Before I go into the story of Single Speed Arizona 2020, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nate. I’m from Tucson, Arizona and I own a bike shop called Blue Dog Bicycles. I eat, sleep, breathe, shit, and fart mountain biking. I’ve been making unique and challenging routes around Southern Arizona for 11 years and heading out with my friends to try to push ourselves. I host 10-15 bike events a year around Southern Arizona. Everything from taco scavenger hunts to 400-mile gravel epics. Bicycling and the Southern Arizona cycling community are almost all that I care about at this moment in my life.
The idea for SSAZ2020 started back in 2018. My friend Connor and I took some folks from out of town for a little bikepacking action around Cochise County. We didn’t make it very far after the Dragoon Mountains were too rugged and too demanding for the group’s expectations of a good time. It wasn’t an act of bravado, we weren’t trying to blow anybody’s legs off or anything, it’s just the kind of riding we love to do. Some say that Arizona mountain bikers like a little more gristle on their steak and the Dragoon Mountains backcountry are heavy on the gristle.
The riding is in-line with the experience one might have on the Arizona Trail or any other backcountry out here. A nice little cross-cut of Arizona. Difficult riding and beautiful views abound. Bumming out the folks from out of town on trails we love sparked a little conversation. “You know what…. Let’s try and do Single Speed Arizona here…” Year after year SSAZ is all about partying on a difficult, beautiful bike ride with friends from all over the country. The gnarliness of the riding in the Dragoons made the idea seem perfect. We routed out a nice 30-mile loop through the Dragoons and it seemed perfect for a Single Speed Arizona one year.
I’m not great at much, but I do pride myself on throwing good bike events. I was confident I was the right person to throw a SSAZ event one year. I don’t like talking in crowds much, but I rolled up SSAZ2018 telling everyone “IM HOSTING NEXT YEAR”. My good bud Bryan Harding and his gang had the same idea, and before I knew it SSAZ2019 went to them. Fuck. It wasn’t a bad thing, they threw a hell of a party up there in 2019. A whole year goes by and I walked into Bumblebee Ranch saying the same thing I was saying the year before “IM HOSTING NEXT YEAR”. It kinda lined up because The Big Homie Dirty Reichel had just gotten himself a hideout out near those mountains and we were both eager to introduce folks to Cochise County.
If you’ve ever been to a single-speed event you may have seen a hosting rights competition go down. They get heated. Getting the hosting rights for SSAZ2020 was a lot more like pitching an idea to a board room. I crawled into Cosmo Kaolin’s RV and pitched some wild ideas about throwing a party out in the Dragoon Mountains. The gang was all immediately down. Kaolin poked his head out of the RV yelling “SINGLE SPEED ARIZONA TWENTYTWENTY IN THE DRAGOON MOUNTAINS!!! NATE SUCKS!!!! SSAZ2020 DRAGOOOOOOONS!” He’s a wild man. If you’ve ever met Kaolin you can vouch for his ability to communicate to a crowd of people. People I didn’t know we’re coming up to me to say how stoked they were for SSAZ2020. It was ON!
Now, as I said… Our gang of regulars around Blue Dog don’t back down from a push-a-bike or a loose, steep descent. Even by our very, very loose standards for acceptable trail conditions the Dragoon Mountains needed some serious trail love. Our gang’s saying goes “ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” So, between February and August, we made the 3 hour round trip drive out to the Dragoon Mountains more than a dozen times to do some goodwill trail work and brushing. Simply improving the existing trail infrastructure to standards acceptable to all user groups was a massive undertaking. We used long loppers to clear brush way above our heads so the equestrian folks would be happy and we did not build any sweet berms or “features” to keep the hikers experience pure.
It was strictly safety improvements with multiple trail users kept in mind. We were on a mission and cat-claw was the enemy. We’d leave each weekend mission bleeding, tired, and stoked. This was gonna be awesome. We worked out the party with an RV Park close-ish to the trail and planned shuttles with a stagecoach company. We had a permit, we had event insurance, and everything seemed to be in order on our end. It was going to go down in a big, big way. In August we opened registration to the public and the riders started pouring in from all over the world. Before we knew it we well passed the amount of National Forest users we had initially told the Forest Service about. Who knew so many people wanted to come party on single speeds? We sure didn’t.
