SSUK11. An acronym for The Singlespeed UK Championships, 2011. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s not as grand as it may sound as the photo above possibly indicates. It’s really a singlespeeder’s get-together in a field with a bike ‘race’ in inverted commas. And quite a lot of beer.
Part of the home-made charm of this event is that it’s two-fingers-up to BC*, the UCI, multi-national bike manufacturers who like to sponsor major mountainbike events, and, possibly more importantly, the mighty Mr Shimano himself. The emphasis is most definitely on having fun and much less on any actual competition that may inadvertently arise from the ‘race’.
Every year someone will take on the responsibility of hosting the Singlespeed Champs. How this is decided is a mystery, though the organiser and venue is always new and different. This year’s event was in Pippingford Park on the edge of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Chris Noble and I signed-up early for this one. This was to be my third SSUK and Chris’ first. As ever, places were limited and heavily over-subscribed.
We had fully intended on arriving Friday afternoon in good time to pre-ride the course, but we got there much later than expected and barely had time to pitch our tents and sign-on before night fell. Still, we milled around the bar area and then pre-walked part of the course in the dark with torches. Densely wooded, hard-packed, dry, technical singletrack. This looked promising. The weather was good – in fact it had been a dry, and clear afternoon and evening. Fingers-crossed it would stay dry.
Race day arrived and the forecast was for scattered showers. We both elected to squeeze in a lap before the race started at 11am. Unfortunately my enormous breakfast proved too lengthy for this to be possible so Chris – mindful of a potential podium finish – went to ride the course solo. As he set off there was a 30-minute shower of simply BIBLICAL proportions which left me cowering in my tent and bravely finishing off my third bacon roll.
About an hour later Chris returned to the campsite mud-spattered and wet through. “Best put on your mud tyres, mate”, were his words as I popped my head out of my tent, wiping away the ketchup.
One hasty tyre-change later (one that Jenson’s pit-crew themselves would be proud of) and with minutes to spare, we were on the startline. There is always a Le Mans-type start at SSUK, whereby the riders place their bikes on the course and then retire 100m or so back down the course. And then – out of sight – the organisers and marshalls move the bikes from where they were left by the owners. They shuffle them, if you like. Some are piled into sculptures of the same brand, while others are colour-coded into piles. Some are lost deep in the bracken, some are hung in trees. Some even callously zip-tied together. This only helps remove any trace of serious competition from the ‘race’ and makes the start more of a level playing field for the more inept among us.
Originally this 'race' today had been planned to be four laps of a four-mile course, but the very recent downpour had pretty-much doubled the difficulty of an already challenging circuit, so this was wisely reduced to just the three laps, and also one particularly lethal descent was by-passed.
After the pre-race rider briefing which involved a great deal of heckling, a starting-pistol fired and 200 singlespeeders of all shapes, sizes, abilities and fancy-dress costumes were off running, trying not to twist their ankles on the bumpy grass of the start/finish area. When we got to the bikes there was the usual melée of swearing, panting, laughing and thrashing around aimlessly in undergrowth looking for your bike.
A steady stream of riders eventually entered the course-proper. And what a course it was. The soil type in the area is clay and chalk and what was dry and hard two hours ago was now slippery, sticky mud. And there was lots of it. Four miles of technical singletrack with a few wider sections, a million roots, a fast-and-flowing bermy section (which they used the next day for a chainless race), four or five dangerously steep rocky/muddy descents, chicken-runs, a few draggy climbs, much off-camber-ness and a stream crossing. Oh, and a beer stop. It's like a water stop, only with beer. Kegs of it. Every rider was handed a half-pint of ale as they passed by on every lap and was cajoled into stopping racing. Some didn’t pass at all and stayed there for the duration. Very wise. Very good ale it was, too.
Eventually, my three laps of mud-plugging and fighting to stay upright came to an end and I crossed the finish line to rapturous cheering and applause as did everyone else. Chris had finished about 15 minutes ahead of me (he says) and had suffered a broken rear-brake lever in a minor spill right the start of the race. He claims to have had two beer stops, but I know he’s more of a lager-man and turns his nose up at ‘muddy ale’ as he calls it, so I doubt he even sipped it (if he stopped at all, that is…)
Officially (in this very unofficial 'race') there is only 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th placings. That’s to say if you don’t get on the podium, then you finish in Equal-4th along with everyone else who didn’t finish in the top three. That said, Chris did manage to finish (unofficially) in 9th place. We are certain, however, that had it not been for the course turning to mush and his broken brake, he would have been much higher up the placings.
I’ve absolutely no idea where I finished (probably Equal-4th), but I did comfortably beat the Women’s winner, a zebra, a Thunderbird (possibly Scott Tracy) a Mexican wrestler, Shaun the Sheep and a golfing couple. Quite proud of that, I am.
Following a clean-up and some food (and some beer), there was the prize-giving. Wooden trophies partly made with wood from a Glaswegian gay bar to the winners, and a shiny new singlespeed frame to the Dave or Simon who could down a pint the fastest. A Dave won. Or was it a Simon. Various other goodies were handed out to those ‘competitors’ who’d had the worst crash, worst wardrobe-fail, put in the most effort for the least reward, or done something else really stupid while racing.
More beer, then the Rollapalooza started. I was drawn against Chris in the qualifying stage, and he beat me by 0.82 of a second. No shame there, then. Chris went on to comfortably beat his opponent in the Second Round, but lost by a whisker to the eventual winner in the Quarter-finals. Excellent stuff from the boy Noble.
More beer. Back to the tents and our two-man fire made from fallen wood collected from the nearby forest edge. Perfect for keeping the September night-chill away, toasting tea-cakes and, as I discovered later, even melting wellies. The eight-strong contingent from the Dorset Rough Riders who had pitched-up nearby invited us over to share in their (much bigger and more impressive) fire and made us very welcome. Talk of exchange visits ensued, and a good time was had by all until weary limbs and wits forced us all to retire.
Another great Singlespeed UK Championship over. Tick. Where will it be held next year? It’ll remain a mystery until about five or six months before it’s held. Chris has already decided he’s going.
Competitive, Chris? You’ve got the wrong race, mate.
(*Although alarmingly, this year the event was listed on BC’s website and there was even a BC Commissaire in attendance…)