'So it's a race then?' 'Er, there is a race but it's not really a race' 'Right, so it's a bike meet?' 'Well, kind of, but not really.' 'Party?' 'Sort of.' 'Sigh. So WTF is it then??' 'Er...'
A lot happened on this trip. So much so that it would take me forever to blog it all. Suffice it to say we had one of the best weekends ever. Here's a few tasters of what went on.
Catalonia is quite a long way away from Darwen. You're talking 16 + hours driving and several tanks of juice. So we flew to Girona which is right next to the town of Sant Gregori where the event was held, and hired a car to carry the 3 of us (Will, Paul and me) and our bikes and camping stuff. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare but Paul proved to be pretty adept at sorting stuff so it was all good. We'd arranged to arrive on the Thursday, the day before the event actually started. I got permission from Carolina one of the organisers, as it was supposed to be Staff only on the site then. We rocked up and got the tents up. We'd had the foresight to stop off at a supermarket on the way in and stock up on the essentials - largely San Miguel. This was to be a theme for the whole trip.
The weather was lovely - shorts and t shirt weather. Remember that? No, I'm struggling to as well. The camp was on an area of wooded parkland behind a sports complex who's facilities we had access to. Real toilets and hot showers. Luxury! As we arrived we met Carolina and Marcal and it was immediately obvious that they were both just really genuine, salt of the earth, lovely people. This proved itself time and time again over the time we were there.
Quite a few other had turned up early as well and set up camp. These included a group of Dutch lads. I knew them by sight but hadn't really spoken to them much in the past. I recognised Toby Fallon and a lad called Thijs. They went off to socialise and returned later once we had gone to bed. I was pretty knackered after the early start and the travelling and once the Cloggies rolled in in the early hours and then started shouting and carrying, on my patience was sorely tried. After what felt like many hours of them keeping me awake I could stand it no longer and shouted out 'OH, WILL YOU JUST SHUT UP!!!'
The next day was the official start of SSEC and more and more people rolled in.The Norn Irish lads had turned up in their amazing £100 caravan. It had had a respray since we last saw it in Floressas at SSEC '12.
The Godiva Trails lot had also rocked up en masse, including Martin and the ever lovely Leigh. Other Brits there were (inevitably) Sheldon and Ringo. Keef, who I knew by sight but hadn't really spoken to before and a scattering of others. The Belgians had their enclave and it was good to see Bruno and Lucas again. One of the absolute best things about these events is making friends with people from different countries, and as this was mine and Will's third, and Paul's 2nd, we now know quite a few. Eventually our two French friends Sebastien and Sophie turned up. They were pretty much the first people we got to know at our first SSEC in Maredsous, Belgium 2011, when Sophie joined me dancing whilst pissed (me, that is. I know - what are the chances??). They're a great couple and a lot of fun. Various other exotic foreigners were dotted about too - Pascal 'le super hero' (Grand Raid Cristalp finisher x 4), Dirk the Dutchie, Thierry the owner of a drop dead gorgeous Julie Racing Designs bike, and the two Swedes, amongst many others.
Talking of bikes, there were so many cool ssers that every time you looked round there was something to catch the eye. I think Paul got a lot of admirers for his new sexy On-one carbon 29er.
And there were more Fat Bikes than you could shake a (oversized) stick at. Needless to say Will was soon ripping round on other people's bikes and doing massive, and no doubt very expensive, skids on them.
The camp site as well as having 2 football pitches was also a mountain bike centre. I envisaged it as being like one of our trail centres but it wasn't really. There were some sign posted trails heading off into the wilds and on the Friday afternoon we decided to go for a pootle. We soon picked up some arrows and signs that we presumed were for the race course so opted to follow them. It was a pretty leisurely ride but we gained a fair bit of height and so we were puffing a bit. It didn't help that it was just after noon and baking hot too! The route was a belter. Some tough climbs but interspersed with lovely flowing singletrack and then chucking in the odd loamy, soily ultra steep descent. There were quite a few stream crossings and some stretches of nice quiet back country roads to get a bit of speed up. We couldn't work out where we had joined the course and I'm pretty sure we didn't follow all of it properly but we certainly rode the majority of it. God, it was good! We kicked up dust. Dust! Then it was back to the site to soak up some sun (and some San Miguel).
