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.