Another event that I’ve known about for years but have yet to participate in is the Coaster Brake Challenge mountain bike race. Held every January and July and sponsored by the San Fernando Valley’s Atomic Cycles, the races attract a “certain individual.” The kind of person who wants to have a great time on as simple of a bicycle as possible, in the scariest conditions as possible. Having everyone on rigid singlespeeds with only one rear coaster brake may appear to level the playing field, but as with most singlespeed mountain bike races I’ve been in, looks can be deceiving. There are some scary-fast dudes hanging around the start with unassuming clothing and bike gear.
I finally got my ass in gear and built up my old 26″ Curtlo mountain bike, one that had been my primary singlespeed MTB in the early 2000’s before I got the 29er bug. Most recently the Curtlo had been assigned to cargo-bike duty with an Xtracycle kit attached for grocery runs. A stop or two at Atomic for a complete new rear wheel and some necessary parts and I was in business.
6am Sunday morning is usually reserved for a pee-run to the bathroom then right back to bed. Today it was a pee-run followed by turning lights on and getting dressed for the race. At the start by 7, coffee’d up and ready to go I discreetly sized up my fellow racers. Someone pointed to a fit looking guy, commenting “he won it last week.” I paid the $20 for the 4-race season which covered my entry, a t-shirt and souvenir patch. Such a deal!
The bikes at the start were all over the place, varying from complete pieces of shit, to amazing vintage cruisers with a few nicer custom builds thrown in. But the majority of the bikes were worth less than the Chris King headset on my bike. And yet I knew that this would be the last time I’d see most of the riders until the finish. Super.
We all gathered around, got the layout of the course, maps were handed out for those who wanted one and we were off, buzzing about a mile of pavement before seeing the road end and turn to dirt – the official start of the tough stuff. It wasn’t long after this that my chain decided to drop off the gears, leaving me unable to pedal or brake. I pulled over to tighten the chain tension and glanced up just in time to see the last of the riders disappearing down the trail. I was now dead last with a broken bike. SHIT! I fixed the chain, rode a bit further and it dropped again. I pulled off once more and dug out the tools again. Fixed it and hopped back on, but now my head was messed with, confidence shot as I couldn’t rely on the chain to save my ass when I needed it: braking on the descents. I baby’d the bike for a while, occasionally stopping to test the chain tension. Total mind-f*ck. Just a 1/4″ wide piece of chain can mean the difference between a carefree ride, the front of a tree trunk or the back of an ambulance.
I rode for several miles by myself, not seeing any other riders on the trail. I had given in to a DFL finish (Dead F-ing Last) so I enjoyed the scenery and stopped to take pictures. The course had a ton of climbing and I rode as much of it as I could, but was forced to walk the steeper sections. I was quickly reminded about the suffering smack-down that a singlespeed bike will give you when there is much climbing to do. I was a lovely slobbering, snotty-nosed mess for all of the ascending we were put through.
And then It happened – I spotted another rider up ahead. I dug deep and sped up, knowing that he was the difference between my name on the bottom of the list, and … not. I caught him then spotted another ahead and repeated the effort. I had caught and passed maybe 3 or 4 guys and started to feel much better about the day. That was about the time I rode right through a switchback turn and down the side of the mountain, clipped into my pedals and completely unable to stop. I target-fixated on the rocks and brush down below and away I went, cartwheeling ass over ass-kettle, coming to a stop on my back with the bike above me, still clipped in to one pedal. I heard someone above me on the trail yelling “You ok man?”. Fortunately I was ok and was able to laugh the whole thing off. The concerned racer put his bike down and helped me and bike back up the hill to the trail. I had a few scrapes and some bloodshed but nothing race-ending. Back on the bike and back to the sketchy switchbacks, now paying much more attention to my braking.
We made it safely down the mountain and returned to the paved streets of upscale Calabasas, a bunch of dirty out of place cyclists contrasting nicely with the gated McMansions and country club guard shacks. Power-skidding to a stop at the finish, I realized that I had made up 7 or so spots to put me safely out of DFL range and I couldn’t be happier! As I had suspected though, there were beater Huffys laying about that had long since finished. After lots of post-race chatter and tales from the trail, my buddy Frank and I were on our way back home, in search of much needed food and beer, ultimately toasting each other for a great day out in the mountains with a great group of psychopaths on bicycles.
If you find yourself in L.A. in January or July, I highly recommend getting in touch with Atomic and trying out a race. They also have several loaner bikes that they will provide if you don’t have one of your own.
For a photo slideshow of all the photos from the race, click here for my Flickr images.