Former professional road cyclist, Nic White, raced to his first ever South African title at the weekend when he overcame a delayed start to win the 2013 South African Singlespeed Mountain Bike Championships, held near Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal.
The 39-year-old White, who now heads up the retail management at Cycle Lab’s Fourways store and who mentors talented young riders in the Toyota Supercycling Club system and the Europcar racing team, clocked a time of 1 hour and 46 minutes to claim the title in one of cycling’s most idiosyncratic disciplines.
Singlespeed racing goes against the grain of conventional bicycle racing on many levels with participants shunning the usual range of 24-30 gears and opting for the simplicity of a single gear. This often leads to riders dismounting and pushing up steep inclines or ‘spinning out’ on descents, but it’s considered a purist form or bike racing and it’s essentially the only hard-and-fast rule. That’s about where the purity ends though.
Singlespeed championship events aren’t taken too seriously and winning a singlespeed championship title often requires a large chunk of luck, in addition to pedalling talent. Beer stops, fancy dress clothing and a sense of humour form a significant part of these events. The hosting of the 2012 Singlespeed World Championships in Winterton KwaZulu-Natal gave South Africans a fast track into this quirky parallel universe, which was honoured with much enthusiasm at the 2013 Nationals…
“I started almost last. The Le Mans style start takes you away from your bicycle, but while you’re on the other side of the sports field posing for a big group photo with fellow participants, the race marshalls are moving bicycles around and even hiding some to create start-line chaos,” explained White, who took the purity element even further by riding with a fully rigid bike, forgoing suspension which is an integral part of modern mountain bikes.
“I think they figured I might be a contender because they hid my bike well and it took me ages to find it. By the time I did, most of the field was on the race route and with a lot of forest singletrack, which makes overtaking very difficult, I had my work cut out for me,” smiled White.
White steadily picked his way through the field of around 150 riders, all of whom adhered to the event’s Wild Wild West fancy dress theme and resembled – in some way – Red Indians, cowboys, cows, frontiersmen, Mexicans and more. He took the lead just after the second compulsory beer stop with eight kilometres of the 34-kilometre course remaining.
“There was no lead motor bike so a few times I took a wrong turn. I actually wasn’t even sure that I was in the lead. But I somehow managed to make my way through the last section which was pretty tough and when I popped out on the school field where we’d started at Cowan House, the announcer confirmed that I was the first rider home,” recalled White, dressed in cut-off jeans held up by braces, a long-sleeved tasseled cowboy shirt, extra long Stars and Stripes socks and a bright red bandana.
“I took a celebratory drink from my hipflask as I cruised towards the finish line. I raced professionally for 13 years and got a few silver and bronze medals at national champs events, but this was my first ever South African title.”
Hilton region locals, Roan Exelby and Kim Phillips finished second and third respectively. And, in singlespeed racing tradition, everyone else was awarded fourth place. Another KwaZulu-Natalian, Nadine Cahill, claimed the women’s title.
The racing may not be taken too seriously, but the post-race party at a singlespeed championship event usually earns campfire story legend status within days.
“Ja look, you have be able to have fun if you want to be committed to the ways of singlespeed. Ultimately, singlespeed’s ethos is about the simple act of riding a mountain bike with one gear on great singletrack trails and enjoying a post-ride beer or two with your friends. Winning the title was a bonus, especially after I narrowly lost it last year. I’m going to really savour this national title,” smiled White.
Photo credit: Front Row Photography