Slick broadcasting coverage. Substantial prize money. Professional riders. R80 000 race entry fees. Carbon-fibre everything. In the beginning, mountain biking was none of these things. Absorbing the scene in 2018, it’s impossible to recognise elements which trace to the activity’s origins in Northern California, where it started as an illegal outdoor pursuit, powered by a fringe of adventurous hippies in the early 1970s.
There is one event that attempts to bring mountain biking back to its roots. Officially billed as a race but perhaps better understood as a gathering, it happens at the end of this month in Barrington, on the Garden Route. It’s called the South African Single Speed Champs and although the naming convention might appear quite self-explanatory, this is not a mountain bike championship weekend as most would understand it.
Single speed mountain biking is the counter culture of off-road cycling. If you make the decision to ride a bike with only one cog, the implication is that you’ll never be in the correct gear and that unshackles your entire riding experience from any pretence of overly serious expectations. That said, single speeders are some of the fittest and most skilled riders around. On the occasions when they do enter one of South Africa’s premier multi-stage mountain bike events, their results often surprise the competing field.
This September’s single speed champs is the local chapter of a worldwide phenomenon which started in 1995 and tries to channel that original sense of carefreeness that was mountain biking in its infancy. The format prioritises fun, instead of start batches and finishing times.
There is a winner, but everyone else who finishes is awarded joint second place. Each year’s championship has a dedicated theme and one is expected to dress accordingly. For the 2018 event it will be ‘every village needs an idiot’. You could enter with a multi-geared bike, but organisers will tape-up your rear-derailleur to ensure it doesn’t shift.
An anchor principle of any single speed champs is that administrators make competing on race day as difficult as possible. The race briefings are known for their obtuseness, often adding absolutely no value to knowledge of the route.
When the world single speed championships happened in Winterton six years ago, the field was also extensively briefed only in isiZulu. Finding your bike at the start can also be problematic, as there is tradition of hiding all bikes whilst the race briefing is conducted – they could even be locked away in a barn.
Hydration is another challenge and instead of water points there are beer stops, which are mandatory. As they say in the single speed world: one gear, no fear.
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