- Words by Ben Popper
- Images by Wandering Lens
As I pulled two cans of silly string out of my bike bag for fear of causing an international incident at thirty thousand feet I realized I was flying all the way to Belgium from Seattle mainly to goof off. The basketball outfit, slingshot and clown nose all stayed packed inside. I was committed to the antics, but it was suddenly tough to swallow the fact that I wasn’t really planning on doing much riding in the motherland of cyclocross and cobbles. Still, if I took a step back and tried to think of any other way for me to participate in the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championship 2018 (SSCXWC18be) I couldn’t come up with a single way I’d rather do it. Frankly, playing a mean game of defense during our, on course, sportsball game WAS my race, and I was going to crush it.
By the time my flight landed in Brussels on the Friday of race weekend, I was already playing catch up with the majority of my team who had arrived in the days previous. Luckily, single speed bikes are a breeze to put together and my Hodala teammates had left me a trail of bottle caps from the rental flat to the brewery they had made base camp at.
The event Friday night was not only a kickoff for the weekend, the warm-up for any antics, but an homage of sorts to the year the dream of bringing this race to Belgium was born. The evening’s race and metal show took its cue from the junkyard race Bilenky Cycle Works put on in 2013 for the events seventh year in Philadelphia. Five years later, the course once again had riders racing over and through broken down cars. Heats of twenty racers each were taken out to the parking lot, divided in half and stuffed into the two, still fresh smelling, porta-potties. As the small blue box rocked to and fro as it was being shaken by LeDav, the event’s organizer, like a crazed gorilla from the outside, I tried to assure myself the sheer weight of eleven grown men would keep it upright. How top-heavy are we? How much poop is already in the bottom?
The cap blew off our blue can of snakes and round one was unleashed, where the lead riders promptly left the start line backward. The accidental start directional mixup couldn’t have been a better start to the weekends racing had it been planned. Halfway into that first dark, backward lap, three lead racers would top out on a course feature all approaching it from different threads of single track. We all filed through the start-finish line that first lap in a sort of foggy mayhem that would continue until the wee hours of the morning. The fine edges considered details are as dark as the course outside the dim illumination of the bike’s headlight on the course. The metal band rocked. The customary Singlespeed Worlds late night sojourn cover charge seemed oddly high because (as we later learned) it was actually a brothel. And by the time we all went to bed the next morning, most of us were not going to be in any shape to race GoGo Hellcross.
Saturday morning existed in those early hours before we all fell asleep. Then there was only Saturday afternoon, which did not spell well for making it to the venue on time, let alone qualifying for the race. Luckily for us, there was only one thing on the agenda of our European Vacation and as the last of us staggered into the kitchen for the morning, erm, afternoon coffee, quick work was made to move on to the venue.
I made zero effort in preparation for having an authentic Belgian cyclocross experience, expecting SSCXWC18be to have more of an urban flair. As we staggered onto the course, which holds an annual race called GoGo Hellcross, halfway through our weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself surrounded by everything I expect of cyclocross in the motherland. A rutted out farm field, piles of cow shit outside the mainline, puddles of beer surrounding the party tent and a raucous crowd yelling at racers. With the urgent matter of finding beers attended to, Sally and I noticed the course being routed through an old, decrepit camper. As we gazed at the hollowed out shell of fond memories, I will never forget the words he so innocently said. “I’m surprised one of you fuckers isn’t up on top of that thing yet.” I looked at him and left him a few paces behind as I said, “There is an easy way to take care of that.” We spent the rest of race day on top of that camper, doing our best to make it fall down beneath us. We took bikes as hand ups over the top when the inside got crowded and then demanded beers in order to get the bikes back. Beverages were thrown at us in pure cyclocross fashion and other spectators, terrifyingly, joined us atop our swaying plasterboard box. And although we didn’t know it at the time, as we stood up there and made fools of ourselves, by simply doing what we do best, we were helping someone through a rough spot in their day. The light of the short winter day came to an end not long after the last racer staggered through the finish. We arrived back at our rental house in the dark, making a quick turn around for the party in the city.
The race provided dinner on Saturday night as well as a euro dance party with a smoke machine that was so prolific that every time the circus tent doors were opened a column would soar into the sky. After the solid current dance hits transitioned into proper euro-techno and things started to get strange, we headed out into the drizzly night. Opting to forego another attempt at “strip clubs” that featured pictures of beds in their Google profile we stopped at the corner bar, Le Columbophile, for a nightcap on the way back to our beds.
SUN DAY! SUN DAY! SUN DAY! The morning of the main event, scheduled to officially start before noon, was met with sore heads and red eyeballs. Slowly, one by one, Sally pulled more wigs out of his bag than should have been allowed through customs. As short shorts and long socks were pulled on, we realized that we’ve always been a better looking 80’s sportsball team than a bike squad. Let me tell you, there is only one thing Holdala collectively enjoys more than buying its own merchandise and it is dressing up in costume. And nothing pushes aside any shred of dignity more than Singlespeed Worlds. Whether we were admitting it to ourselves or not, we’d all flown halfway around the world, to race in this race, but also to play a makeshift game of basketball right in the middle of it.
Somehow as we rode up to the venue, the few loose threads we had to tie together a basketball game wove themselves into a three-inch thick steel cable. The lone, runty orange ball from the ball pit was appropriated as our own. A mostly empty garbage can was held aloft from the gazebo overlooking the start finish. The adjoining, unusually wide, spot in the course offered the perfect half court set up. And after the first qualifying heat went off on their first lap, we slowly went out to warm up and then play some mean defense.
The fact that cyclists were constantly cutting through the game made for some strategic planning. With teammates riding on course, sometimes the game would whittle down to one on one, at which point a pair of racers on a tandem made the perfect screen for an easy layup. At other times, two or three fast riders would confuse the defense with their speed and lack of participation and you could spring off them for a mean dunk. Other times, the best strategy may have been to simply take someone’s bike from them and use that as your defensive tactic. It was the kind of game you needed to be able to adapt in to succeed. We scored lots of touchdowns and I am fairly certain America won.
Sometime near the last lap, the ball was stolen by some little kids who thought it was their turn to show us how it was done and we turned to doing stunts on the pallet ramp and watching the one-man band. And it was during the closing show in the gazebo that we struck up a conversation with a young woman and her mother. Where we learned that the race the previous day, Gogo Hellcross, was a yearly event thrown to commemorate a local racer Hugo Manteau who died of brain cancer in 2011. The race raises money for Belgian Brain Tumor Support and the mother we were getting a translated conversation with was Hugo’s wife. She told us that the previous day is generally a festive one, but she had been struggling. That was until she looked up and saw us “dancing” on top of the camper. She was the nicely dressed, very timid woman who had been hoisted up to the top of that mud covered, crumbling trailer and shimmied like she belonged there. She told Sally and me that when she saw us up there, she knew Hugo was still with her and she had to be up there with us. That he was a goofball just like we were and he would have loved to be dancing on top of the trailer too. A lesson learned that if you are gonna bring your goofball game to make sure it is your A game because it might just be the most important part of the weekend for someone.