Mike Ferrentino wrote that article for me 16 years ago when I was editor for a small regional bike rag in Northern California. Dear god I am so friggin old. Where does the time go? But I digress. The point is it is still sooo true even more than a decade later. The whole single speed thing to me is sort of an anomaly. Back almost two decades ago it was kind of revolutionary. Certainly the guys (and girls) doing it were making a huge statement. And in Northern California a statement in spades as out there the terrain is either steep as shit up or steep as shit down. Hard to pick the right gear for that. But I drank the koolaid. Chopped my purple Bridgestone MB-2 had Jeremy Sycip weld horizontal dropouts on and made a frankensinglespeed. I dug it. But it was more of a lifestyle than a riding style for me and I just had to kind of step away from it. For lots of reasons. I still hold that whole Santa Cruz crew in the highest of esteem. They live in a kind of biker Valhalla in my mind's eye still do as they are all rocking it out there.
But being so far removed from it at this point I have a whole new perspective on it. Single speeding contrary to some peoples opinions is a solid equipment choice. Mike Rowell got 3rd in the Open single speed cat and then went 5th in the 1/2/3 race at Ice Weasles on the same single speed. Now granted Ice Weasels was a crazy cross course that put a massive premium on bike handling. But all the gears in the world wasn't going to save your ass at Ice Weasels if you didn't know how to ride in snow and ice.
Single speeding has infected cross like an avian flu...well that's not totally accurate. Its more like a nice French press coffee percolating to heavenly perfection offering a totally different experience racing cross. A few hard riders on the right course can do well on a single speed cross bike against geared riders but those cases are super rare. But as a one design Open competition it levels the field, literally, and turns the victory over to the rider with the strongest quads, best bike handling skills and most moxy. But take a single speed and throw it in the woods in its 26" or 29er mtn bike configuration and now you have a performance "advantage." This is where my brain kind of wants to explode because it makes no sense. But denying the facts when they are in front of you is the quickest route to insanity.
I've been back on the east coast for five years. I openly admitted hating the mountain biking back here. There are obvious reasons for this. I am old and naturally timid. Hahaha, well pretty much that is true I am kind of fragile. But after 5 years and riding with some people who actually know what they are doing I've gotten less fearful and have adapted some better skills to tackle the terrain. And yes, disc brakes and some sweet sexy ti goodness from somerville has made me a bit more at ease.
But back to the single speeds. What has blown me away is the level of riding of my friends who ride single speed. What they are able to do on rigid single speed is nothing short of mind blowing. I have maybe five friends who use a single speed either as option A or a very solid option B. All have phenomenal technical ability. Not Banned 3 Colt Fake type skills but close. Riding with David Wilcox on tuesday in Hale reservation was kind of the exclamation point to the epiphany. Again not to seem like I am daft, but a single speed should be a disadvantage on technical terrain right? Or the rider should end up running a lot right? WRONG. They end up riding so much faster than a geared rider (because they are strong as hell and have to to keep momentum) that they put the geared rider into a spot of bother almost immediately. Mind blowing and puke inducing.
The other resultant observation is that riding single speeds forces the rider or maybe tranforms the rider into a smooth absolute bike Ninja. If you can't smash through things with suspension you are forced to flow over it like water. Crazy. Now I am not saying I would ever consider riding or racing a single speed mountain bike. Its just by riding with them I am either going to self combust and burst into flames on the side of the trail or become a wayyy better mountain biker. The one common denominator in all this? Could it be the Viking beards? True 3 out of five of my good friends who ride single speeds have impressive beards. But I don't think that's the whole story. I think a lot of its big phat tires and some serious mental and physical toughness and of course the most important bit they are just Cool as hell.