Consigned to kids’ bikes for the past century, the single speed made an impassioned comeback in the early 2000s. For a dedicated few, the spirit of the single speed lives on.
You will know Endless Bike Company’s owner Shanna Powell when you see her. If the fairy dress doesn’t give her away, the cat ears attached to her helmet will.
In 2008, Powell bought Endless Bike Company, a cottage bicycle drivetrain parts manufacturer for single speed bikes. There was just one problem: she had never ridden a single speed before.
“I was just so new to bikes in general that I hadn’t formed an opinion [about single speeds],” says Powell, who had only started working at a bike shop two years prior. “I didn’t know the difference from one bike to the next.”
Soon after the ownership transfer, Powell hopped on a single speed at Bent Creek Experimental Forest near her home in Asheville, N.C. Nearly a decade later, she still prefers single speeds to geared bikes.
For ease of use, affordability, and low maintenance, Powell argues that beginner riders should start with a single speed from the get-go. If the bike is equipped with a gear appropriate for the terrain, she says, riding a single speed is not much different than riding a geared bike. True, you might be coasting more than pedaling on the downhill, but a strong single speeder knows how to utilize momentum to her advantage and can crush a climb faster than her geared bike counterpart.
“I choose to ride a single speed because I think it makes you a better rider,” says Powell. “It forces you to use your bike and your body rather than just shifting.”
In general, says Powell, single speeders are the most inclusive subclass of cycling, hinging on the simplest of principles: having fun. And most devout single speeders are characters in one way or another. They have to be. If they’re not taking the brunt of geared cyclists’ jokes, they’re heckling each other. It comes with the bike. More often than not, cyclists who hear “single speed” think either next-level-badassery or stupid pain. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Take New River Bikes owner Andy Forron, for example. At this year’s Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race (PMBAR), a 50- to 80-mile self-supported orienteering suffer fest, Forron and his teammate crushed the competition, finishing first in the single speed category and third overall. In jorts and a purple jersey (and a rigid frame with matching purple handlebars), he hardly looked the part.
“I wouldn’t put it past Andy to show up in jean shorts and a cutoff shirt,” says Powell. “He’ll be the one standing around at the race beforehand and everyone will be like, ‘Who IS this guy?’ And then he will rip their legs off.”
Serious, but not too serious. Or, hell, slap the bag and let’s party. Despite the simplicity of their bikes, single speeders are a mysterious breed. We sat three of them down, Andy Forron (Fayetteville, W.Va.), Rich “Dicky” Dillen (Charlotte, N.C.), and Watts Dixon (Greensboro, N.C.), to get a better idea of the inner workings of a single speeder’s brain. Whether or not their responses lead us closer to the truth is debatable.
You’ve all been riding since childhood. Do you remember your first bike?
AF: I got a mountain bike for my seventh birthday. I really wanted a dirt bike but I didn’t get that.
RD: Some piece of sh*t with a banana seat, yellow and brown because those are the best colors for action.
WD: I also had a Schwinn with a banana seat, and then eventually some form of a BMX bike. It was bright yellow. It got run over by a dump truck.
How did you get into racing single speeds?
AF: I started racing when I was pretty little. I got dragged around to all of the local races when I was 8 or 9. That morphed into doing longer races, and then 100-milers, and then those stupid ones where I don’t sleep for a few days. Now I like to do PMBAR because I can beat Rich and Watts.
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RD: I started mountain biking sometime in college in the late ‘80s. When I moved to Charlotte, my horizons opened. I started racing in Pisgah and doing 24-hour races. Once I learned how to hate myself, that’s when I started single speed racing.
WD: I went to a lot of races very early on, but I never raced because I was f*cking terrified. I don’t know why. I rode a lot but I didn’t want to race. Then in my middle school and early high school years, I became obsessed with the idea of doing Ironman. When I got back on a mountain bike, it was always a single speed. The bicycling scene, as vibrant as it may appear sometimes, is just as boring as every other facet of society, so I was looking for something that was not as boring as everything else I had seen.
When did single speeds peak in popularity?
AF: It seemed like it got really popular about five years ago. Now it’s kinda back to the same people that were doing it in the ‘90s. It’s certainly not what it used to be. You can’t even buy a single speed from a lot of the major manufacturers anymore.
RD: Yeah about six years ago. Everyone had a single speed in their quiver then.
What appealed to you about riding a single speed?
AF: I just started riding single speed because my geared bike broke and I never fixed it.
RD: I remember looking at the simplicity of the bikes without all the shit on them. There was a mystique to it. We didn’t know what could be done on a single speed. Once I started riding single speed I couldn’t get back on any of my other bikes because they all sucked. I’ve bought some geared bikes in the last decade and the last one I owned for 47 days. The local shops know not to sell me bikes with gears because I told them to stop me if I ever tried to do it again.
