Hills, Dust, and Burning Clutch: The Inaugural Naked SSCX Gravel Triple-Crown Ride
We’re packing for our Salt Spring Island gravel Triple-Crown ride on a Sunday—bags are thrown into vehicles, racks are fiddled with, and there’s talk of getting food. But everything feels off—it’s 2pm, and usually these preparations happen in empty streets with subdued morning light. Instead, it’s already hot. Our meeting place, Broad Street Cycles, is busy with customers looking for or asking questions about god knows what, and local cycling-seer/crusher Steven Grandy is either fixing his bike after an ill-conceived highway sufferfest, or is just heading out on one—one can never be sure. It all feels very disorienting. We pile into our vehicles and head to the ferry terminal—Salt Spring Island awaits.
Today is what one might call the inaugural ride of Naked SSCX—a team of elite level single speed cross racers who, rather seriously, refuse to “train” in the traditional sense of the word. But this isn’t a training camp—the planning for the ride is terrible: we’ve no map, and there’s sure as hell no concrete idea of what route we’ll take. So far as I can tell, all that we really know is that we’ll be doing a Triple-Crown type ride composed of three gravel infused climbs, and that come the end of the day we have to make the last ferry home. The team has brought Clay Webb along, who knows the Gulf and San Juan islands like the back of his hand. I suppose if we’re going to be disorganized as possible, we’re in good company.
Terry and Parker
We catch our ferry, enjoy the sundeck, and roll into Fulford Harbour. It’s 3:45pm, but no one seems particularly rushed; we eat pastries and sip coffee in front of Rock Salt Café. There’s a last minute scramble to make sure gear is in order, someone claims to have missed the memo about wearing a specific jersey, and frantic pocket pats are made to check for essentials—wallets, tubes, keys, all that stuff. In a chorus of gear changes and pedal clip-ins, we’re off. There’s a steep climb out of Fulford that gives way to a snaking descent—very quickly, the Island clamor fades away. We pass through Fulford Ganges intersection, and begin the approach to the day’s first climb, Mount Tuam. It’s an eclectic and sometimes perplexing bunch. Parker Bloom, born in Canmore, Alberta, is a born and raised “mountain town” kid in the best sense of the phrase; positive as hell with just a hint of snarky, well-intentioned cynicism, he’s a refreshing departure from the way-too-damn positive guy that we’ve all had to deal with. He’s practically unstoppable on climbs, yet will never make you feel fat for lagging behind. Standing something like 7 feet tall is Terry Mckall, an ex-National rower. He is, undoubtedly, the steadiest rider of the bunch—set a pace, regardless of terrain, and he’ll stoically follow and take long, long pulls. Halldór Gunnarsson is powerful, aggressive — he’s the kind of rider who is never afraid of a bit of contact on the course and, despite his size, he’s nimble as hell, and can weave his way through a group or tight section masterfully. He’s also impossibly fast on descents; while I’m admittedly only a B-grade descender, I have yet to even catch a whiff of his wheel on the legendary Munn’s Road descent. Lastly, there’s Jamie Cameron—a rider who, in some ways, is the odd one out here. An engineer and, by all means, the most cybernetic of this bunch, he’s everything you’d expect out of a 21st century cyclist. On top of years of road, mountain, and CX racing, he’s well-known for planning and embarking on horrendous bicycle adventures; his ill-conceived watershed deathmarch of February 2013 is now the stuff of cycling lore here in Victoria.
Jamie and Clay
We start climbing Mount Tuam, and a familiar scenario develops: Jamie—a well-known diesel—pins it off the front, and the first effort of the day is under way. Rough asphalt leads to a very sharp and very steep (15%) switchback, and the group starts to crack apart.
Parker, Terry and Jamie grind through the Tuam switchback
Terry McKall and Parker Bloom—the two climbers of the group—gap the pack. Asphalt turns to gravel. The grade increases, suddenly, and the gravel is loose. The gravel section is short, however, and the climb ends. It’s a steady, long effort—about 25 minutes. Despite a cool demeanor on the ascent, Jamie hunches over his top tube, pours sweat from his helmet, and contemplates the ground—he definitely buried himself on the climb. The descent is going to be a fast one, and I sense just a hint of nervous energy in the air—the gravel section was severely waterboarded, many of the turns were super technical, and this isn’t a group known to soft-pedal descents.
Descending Tuam, Parker leads the pack. He tucks into his drops and makes himself impossibly small down a steep gravel section. Hal and Jamie are right behind, and seem to carry more speed through the corner. Hal is calm and his line is solid, but Jamie’s tires shudder and skid for grip. He unclips his inside foot (with road cleats!) at what must be well over 50km/hr, and manages to masterfully bring the bike back with no apparent loss of speed. Terry is less than a second or two behind, while Clay has been Instagraming or something. In a cloud of spinning freehubs, dust, and a chorus of pebbles on downtubes, the group is gone. We try to catch them on the descent, but don’t even manage a glimpse until the base of the second climb.
The group ascends Musgrave
The second climb is up Musgrave Road, and is composed of deeper, looser gravel. The climb is dark, the road is dusty, and somehow everything is more ominous—light barely penetrates the rainforest cover. There’s one particularly steep, and extremely loose switch back (14%); bikes have to be walked. Our car has a rough time ascending, but we manage to burn enough clutch to skid and whine our way through.
