Photograph by Gabe Meline
Small-time Big Time: Napan Curtis Inglis won last year's SSWC 'decider race' in Scotland for his whiskey and jigging prowess, thus bringing this oddly prestigious race home for '08.
Beer, brawn and beards at the Single Speed World Championships
By By Gabe Meline
If you're only gonna beat half the people," Curtis Inglis pronounces, motioning toward the baby-blue women's mountain bike he'll be racing in this year's Single Speed World Championship, "you might as well beat 'em on something stupid."
Racing a brutal mountain course on a women's bike, even a custom-made one, might seem weird, but that's only part of the story. Inglis, 39, plans to enter the race wearing lederhosen. And a bib. What's more, he's the race organizer.
The Single Speed World Championship (SSWC), slated for Aug. 24 at Napa's Skyline Park, is unlike any other bike race on the planet. The grand prize isn't purse money or a trophy; rather, winners are required to get a tattoo. That's it. There are additional awards for Drunkest Rider, Worst Crash, Best Beard and Dead Last. This year's event even incorporates a midrace Easter egg hunt.
Despite these hijinks, the SSWC isn't just some clown-around, beer-league mountain bike race. It actually is the world's premier single speed race, with over 50 sponsors and a waiting list of over 800 riders. Last year's winner, Adam Craig, who finished first on the Scotland trail in a mustache, mullet, pantyhose and denim hot pants, is currently in Beijing racing for the U.S. Olympic team.
What separates the SSWC from mainstream mountain bike races—apart from the requirement that its riders must use only one gear—is that it's open to anyone, spanning a ridiculously wide span of expertise. This year, the contestants range from professional riders like Travis Brown and Carl Decker to a guy from Ohio who Inglis says enters every year, always gets way too drunk the night before the race and always drops out after the first lap.
Inglis has raced in the last four SSWCs, and he resolved long ago to bring it to his hometown. At last year's event in Scotland, he caught a lucky break: in the "decider race," where contestants rode trainer bikes, slammed whiskey and danced a jig, Inglis got the best crowd response. That's why it's in Napa this year.
"To some people, it means getting away from their regular lives and reliving their childhood as drunken buffoons," Inglis says, reclining in cutoffs and a T-shirt outside his Napa bike shop, Inglis Cycles, where he builds about 50 custom single speed frames a year. "But for me and my friends, it was a backlash to the whole NORBA [National Off-Road Bicycle Association], huge, conglomerate-y races that were becoming less and less fun to do, where you became more of a number."
Inglis, sitting on patio furniture with his miniature husky, Max, on his lap, is an old-fashioned sort. On the rare occasion that he drives, he hops behind the wheel of either his 1964 Plymouth Valiant or his 1956 BMW Isetta. A 1974 Lambretta scooter sits parked near his garage.
Inglis' first bike, a 20-inch gold Schwinn Stingray, is his Rosebud; it guides his sense of fun, something he often felt was lacking in road racing. "Once I got on a mountain bike, it was all over," he says. "It was all the stuff that I enjoyed as a kid, but with gears, and I could go farther. It just made me feel like I was nine. I loved it."
Soon he begged his way into a job at Retrotec Cycles in Chico. There, owner Bob Seals became his single speed mentor. In 1995, Seals presented a race called the W.H.I.R.L.E.D. Championships, standing for "Wasted Hairy Insanely Retro League of Enlightened Degenerates." To qualify, riders had to drink a beer on the starting line. It was, for all intents and purposes, the first Single Speed World Championship.
Over the years, the race has grown in prominence, and this year, the response was overwhelming. Within minutes of open registration, starting on midnight of the new year, Jan. 1, 2008, over 1,200 riders from around the world had entered. Only the first 400 made it in, a limit that caused many to react angrily, and the situation worries Inglis. Due to its loose nature, there's no concrete safeguard in place, no president or official founder, to keep the SSWC from turning into what it hates.