WD: Early on, going to all those races and watching, the guys racing single speed were always the biggest characters. It was a lot more nuts back then. They were wearing costumes, like full braziers on a 24-hour race. They stood out and it definitely left an impression and I knew that was more my style.
So what is considered proper single speed attire now?
RD: No matter what you wear, everyone still has the right to make fun of what you’re wearing. If you wear jorts, you get shit for that. If you take your shirt off, you get made fun of for that. You better have some thicker skin if you wanna play the game. They’re gonna dig shit up forever and hold it against you so be prepared.
WD: What about those cargo shorts?
RD: If there’s a zombie apocalypse and I’m out riding around, I’m gonna need to put stuff in my pockets so I’m gonna keep those cargo shorts. Just a few pairs. I need a place to put my water.
Do you have a single speed hero?
WD: Heroes always disappoint. There are no heroes.
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Why is riding a single speed better?
AF: It’s really quiet. Usually. And it’s really simple. You don’t have to screw with it, you just ride it. There’s nothing to break off or hang off.
RD: It limits the things I have to think about because I‘m not very good with options. It’s like a Mexican restaurant that just has burritos. If it’s a shitty burrito then I just eat my way through and if it’s a good burrito then yay. I just want to ride my bike. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. I just need to go faster or slow down and I don’t want to think about much more than that.
WD: I like Rich’s answer. I do enjoy the challenge of riding a single speed. When Rich and I did the Trans-Sylvania Epic, we were the only people on rigid bikes. It sucked at times. It was challenging. But we still had tons of fun and finished all of the sections and it levels the satisfaction even if you didn’t win by any stretch.
Finish this sentence for me: To ride a single speed you must be…
RD: 21 or older.
And this one: You should only ride single speed if…
AF: You wanna have a good time.
RD: You’re not excited about electronic shifting.
WD: You’re looking at Interbike coverage and everything makes you go, “Ugh this is horrible.”
What is something about the single speed culture that most of us can’t understand?
RD: Whether you stand on the podium or not, you just came there to have a good time. But even when you win you don’t have a sense of accomplishment because you’re like, “If so-and-so had showed up he would have beat me anyway.” There is no satisfaction. You’re just always unhappy. Deep down we’re just racing bikes which is really dumb. We could race lawn mowers and it wouldn’t be much different. I’ve got a push mower.
WD: Honestly I don’t even like racing. I like beating people. I like being in front of someone, but I don’t like when someone is in front of me. If there are seven of us all riding together in a race, it sucks. I want to beat all those people but I don’t want to have to race them.
How would you describe the present-day single speed community?
RD: Okay, for real, we’re making fun of it seriously. There are just certain things that bother me like the guy who shows up on a single speed because he can’t beat anybody else. We can’t make up our own rules but we have social media now and we can shame people. We can ban cargo shorts on the podium.
WD: I think if you ban cargo shorts, the whole mountain bike scene would die.
RD: Okay, bring your cargo shorts. As long as we get to make fun of it.
WD: Riding single speeds is all something we like to do, but we’re not like, “SINGLE SPEED FOREVVVVER.” On some level everyone is guilty to some degree of putting themselves in a category like mountain biker, road biker, single speeder. We’re real people and we are able to look past something as banal as riding a one-geared bike in the woods as a way to define who we are. What I’m trying to say is, we’re all really deep and complicated people. Like, really deep.
So are there different degrees of single speed enthusiasm?
RD: There’s the calculated go-to-bed-on-time single speeder with a power meter and a training schedule. Then there are those of us who want to put in some effort but not more than what’s required. We might not drink too much the night before a race. Then there are those who drink way too much the night before and don’t even finish the race and don’t care that they don’t finish and those are beautiful people.
Do single speeders have a mantra?
RD: Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion. Working hard because you’re stupid is called single speeding.
WD: Or maybe something existential. Like a Sartre quote. Everything is meaningless.
AF: I just like to ride my bike. Yay bikes.
What does a single speeder bring on every bike ride?
AF: Gummy bears are definitely important. And a good time.
RD: Beer and two hard-boiled eggs. There’s something about stopping and drinking a beer and eating two hard-boiled eggs that makes me feel like life doesn’t suck. Or if you can steal bacon from work, that’s good, too.
WD: Their neuroses.
Do you have a dream single speed bike?
AF: A titanium beach cruiser with a dropper post because I want a button on my handlebar like everybody else.
RD: What’s my dream bike? A dream bike would be like a four-pound single speed with rockets on it, but then everyone would make fun of me, so there is no dream bike. I have no dreams.