By Chris Reichel
There has been quite a bit of grumbling lately about singlespeeding being dead. They will say single speeds are played out, jumped the shark, sold out, mainstream, and so on. But there is still a large group of miscreants and derelicts from all over the world, who meet up once a year in a random corner of the globe for Single Speed World Championships. This year was no different and the location was Hakuba, Nagano, Japan.
The Japanese race organizers have been trying to bring the event to their country for a few years and we all knew that it would be a trip of a lifetime. I boarded plane without hesitation and had no idea what to expect. My preconceived notions of crowded streets and smoggy suburbs were quickly shattered when I finally arrived in the mountain town of Hakuba. It is a sleepy little ski station in the summertime but the remnants of the 1998 Winter Olympics are all around, reminding you that this is probably a very busy place once the snow falls.
Saturday was for socializing, registration and pre-riding the course: time to see what the Japanese Alps had to offer. In typical ski resort fashion, we were treated to huge climbs, screaming fast descents and slippery singletrack through cedar forest. More than a few people commented that it felt like a NORBA National cross country course from 1998.
After dark, we all gathered in the nearby ski lodge for an opening ceremony of sorts. We were treated to barrels of sake and a Taiko drum performance, the likes of which I have never seen. The drum crew performed while local artists created a huge painting on the floor while we all watched in awe. Once the crowd was sufficiently energized with sake and drum beats the focus turned to the qualifying competition for 2016 hosting rights. It was absolute pandemonium, but it was eventually sorted out that Australia would face off against Belgium in a final competition after the race.
Race day greeted us with pouring rain and the promise of a slippery fun time in the woods. I have been to quite a few Single Speed Worlds and have never seen a display of costumes like I did in Japan on race day. The locals upped the costume game significantly. The race began with a LeMans start up the side of the mountain and all the bikes were sufficiently re-arranged before the riders got to them. The rain let up just in time for the start and the racers set out for three laps of mountain bike fun.
Hundreds of smiling faces made their way around the course for a few hours. The eventual winners were Angus Edmond from New Zealand and Amy McDougall from South Africa. This was the second worlds win for both of them. They were promptly sat down and given their winner’s tattoos.
The party was then moved to town where we descended onto a fine local pub called Lucky Pete’s. Pete, the owner, is a heck of a guy. When things started to get a little out of hand, instead of calling the police, he just took pictures and poured us some more beer. We need more Petes in this world. The celebration went early into the next morning and we all raised a glass to heartfelt toast for our fallen single speed brother Burry Standar. By the time it was all over we were all winners.
In some corners of the mountain bike world, singlespeeds just might be dead. But somebody forgot to tell Japan. The level of passion and excitement for singlespeeds (and mountain bikes in general) in Japan is of the likes I haven’t seen in many years. The race organizers did an amazing job of showing us what their country has to offer in a very short amount of time. Hats off to them and all of their hard work! I can’t wait to get back and explore those mountains more.
See you in Australia for 2016!
Click on the magnifying glass to see full-size photos.
Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Issue #185 but due to a printing gremlin, the final few lines were cut off. It is reprinted here in its entirety. To read the reviews of the two singlespeeds in the issue, order a copy today.
Words by Eric McKeegan, photo by Kyle Tingly
Let’s get this out of the way first: singlespeeds = dead. Sure, the SSWC thing still happens, and sometimes it is still a proper shitshow. But other than that, the culture that arose around bikes with one gear is stone dead. That fact that riding bikes with a single gear was enough of a thing to create a culture is pretty impressive—a counterculture to already countercultural mountain biking, if you will.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Or not. There is a lot of booze involved in the history of singlespeeds, so things can be hazy, and this isn’t a history lesson. My own history of singlespeeding started in the basement of the Anaheim Convention Center in California during a mid- to late-’90s edition of Interbike with a little company called Spot Brand. I asked the same dumb questions that legions of other riders would ask me later on, once I built up a one-speed to call my own.
Because why wouldn’t you ask questions? The key part of the mountain bike movement revolved around adding gears to singlespeed cruisers. Why would anyone want to take them away?
As time went on, it became more than obvious why. For some it was a full-on double-middle-finger salute to the increasing complexity of modern (at the time) mountain bikes. For others it was the simplicity of one rider, one bike, one gear. And for a lot, it was a fad that made for an attractive bandwagon to clamor aboard.
Bandwagon or not, there was room for all, and singlespeeds began to redefine just what was necessary to have fun on a bike in the woods. Singlespeed-only races and festivals sprung up worldwide; magazines and websites devoted countless words to the experience.
As a kid, I was never into punk rock, but singlespeeds may have filled that void for me later in life. Yes, they are inanimate objects, and not a bunch of kids singing angry songs, but singlespeeds made me feel like I was part of a family—an obviously illegitimate and dysfunctional one, but a tribe all the same.
For a time, assembling a singlespeed was a rite of passage. But as time went on, that rite of passage became as easy as going down to your local bike shop and selecting one from the dozens of models from every major and minor bike company out there. Singlespeeds became mainstream. Hell, while researching this screed I found an article about singlespeeds in Men’s Journal from 2002, proof positive that the movement wasn’t underground anymore.
But eventually the bottom started to drop out and new fads to jump aboard sprung up (read: fat bikes). Stock singlespeeds are getting hard to come by, but it seems more and more hardtails include slider dropouts or a PF30 bottom bracket, both of which make for easy singlespeed conversions. Should singlespeeds have burned out rather than faded away? Maybe, but instead, mountain bike society accepted the tattered, drunk and belligerent group of one-speeders as part of the whole.
Where does that leave us? Right where we started. As the sticker says, “If you ride a singlespeed in the woods and nobody sees it, is it still cool?” The bandwagon has moved on, but in its wake, we still have some damn fine one-speed bikes to ride, and the two we have reviewed in the current issue of Dirt Rag represent the extreme ends of the spectrum.
The Trek is mainstream, lightweight and stripped down to rigid goodness. The REEB is beefy, suspended and dropper post equipped, ready to chase your Nomad-riding buddies down whatever scary chute you have the stones to ride. While singlespeeding may not be rebellious or counterculture anymore, that doesn’t mean we don’t love riding them today for all the same reasons we did more than 20 years ago.