We're just back from racing round 2 of the Brass Monkey series, which was the first time we've put a number board on a bike in 18 months. There's no real reason for the lack of bike racing, it just got to the stage where nothing really floated our boats, and we'd inevitably be working on those weekends when anything piqued our interest. Occasionally we'd find something that was on a weekend we had free, looked pretty exciting and different, and we'd get as far as the 'enter now' page before inevitably snorting an emphatic "HOW MUCH!?", spraying our laptop with phlegm and bile. People have suggested events to us, encouraging us to go and do the 'Tour de Somewhere Expensive', but the entry fees for these races tend to be equivalent to several months of what you might call bike-packing, but we still call camping. When we use our traditional formulas, where hours driven are roughly equal to hours raced, and price per hour of racing is less than a tenner, the Brass Monkeys always come out as great value...as long as you finish the race.
We decided to race our rigid single-speeds, which we got a few months ago, second-hand in a dodgy deal behind a shipping container. We wanted cheap bikes that we could ride year round, not worry about leaving outside the co-op, and bikes that reflected the kind of riding we do now, which is more about cruising and exploring, happy to get off and walk when the going gets tough and the knees go crack. We ride them a lot, and still don't really understand anything about gear ratios, which seems to be vital to single-speeding, gear ratios and beards are de rigeur and we fail on both counts although Maddie tries hard on the beard front. You can't help but get drawn in to the ratio discussions, and being competitive you want to join in on the 'who's got the biggest ratio' competition, despite the fact that a) most of them are lying and b) the rest live in Norfolk and have quads like Chris Hoy. Our bikes came with really low, twiddly gears, we are spinning like a Kenwood Chef on anything other than a 1:4 climb, so I caved in and got a slightly bigger gear, a mere 2 teeth smaller on the cog, how hard could it be? First ride out, and having lost two teeth on the sprocket, I also lost two teeth from my head from grinding them off on the first climb. The hills go from comfortably hard, hill-climb grinders to eyeball popping, tooth grinding, quad rippers.
But the elderly among us have history in this area. Those that remember double chain-rings, and even triple chain-rings (oh, the weight!) and rode regularly in groups will have experienced the Battle of the Big Ring. There's no disguising the click of the left hand shifter (the weakling's friend). When I rode in the Chilterns for all those years in local clubs, every hill would see the unspoken Battle of the Big Ring or, if it was exceptionally steep, his younger, punier brother - Battle of the Middle Ring. We'd all start the hill on the same chain-ring, and conversation would stop as we all knew what was going on. Then it would be the man-test of how long we could stay in that chain-ring, without whimpering, before the humiliating, unmistakeable sound of 'ker-chunk' as you are forced to change down. There's nothing you can do to disguise the sound of shifting down a chain-ring, which even on the most expensive groupset has always been borderline agricultural in its subtlety. You can fake a cough, start talking loudly, or drop off the back of the group, but still everyone knows what you've done. Shifting down a chain-ring registers on the Richter Scale. It is accompanied by a visible drop of the head in shame and snorts of derision from your riding companions. You're left to dribble up the hill on your own in your little chain-ring, stand apart from the group at the top and though your knees might be intact, your self-respect is not.
But I was persuaded that big was better when it came to single-speed racing, failing as ever to learn from previous, innumerate mistakes. Some time back I went along to a local hill climb on my fixie. I took my fixie as it is my only road bike, and I thought perfect for the task. Now me and my fixie can get up anything, in our own time and at our own speed, and only occasionally needing a lie down at the top. Like walking a Jack Russell, you and your faithful short-arse dog will tackle all sorts of terrain at a leisurely bimble, stop at the top for a brew and a biccie, lovely. But ask you and Stumpy the Wonder Dog to cane it up that same hill and I guarantee that the dog will have wrapped his tits in within the first twenty paces. Come race day I 'happily' rode the hill to check it out, waited for my two-up start spot, the gun went off and I went ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE! I could happily grind up the hill all day long, but once I tried to whack in a big effort I blew my doors within seconds, coming to a complete standstill with quads on fire and resorting to zig-zagging up the remainder while my opponent was on his way back down. Riding home after the event, I rode away from everyone else on the hills, utterly bewildered as to why me and the bike couldn't muster a decent effort between us.
Come the Brass Monkey, and having no ability to learn from my mistakes, I pitched up with the bigger of my two gear options. Preferring to swan around the car park, chatting to equally old, bewildered friends than warming up or pre-riding, and relying on assuming that there won't be anything too technical in Minley Manor, I didn't see the course until lap one. All well and good, great course, steep climbs needing some grunt but how cool is it overtaking expensive bikes on a £200 hacker? Smug, moi? Lap two and three come and go with minor backache and worrying levels of leg tiredness. I've always reckoned that you've got a given amount of hills in your legs on any given day (x). At race pace, you can reduce that number by half (x/2), and clearly racing on a single-speed halves that number yet again (x/4). After two hours of the four I was toast, having already reached my x/4. I started walking up the hills started soon after, which is the kind of behaviour I have always abhorred and considered on par with make-up for men. I played those mental games we play -"ride the hill this lap, and you can walk it next lap" was a common negotiating tactic. With two laps to go I wanted to sit down and have a good cry, so instead I stopped for a snack, a back stretch and a stern word and off I pootled with the determination to maintain the drive time / ride time ratio, like the true tight-arse that I am. As we always say, 'anyone can do the last lap', apart from the single-speeder I overtook near the end of said lap, pushing his bike on a flat,grassy bit. It turned out that at the time he was the third place rider, an accolade I therefore inherited as I huffed and puffed slowly past him.
So we survived our first single-speed event. We learned a lot, but like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, I'll have to have the lessons tattooed onto me before they get mixed up in all the other nonsense. It's great that I can remember all the words to 'Bat out of Hell', but sometimes I wish I was wired differently.