Sunday, September 13, 2009

The birth of single speed mountian biking ?

I wrote this story for a friend so I thought I would bore the rest of the world.....or at least the part that looks at this blog with the history of the dawn of the single-speed mountian bike.....err......something like that. Way back in 1985-86 I was a part time framebuilder mostly building fillet-brazed mountain bike frames, forks and stems as that's what people were asking for. One thing I learned early on ,in this buisness you need to build stuff that people want or they will get it somewhere else and you'll be a non-framebuilder in a hurry. Fortunately I liked building mountian bikes and enjoyed the riding part, once I figured out how to not crash every time I went out on a ride. My impression of mountain biking initially was that it was chaotic , irreverent and a real contrast to the staid and uptight world of road racing. I also was thinking about the clatter that the bikes made over the rough terrain and the complexity of the primitive gear shifiting setup. Another thing I noticed was that the bikes were heavy and not all that quick on the climbs. I got it in my head that a single speed mountian bike might solve some of these would be quiet with no chain-slap , it would be lighter without the derailleurs, shifters, triple crank, etc. The only thing holding me back from building such a bike was money and time. In early 1987 I was talking to a guy named John Miller about my single speed project and to my surprise he said that he would order one if the price were right-not only that, he would race it ( cruise-class actually did exist then, even though specific bikes for the class appearantly didn't)and represent Rock Lobster and my tiny one-car garage frame buisness. Now that I had an actual order I went to work and in a few weeks , single speed # 1 was completed. To help the bike have a quick feel I used a 24" rear wheel with a light rolled-down road rim from Keith Bontrager. I stayed with the 26" up front so that the bike would roll over rough stuff like a normal mountain bike. The frame had a wishbone seatstay, my first ever. I gave it a spin and realized that I had built something that you could really haul ass on, if you had the legs to turn the gear on the climbs. John Miller had the legs and went on to win almost every cruiser-class race he entered. John told me that the bike was a definite advantage and that nobody had anything like it at any of the races he went to. At the end of the season John decided to stop racing. I asked him what was I going to do now that i had lost my factory rider. He told me to build a bike, get in shape and race. I had never done a mountian bike race and had never intended to but this challenge sounded like just the thing to get me on a single vision of simpicity in the dirt. I did build the bike and I spent six weeks training on it for my first race. I noticed that I was able to really fly up short climbs on the bike and the lack of clatter made me feel more confident on the downhills. I ventured up to North Lake Tahoe for the T.N.T. race, an event that had a criuser-class catagory. There were 270-plus racers there but only six in the cruiser class. I decided to start in the back and avoid any chance of an early crash. I rode along and after the dustcloud of the mass start thinned I saw that I was passing a single speeder. A little later I passed a couple more. Before the top of the big climb of the race I passed one more and realized that I was in second place with a chance to win. I went all out to try to catch the front runner. When I crossed the line I was a little disappointed thinking that I had not won when a friend of mine told me that I had. As it turns out, the leader might have made a pit stop somewhere and I passed him without knowing. At that point I really thought that single speeding in the dirt was destined to become a big sport. In 1988 it was almost unknown and for the most part considered insane. It took another four years for single speeding to catch on ,but it did. I don't know if the John Miller bike was the first actual race-specific mountian bike ever built but it was the first around here . After my win in the T.N.T. I decided to quit racing and be an undefeated single speeder as long as I could.I was fully aware that my win was a fluke , not likely to be repeated ,especially if actual talented atheletes got the idea to race single speed. I continue to ride single speed in the dirt as it was and is what I hoped it would be-fast, quiet and simple.


  1. Great history lesson--enjoyed the write up very much--though, compared to the work that I should be doing, it wouldn't take too much! ;o)

    Are you still building frames?

  2. Yes,it's what I do five days a week.....and on most holidays, too. Weld we must.

  3. Cool--what's your website so I can check it out?

  4. i did my best to make up for your short lived one speed racing career by racing my Rock Lobster 1-speed hard for nine years, saw some podiums, too.....Steve Garro, Coconino Cycles.

  5. cool story and certainly one of the first purpose built SS bikes i've seen.

    i thought i read in MBA or some other such rag (a very long time ago) that gregg herbold was the single speed world champion in the mid-late 1980's. ...1987 or '88 iirc.

    this inspired me to coble together my first ss in 1988-89. this was pretty easy leap for me to make since i raced 24" bmx cruisers and rode them in the woods often.

    funny, ss bikes seem to have been around forever in some form or another, and i've always just thought of it as another bike. but now its uber hip and a badge of honor for newbies to be considered a "single speeder". who knew???

  6. Nice work--really like the simplicity of your dropouts on the SS frame.