had started on Friday night in Southeast Portland, where the packet pick-up party held more than a few surprises.
Outside the café, the parking lot was littered with bikes, and the line for the packet pick-up ran out the door. So what’s one to do? Sample some of Portland’s many craft beers, of course! A $10 outlay bought you a special edition stainless steel pint glass that got you an endless amount of $1 or free beers throughout the weekend.
The waiting line was the who’s-who of the Northern American cycling scene. Industry folk, friends and familiar faces everywhere – all giddy with excitement for the days ahead.
Maybe it was the return to its first host location, maybe it was the fact that it was the 10th anniversary or maybe cyclocross is just becoming that popular, but whatever it was the 2016 Singlespeed World Championships received an unprecedented amount of pre-event hype.
And the hype at the completely unsanctioned, irreverent event reached international heights when Belgian cyclocross legend Sven Nys walked through the door to pick up his race numbers.
Registered under his American pseudonym, Stan Nice, the race organisers had successfully managed to keep the appearance of the recently retired, two-time cyclocross world champion under wraps. But the moment Nys appeared at the party, dressed in a stylish gold smocking jacket, he became the topic of conversation in the cycling community.
Does he know what he’s getting into? Would he get the tattoo? How well can he hold his alcohol? What gear will he be riding? Can [four-time winner] Adam Craig beat him?
Taking a few minutes of his time, I figured I’d just ask him.
No, he doesn’t drink much. His gearing would be 42-17. And no, he hadn’t decided yet where on his body the tattoo would go. He was here just for fun.
I got the sense that he wasn’t after the tattoo, at all. As the brand ambassador for Trek, this was a publicity stunt more likely.
But the whiskey-drinking, pot-smoking and flat-bar riding crowd was over the moon. They would get a chance to compete against and heckle a cyclocross legend. And they would put their best (read: most raucous) foot forward.
SSCXPDX16: 1 – Me: 1
Saturday morning saw the first rounds of muddy competition as hundreds of riders fought to secure one of the 300 (150 per gender) entries to the finals on Sunday.
The venue was located a 15-mile ride outside of Portland on a farm on Sauvie’s Island. Left in its post-harvest state, the ground was rough, bumpy and thoroughly muddy. With nothing but rain in the forecast, these conditions would not improve for the finals either.
There were two ways to qualify: through a series of on-the-bike races or through the “I’m feeling lucky” off-the-bike shenanigans.
Racing consisted of three heats: a time trial (a mini cross race), a hole shot competition and a run down the dual slalom course.
Unfortunately, my time spent competing was short lived. I was in the very first heat of the day, at 10 a.m. Crossing the finish line of the time trial in first place, after a mere 15 minutes, I was handed a purple “Achievement Unlocked” bracelet which would be my entry ticket to the finals on Sunday. I was done. No more heats for me, but I would get my go at the dual slalom course tomorrow, I was told, as it would be a feature of the main race. Score!
Those more confident in their off-the-bike skills, had a harder go at it. Their heats consisted of sack runs, doughnut eating contests, a partnered three-legged run through a swampy corn field and, finally, karaoke.
Round after round competed until, around 2 p.m., around 300 finalists were left standing.
In the women’s field, race favourite and Canadian national cyclocross champion Mical Dyck, already a two-time Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championship (SSCXWC) winner qualified with ease. As did Jessica Cutler – a recently retired professional cyclocross racer who identified the SSCXWC as her “A race” for the season –, pro cyclocrosser Emily Kachorek and previous winner Sue Butler.
In the men’s field, all eyes were on Adam Craig, already a four-time SSCXWC winner, and Nys. Craig handily qualified in heat one. An hour later, Nys goofed off and let a local rider win, but second place was good enough to qualify.
As the rain started pouring, so did the beer.
The party was at the “world famous” Kenton Club that evening, which raged on until the owners had had enough of the rowdy crowd, hanging from chandeliers and causing all sorts of ruckus.
SSCXPDX16: 100 – Me: 1
The beauty of a 1 p.m. start time, is the opportunity for racers and spectators alike to sleep off a hangover and/or kickstart the day with Bloody Marys.