A couple of weeks before Single Speed Arizona was scheduled to go down we received a phone call at Blue Dog. “Hi, I want to sign up for Single Speed Arizona. Exactly what parts of the National Forest are you going to be using?”. My dirtbag sixth-sense is triggered and I think to myself “this is a cop.” I respond, “Well, it’s sold out so if you want to sign up to volunteer we can talk.” and my suspicions were confirmed “Hi, my name is _______. I’m a federal law enforcement agent for the National Forest service. I’m looking at your registration website and if you bring this many people into the National Forest we are going to arrest you and fine you up to $30,000.”
Immediately the last year of work flashed before my eyes. I tried re-wording the event a number of ways to the National Forest service and nothing was gonna fly. If we showed up we were getting arrested. That was that. I was respectful and calm on the phone with the LEA because it simply wasn’t going to happen. Honestly, the National Forest Service law-enforcement agent I spoke with was kind, educational, and welcoming to future bicycle events on their (see also: OUR) public lands. I offered him every single dollar that I have, “No.” FUCK, TIME TO GET CREATIVE.
We’d started making plans already for SSAZ2021 in Bisbee, Arizona. Bisbee is a rad little artist town down by the US/Mexico border that doesn’t shy away from raucous partying and is entirely surrounded by public lands. Most people hadn’t ridden the trails down there so we thought it’d make another nearly perfect venue for SSAZ. No consolation, just a little move. We immediately shifted our energy into turning Bisbee into the SSAZ2020 venue.
Understanding more about our rights and restrictions using federal lands for populous bike rides by talking with the National Forest Service that weekend we moved forward with a new game-plan for Bisbee. No ROUTE, no RACE, no MAPS, no suggestions for areas to check out. No guidance by any means onto public lands at all. If folks were gonna ride bikes with people they’d have to socialize with others and explore by their own accord! We changed the nature of the event from a “Bike Ride With Friends” to “An outdoor recreation conference on private property that was privately insured by both SSAZ and the hosts.”
If folks wanted to go explore their public lands around the parties that experience was entirely their own idea. We were throwing two parties, that’s it. Our buddy Markus Parkus from Bisbee Soap & Sundry took us around town introducing us to folks that’d help us with a party. The trails in Bisbee needed love, so in between meetings we were scrambling up the hills to brush back more manzanita, catclaw, and other killjoys. Our other worry was that some of the trails in the area passed through privately owned properties so we headed out to shake some hands and tell the locals exactly what we wanted to have happened.
Here was this amazing trail we’d love for our people to explore but the drop-in was on private property. We pedaled up the mountain and Markus put us in touch with the owner. Turns out he’s really awesome, he’s a single-speeder himself, his name is Bill, and he thinks SSAZ2020 is a fantastic idea. He expressed his world-view and personal conflict with being a landowner to us. Just because he owned the land doesn’t mean he wanted to control people using it or passing through it. He sure didn’t mind us. Bill told us he wasn’t hip to the internet and that Google had listed his backyard as an attraction around Bisbee because he made a bunch of art back there.
He had tourists wandering around his yard and knocking on his door asking about stuff. Using basic sense, one might deduce that folks don’t exactly live out in the hills above mining towns for the nightlife. We really connected with Bill and our little present to him was getting his yard taken off of GoogleMaps. If you ever read this Bill, we owe you a nice bottle of mezcal. Bill was definitely one of our heroes that weekend. We spent 5 days in Bisbee meeting people and working trails. We returned to Tucson completely exhausted. So, while different, it was still going down. There was a buzz in the air about the party moving to Bisbee. Rightfully so, folks were a little intimidated by the riding in the Dragoon Mountains – but this new idea was entirely centered around FUN. People could go ride as much or as little as they wanted now. Restricted legally, we weren’t keeping track at all.
