Twin Cities on Two Wheels

Going Steady
The inimitable appeal of the single-speed bike
By Dan Gilchrist

The reasons are many—the flat terrain, the wear and tear that winters put on a traditionally geared bike, a serious fetish for the bike-messenger aesthetic, and maybe the influence of a few evangelists—but the conclusion is solid: Minneapolis has become a Midwestern mecca for single-speed cyclists.

The chain-driven bicycles first invented in the 1880s were essentially single-speed models—bikes with just one chain ring on the front and one cog on the back—but the origins of their recent comeback are murky. Many attribute it to cyclists from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands who moved to New York City in the 1970s and ’80s and became bike couriers. Dodging traffic and other hazards around the city on stripped-down track bikes, with messenger bags slung over their shoulders, their renegade style attracted imitators among messengers across the country.

Today, thanks to increasing online commerce, the ranks of bike messengers have dwindled to a hardy few, but there are thousands of cyclists who look like messengers—riders outfitted with single-speed bikes, oversized shoulder bags with a phone on their straps, and rolled-up pant legs to avoid chain entanglement and grease. Last February, on one of winter’s coldest days, several hundred similarly geared riders showed up in downtown Minneapolis to ride the Stupor Bowl, a race loosely based on a messenger’s delivery route (as are the Alley Cat races, unofficial events where riders whiz between landmarks and bars in downtown and Northeast Minneapolis).

“Single-speed is the purest form of a bike,” said Gene Oberpriller, a shaggy-haired fixture of the Twin Cities cycling scene whose One-on-One Bicycle Studio specializes in parts and repairs for single-speed bikes (and coffee for their owners). “It’s really the most bang for buck—more pure aesthetically, and more efficient than other bikes.” Because of that single chain ring and cog, single-speeds appeal to year-round bike commuters here because they don’t seize up from cold, salt, and ice like geared mechanisms often do, and they cost less to buy and maintain. Another type of single-speed bike, the fixed-gear, provides an even more intimate connection between rider and bike. Once exclusive to track racers, fixed-gear bikes are set up with no ability to coast, so riders have to keep moving their legs as long as the wheels are in motion.
Tom “Hurl” Everson, like his friend and former coworker Oberpriller, is another cycling personality who’s made a go of it with the coffee-and-bike-shop hybrid. Cars-R-Coffins, his outfit in Minneapolis’s Lyn-Lake neighborhood, is named after the punk zine he has published since the mid-’90s, featuring writing about music and freewheeling bike journeys through U.S. cities and more exotic locales like Cambodia. The Cars-R-Coffins logo—a coffin outfitted with four wheels—now adorns thousands of bike frames, as well as T-shirts and bumper stickers, all over the country.

Together Oberpriller and Everson have helped spread the single-speed gospel throughout the Midwest. In the early ’90s they worked at the Alternative Bike and Board shop in Uptown, where they’d transform forgotten frames in the shop’s attic into what Everson calls “super hoopty junkers.” They went on to become single-speed-riding company reps for bike brands owned by Quality Bicycle Parts that manufactured single-speeds, and also gained a reputation for “enhancing parties,” according to Everson, at bike races and other regional events. Minneapolis’s reputation as a haven for single-speeders was cemented in 2000 when the city hosted the Single Speed World Championships, an off-road race.

With flecks of gray now showing up in Oberpriller’s black mop and Everson’s red beard, the two are the godfathers of the Twin Cities’ burgeoning scene. It’s hard to argue with the simple appeal of the bikes they favor. “When you watch people riding around town, the funny thing is that more than half of them don’t shift gears,” said Oberpriller. “When they try the single-speed bike they inevitably say, ‘This is way easier, this is what I’m looking for because I never shift anyhow.’”

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