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September 15, 2007

Singlespeed World Championships: A singular experience

The most recent edition the Singlespeed World Championships drew those of the one-gear persuasion to Aviemore and the challenging Cairngorm hills in the wild heart of Scotland during the first weekend in September. Cyclingnews' Jo Burt was among them to celebrate and ride with the unique atmosphere that surrounds Singlespeed Worlds, where just a small part of the action is the racing.

Riders head off
Photo ©: Matt Ferrari
(Click for larger image)

A global selection of riders, with well over a third coming from overseas, arrived by plane, train and automobile. Some came by bike, with a small group pedalling most of the length of the United Kingdom from the southwest toe of England. Singlespeeders filled the cafes and bars of the outdoorsy town, rode around the stunning countryside and, almost incidentally, raced.

Saturday saw the itinerant converge on the race headquarters of Bothy Bikes for registration, mutual bike love - be that of the shonky or the bling, guided rides and some pre-race competition. Rollapaluza were there to provide cheerful rivalry on their roller-racing set-up; two cyclists each on a bike mounted on rollers, connected to a huge dial. They battled it out to race over a simulated 500m distance. It was fast and surprisingly hard for something that only lasted about 20 seconds. The final heats were for those with the best times; eventual winner Nigel Foskett from Brighton, England, rode his opponent to a standstill.

Things then moved on to the contest to decide who would hold next year's Singlespeed World Championships. The right to host the event has always been decided rather differently. In fact, this year's organisers had won the honour for Scotland in a drinking competition at the 2006 Singlespeed Worlds in Stockholm, Sweden.

The 2008 hopeful hosts had to do a turn on the bike rollers, down a slug of the (not at all) finest whisky and then perform their best interpretation of a highland fling. Wrapped up in the fleeces, wooly hats, Buffs and Goretex traditional to a Scottish summer, the crowd was eager for somewhere warm to win. Their prayers were answered when Curtis Inglis from Napa, California, was crowned triumphant. Cheers went up and everyone drifted into the town to celebrate the decision with beer.

Team Giant's Carl Decker
Photo ©: Matt Ferrari
(Click for larger image)

Sunday necessitated an early start with the hour-long ride through the Rothimurchus Estate to the secret race venue setting off at 9:30 am, sharp. The ride-out gave racers and camp-followers a chance to chat and spin the previous night's exuberance out of their legs and heads. Once at the race course, the briefing was er, brief, with the most important instruction being "If you don't want the tattoo, don't win!" Possibly uniquely, this race is the only world championship event where the winners receive a mandatory tattoo rather than a special jersey. It's also maybe the only world championships where riders who have never before entered a race can muscle in on the start line alongside seasoned pros and be treated equally.

"If we'd raced the UCI World Champs on that track I wouldn't have sucked nearly as much as on that bike path at Fort William... . I mean really, when do you get trail that is absolutely perfectly catered to onespeed bikes, either up, but not too steep, or down, and when it's down, your nimble, silent bike is the perfect tool to put all the pieces together for your personal amusement.

"Oh, the dirt was perfect too - Black, with roots and rocks. But not too many. I wish I could race there every weekend - forever."

-Adam Craig on racing at Singlespeed Worlds in Scotland.

Nearly 300 bikes were left by the side of the trail for the Le Mans - style start; racers had to run en mass a couple of hundred metres up a forest road, around the "Auld Man of the Woods" (a mostly naked race promoter) and back down against the flow of flailing runners in skittish cycling shoes to collect their bikes, provided, of course, that they hadn't been cheekily moved or hidden, as is the singlespeed way. They set out for five laps of the five-ish mile course.

A long fireroad climb strung out the competitors before they reached the first bit of singletrack - a steep, rocky climb. Singlespeed veterans recognised the course as being the same as the 2004 NaeGears Singlespeed European Championships but with a few tweaks and a lot of work done to it to keep it rideable despite the wet British summer.

The technical, rooty, rocky, off-camber, steep (both up and down) trail was muddy in places and certainly tested riders skills, singlespeed knees and walking ability. The harshness of the course harvested more than a few bruises, grazes and gashes, and two riders needed hospital treatment for dislocated fingers, a cut lip, and a gashed shin, but both were treated in time to make it back to the bar for Sunday evening.

At some point during the race a beer stop appeared in the woods. Plenty of riders took advantage of it. Thanks to its position by a fireroad just before a singletrack rocky drop-in, it was the perfect spot for some light-hearted heckling as the, er, more cautious riders walked the tech section. Always "alternative," the race saw competitors in head-to-toe lycra racing alongside those in full-on fancy dress. And there was everything in-between; one rider even had a sound-system strapped to his bike for those essential singletrack tunes.

Singlespeed Worlds logo
Photo ©: Jo Burt
(Click for larger image)

Giant pro riders Adam Craig and Carl Decker entered into the spirit of things by spurning their team kit in favor of a denim vest and cut-offs, and full Scottish kilt, long socks and See-You-Jimmy hat respectively. Not that attire seemed to matter much to the select bunch of Craig, Decker, Gareth Montgomery and two-time singlespeed world champion Travis Brown, who simply rode away from everyone else. Ignoring the chafing potential of his costume, Craig put the hammer down and convincingly dropped the rest of the small group, despite hitting the deck hard in a beer-related crash. Last year's winner, Norwegian Sveinung Bj°rek°y, came in fifth.

In the women's race, Kelli Emmett, another Giant rider, showed her class by crushing the field, and the United Kingdom's favourite singlespeed solo 24-hour race specialist Jenn Hopkins, riding for Minx/Kona, came home second.

Winners cheered and post-race tipples supped, and all cruised back down the road to Bothy Bikes for a BBQ with an excellent spread of food. The beer flowed courtesy of Cairngorm Brewery, who had to send out for more stocks, and all gathered round for the prizegiving. The male and female race winners won custom Black Sheep and Sycip frames as well as the customary tattoo each.

"This was the first time I raced at SSWC. It was a blast! It is the most fun race you could do. I just wish it was the weekend after worlds and not the weekend before. It would have been fun to partake in a little more of the drinking festivities.

"I think the true singlespeed champion is the one who rides as much as possible before the race, drinks every night, and then stays out till 3 am the night before so when it comes race day they are completely dehydrated and hung over. We cheated and got to bed most nights by 12:30 and had only one or two beers. Damn, those guys are tough."

-Kelli Emmett on her first SSWC experience

More prizes were handed out to winners in categories such as "Worst Helmet", "Most Stupid Question To The Organisers", "DFL", "Tallest Rider" and "Best Facial Hair". The race-winning pair headed to town to have their tattoos done and show their freshly decorated haunches off to the crowd in The Vault nightclub before heading further north to race at the other World Championships in Fort William, where the scabs from them tatts must have smarted some. The more dedicated athletes continued well into the wee small hours with the gratuitous mangling of flesh and metal in the traditional bike derby as they drank the town dry.

The event was universally praised as being the best ever, under the umbrella moniker of The Telly Savalas Players Club. Organisers ensured that everything went seamlessly, which suggests that a whole heap of work went into the entire weekend, not just the race.

The spirit of singlespeeding was strong all weekend with good times with friends old and new, riding bikes - sometimes fast, sometimes slow. There was no attitude, not too much singlespeeding "whackiness", and all headed for home with big smiles and tired legs.


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Images by Matt Ferrari/road2paris.wordpress.com

Images by Jo Burt

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