The Musgrave switchback is loose and steep
There are several more steep, steep sections, and we eventually meet the group at the top—another long effort, about 20 minutes. Hal is pounding gummy worms and gladly accepts my offer of cold coffee; Jamie suggests we try descending the other side of Musgrave Road to sea-level (the answer is a resounding yet polite no); Parker gives an enthusiastic bit of commentary on the subtleties of the climb; Terry considers the rainforest void; while Clay mocks my 12-point-turn (in my defense, fire roads are not conducive to u-turns).
Terry, notably, has a stellar collection of optics
We descend—Clay plunges into some state of pure madness and gaps the group ever so slightly, while Hal and Terry both flat.
We regroup at the Fulford Ganges intersection. In a moment only possible on the Gulf Islands, Hal, picking black berries, attracts the attention of some mystical Island hermit who cosmically emerge from the bushes. They discuss something, but we’re never told what—Hal now knows something of the universe that we don’t. Water and snacks are consumed, and we begin the interlude ride to Maxwell.
Mystical berry man
And, man, what an interlude—gradual ascents snake through farms, vineyards, and welcoming forests, and everything is pornographically bathed in early evening light—it’s nauseatingly idyllic, and one can understand why legendary saxophonist Kenny G lives here. In homage, Colin and I open the windows and let the sweet sax fly though, apparently, no one hears.
The last climb, Mount Maxwell, is the longest by a significant margin. The road is, again, rough as hell, and ramps up in parts to 16%.
Clay delves into madness again, and paces our vehicle at 40km/hr through deep gravel. He eventually pops off, and Terry and Parker once again gradually gap the group. Later, there’s a brief descent followed by a severely potholed flat section three-quarters of the way up. As we crawl through a series of menacing, toothy potholes, we hear a series of chunks, chainstay slaps, and heavy stones spitting carbon—Jamie squeaks between our car and the tree/death-twig lined shoulder. It’s a risky yet totally rad move, and we’re genuinely startled. We eventually catch up with Parker and Terry at the top, and clamber up a granite and root-addled hill to a view that I can only call quintessentially Pacific North West. We’re 600 meters up, and the view is a bit of a shock after crawling through tunnels of forests for the past few hours. Hal and Jamie are not far behind while Clay, somehow dustier than everyone else, curses his way to the top. Instagrams are made, a group photo is taken, but we don’t waste much time—there’s a ferry to catch. It’s the last ferry of the day, and anxiety looms—Colin and I contemplate the horrors of having to slumber in the car along with bikes, gear, and, you know, four other people.
Top of Maxwell: Naked Factory Racing SSCX 2014
Terry flats on the descent and hops in the vehicle; Parker flats too, but casually dismisses the ride offer. We find Jamie towing Clay and Hal at some god forsaken pace—they make it back to the ferry only a few seconds after Colin and I do. Parker wheels in shortly after, and there’s time to spare. Colas are purchased, and we award the coveted “suffer sausage roll” to Clay.
Clay wins the Suffer Sausage Roll
Hal contemplates his newfound berry wisdom
Beers are consumed back at the shop, and we’re joined by Renny McClure—a genuine nice guy and the progenitor of Stuckylife’s oft-repeated mantra “I just want to ride bikes with my friends.” I’m not sure how he’s gotten on the topic, but he rants about cycling magazines: “Why hasn’t any magazine ever just shown that cycling Triple-Crowns or whatever is actually kind of easy?” he declares, his point emphasized by shaking, raised arms.
While, no doubt, climbing 2000 meters of gravel in 60km is an exercise in physical suffering and exhaustion, I think Renny’s point is spot on when considering Naked SSCX as idea. Renny’s point, I think, is that if you actually like cycling — which I know this team does—these sorts of gravel endeavors (or any ride, for that matter) are phenomenologically enjoyable and, well, not that hard to do. It’s an idea that’s by no means the norm; Facebook profile pictures, magazines, and representations of cycling in general depict it as an entirely unfun activity. Racing, then, becomes this climactic point of weeks and weeks of suffering, training, and asceticism fueled by impossible expectations and delusions of glory. And, sure, that’s fine—if that’s what motivates one to ride, that’s top drawer.
Naked SSCX, however, seems to function as a kind of friendly if not playful bit of opposition to that ethos; I get the sense that race day, for Naked SSCX, is a culmination of big rides with friends, of weird gravel adventures, of riding your 16lb carbon road bike through frighteningly technical terrain, of alley cats, and of generally just embarking on nonsensical and sometimes improvised bike adventures. What’s exciting is that this works—just this past weekend at the first Cross on the Rocks Race of the year (against an almost entirely geared field), Parker placed 8th, Terry placed 11th, and Hal placed 13th in the expert division, while Clay finished 3rd in the Intermediate division.
At a recent alley cat here in Victoria, Parker, Hal, and Terry managed to sweep the whole thing. I asked Parker how it went. He, kind of bashfully, told me: “Well, I don’t know… it was just sort of easy.” I don’t think his point was that there was zero competition—the race was chock-full of strong riders—but rather, that the three of them rode together at a pace that was, well, fun, and which just so happened to bring them across the finish line first. That’s not to say that the team isn’t competitive—they definitely want to win—but there’s a refusal to elevate cycling beyond what it actually is—a fun, kind of cheap, and accessible way to go fast, hang out with friends, and see cool things. Commit to that, they seem to suggest, and you can race competitively, if not win. That, I think, is mighty refreshing.