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Stan Nice takes on the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships

A man emerges from the rain in a pale yellow smoking jacket and a Cossack-style winter hat. He is faceless in the crowd of costumed singlespeeders, all gathered here for the pre-race packet pick-up and impending pub crawl. At the registration table, the man gives his pseudonym—Stan Nice—and for perhaps the first time in a decade and a half, his name carries no prestige and inspires no awe, no instant recognition of his incredible accomplishments.

He wanders through the crowd at the dimly lit café, unrecognizable in the intoxicating haze of the party. Here, cloaked in the safety of his costume, he is just like any other racer who travelled to Portland to embrace the chaos and debauchery of the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships.

But his carved legs tell a different story. Here in Portland, he goes by Stan. In his home of Belgium, he’s “The Cannibal.” But you could also call him two-time World Cyclocross Champion Sven Nys.

He’s here to race and have fun (not necessarily in that order) and to test the new, singlespeed-capable Crockett. But there’s another reason too. He’s here to pay homage to SSCXWC and the oddities of singlespeed culture. He’s here to embrace a purely fun-loving, if NC-17 iteration of the sport to which he’s dedicated his life.

In a sense, there was more on the line here than in his World Cup days. At SSCXWC, the winner gets a golden Speedo and a mandatory tattoo. And while the sparkly swimwear can be stowed away when the in-laws visit, the inked limbs of winners past are reminders of the permanent transformation that you experience should you win the race.

Meandering through the crowd, Stan removes his hat. Whispers spread as the other racers begin to realize that this man is not another washed up Masters racer in Portland searching for the meaning of life. When the whispers turn to shouts, the cameras came out.

There were questions about his surprise appearance. What was he doing here? Was he truly racing? Would he get the tattoo? But his entry also made a clear, resounding statement: in its tenth year, SSCXWC had become something more than a junkyard party. It had attracted a World Champion whose appearance marked a closing divide between “elite” and “fun” racing.

And there was another question too. Had Sven become more comfortable in a smoking jacket than a skinsuit?

This is #SSCXWCXPDX

One part bike race and one part circus, this event is much more than a competition—it’s an entire weekend to celebrate cycling’s quirkiest, liveliest, and most debaucherous discipline: singlespeed cyclocross.

The race course was just outside the city, on a flooded island home to quaint organic farms full of kale and other hallmarks of the crunchy, health-conscious lifestyle typically associated with both cycling and Portland, OR. Once the crowd of rowdy singlespeeders descended on Sauvie Island, however, these stereotypes were turned squarely on their heads.

If you take the commitment and intensity that our friends in Europe apply to winning World Cup races, and replace it with an overwhelming desire to stay young and weird—two of the things Portland is known best for—you can begin to understand what drives the diehard cult of participants who carry this event forward from year to year.

The Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championship is more about having fun than winning, but the two are synonymous when you consider the winner’s purse. And that’s to say nothing of the unorthodox, unseemly obstacles one must conquer to earn such prizes.

Cross is always dirty. By definition, it involves riding through muddy fields in bone-chilling weather and spending more time cleaning your bike than racing on it. These essential elements are still part of the recipe at SSCXWC, but the event’s other defining features embrace a type of filth more sinister (and debatably more fun).

No matter how they might have felt about the notoriety this type of celebrity would bring to an event that’s defiantly underground, people were stoked. Portland is not Belgium, and with so many tattoos, piercings, and denim vests, the crowd would have looked more natural at a Cro-Mags concert than a World Cup. If this were any other event, this seeming disconnect would have created a divide. But at SSCXWC, everyone is in it together, and riders and partygoers were keen to show a cyclocross legend their unique little corner of the cycling world.

Qualifiers: Ridiculousness 101

The Singlespeed World Championship has spent ten years fostering its reputation as the best party in cycling, and people have taken notice. The event now garners so much interest that a highly selective qualifying process is needed to whittle the final field down to a (somewhat) manageable level.

Crossing the bridge onto Sauvie Island on Saturday morning, it was obvious the day would be a sloppy affair. A first glance at the course revealed a heavily flooded pumpkin patch complete with thoughtful modifications including the “shark jump,” a ramp straight into a manure-filled lake, and a rowdy dual slalom course far from appropriate for a cross bike. We were welcomed with a smile and informed: “The parking lot is under water, as you probably heard.”

And while the fittest, or perhaps luckiest, participants earned a ticket to Sunday’s race with strong showings in high-intensity, single-lap qualifying races on a slightly shortened course, it was the alternate methods of qualifying that provided Saturday’s entertainment. These “feats of strength” are as much a part of the tradition as the race itself.