The next day was race day. Despite having blown the froth off a couple the evening before I was pretty up for it. We rode out, en masse, a few miles to the start. Lots of people in fancy dress, as per. Some great costumes, it has to be said. I'd arranged for us 3 to be all wearing our yellow On-one tops so that we looked really pro... and just to set it off I wore my Dr Peppers underpants again. It's a good look and I can see it taking off once the cool kids get into it.
There was the normal tomfoolery of us having to leave our bikes and then walk out of sight of them. Once the race started we ran (well, some ran...) back and then tried to find where the rascals had hidden them. They were all over the shop, some in trees, others in piles - I eventually found mine down a grass banking. As I say I was fired up for the race and put the pedal to the maximum gnar setting and charged off. We had actually ridden large parts of the course the day before, just not necessarily in the right order, as Eric Morecambe would have said. The lap didn't end where we had started from but was up a hillside near a church. They had set out some big tables laden (and I mean LADEN) with food - sausages, chorizo, chocolate, bananas, loads of drinks, but unusually no beer! WTF?
Anyroad, I was on one so just grabbed half a banana and sped on. On the second lap Sebastien caught and passed me. Just what I needed - a needle match! Excellent. We had a right ding dong. I've not really taken much notice of how well he could ride before but he's pretty handy - good descender (on a fully rigid with v brakes!) and pretty strong on the climbs too. I caught him and got in front a couple of times but he always had me back. In my defense I have to say that he is probably literally half my age! Time and again we'd arrive at the finish line where Carolina was officiating. There was a bit of a concrete step just as you crossed and I was having such a blast that I couldn't help pulling a wheelie every time I went through. Eventually I got passed by a couple of very fast looking guys in team strip on 29ers and guessed that I'd just been lapped by the leaders. As I came in the next time I was stopped from carrying on. I gave out a great 'Awww!' as I really was having a ball.
Still buzzing I made my way to the food and commenced reducing the calorie debt. Will was already there and, like the slacker he is, he'd only done one lap. He'd also discovered the beer and was tucking into his 4th... Paul rocked up after a bit and we all had a good yap, enthusing about the course. I can't overstate how good it was. After a while I suggested that we head back to base to try to get in the showers before everybody else was back, and we rode back, still prattling on about the race.
And then the drinking started. There was just something about the weather, the company and the whole ambience of the event that made it just perfect for keeping a beer buzz going. All the time. We had a bit of a group going - us 3, Seb and Sophie and two American guys, Peter and Greg. We'd been having the crack with these two for a while and I really liked them. Peter's a great big Frank Oz look-a-likey (oh, and he owns Surly bikes - the company, not just a couple of bikes) and Greg was just a complete loon. He became more and more like Jim Carey in the Mask the more he drank. Very, very funny guy. 'So what;s the difference between 'pissed' and 'leathered'?'
After more food it was time for the fun and games. There was the bike throw. Traditionally some crappy geared mountain bike gets slung about a bit and the person who chucks it furthest gets a prize in the evening. I noticed that someone did a 'ghost rider' with it and it was still counted. This seeped into my drink addled brain and I drew Sheldon Attwood to one side and explained my cunning plan. I stepped up for a go and mimed revving it up to do another ghostie when Sheldon jumped aboard and coasted it to victory!
As the contest continued and the bike had more bits smashed off it, one of the Northern Irish Trail Badger lads had a go using the hammer throwing technique. His aim was a bit poor though and he managed to throw it towards us, hitting me right on my knackered ankle. Bloody hell it hurt. I was limping for ages after that.
There was a demo by a rather odd looking guy riding a fixie and doing tricks on it. Then there a competition for who hosts next years event. We all thought that it was a shoe in for the Norn Irish as they missed out last year so we were a bit surprised when Toby Fallon stepped up for Holland and an Italian for Sicily, as well as Rick from NI. Apparently people were a bit unhappy that it was agreed they had it rather than competing for it. Anyway, after several silly games the Sicilian withdrew and it boiled down to 'who can show us something we haven't seen before' whereupon Toby demonstrated the Dutch art of schwaffling and Rick threw his good bike down the bike throwing contest course to win it. Honour restored. So we'll be off to sunny Castlewellan next April, with any luck.
That evening was the after race party. These are generally the highlight of SSEC events as far as I can remember. I must make a mention of the meals that we were provided with here - they were bloody good. All local stuff and very tasty. We certainly weren't left wanting.