A couple of weeks of yelling from a hilltop that the ride had moved to Bisbee goes by and for the most part people are really stoked. A couple of folks canceled their registrations but they were quickly replaced by more eager riders. We were going to be a nice little economic boost to a small town, and we were coming to drink, eat, and tip handsomely. Most businesses in Bisbee greeted us with open arms, some others not so much (but let’s focus on the good people that made the weekend possible). Our crowd isn’t for everybody and we recognize that. We’re open to late-adopters around here.
It was the Thursday before the event and our whole gang was going down to Bisbee to smart smoking a couple of pigs we’d reserved with this rancher for the event. At this point, I’m pretty nervous and on-edge about the whole event. Simone and I took a little walk around the block of the bike shop so I could cool off a little. I’m sitting on a park bench being like “dude, I’m freaking out a little.” just because so much seemed to be in the air. We walk it off and return to the bike shop. As I’m headed in there’s someone waiting for me. He’s a fully decked out federal BLM agent that has a lot of questions about Single Speed Arizona and how it was going to be using the public lands around Bisbee.
He reminds me that I could be arrested and receive massive fines for violating the special use permits required for guiding people on BLM land. Wow, the second federal agency that knew we existed!? We had to be doing something right! This BLM agent was just as calm, friendly, and educational as the National Forest Service LEA I had spoken with weeks prior. I tell him we are hosting a conference at two private properties within Bisbee city limits and that we wouldn’t tell people where to go at all. Folks were gonna have to get out and explore their public lands without our guidance which was entirely within their rights as tax-paying citizens.
He agreed and appreciated that we weren’t running 300 people down the same trail. Minimizing impact on the local jogging & hiking community was a huge mission of ours and he really appreciated that. I joke with the agent that most of our crew are half-drunk and riding single speed bikes anyway. By the end of our conversation, I was really stoked. I hadn’t lied even once to the agent and everything in his eyes was on the up-and-up. We loaded bikes and bodies into the cars and we headed to Bisbee. So much had happened leading up to this event that the energy in the cars headed out was awesome. At the risk of sounding cliché, I say “you gotta fight for your right to party”.
Our homie that was hauling the meat smoker for opening dinner was behind us on the highway a ways so we get into Bisbee and unload the swag, bikes, tents, etc out of the vehicles and check in with our hotel room before heading down to start the next day’s dinner. We try calling the dude with the meat smoker a couple of times and he isn’t answering. There isn’t cell-reception around the area so we didn’t think much of it. We went down to St. Elmo’s to celebrate our arrival to SSAZ2020. The second we walked in the bar a purple dildo landed at my feet, I looked up and saw a noticeably intoxicated person standing in front of a sign that read “BOWLING FOR DILDOS”. Basically, you and your friends paid $5, you bowled through the very much crowded bar, and whoever scored the highest received a dildo for their efforts. This wasn’t our idea, but we were all happy to participate. There are 6 bikes piled up out front and the locals are like “DANG LOOK AT ALL THOSE BIKES!” They have no idea what is in store for their little town. All the excitement around trying to win dildos distracted us from the real question that night… “Where was the meat smoker? We need to start dinner.” We closed out the bar and headed up into the mountains to get a little sample bite of the singletrack we’d enjoy this weekend. Another distraction “Where the fuck is the meat smoker?”. Eventually, I lost my concern about that to the evening.
