Perfecting the Shitshow
By Kurt Gensheimer
That donkey. That blasted donkey. Of course donkeys are known for being stubborn, but this particular donkey was downright iron-willed. I kept looking uphill through a dirt-hazed gaggle of crazy, costumed mountain bikers pedaling singlespeeds of different ratios, and all I kept seeing was the mane of that donkey continually gaining ground on me. The donkey’s pace was unrelenting, grinding the pedals of a mountain bike, refusing to give up or slow down, and all I could think of in that moment was how much sweat the guy in that donkey suit was yielding.
There’s an old saw in singlespeed circles that goes like this: if you ride a singlespeed in the woods and nobody sees you, are you still cool? Well, what if there are 600 people riding singlespeeds in the woods and everybody sees you? Is it cool or is it just the most unforgettable shitshow of monumental proportions ever conceived? After participating in the 2018 Singlespeed World Championship (SSWC) on October 20 in Bend, Oregon, I can definitively say it is the latter.
And when I say shitshow, I say it in the most endearing of ways. There are shitshows that are full Type 3 Fun (never fun, not even in retrospect). Then there are shitshows blending Type 1 Fun (always fun) with Type 2 Fun (not fun in the moment, but fun in retrospect). SSWC 2018 was equal parts Type 1 and Type 2 Fun, and with every great event, a lot of it had to do with the course layout. It was a shitshow by design.
Bend has become internationally known for its vast network of mountain bike trails measured in the hundreds of miles, all rideable from downtown. But SSWC course designers, legendary professional mountain bikers and Bend locals, Carl Decker and Adam Craig, didn’t want locals or frequenters of Bend’s best singletracks to have an unfair advantage of familiarity. So they routed the race course far out from town, towards a little-known network of moto trails on private land to the northwest near Sisters. Adding to the mystique, there was almost no advance knowledge of the route by anyone, which is exactly what the organizers wanted.
And considering it hadn’t rained in weeks, with event day a balmy 75 degrees, the impenetrable walls of dust Bend is known for was taken to an entirely new galaxy when 600 mountain bikers were unleashed on miles of blown-out moto trails and thousands of whoopdeedoos. Never before had I gotten pangs of seasickness while riding with the constant undulations of earth under my tires. Never before SSWC 2018, that is.
Also in the never-before category; in my 25 years of mountain biking, never had I swallowed more dust than SSWC 2018. It was blinding. Literally. There were moments where I couldn’t see five feet ahead, like a smokescreen hiding a sea of carnage in my path. I felt like Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, with the voice of Robert Duvall echoing through my head.
“You can drive through it. I know it. I know it in my heart!”
The dust was laughable at times. I would actually just stop and give riders in front of me a gap so I could have even 30 seconds of silt-free air to breathe. That is until another wall of riders came charging around the corner behind me and I was forced to keep moving to avoid choking on even more dust. I don’t even want to know the dirt equivalent of what my lungs inhaled on that 40-mile voyage.
Of all the memories burned into my cranium that weekend, the most lasting was a short section of trail involving a diabolical hike-a-bike up a slope of volcanic scree, followed by a pure, unadulterated, full-pucker, fall-line downhill dirt surf. Pepper in riders scattered everywhere walking their bikes downhill with dust so thick it gave new meaning to the word “brown pow”. It was the land equivalent of surfing a big outside breaking wave, threading the needle around dozens of paddlers caught off-guard.
On the ascent, I couldn’t see what was coming, but I could hear cowbells and drums from a distance; a tell-tale sign that you’re either near the top or close to something that’s highly entertaining for spectators. When I rounded the bend and saw the skyward scree slope march of humans with bikes on their shoulders, I knew it was going to be a little of both.
At the top of the five minute march that felt like a summertime bootpack mission, a conveniently placed aid station steeled riders for the gravity-aided portion to follow.
“Well that was definitely something,” I said to Adam Craig while chugging down a quick beer after the march skyward.
“This next section is really something,” responded Craig with his signature nonchalant smile. “Hang on.”
I pedaled past a sign that said Hospital Hill, then the plunge began.
It started out reasonable enough, then after a corner the singletrack turned to fall-line doubletrack, with riders scattered everywhere, most of whom were walking their bikes instead of risking injury in the blinding walls of dust. I pointed my rig downhill and went for it, riding a reasonable pace, surfing the bike around dozens of temporary pedestrians, trying to avoid hitting them. Just as I thought I was slaying the beast, I heard a “HEADS UP!” and a streak of red, gold, black and green went by me at ludicrous speed. All I remember after that was brown blindness. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
A tall, lanky guy in full Rasta regalia, including crotch long dreadlocks, absolutely melted the fall-line drop. Never in my life had I been passed so dramatically. It seemed as if the guy just no-braked the entire thing. And the resulting video that spread like wildfire on social media supported this observation, garnering 9,000 views in a few days. Here I was, thinking I was doing good by passing all the walkers, then Reggae Shark went by me like I was going backwards. Good times.
That and the getting lost in the woods part, because no shitshow is complete without at least a few people on mind-altering drugs making wrong turns in the forest. Pro Tip: don’t just follow people at SSWC assuming they know where to go, because those people in front of you might be high on acid.
So where is the shitshow moving to next year? In SSWC tradition, there was a Friday evening Hosting Event to determine next year’s host location. Hosting Events always have competitive elements to determine the winner, but the elements almost always involve anything except bikes. This year it involved beer quaffing and a regatta in the Deschutes River using boats made with cardboard bike boxes and duct tape. Thanks to their ghetto-boat-fab skills and expert paddling technique, a crew from New York State took home the honors, however the yanks decided to transfer the honors to Slovenia.
Nothing is final yet, so it’s gonna either be in New York or Slovenia. Therefore, expect walls of dust to be replaced with shoe-eating mud. But one thing is for sure, the folks in Bend know how to design a proper shitshow, one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in.