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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Single Speed Lifestyle

You're still the one that makes me strong
Still the one I want to take along
We're still having fun and you're still the one
Still The One, Johanna Hall and John Hall (1976)

Single speed mountain biking caught on in certain circles awhile back, but largely dissipated over time. Not for me. My primary mountain bike from 2001-2018 was a rigid steel single speed. Although I added a geared Jones 29+ mountain bike for bikepacking in 2018, my two other mountain bikes remain rigid single speed, even now.

Inexplicably, signs stir of a single speed resurgence, at least here in the Black Hills of South Dakota. See, e.g., Single Speed ShindigSweet. I love the single speed mindset and resulting lifestyle.

Tooling around the house on my new Rock Hopper Comp (December 1991)

In late December 1991, yes that's over 30 years ago, I stepped into our suburban Denver home after yet another long work day. I'm done. But Colleen has other thoughts. She presents a shiny new mountain bike as a congratulatory gift for my making partner at my law firm.

It's a Specialized Rock Hopper Comp, a solid mid-level mountain bike at the time. Rigid steel frame. 26 inch wheels. 2 inch wide knobby tires. Cantilever rim brakes. 3x8 speed drivetrain. 24/36/46 chain rings x 13/28 cassette. Trigger shifters. Flat bars. Flat pedals with toe clips. Braze-ons for racks and fenders. Too cool for school.

A few months before, I had rented that very bike from a local bike shop. For my first ever mountain bike ride, a friend suggested 24 miles of single track Colorado Trail from Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass and back. Wow. That bike was fast, fun, and so capable off-pavement. At every opportunity, I rode anything that looked like a road or trail or goat path. I was hooked.

In the late 1990's, I started racing mountain bikes and soon found myself in a nuclear arms race. That is, with dizzying advances in suspension, gearing, brakes, and seemingly everything else on a bike, one could buy performance and relative placing in amateur racing. For a few years, I plunged into the fray, buying a racing mountain bike and continuously upgrading components, which relegated the stodgy, heavy, hopelessly out of date Rock Hopper to back up/loaner bike.

Then, in 2001, for some reason I converted the Rock Hopper to single speed for an occasional commute to work. On the very first ride, I experienced an epiphany. This is it. This is the way. Strip it all down. Simplify it all. Everything. It's about the ride, not the bike. Ride. Just ride.

I bailed out of the rat race, ditching all the latest, greatest, gee-whiz technology. Just like that, I chose to ride a rigid single speed as my primary mountain bike for everything, including several years at the 24 Hours of Moab, the Dakota Five-O, and similar mountain bike races. It was hard. It was awesome. It was perfect for me.

My Rock Hopper dressed for a final commute to work on June 30, 2020,
with some original turquoise paint peeking through on the top tube.
The "IRONCLAD" decal represents the old mountain bike racing team of

Over time, I converted an odd assortment of beater bikes to single speed or fixed, even fashioning an old mountain bike into a banana seat, ape hanger cruiser. My few remaining geared bikes languished, practically unridden. In 2010, I decided to try a drop bar mountain bike, so I built up a new, rigid, drop bar, Kona Unit 29er single speed as my primary mountain bike. The Rock Hopper moved back to commuter, where it's been ever since.

Sometimes set up single speed and sometimes fixed, the Rock Hopper carried me many of the final years that I commuted to work in Rapid City. My retirement in 2020 closed that chapter, but the Rock Hopper still brings a smile to face when spinning to CoffeeOutside - Rapid City and other low key rides.

After 30 years, it's still the one.

Still The One, Orleans (1976)

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