There's a new mountain bike on the block - a sleek rig with a bevy of high-tech components. Super stiff cranks, stop-dead brakes and a single speed. A single speed? Right, one gear, reminiscent of the infamous "ballooners" the sport's forefathers raced down the fire roads of Marin County, California, in the mid-1970s. Those sturdy clunkers usually tipped the scales closer to 40 pounds, with coaster brakes that had to be re-packed with grease after each death-defying run.
Don't be fooled by today's single speed, though. Underneath pedestrian appearances, this bike is an incredibly responsive steed - perfect for tight, twitchy singletrack. Without gears to fuss over, they reward the mechanically challenged as well as the aerobically inclined. No, this bike is definitely not your father's Schwinn. Instead, it is an intriguing mix - equal parts Edward Abbey individualism, Thoreau simplicity, and "back-to-the-future" technology. So is the person who rides one.
"The single speed is for someone who's totally into the essence of riding," says Steve Elmes of Independent Fabrication, a funky framebuilder just outside of Boston. "These bikes are the perfect reminder of why people are mountain biking. In an age when there's so much technology bombarding the consumer, you've got people thinking about the funny noise their shock is making, or wondering why their derailleur isn't shifting just right, and their mind isn't focusing on the task at hand. With a single speed, you're not worrying about all that crap. You're just bombing down the trails."
In short, single speeds are a blast to ride, less likely to break out on the trail and much easier to maintain. And at 22 pounds or less, they're cat-quick. "Crisp," says Lee Rogers of Bicycle Therapy in Philadelphia and single-speed convert. "The weight was just a kick in the ass. It was so nimble, so freakin' light. I felt like a deer."
Worried about losing 23 gears from your arsenal? Don't, says Rogers. "You're always in the wrong gear anyway. It's an awesome workout. And the best thing is, there's no excuses - you pedal or you walk."
There's the rub. Single speed disciples embrace the notion of cleaning obstacles and ripping trails alongside riders equipped with 24-speed dual-sprung rigs, not giving an inch. Don't expect them to shy away from the steeps. "These guys are rugged," says Reese Brown, promoter of the Fat Tire Week in Crested Butte, Colorado. "They're not looking for flat, easy terrain. They're looking to ride the same stuff everyone else is. They're looking for the challenge."
Are single speeds about to supplant geared bikes as the two-wheel choice of the masses? Not likely, though they're enjoying a renaissance among cycling’s cognoscenti. West Coast riders boast their own race series, the California Crusty Cruiser Cup. The bikes have secured a hot market niche, partly because they speak to the finesse rider, partly because they represent a cycling de-evolution. "I just got sick of keeping up with the XTR, full-suspension, blah, blah, blah, that never worked properly," says Michael Golinski, owner of the Vancouver-based Spot Brand bicycle works.
Ditto for Rich Woudenberg, a 27-year-old chemist from New Hampshire, who, "being a Gen-X slacker, started cycling well after one-gear race bikes had disappeared."
"These bikes are all about fun and riding enjoyment without all the tech-weenie bullshit," he says.
Golinski, who races his single speed wheel-to-wheel with the multi-gear crowd on the treacherous trails of British Columbia, does make one concession to technology - a front suspension fork. But many one-gear proponents eschew even this comfort. Of course, BMX riders have known all along a single speed, unsuspended rig was the way to go.
"We have a large adult BMX clientele, and the single speed is the closest thing to their youth they can get," says Drew Guldalian of Wissahickon Cyclery on the outskirts of Philadelphia. "The rigid thing is cool. If you come from a BMX background, going downhill over rocks and things is no problem - it's actually kind of fun."
Still not convinced? Consider that single speeds are rapidly gaining favor with the courier set, the folks that make their living everyday riding bikes in the trenches of the asphalt jungle. They're getting the message.
