It’s the oldest trick in the book: Fill a brown paper bag with fresh dog shit, put it on your neighbor’s porch, light the top on fire, and run like hell. As you watch from the safety of a nearby bush, said neighbor will step out onto the porch and—taking the bait, hook, line, and sinker—proceed to stomp out the bag, covering their morning loafers with the kind of funk that never truly comes clean. After racing in this year’s Red Bull Bay Climb, I’ve come to understand one thing: I am that neighbor with the besmirched slippers. Allow me to explain…
See, by the time the details for this year’s Red Bull Bay Climb had hit my inbox, I'd already taken the bait. My flight was booked, my bike was prepped, and I’d even made a few training runs up a nearby mountain road to make sure my legs could still handle a hill.
When I accepted the invitation in late September, it seemed harmless enough: “How fast can you bike 0.32 miles?” Sounds easy, sign me up. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward four weeks, and looking out from the safety of a nearby bush on a steep San Francisco driveway, you’ll clearly see me standing at the bottom of Potrero Hill, staring wide-eyed at the .32 miles of 24% grade I had come out to climb. You may also notice the unmistakeable look on my face of someone who both sees the flaming bag of shit and knows he’s about to step on it anyways.
Fast forward another hour, and you’ll find me lying on the sidewalk at the top of the hill, wheezing with leaden legs, struggling to hold down the sugar-free Red Bull and breakfast burrito I foolishly had for breakfast.
There’s simply no saving face here: I got got by the Red Bull Bay Climb. Destroyed. And I think you should too, believe it or not.
“What I love about this race is that it’s stupid—tremendously stupid," says James Grady, race organizer and founder of Mission Crit. "No one in their right mind would do it. By the time you get to the top, you’re ready to throw up, but you’re also having a great time.”
Despite the sufferfest that is Red Bull Bay Climb, I agree with him fully.
To add insult to injury, Grady is speaking specifically about the Bay Climb’s fixed class competition, in which racers are only allowed to compete on single-speed fixie bikes throughout the day. For context, I competed in the open class race, foolishly believing that 22 gears and a carbon road bike would make up for my utter lack of fitness.
Getting absolutely smoked by serious athletes put me in my place to say the least (last place, to be exact), but it wasn’t the roadies who put me to shame that made me love every minute of the event: It was the local folks who charged the hill on fixed gear bikes that captured my utmost respect and admiration. Anyone who makes it to the top of this hill on a single speed bike is a hero, plain and simple.
Don’t get me wrong, watching some of these open class pros absolutely fly up the incline is something everyone should witness. I spoke with USA Cycling World Cup racer Brayden Johnson after he completed his first heat on the hill, and asked him how tough it was for an elite mountain biker like himself.
“The open class is a good fit for me," Johnson says. "It’s challenging, but in the XC racing world, we do fast, punchy climbs all the time.”
When asked whether he would do it on a fixed gear bike, Johnson didn’t mince words.
“That looks…that looks fucking hard.”
And yet, here were dozens of casual riders from the local fixie scene, charging up the hill with wild abandon three or even four times throughout the day, and clearly having a blast doing it. I couldn’t square my own near-death experience with what I was seeing.
“The fixed gear people come out here just to have a good time and participate," Grady says. "Fixed gear culture is so much different from the roadie scene. It’s people hanging out, drinking beer, and cheering each other on. If road racing is classical music, fixed gear is punk rock. It’s a middle finger to the establishment, and in this case, road racing is the establishment.”
That being said, Red Bull Bay Climb is about as laid back, diverse, and come-as-you-are as you could ask for, and for me, it was an important experience. Against all odds, I made it up that damn hill, and I had the fixed gear community at my back cheering me on the entire time. Coming across that finish line in last place was an accomplishment, and while I was nearly unconscious and ready to puke, the community’s enthusiasm was infectious.
I spent the rest of the day recovering, which is my way of saying “tracking down beer and ibuprofen.” Luckily both were in abundance, and both were shared freely in the spirit of community. These are my kind of people, and they can be yours, too.
Some races are known for their difficulty. Red Bull Bay Climb is one of the toughest sprints on the planet, but it also happens to be one of the most easy-going thanks to the people who come out and make it happen. If you’re reading this, consider it an open invitation to next year’s race. You can bet I’ll be there, both for the community and the challenge, and should you happen to see me, just know I’ll be ready with plenty of ibuprofen to share.