Attempting the Wildcat 100 to Stirling City on a fixed-gear bicycle
Nikko Shelton got a lot of funny looks when he showed up at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds to check into last year’s Chico Wildflower Century. It was 6 a.m., kind of chilly, and Nikko—anticipating a hot ride—wasn’t wearing a shirt, preferring only shorts and spray-on sunblock. He was shivering. He was also on a fixie, one of those bikes with no freewheel mechanism, meaning a rider must pedal continuously and can’t coast. Many cyclists were probably curious how far into the 100-mile ride he’d get.
Nikko had completed the Wildflower 100 the previous year on a fixie (see “Fixie fanatics,” April 23, 2015) and then decided to up the ante with the Wildcat 100. It’s a different route that takes Honey Run Road to Paradise just like the Wildflower, but then keeps climbing past Magalia to Stirling City and cuts out flat miles in the orchards later on.
I tagged along, from the comfort of my touring bicycle with 30 gears, figuring that watching Nikko power a single-speed bicycle 7,500 vertical feet would be solid entertainment. But it turned out that the way down (don’t worry, he installed breaks for the occasion) was his downfall.
The night before, Nikko had given his bike a late-night, last-minute tune-up, finishing at 4 a.m. He was understandably tired when we got started a couple of hours later. To boot, just a few miles into our ride, Nikko realized that, in his sleep-deprived delirium, he’d messed up his bike. He still doesn’t understand exactly how—perhaps by attaching something backward—but in any case, he couldn’t manually change out gears like he’d planned, so he was stuck in his smallest gear.
Even though I had the advantage of “granny gears,” Nikko beat me to the top of every hill. I was impressed. He’s stocky and doesn’t much look the part of a cyclist, but has crazy strong legs. Only a handful of riders on fancy carbon-frame bicycles passed him going uphill.
After climbing Honey Run Road—always a challenge—the ride became much more pleasant along the gradually rising bike path starting at Paradise Community Park and ending where Pentz Road meets the Skyway. The route then proceeds around Paradise Lake and through quiet pine forests. At the top there’s a rest stop at Clotilde Merlo Park, situated in a meadow. There, while we took a sorely needed 30-minute break, Nikko attracted a little crowd of cyclists. Shocked that he’d made the climb on a fixie, some said stuff like “No way!” and “How’d you do that?” (Nikko has stuck out before. During his first Widlflower a few years back, he didn’t realize that wearing a helmet is, like, required, so he was the only one of thousands of riders without head protection.)
The way home proved brutal. At the bottom of each hill I effortlessly coasted down, I had to wait for Nikko, who pedaled furiously behind, always breaking his speed to maintain a reasonable cadence. On the most intense downhill section—Pentz Road before it hits Highway 70—my little handlebar computer read “45 mph.” I had to wait at the bottom for 10 minutes or so before Nikko appeared, extremely unhappy. About halfway down, he said, he’d felt a tweak in his knee.
We cruised around Table Mountain in its full springtime glory and Nikko’s pain only got worse. We stopped having fun entirely sometime before the next rest stop at the Forebay Aquatic Center outside of Oroville. There, munching on muffins under a tree, Nikko said he’d had enough and was taking a ride back to Chico in a support van. I told him I understood. He’d done something tremendously difficult and I was surprised his legs hadn’t given out already.
And so, 70 miles into the ride, he was out.
After leaving the Forebay, I struggled against a southern headwind, plodding along at 10 mph with a broken spirit, when the support van passed and I glimpsed Nikko’s face pressed up against the window. I had 30 miles to go and he was already asleep. This made me bitter. And I didn’t really let it go until falling in with another cyclist on the home stretch. When we passed his house on the Midway, he offered to give me a lift home in his truck. With about 5 miles left, I declined—I wanted to complete the full century.
At the end, exhausted, I had to take a break in the CN&R parking lot just a few blocks from my house. I got home and slept for eight hours, woke up and chugged a huge glass of water, and then slept for another eight hours.
I found out later that Nikko’s knee hurt so bad he’d biked home from the fairgrounds using only one leg. (He healed after a couple weeks.) This year, when we do it again, Nikko is going to ride a bike that can coast downhill.