Sven Nys will be leaving Portland, Oregon, without the tattoo that the winners of Sunday's Single Speed Cyclo-cross World Championship are required to get, but watching the thrilled spectators who lined up to see, talk to and take selfies with the recently retired Belgian 'cross legend you'd never guess he didn't win the race.
Nys' last-minute appearance at the 10th annual Single Speed Cyclo-cross World Championships – an unsanctioned and highly irreverent three-day event that is probably best described as Burning Man meets bike racing – was a surprise that had been planned for some time. Although rumours had been running through Portland's 'cross-crazy cycling scene, it wasn't until Nys showed up for the packet pick-up on Friday evening that most people learned the two-time world champion was in town to compete for the 10th SSCXWC title.
"The Single Speed Cyclo-cross World Championships has been a pretty big event for years, and we thought it would be pretty cool to bring a big name here just to experience the event and see what's happening," said Scott Daubert of Trek, the bike company Nys represents as a brand ambassador. "He's really here just to participate in a historic event, a grassroots cyclo-cross thing."
Over the last decade, the SSCXWC has been as much about performance art and conspicuous consumption of alcohol as it has been about racing. Organisers have sent riders through bubble machines, a 'Thunderdome' and at least one tub of hygienically questionable mystery liquid. Costumes are common, if not the rule, and the rules, such as they are, are openly flouted.
Champions – who win a "golden speedo" and are required to get a SSCXWC tattoo to immortalise the win – have over the years included Barry Wicks, Chris Jones, Sue Butler, Julie Krasniak, Mical Dyck and Mo Bruno Roy. But the undisputed king of SSCXWC is Adam Craig, the Bend, Oregon, rider who beat Nys on Sunday and now has five consecutive titles going back to 2012.
'I don't think I'm going to see this often'
Nys got his first taste of the craziness on Saturday during the one-lap qualifying races. On Sunday morning, he told Cyclingnews he was looking forward to the 50-minute championship race later that afternoon.
"I'm looking forward because it's something special," Nys said. "I don't think I'm going to see this often, what I am doing today."
He's almost certainly right about that. Riders on Sunday had to navigate a rotten pumpkin patch and vodka-swilling human barriers, a pit of yoga balls, a large slingshot firing water balloons, and various other unmentionable distractions on the far side of the course. Nys acknowledged the carnival atmosphere was unlike any cyclo-cross race he'd been to before, but he said the antics in Portland had a place in the sport.
"That's what cyclo-cross is," he told Cyclingnews. "It's something special and everyone can do it. It's a lot of fun. If you see what they are doing and what event this is, it's amazing."
The SSCXWC got its start in Oregon in 2007 and stayed in Portland for two more years, moving on to Seattle in 2010. The race headed south to San Francisco in 2011 and continued the trend the next year, moving farther south to Los Angeles. The race left the West Coast for the first time when Philadelphia hosted it in 2013. Louisville, Kentucky, site of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships the year before, hosted the 2014 SSCXWC. The event moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 2015 when Victoria, British Columbia hosted.
The race moved back to Portland this year to celebrate the 10-year anniversary on a commercial farm nestled nicely on an agriculturally active island along the Willamette River, about 16km from downtown Portland. Heavy rain during the week leading up to the three-day weekend soaked the venue well, giving Nys a proper taste of Portland mud.
"It's a little bit similar like we have in Belgium," Nys said. "So I'm used to it."
Daubert said Trek spoke with the SSCXWC organisers about bringing Nys to the event long before Sunday, and both parties agreed to keep it a secret. That explains the surprise among many when the Trek crew showed up with Nys Friday night for the packet pick-up. A long line of selfie requests followed for Nys, who graciously acquiesced to his American fans.
"Now there is time to have some fun on the bike," Nys said about is appearance in Portland. "It's not so professional anymore. I'm here to promote the brand, to promote Trek, and to promote cyclo-cross. Single speed is one of those things that's growing, and I want to be involved in that."
For many of the registered participants, the packet pick-up led to a late night Portland pub crawl. Saturday's menu offered a full day of qualifying rounds that featured "food and coffee and beer and high fives and a super fat pig that we’re not gonna kill and eat because it’s one of those cute ones that’s smarter than we were in 3rd grade," according to the event website.
One spot shy of the required tattoo
Sunday's single speed racing started with the "Non Qualifier Lifestyle Parade Race" at noon. The women's 50-minute championship followed, with Seattle's Jessica Cutler taking the crown.
In the men's race, Nys knew Craig was the rider to beat, even with one of the all-time best in the field.
"I don't know the level of riders in this peloton, so we will see," Nys said Sunday before his race. "Adam Craig is a guy who has won a lot of these kinds of races, and he's a rider I raced with during the World Cups mountain bike, so he has experience. We'll see if it's possible to beat him."
Things didn't go well for Nys in the le Mans-style start from a large cornfield on the farm, however. Craig had a big advantage in the early going, but Nys was able to reel him in and get his own gap. In the end, whether it was second thoughts about the required winner's tattoo or simply signs of a successful retirement, Nys was unable to hold off Craig, who took his fifth straight title and capped it with a tallboy beer in the finishing straight.
Nys, meanwhile, held court among the photographers and fans who pressed in for a quick glimpse, a handshake or a selfie to be posted later.