A holeshot sprint caused numerous over-the-bars crashes as riders hit the large pool of standing water that marked the finish at full speed. A brutal potato-sack race through the mud at times appeared to be a full-contact sport. The truly desperate souls were forced into a dual slalom race that concluded with a road gap fit for a full suspension mountain bike. No one was riding one.

As an official said over a crackling megaphone, “This is not a UCI race, and we never want it to be. Never stop trying to have fun.” This seemed to be the real key to qualifying for Sunday’s final—accept another ridiculous challenge in the face of heckling by a crowd becoming rowdier by the hour.

Move on Sven did.

Race day: Welcome to the Warzone

Any seasoned cyclocross racer will tell you that race day is about ritual. From breakfast preferences to warm-up routines, inconsistencies are feared more than anything. Yet at SSCXWC, normalcy is negativity, and an early morning walk of the course revealed that the incredibly soggy conditions would be the only familiar sight greeting Stan Nice in the final.

A participant in the women’s “loser’s race” desperately attempted to convince us we should finish her tall boy as she rode past. In a hidden, remote corner of the course Team Super Awesome drank their breakfast while putting the finishing touches on The Death Trap, a renovated school bus whose defining feature was the type of floor to ceiling metal pole more at home in a Vegas nightclub than at a bike race. The course went directly through it, and racers took in the scene as they rode towards the next obstacle.

This isn’t to say that the unorthodox sights that littered the race course were without order or purpose—they were part of the ritual, and the ceremony’s climax came with the start of the final race.

A drum line of old punks provided a violent, steadily building soundtrack as racers lined up, calling warriors to battle in the mud. The deafening wall of sound was completed with whizzing firecrackers and the primal screams of a crowd becoming rowdier, and drunker, by the second.

As Stan sized up the massive “shark jump” and considered his line through the lake, he had nervous anticipation in his eyes. “This is survival. Survival of the fittest,” he had said earlier in the day. The sentiment was echoed by a nearby spectator who expected nothing less than “Carnage, absolute carnage out there.”

Another surprise came at the last possible moment, when racers were directed away from the start line and into a field of dense corn stalks. It would be a Le Mans-style start ushered in by setting a massive wooden structure alight, the unmistakable sound of a single shot ringing from the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun, and an ominous reminder that “if you don’t want a tattoo, you’d better not win this race.” As the riders emerged from the field like captured wild animals who’d escaped their cages, the scene was more Children of the Corn than World Cup.

It's On…

The race came down to an animated battle between Stan and Adam Craig, a veteran professional mountain biker and repeat winner at SSCXWC with the ink to prove it. With the smell of sulfur in the air, the hiss of firecrackers, and the blinding flash of strobe lights through thick smoke, standing in the crowd felt like reporting from a warzone.

While he and Adam traded places off the front throughout the race, the real battle may have been confronting the course and rambunctious crowd. The most daunting field of fire was found just past the shark jump, where a gauntlet of massive exercise balls thrown from the sidelines stopped both Adam and Stan dead in their tracks.

Anyone who has watched Sven race in the past knows that he’s endured his share of heckling. In Portland, Stan garnered the lion’s share of the fans’ attention and at times seemed to have a target on his back, but he sported a smile the entire time and was visibly motivated by the energy of the crowd. His mud-covered grin spoke volumes about what the SSCXWC experience meant to him, and revealed that even the most serious competitors aren’t immune to the irresistible draw of people who are simply looking to indulge their primal love of bikes and beers.

Adam went on to win the race in front of his friends and longtime fans, and while some speculated that Stan had something left in his tank, the world will never know. The crowd clamored around the local hero and his legendary opponent, and as Stan donned the yellow smoking jacket and became Sven once again, it was obvious that the general energy and worry-free attitude of the weekend had rubbed off on him. With an embrace of Adam and a pearly smile that stood in sharp contrast to his mud-covered face, he said what everyone was thinking: “Thank you for a great show.”

Sven Nys may have adopted the pseudonym “Stan Nice” for the weekend, but the truth is that no one at SSCXWCPDX was acting. Raw authenticity and an in-your-face, do-it-yourself attitude define the event. It’s a welcome relief in the world of bike racing, where past results, the bike you’re riding, and your appearance often hold too much weight in defining “success.” In the world of singlespeed cyclocross, you gain acceptance by having a radical time and doing anything you can to help strangers and longtime friends have a rad time, too.

Only one racer went home with the golden Speedo and the prestige of the SSCXWC tattoo, but once bikes were shipped home, after-party hangovers faded, and a weekend’s worth of mud, sweat, and beer were painstakingly removed from flannels and jean shorts, all that remained were the memories of an epic weekend and sweet speculation over how next year’s SSCXWC could possibly be more unusual.