Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag issue #162, published in April 2012. Words and photos by Jeff Archer.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor.” Arguments about who invented what date back to the very beginning of cycling, often with no definitive answer. Was it Lallement or Michaux who was first to successfully graft pedals onto a draisine? Bicycle historians are still arguing about that one 150 years after the fact!
Back then, every bike was a singlespeed. When old Schwinn frames were being made into the original Klunkers, one of the first modifications was the addition of gears. Many of the early mountain bikes used a TA Cyclotourist triple crank with a 5-speed freewheel for a total of 15 speeds.
Perhaps in response to this increasing complexity, purpose-built singlespeed mountain bikes have been gaining in popularity. As with anything “new,” someone had to do it first. The obvious argument can be made that the first 40-years-worth of bikes were all singlespeeds. If we change the question to the first singlespeed mountain bike, that argument is moot. There were also folks riding the Klunkers in their original singlespeed configuration, another group using 26 inch BMX cruisers with one gear, and yet a third group of trials riders who also favored trials bikes with one gear.
When figuring out who made the first mountain bike, one of the criteria used is that it was purpose-built from scratch. This is why Joe Breeze is generally considered the builder of the first mountain bikes, since his Series I Breezer bikes were the first purpose-built mountain bikes, using a frame built specifically for the purpose, with all new parts. If we apply the same logic to singlespeeds, we need to figure out the earliest purpose-built singlespeed. The earliest we have found is from Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster. Here is Paul’s recollection of the bike:
“I had probably built about 20-odd mountain bike frames when I got the idea to build a singlespeed, race-specific mountain bike frame. This was in late 1985 or early 1986. Because I was so broke and pretty busy, I didn’t have time to build one for myself and had to wait for some crazy person to order one. The opportunity finally arrived when someone I rode with, John Miller, wanted to race singlespeed and wanted me to make him a special frame for it. It was to have track dropouts, a 24 inch rear wheel for quick acceleration, and a Bontrager fork for durability. I completed the frame and John went on to win a bunch of races on it. The next year John quit racing and I lost my sole singlespeed ambassador to the mountain bike world. John suggested that I make a bike for myself and race it. I was out of shape but I built the bike, trained for six weeks, and in 1988 entered the T.N.T. race in Tahoe in the singlespeed class. I won the race and then retired from racing so I could remain undefeated. The featured bike is the bike from 1988, and I rode it a ton all over the Santa Cruz mountains from 1988-1992. People thought I was crazy, but one by one they got the bug like I did. Now you can’t swing a dead derailleur without hitting a singlespeeder on the trails. I don’t know if I was the first builder to make something like this, but at the time, everybody who I talked to besides John Miller thought the idea of riding one gear in the woods was absolutely insane.”
Anyone out there know of an earlier purpose-built singlespeed?
This bike can be seen at the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology in historic downtown Statesville, North Carolina. If you can’t visit in person, check out the collection at www.mombat.org.