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A Vertical Quarter Mile of Pain: Red Bull Bay Climb
Derek Yarra |
The beauty of bike racing is the plethora of unorthodox avenues anyone can pursue these days. While "gravel" might take the spotlight as the hyped up alternative to both traditional road racing and even cyclocross, even that looks mainstream compared to the activities thriving in our sport's subcultures. Even looking at the fringe world of fixed-gear bikes, things get dissected pretty deep. People have been adopting track bikes to urban settings for decades now, which led to cycle messenger inspired alley cat races in urban communities the world over. More recently, roadies and fixed riders have converged into the boom that was fixed-crit racing, brought to fame by the Red Hook Crit series. This year, the first ever Tracklocross World Championships took place in Japan. Yes, tracklocross, a cyclocross race on fixed-gear track bikes. Included in this new wave of obscure racing formats is the Red Bull Bay Climb, celebrating its third year of existence.
Haven't heard of it? Surely everyone's got some idea of the the storied, ridiculously steep hills within the city of San Francisco. The Bay Climb is an uphill drag race, scaling three blocks of one of the steepest (without being completely unreasonable) hills in the Potrero Hill district. Similar in format to a BMX race, heats of racers duke it out for a hellacious few minutes of pain, hoping to qualify to the semi-finals, then ultimately aiming to advance to the main event of the day's fastest six riders. As if that all on it's own doesn't sound ridiculous enough on its own, the event is done on single speed, fixed-gear bikes. Okay, there is an open category for bikes of all types (the event celebrates inclusion for all) but the headlining category, and spirit of the event, is doing it on a fixie.
Everything about it just sounds dumb, but dumb shit has always been a driver to get people out—myself included. Having seen the reports and heard of friends doing it in years past, and the fact that it happens right in my hometown, it seemed only fitting to sign myself up.
An obscure event calls for an obscure set up. The only suitable bike I had was my steel workhorse track bike from my friends at Mash SF. It's usually got bigger tires from racing those aforementioned tracklocross races, but I threw on some 28c Vittorias I had in the garage. The shop has a set of Lightweight track tubulars which would have been awesome, but those seemed to risky to ride with how much broken glass tends to litter the area. Pooling intel from various friends, I ended up using a gear of 42x22, roughly 51 gear inches. Maximum power transfer and a super fast clip in were of equal priority, so Speedplay Zeros were the obvious pedal choice. Looking for all the leverage I could get for hammering out the pitches, I mounted a MTB style riser bar at a full 800mm wide. Not the lightest hill climb bike and far from what you're probably used to seeing around here at AC, but it's stiff, solid, and was ready for the task at hand.
The morning of, I rode across town from my home in the Inner Richmond. It was a rather odd experience traversing the city on such a tiny, spinny gear. Arriving at the event, it was a scene to behold. Blow up arches, big screen TVs, cans of Red Bull everywhere... this was no mom and pop production. As I rolled up, I picked up my racer packet from registration and figured it'd be a good idea to to take a test lap up the course. "Soft pedaling," if that's even possible up such an incline, it didn't seem all that bad. I mean it sucked, but it was manageable. Little did I know how different those three blocks would feel throwing down an all out effort. It was now time to play the waiting game until my first qualifying heat was up.
Nothing can really prepare you for your first race run at this event. There's no warm up or lead in, it's too short to try and pace yourself or find a rhythm, just the most insane effort right off the line. I showed up to the line having done the saddest attempt at a warm up, and without the slightest clue of what to expect from myself. Unlike most other races I do, I also had no clue who any of my competitors in my heat were, so I had no clue what to expect from them either. What a rude awakening it was. The first incline seemed easy enough, but hitting the 21% grade of pitch two was a punch in the face. I hung onto second wheel for a bit, but it didn't take long for my lack of warm up to reveal itself. One guy came around, and then the crowd started going crazy. I looked to my left and a guy wearing nothing but sparkly gold boxer shorts was coming around, too. Only in San Francisco. I was dying heading up the third and final pitch, but the four of us had a big enough gap over the rest of the field that I knew I was safe to qualify to the semis.
Damn, did that catch me off guard. I by no means consider myself some phenomenal athlete, but I wasn't expecting to get dropped by Mr. Gold Boxer Shorts. I had a big three hour break between my qualifiers and semifinals, which is a pretty awkward amount of time to kill. Luckily just long enough to get in meal and have time to digest. Learning from my mistakes in qualifying, I put some more effort into trying to warm up. It's never a small task finding somewhere to get in a steady spin in an urban area, but I luckily found a loop around a nearby park with minimal traffic. I spun around for a good 30-40 minutes and put in some hard sprints to try and open things up again before heading back to the start zone.
In qualifying, there was some breathing room as they took the top four from each heat, but in the semis only the winner of each group would advance, so the pressure was on. It was all or nothing and I didn't want to leave anything to chance. The whistle blew and I knew I had to go full gas. First two pedal strokes and I had already taken the lead. Two more and I was the first to hit pitch one. By the next block I already gained a sizable gap. I pushed it as hard as I possibly could up the super steep middle riser, trying to grow the lead any further. Vision blurry, legs trembling, I was gassed but there was no way I could give up now; one block remained up the finishing arch. With everything I had in me, I made that final push to the line, clenching the heat win, and landing a spot in the six man final.
Jesus Christ that was hard. At the top of the hill, I was seeing stars. I don't think I've ever put down an effort that hard in my life. I knew I had to keep it spinning, if I got off the bike I knew I'd never be able to get off the floor. I did what I could circle around the one flat block at the top until I cooled down enough head back down the hill. I was elated that I had made the cut, but equally dreading having to send it up the climb one last time. This time, there was only thirty minutes until the next round. I went back down to my warm up loop and tried to collect myself before the main event.
Back in the starting corral one last time. This time the competition was less unknown. I was surrounded by a field of fixed-crit heavy hitters. The only other local in the field was Zack Morvart, a regular on the Redhook circuit himself. To be perfectly honest, I really had no excitement to take on this climb again. Feeling like complete jello, both from nerves and the day's previous efforts, I took to the line.
My strategy in the semis proved successful, so I figured I'd try and repeat it in the final. The anticipation built as they started the ten second count down 3... 2... 1... the final whistle blew. Clip in was flawless. Just like in the semis, I found myself in front after the first few pedal strokes. Up the first block, and again I had a small gap. Wait, could I actually win this thing? Hitting the middle wall, things really hurt this time. I was fully in the deepest corner of the pain cave, doing all I could to keep it going.
Here's Chris Tolley's GoPro footage of the finals where you can see my early holeshot to self-implosion.
The crown was going nuts, flooding the course like the fans on hill top finishes in the Tour de France. With the top of the middle block in sight, I still had the lead, but as soon a I recognized that a figure came by in my periphery. Nicolas Petrella was coming by, fast. Over the hump he took the lead, and entering the final stretch Chris Tolley followed at an inconceivable speed. They took off, along with my short lived glimpse of victory. At that point, my mental drive faded back to meet my physical capacities, and I completely cracked. Barely able to even limp the final meters to the top. Honestly, I think fitness only goes so far in this race. Winning the bay climb really comes down to metal strength, something I didn't have enough of that day.
I've done a lot of punishing bike races in my life and had many, many experiences where I thought I'd pushed my body to the absolute limit. Thinking back on all of them though, I don't think anything can really compare to the Bay Climb. It's really hard to think of anything at all enjoyable about the race, but somehow, I'm already thinking about way to better prepare for next year.