Sweet single speeds
Single-speed mountain bikes, by their nature, demand a whole lot of stamina, willpower, and technique from their riders. Yeah, they’re testy little critters. But there’s no reason why you can’t have the pick of the litter. Here’s our top choices:
Bianchi BOSS (Bitchin' Orange Single Speed) - A rock-solid Easton Elite 7005 aluminum frame with the Italian race heritage of Bianchi, a chro-moly fork plus a choice parts pick, all for under $800? That's amore. "This is one kickin’ bike," says Steve Elmes of Independent Fabrication. High praise indeed from a competitor. Aside form the frame, highlights include RaceFace Turbine cranks with Spot Brand chainring and guard, Avid brake levers, stout Paul Components hubs, Mavic rims and an SDG Ventura kevlar saddle. A great deal for neophyte single speeders. Two sizes. (510/264-1001)
Spot Brand - How nice is this Northwest rig? After reviewing one for her magazine, Dirt Rag editor Elaine Tierney shelled out her own coin to buy it rather than send it back. Michael Golinski's company, named after the dog that took out a riding partner one day, produces only single speeds. But the bikes benefit from Golinski's work with Rocky Mountain, Synchros and Paul Components. The traditional double diamond frame is made from a custom steel blend, and delivers one choice ride. Four sizes, two colors - candy apple red or flat black. Sloping top tube provides reassuring clearance. $599, frame only. With a nice parts package, expect to pay roughly $1,400. (1-888-711-7768)
Independent Fabrication - Hand-crafted quality. That’s all you need to know about these works of art from a small Somerville, Massachusetts, framebuilder. Flawless welds connecting ultra-responsive and durable Reynolds 853 tubing. Once known primarily as the cast-offs left in the lurch when Chris Chance took his Fat City Cycles and bolted town, the gang at IF have surpassed their one-time mentor. The Deluxe SS offers the same geometry as IF’s Deluxe mountain bike frame, but features CNC-machined track dropouts. Standard frames run $1,095. Folks who want custom sizing will pay roughly $200 more. Tack on another $200 for a rigid fork from Vicious Cycles. Total with a solid component group will run about $2,000. (617/666-3609)
Where to ride
So, you see a single speed in your future? The following trails will help you appreciate the investment.
1) Tahoe National Forest, Nevada City, California. Exceptional routes, including the unparalleled Chimney Rock and Empire Creek trails. This epic peak-to-peak trail, with full-blown views of the Sierras, rewards a 1,500-foot ridgeline climb with a 4,500-foot drop into Downieville. Coyote Adventure Company, 916/265-6909.
2) China Camp State Park, San Rafael, California. Check out the Bayview Trail - mild climbs, tight switchbacks, beautiful views. When connected with the Shoreline Trail, you can string together a sweet 10-mile loop. Call 415/456-0766.
3) Rogue River National Forest, Oregon. Applegate Lake Trail serves up more than 20 miles of winding trail along Applegate Lake - a nice sampling of the more than 2,000 miles of trail found in this southwest corner of Oregon. Applegate Ranger District, 541/899-1812.
4) Tucson Mountain Park, Arizona. Minutes from Tucson, this 21,000-acre desert paradise boasts 26 miles of choice riding. Pima County Parks and Recreation, 520/740-2690, or Arizona OffRoad Adventures, 1-800-689-BIKE (2453).
5) Brian Head, Utah. Three hours southwest of Moab, a small resort with more than 100 miles of singletrack through redrock formations and pine stands. The Dark Hollow Trail, the "Downhill of the Gods," drops more than 5,000 feet over 12 miles. Brian Head, 435/677-2035.
6) Crested Butte, Colorado. Best bet is the Farris Creek Trail, with a nice, gradual climb, rewarding views of the Elk Mountains followed by a nifty singletrack descent through aspen forest and sagebrush. Flatiron Sports,1-800-821-4331; or The Alpineer, 1-800-223-4655.
7) Tsali Recreation Area, North Carolina. Tsali Trail System features 40 miles of singletrack, with the 12-mile Left Loop and 11-mile Right Loop built by mountain bikers. Outstanding views of Fontana Lake and southern Appalachian Mountains. Nantahala National Forest, Cheoah Ranger District, 704/479-6431.
8) Blackwater Falls State Park, Canaan Valley, West Virginia. The Dobbin House Trails offers up short twisty loops, relatively flat and fun, fun, fun. Call the park, 304/259-5216; Cheat Ranger District in Parsons, 304/478-3251; or West Virginia Mountain Bicycling Association, 304/296-4925.
9) Ocoee Region, Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. The Chilhowee Mountain Trails, set upon a plateau, feature a number of routes that twist and curve around the mountain top. Call 423/476-9700.
10) Lewis Morris Park, Morristown, New Jersey. In an area where the welcome mat is rarely rolled out for mountain bikers, this park offers fast, windy singletrack, perfect for single speeds. Call 973/326-7615.
11) Vietnam, Milford, Massachusetts. Forbidden fruit just outside Boston. Incredible patchwork of rocky, technical trails. Not advertised. Also known as the Upper Charles Headwaters. New England Mountain Biking Association, 1-800-57-NEMBA (www.nemba.org).