Every Easter Saturday, here in the desert, we have our own spring classic. It is not sanctioned, advertised, or even legal. It’s called the Squealer and it is the best “race” I have ever done. Phoenix is gifted with having badass trails right here in town and the National Trail on South Mountain is the granddaddy of them all. Seventeen miles traversing the mountain filled with cactus, rocks, stair steps, screaming technical descents, and climbing. Lots of climbing.
It is said that the time trail is the race of truth and this race is no exception. This trail favors no machine, wheel size, or drive train. It somehow evens the playing field and when it is all said and done, the hardest man(and woman) wins. Period.
The race is run slowest riders first and the actual contenders last. Therefore I was the 10th rider to go on the day, at a nice crisp 5:54am. I rolled out of the house in the pitch black of the pre dawn and pedaled to the 3 miles to start. Its amazing how peaceful the streets are at 4:30am. One benefit of being slow and having an early start time is that you get to see the sun rise, and what a sunrise it was.
I normally run this race (and just about everything else) on a singlespeed. This year, for some reason, I decided to see what would happen if I rolled an “all mountain” bike in the ultimate all mountain race. Initially it seemed like I made the right choice. I cleared the first ridge and instantly caught my 1minute man and a quick glance over my shoulder showed that nobody was behind me yet. This has NEVER happened before. I was stoked and ready to hit the first real climb. I gave quick flick of the left thumb as I approached the slope we like to call the “Widow Maker”. All I heard was the sound of crunching metal and the plinking of shrapnel hitting the ground as my small chainring sheared off. It seems the singlespeed goddess was mad at me for worshiping the granny gear deity and my penance is to do the remaining 15 miles of trail with only a middle ring.
I was trying my hardest, pushing 32 lbs of 6inch travel bike down the trail but I was suffering like a dog. It would take a man much more fit than I to be competitive under these circumstances. I will admit that I looked down at the paved road below me and thought about bailing. It would have been easy, that pavement is right there and it’s all downhill to the finish line where beer and cookies are waiting. Then I thought about why I was there in the first place, why I took that day off from work, and why I got up at 4 in the morning. I thought about my buddy Kyle and how he convinced me many years ago to do this race. I remembered the exact moment, beers in hand watching an all female Iron Maiden cover band he told me that it was the best race ever invented and I would be a fool not to do it. He was right then, and still is to this day. I decided bailing wasn’t an option and I might as well just keep going for a mountain bike ride, enjoy the day and enjoy this amazing trail before me.
Right about that time, I heard a bike bell ringing in the distance. As soon as I turned around there was no question who was coming straight at me in that DC jersey. It was Gnome, who started 30 minutes after me, and he was hauling ass. He had a look on his face that said he was in that special dark place of suffering,that place where the pain in his legs and lungs were happiness and nothing else mattered. When he blew past me he didn’t say a word. With his tongue hanging out of his mouth he just flashed me a quick smile in between breaths and sped on down the trail. The image of a sled dog at full stride came to mind…
When all was said and done, Gnome actually won the damn thing! I asked him to try to sum up what it means to him to win this race and this is what he said:
I don’t know man. Through this week and for a few more days or even the rest of this year until the next Squealer, I’ll be saying to myself “dude, you won the Squealer” and I’ll simply be amazed every time I reflect on the day. Sure, it’s just a silly race, but It means something sincere to me which I have trouble relating to the rest of the world. It represents the depth of my love for cycling. South Mountain is my PHX back yard. It’s where I moved to in 1992 when I transplanted from SoCal and it was my escape from the city on a daily basis for those years. I love it there, and I love National Trail. When I discovered National for myself, I could not believe what I had found. That was almost 20 years ago and nary a soul was around then. Now, in retrospect, it hasn’t changed so much to matter. And after 12 years of the Squealer being in existence, and now having shown my best effort and chancing into the win… like I said, I’m just amazed. My name is on the roster next to Kyle, Bennet, Chewy and the rest. And I thought I’d never see that happen, so went into this years event with a smile, no pressure and no expectations. Yes, the way it should be, but ambition will sometimes have it’s way of distraction. But this time, I just floored it like I know how, and sought to see what I could do. I wanted to fucking rip it as hard as I could, and that’s what I did. Nothing else mattered but my line and how hard I could hit it. Fuck the rest. And now it’s done. The chicken skin welts up in my neck when I think about it. And I’m already looking forward to next April.
Dude. I won the Squealer!
And here is a list of all those past winners:
I share Gnome’s sentiments when it comes to this big brown mountain to the south. It is hard to put into words but for those of us that ride South Mountain and the National trail regularly, it is in our blood, it’s part of us. It is a sanctuary in the city where you can get high above the smog and the bullshit of daily life and just ride. Where the trails are still rugged and you are forced to get off and walk occasionally. Where the mountain is still in mountain biking. The Squealer is more than just a race as well. It’s our annual test of person versus the mountain and I look forward to it every year
Thanks to Jim for all of his hard work putting on this race yet again and congratulations to Gnome and the other champions on the day. Rock that winner’s bracelet with pride!by