Riding without gears isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some do it for fitness, others for ease of maintenance and a few are just plain bonkers.
We are lucky to have a high number of Single Speed (SS) riders in Cycle Seahaven but let’s face it, we aren’t an average club. Even more impressive is the fact that all the club’s SS female riders are formidable in their own right and they never cease to impress.
Nationally, it was inevitable with the increasing popularity of SS that someone would hit upon the idea of a dedicated SS (MTB) event. In 2014 the concept became a reality and SS UK was born.
This year the event was hosted on the Isle of Wight. 120 people registered from all around the UK with a couple of foreign visitors thrown in. The Cycle Seahaven contingent consisted of Lexi, Ellie, Gus, Chris ‘Girder’ and I. All of us were SS UK ‘virgins’ and we weren’t really sure what to expect.
The ‘SS UK 2018’ signs that had been dotted around the Island signposted the event’s location and it left me wondering how many of the locals thought there was some kind of neo-Nazi gathering occurring on their doorstep. Fortunately, there were no protesters and by Friday afternoon the participants started to gather in anticipation of the first event which surprisingly involved a pub.
The ride started at 7:30 PM and was billed as a ‘moderate level’ 14-mile cross-country ride. The 3 ride leaders had been told to expect 10 to 15 riders but were faced with just over 60 instead. I’d love to see the faces of the CSH ride leaders if that ever happens on a CSH pub ride!
The SS ride started on a series of bridleways and quiet roads of the kind you might experience on a Cycle Seahaven pub ride, but that is where any similarity ended.
It soon became clear that this pub was situated somewhere in the outer hemisphere. Two seriously big climbs that would have made Itford and Windover feel inadequate stood between us and beer. In the SS world, there’s no shame in pushing up hills, unless other single speed riders ride it, in which case you can expect to be ridiculed. On this ride, no one was going to be ridiculed as these hills would have been challenging on a pimped up E-bike on steroids.
Having made it up the last hill the riders were rewarded with spectacular nocturnal views of the island, shipping lanes and the lights of Portsmouth reflecting in the Solent. The temptation to stand and stare was tapered by the realisation that 60 riders make for a very long queue at the bar. Well played Mr ‘Girder’, beer AND chips for his teamies!
Fast forward an hour and the ride leaders had managed to reassemble everyone on the top of the cliffs ready for the ride down to the nearest town (Sandown). The ensuing descent could have caused a Health and Safety Officer to melt down. After all, what could go wrong with 60 beer-fuelled riders descending cliff paths in the darkness? What you can’t see, can’t hurt you; right? I am not sure why, but I thought of Lemmings midway down.
Surprisingly, we all survived (maybe I was just being a wimp in the darkness) and we rode along the long sandy beach to join the promenade (and a few bemused Policemen), before a more conventional return to base. Ever concerned about the risks of dehydration our thoughtful organisers ensured there were multiple kegs of local beer at £2.50 a pint. Great value, even with the IOW exchange rate. Over a beer, I asked my CSH companions what grading they would have given the ride. ‘Z 10’ was the reply; enough said!
The following morning an even larger group set out on a 16-mile route that took us along one of the many disused railway tracks built by the Victorians, who were forward thinking enough to consider their potential use for future single speed events. Many of the riders had chosen to wear fancy dress just to make the ride a little more challenging (and for those wearing thongs, just a tad disturbing). Several miles later and just over a 100 SS riders moved over to the edge of the track to let a couple of horse riders go by. They were clearly impressed but after their 65th ‘Thank you’ their voices were getting a little hoarse (geddit?….Sorry).
Next came the anticipated, inevitable, hill climb for beer; the SS rider’s equivalent of a Donkey’s carrot. Whilst not as severe as the night before this was another one of those ‘get off and walk’ type hills that the organisers seemed to enjoy….sadists! However, good to their word, several kegs of beer had been positioned at the summit and pints of beer and children’s windmills, were given to each rider. These, we were told, would differentiate the ‘hard-core’ riders from those that had elected to do the shorter ride, ‘Shirkers’ ride; who we were destined to meet further along the route.
The descent this time was more reminiscent of those we regularly experience on the South Downs Way and, with the addition of daylight, there were less ‘pucker’ moments than the night before.
Having joined up with the ‘shirkers’ group we all rode as one, along Sandown’s promenade towards the beach. This was to serve as the arena and racetrack for the main event. We were greeted by a local musician singing well know reggae songs in the afternoon sun, a nice touch, as we prepared for the race that would decide the SS UK 2018 champions.
This year’s course involved tearing down the beach for a quarter of a mile, rounding an oil drum and tearing back up the beach, through a chicane, towards the start line. Sounds simple right, but we were soon to discover this was the bike version of wading through treacle.
You will have surmised by now that anything related to SS UK wasn’t to be taken too seriously. The Championship was no exception. Our bikes were left on the beach and we were walked to the far side of a playing field immediately above, but just out of view, of the beach. This was going to be a Le Mans style start and when the horn sounded we ran, walked and stumbled for our steeds before commencing the downwind, seaward side of the course. Skidding, crashing and in some cases remaining upright, the riders rounded the oil drum at the far end of the beach before the slog into the wind along with some soft, deep sand. This was energy sapping stuff and the brief was to keep going until you quit or were told to stop. Several laps later and the organisers called a halt. Those that hadn’t reached the finish line were disqualified, those that had progressed to the next round. After a brief pit stop of beer and jellybeans, the remaining survivors went again. This process repeated itself until only 10 were left. We had our finalists.
The male finalists were marched back to the field for yet another Le Mans style start; this time with a twist.
Whilst out of view their bikes were placed on a raft which was positioned about 20 feet offshore. Their faces as they ran into the waist-deep water to collect their bikes was highly amusing, at least for the spectators, after which the competitors commenced another two energy-sapping laps. Finally, we had a winner!
Next up was the ladies race. The six finalists (CSH SS ladies we need more of you there next year) had a more conventional start to the race. Amongst this group of athletes was our very own Ellie. Now, call me biased, but after Ellie’s serious ‘break everything I can’ crash two months ago I was amazed and impressed that she had done all of the aforementioned rides. So to see her on the start line champing at the bit filled me with a sense of pride; there’s no doubt she applies rule 5! Ellie took off like a whippet and her racing line, unlike the others, involved ploughing through a small section of the English Channel. The resulting plume of spray was visible from the far end of the beach. By the end of the race she had finished fourth; exhausted, sandy and wet. I had noted that the ‘winner’ wasn’t wearing a windmill and she was, therefore, a lot fresher than the other competitors but, as you’ve probably gathered by now, we weren’t taking this too seriously. However, for the record, I think this year’s female SS UK winner was a Scandinavian lass dressed as Goldilocks.
That evening the event concluded with Fish and Chips, a live rock band, more ridiculously cheap beer, a raffle and prize-giving. To my delight Ellie had been voted by the event organisers as the most deserving female rider of the weekend, a decision cemented by her epic water splash. As a prize she was presented with a brand-new Surly Cyclo Cross frame and for once, she was speechless. How many of you can say you’ve ever witnessed that? Well done Ellie, as rehabilitation rides go you smashed this weekend.
This was a brilliant, relaxed and fun weekend with so many Single Speed bikes to admire I nearly dehydrated through drooling. If you’ve ever fancied having a go on a single speed please get in touch, I’d be happy to arrange something for you. You’ll either love it or hate it. It’s a Marmite thing!