Dave Grey - Founding Father of Single Speed Racing

It's early October and while my friends are getting their cowbell on with cyclocross, I'm waiting for my flight to NY for the HiEdWeb conference followed by a visit with family. Since I have some time on my hands with a computer in front of me for the next few weeks, I thought I'd follow through on a promise I made to Tom Keller to scan and publish some of my old photos from my racing days back in the 80's and 90's. I found one in particular that has some historic value.

We were quite a sight back then. Day-glo lycra, really large goggles,toe clips, thumb shifters, no suspension, and races that were run largely on dirt roads and double track. There was also a dizzying sense of being caught up in something new. Companies were experimenting. Bikes were changing, it
was all evolving. Everyone knew the bikes could be better and everyone was tinkering trying to figure out how.

My first race was the then famous Revenge of the Siskiyous. In July of 1987 I lined up on my Trek 830 with over 500 other racers. It was one of the biggest races in the country.  It was also one of the most logistically complicated single day races ever put on. It was staged in Lithia Park, in downtown Ashland. The pros and Cat I's lined up in the park. The rest of us watched them take off, riding the fire roads 12 miles up to the ski lodge on Mt Ashland. The rest of us boarded a bunch of school buses, our bikes tossed in Ryder trucks, and we were bused to the ski lodge to line up there and start after the pros went by to race the remaining 26 miles.

Watching the pros mill around at the start, I could see Ned Overend, John Tomac, Cindy Whitehead, Joe Murray might have been there too. There was also this old guy hanging around. It was pretty hard to stand out in that sea of florescent skin tight clothing and regrettable fashion choices but he certainly did. He was wearing baggy cotton shorts and shirt in a matching floral pattern.

And his bike had no gears.

He also had a number plate on his jersey. He was racing a single speed and by the looks of it, he was lining up with the pros in the park. I pre-road the course the weekend before. It wasn't technically hard but it was long and had a punishing steep climb (the infamous Revenge Hill) about 10 miles from the finish. I bonked hard trying to get up it. I thought that guy was out of his mind for racing at all except that he was talking to Ned Overend, the best racer in the country, who didn't seem to concerned about they guy's abilities.  I kept my opinion to myself as we cheered them off and boarded the buses.

It took about an hour to get to the parking area on Mt Ashland and we were barely off the bus when Ned Overend roared by. Then, a few minutes later, there he was.

I later learned his name was Dave Grey. He was a test rider for Interloc Racing Design, a small company based in Selma, Oregon at the time. Dave was well known to Oregon racers. I think he was in his early 50's when this picture was taken, about the same age I am now. It's funny how one defines "old" at different phases of one's life. It's a lot different when you own those years.

I never met Dave but you couldn't miss him at the races. A year later he ran by me on a steep section of the Shasta Lemurian Classic. One later Revenge race, he showed up in homemade prison stripes. I learned to respect what I thought was "old" watching him pull away from me.

Looking at this photo now, I'm struck by a few things. Except for the lack of disc brakes, he could be riding that bike today. Nothing dates a bike like technology and his bike really didn't have much.

I'm also struck by the man himself.  He wasn't the same age as the people around him, he didn't dress like them, and he rode a bike like no other. He was the embodiment of non-conformity. It didn't matter to him. Dave was just there, riding a single speed bicycle because he wanted to.

It's different now. We have so many choices but the landscape is fixed. Race full suspension, hard tail, even cyclocross or a tandem. Take your pick from three different wheel sizes, Lord knows how may gears you can choose from. It's all there but unless penny farthings catch on again,  you can't show up race day on a bike that predicts the future by going back to the past. Dave raced a single speed in 1987. There were no other single speed mountain bike racers. There were no other single speed mountain bikes. He didn't care. That wasn't the point. There was no point. It was what he liked to ride. And he was fast. He was living, racing proof that a single speed mountain bike was not only rideable, but could also be faster than a geared bike. It depended entirely on the human engine and he was quite the engine.

Sometime in the early/mid 90's, I didn't see Dave at the races anymore. Someone said his back was bothering him. By '96 NORBA had imploded, the Revenge of the Siskiyous went away, and I stopped racing. Dave was consigned to memory and the back of a photo album.

I don't know what became of him. I wonder why he isn't better known, at least within our sport.  Mountain bike racing mature enough to have its saints and he certainly rolled with the greatest of them back in the day. I found a reference to him at the MOMBAT site part way through an interesting history of IRD. I found some mention of him in the MTBR forums from around 2001 but that's about it.

Dave Grey wasn't the first single speed racer. People were racing one speed bikes on gravel roads in the 19th century. But when I look at a modern single speed mountain bike and I admire the culture that has built up around the act of racing one, I always think of Dave, those crazy outfits, and his incredible strength,  and the fact that he was, very likely, the first among them. If you race a single speed mountain bike, he was there before you. He lit the way.


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