Mother Nature was kind to us with rays of sunshine greeting us at the venue instead of the forecasted downpour. The night had added an inch of fresh rain, however, which made the course soupy at best.
Unlike normal cross races where you see riders pre-riding the course or under tents riding on trainers, the pre-race warm-up at SSCXWC consisted mostly of making sure your costume was in order, consuming some ‘liquid courage’ and maybe taking a drag or two of the joint that every rider got in their race packet. Only in Portland!!!
Why would you skip the traditional preparations? Because nothing could have prepared us for what lay ahead.
Let me walk you through the main features of the course:
Straddling our bikes, we lined up on the course as one normally does in a race. But the organisers would have none of that. Instead, they waded us down to a swampy farm field, directed us to leave our bikes behind and walk to the other side of an uncut corn field. They lined us up with nothing but rows of dried out corn stalks ahead of us. At the sound of a shotgun, a mad dash followed. There was a lot of pushing, shoving, and blindly running through a corn field to get back to the field where our bikes had been. Except that the bikes were no longer there. Some bikes were piled up in bunches across the open field, others were hidden in the corn. W. T. F.
Upon locating my bike, I wrestled my way through the swampy farm field. There was no riding it, I just had to push through till I reached the farm road that was actually part of the course.
The Stripper Bus shortcut:
Those willing to pay $1, got to take a short cut. This shortcut took you on an old bus filled with male and female strippers. You paid your toll, handed off your bike, ran through the bus – maybe taking a minute to dance – then took a whisky shot and remounted your bike on the other side of the bus.
The dual slalom downhill:
Just as it sounds: a muddy descent with dual-slalom style jumps. The mud was too deep to gain much momentum yet this feature did claim a few tacoed wheels.
This is where the race announcer was located – drifting in a canoe on the middle of a pond. And sure enough, we had to go through it. The daring among us launched themselves off a ramp, others simply hugged the borders of the thigh-deep pond.
The ball pit:
A favourite among the spectators and dreaded by the racers, this is where all those who did not qualify got to take their revenge. Riders had to navigate through a pit filled with yoga balls while spectators launched those balls, water balloons and beer at your head. Thank god for helmets!
The Hodala corner:
Barely recovered from getting nailed in the head by yoga balls, you now had to muscle your way through mud as thick as peanut butter, only to dismount and traverse a mulch mountain filled with rotting pumpkins and human barriers.
No matter where you found yourself on the course, beer, whiskey, cash and food hand-ups were offered, sometimes forcefully. The money hand-ups were the most useful as you needed dollar bills for the stripper bus.
All these features were connected by the thickest mud that destroyed drivetrains, sucked souls and forced everyone but Sven Nys off their bikes for dozens of meters at a time.
One lap in, I was tipsy, coated in mud and exhausted. Holy sh*t, this is hard! I muscled my way through the remaining two laps, ending in 12th place and was quite happy when it was over. That was pure madness!
Cutler took the honours, adding the coveted gold bikini to her collection of trophies and immortalising the win with a tattoo. The podium was rounded out by Angharad Porteous and Sarah Sturm.
As predicted, the men’s race was a battle between the king of singlespeed, Adam Craig, and Belgian legend, Sven Nys. Nys good naturedly entertained the crowd – despite getting nailed in the ball pit harder than anyone else – and showed up his calibre as he rode parts of the course that no one else could. And while Craig gave a strong performance, I do think Nys let him win in the end, thereby avoiding the tattoo.
“I hope in the next few years I can race more singlespeed races because this is what I want to do” Nys said after the event.
Craig added a fifth winner’s tattoo to his body, Nys took second and Stephen Ettinger rounded out the podium.
There wasn’t any changing of the guard in the race winners, but the host city was a different matter. After 10 years in North America, the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships will move to Europe in 2017. Verona, Italy, successfully won their bid to host one of cycling’s most bizarrely entertaining events.
What do you think? Can Verona compare to Portland?