"Sooner or later, it's gonna fall on its face. The decider race this year could go to some guy who thinks it would be great to run it at the Sea Otter down at Laguna Seca," he says, referring to the largest annual mountain bike race in North America, "and have this huge, over-the-top circuslike atmosphere. That's gonna be great for a lot of people, they're gonna think it's just swell. And people who were around when it was smaller and more fun and edgier are not gonna go. It's like with anything. We're all fighting the progression of it getting bigger."
Inglis doesn't want to reveal the specific details of this year's decider race, but this much can be said: those looking to host the SSWC's 2009 event in their hometown might want to find an old Atari 2600 video game console and start brushing up on their skills.
Single speed enthusiasts—that is to say, those who ride bikes with only one gear instead of 10 or 18 or 27—have historically rebelled against the seriousness of modern cycling, with all of its options for gizmos and accessories. Steve Paschoal of Petaluma is one of them. "I started riding single speeds because I got sick of all my friends kicking my ass," he explains, "so I figured I might as well be dumber than them instead of faster than them."
Paschoal, 40, has raced in five Single Speed World Championships, including the very first at Big Bear in 1995, and for years helped to organize a Bay Area single speed race called the Crusty Cup. He'll be racing the SSWC this weekend, but he won't be anywhere near the front. "Oh, I'll be last," he says casually. "I'm always last. Only two finishers get noticed—first and last. And last is a hell of a lot easier to achieve."
On this night, Paschoal is racing in the weekly Dirt Crits at Santa Rosa's Howarth Park. Everyone here knows him, and everyone knows he won't win, but each time he comes around the track, everyone cheers him on, including his two daughters. Friends tell stories about how he's actually managed in the past to secure sponsorships because he rides slower, and therefore with more logo visibility, than others.
Another single speeder in the Dirt Crits is 31-year-old Chris Wells, riding in sunglasses with no lenses. Wells once rode his bike all the way from his hometown of Wauconda, Ill., to Wauconda, Wash., simply because the town shared the same name. "I'm just this Midwestern mutt from a small town," he explains. "I thought, 'What is my heritage?' So I researched my hometown, and I found out there was another Wauconda, and thought it'd be cool."
Wells, an employee of the Bike Peddler in Santa Rosa, is registered for this year's SSWC, and like Paschoal, he has no intention of placing well. "It's not necessarily the win," he says, sitting on a picnic table and nursing a Red Hook ESB. "It's about the culture and the people. Plus, just to finish this race is going to be an accomplishment. There are sections that are super steep, so unless you're just superhuman, you're gonna have to walk. And then the descents are really technical and rocky. With 400 people, it's gonna be this funny promenade."
Also racing this year is Steve Smith, an employee of Swobo Bikes in Santa Cruz who helped to organize the 2002 SSWC in Downieville, a duty he describes as bittersweet. "It's sort of like a big, lovable but mangy and amazingly smelly dog," he says of the race, "and you take care of it for a little while, and you send it on its way, and you're really glad to see it go."
As single speeding continues to gain in popularity, Smith is among those who feels the SSWC has gotten too big in recent years. "It was just this thing that we were doing in the margins, totally existing under the radar, and we all knew each other and it was intimate and small, and it was really exciting," he says. "Now that it's a bigger and much more broadly recognized aspect of the bicycle world, I don't know what it's going to turn into. The irony is that the knucklehead, jock complainer types, they were the ones we were trying to get away from! We wanted to have as little to do with them as possible."
As this year's organizer, Inglis knows that maintaining the casual feel of the race is important; he jokes that if a racer shows up on race day with a bike trainer and starts warming up in the parking lot, he'll disqualify them on the spot. But there are some things, falling in line with the reputation of single speeders, that he can't police, like the guy from Ohio who gets wasted and drops out after the first lap. "Yeah, I told him I wouldn't let him in," Inglis says resignedly. "But, you know, he's in anyway. And there are plenty of people like that.
"Right before the start," Inglis continues, "if there are only 390 people, we're gonna register 10 more people, and we'll let 'em race. Because I know there'll be 15 guys that'll get too drunk. It's just inevitable."
The Single Speed World Championship hits town on Sunday, Aug. 24, at Skyline Park in Napa. 10am. $5. See www.sswc08.com for more info.
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