The format for the drink was that you had a card that was supposed to get ticked off every time you went up to get your mug refilled. This soon went to the wall and the barman was just pretending to cross mine off as I seemed to be seeing him every ten minutes or so. My God, it was going down. Paul hadn't joined us as he was feeling a bit rough. Probably very wise. I know I had a good time, I really do. Can I remember much about what was said? Er, no. Prizes were given to folk who had done well at the race. It turned out that me and Sheldon won the bike throwing. The prize was a free entry to the Singlespeed World Cup in Italy. I gave it to Sheldon as I wouldn't be able to go. There was a band on later. A Spanish heavy rock combo who all seemed to have the same hair style as Bill Bailey. I remember bouncing around to the Ace of Spades. I remember telling Carolina what a fantastic job they had done of the event.
....and then I don't remember. For instance I don't remember this... If you look closely into my eyes you will notice it says 'vacant'.
I think I know why I don't remember it. Sooooo, I woke up in the morning and I was bad. And I mean BAD. I'd done my usual trick of taking a drink from my water bottle, not closing the top and then knocking it over. Hence the tent was soaking. Yep, that makes sense. But why was my English money out of my wallet and also soaking wet on the floor? Why was my phone cover in the tent and my phone on the floor in the porch? I crawled out of the tent and staggered to the bench and sat for a very, very long time with my head in my hands, whimpering slightly. Blimey.
There was a bike ride that day and it seemed there were two options - a dead long one and a shorter one. Seeing as I was like death warmed up I opted for Plan B. There was no way I was going to miss riding again round there so it was game on. Will and Paul emerged. Paul was better, but Will was worse. He jibbed on the ride but Paul was good to go. Seb and Sophie turned up. Seb looked in a similar state to me and wasn't going to ride until he realised that virtually everyone else was. I ate, dressed and tried to unstick my poor dehydrated tongue from the side of my head.
Off we set and eventually we split up and set off in two groups. There was a bit of confusion about it all but no matter, we were off and riding and again, it didn't disappoint. There must be countless miles of sweet trails in these hills. Paul was riding with me and we were loving it. Although there were quite a few in the group we had spread out and were largely riding together with the others out of sight, just the occasional regroups. At one point there was a stop where the leader was saying something about going a longer way round to the food and drink stop. I didn't really twig what was going on but after a while both Paul and I began to realise that we'd been going for a pretty long time and that neither of us had much water left. Needless to say it was about noon by now and crackin' t'flags. The hangover didn't help. We came to a river crossing and people were having a go at riding through it. It was pretty rocky and I think only one made it without getting wet feet. I looked longingly at the water. Later I was reduced to looking longingly at muddy puddles. I am slightly ashamed to recount that I even cadged a few precious drops of water from a couple who were on a tandem (God bless them). The route was fantastic but my god, it felt endless. Suddenly we burst out from a bit of downhill nadgery onto a road and within 5 minutes we fetched up at the long awaited food stop. Talk about an oasis in a desert! Tables groaning with food again. Cold drinks, aaahh lovely lovely cold drinks. I sank one after another. Bliss. More and more riders arrived and waded in to the grub. Eventually it was time to go and we massed up for a spinny road ride back to Sant Gregori, chatting away.
More San Miguel in the afternoon as people began to pack up and head home. It was quite sad as I think everyone realised that they had taken part in something special. There was one last throw of the dice for us as we weren't going until Monday (well, not even then as it turned out...). Sheldon, God bless him, had arranged for all the stragglers to go for a meal with the very wonderful organisers and so that evening a bunch of us travelled in convoy to a very nice looking restaurant that we had spotted on the ride earlier in the day.
Some travelled more comfortably than others... To summarise the night: food - plentiful and excellent, drink - likewise, company - the best, smiles and laughter - frequent.
The toast to Singlespeeders, Catalunya, each other and many other things became very frequent but none the less heartfelt for that. The local drinking vessel - the porro - was demonstrated. How to do it:
Aaaand how to do it when you are very pissed:
It seems right to leave it there, still in the restaurant, filled with drunken happy people. Glowing from the booze but also our skin burned by the Catalan sun which seemed to premeate to our souls. This really was the best of times. I'll never forget SSEC 2013 Catalunya or the people who were involved in it.