I woke up in the morning in a panic “OH FUCK WE DIDN’T START SMOKING THAT PORK LAST NIGHT” and head down to the parking lot the rest of the gang was camping in to ask where our friend was. Nobody could get ahold of him, and the meat would’ve had to have started getting smoked the night before if it was gonna be any good. Markus Parkus puts us in touch with his Cajun homie who runs a food truck. “Hi Gary, what’re the most sandwiches you’ve ever sold in one day? We need 300+ meals cooked for tonight.” Gary’s cool as a cucumber and responds “Oh shit…. I better get some stuff out of the freezer.” Right when I hang up the homie Seabass puts his phone-call on speakerphone. It’s the dude with the meat smoker, “Some shit went down. The meat smoker is in Cochise County Sheriff’s impound attached to my truck. We’re fucked.” I’m glad I already made other plans, but I’m worried about my bud. The guy wasn’t answering his phone because he was in jail. I’m stressed over the party I’m hosting and all but it’s hard to be bummed at him because fuck… that sucks way worse for him.
People are starting to pour into town and showing up at the conference at Motel Jonquil. Kirstin from Brush Mountain Lodge and our buddy Ali Knutson (who was hilariously wearing a BLM uniform from when she’d worked for them) are our welcoming party for folks to arrive at SSAZ. We’re coaching everybody that THERE IS NO ROUTE, THERE IS NO GROUP RIDE, THERE IS NO RACE. ANY RIDING YOU DO HERE IS UP TO YOU. And most folks get it, others don’t. “Ohhhh yeah… wink wink… where’s the race at though?” “THERE FUCKING ISN’T ONE.” A handful of folks just seriously don’t get it so I make an announcement that they have to show up at this other bar at 1:30 AM that night to find out “the route”. The energy at the party was amazing! I’ve never seen so many hugs, high fives, and good-natured fun. We shove 400+ people into this little back yard. Multiple bonfires with single speeders flying over and through flames in every direction. Thee Deores (MOUNTAIN BIKING’S #1 ROCK AND ROLL BAND) rock the party. The food truck dude throws me a few hang-ten hand signs as I’m checking in with him, he’s got a HUGE line of hungry, semi-drunk single speeders and he’s cooking up the goods as fast as he and his wife physically can.
The convenience store next door set their record in one-night revenue. It was awesome. To comply with noise ordinance we moved the party down to St. Elmo’s Bar around 10:00 PM to keep it rolling and eventually “make the announcement”. The party at St. Elmo’s turned from a bunch of friends high-fiving over beers and bonfires into a wilder time. We were here to party as hard as we could, and Bisbee was totally ready for that kind of thing. When folks arrived at St Elmo’s we tried to make it clear that they were lied to and were told “THERE IS NO ROUTE THERE IS NO RACE! MAKE FRIENDS AND RIDE WHATEVER YOU WANT”. In my head, I had envisioned this fools-errand of a party kind of like the Powell-Peralta skate video “The Search For Animal Chin”. These people would be searching for this “route” in a fever alongside folks that they barely knew, they’d strengthen their bonds with each other only to find out the entire search WAS the route. The route was inside of them all along. Surely they get it at this point. At this point St. Elmo’s has about 100 single speed mountain bikes piled up out front in a massive pile and I see the same local that had been amazed at six of us the night before. He’s like “OHHHHH SHITTTTTT!” and I share his sentiment. “Oh shit.”
The next morning I woke up around sunrise. I made some coffee in the little apartment we’d rented for the weekend and went out on the second-story balcony. Single speeders were already showing up yelling up to my balcony “where do we go? Where’s the start?”. I had purchased 250 shooters of tequila to take down to Bisbee to distribute at the conference and I answered their questions by throwing tequila shooters at people and yelling “THERE IS NO ROUTE THERE IS NO GROUP RIDE. GO TO MOTEL JONQUIL!”. Cops were asking cyclists “Where are you going?” and they actually had no idea. Bisbee PD was totally cool about hundreds of cyclists taking over the streets of Bisbee. Again, Bisbee is beyond cool. I make my way down to the Motel Jonquil and announce that a certain hiking app has trails maps of all the BLM land around Bisbee and within no-time, everybody gets a mysterious Google pin-drop that just says “TRAILHEAD”. It was more like a rave meeting up than a bicycle race. Folks group up and the Motel Jonquil’s yard empties. Most riders head out towards the main climb for their first bit of exploration and climb a few thousand feet up a steep gravel road out to some radio towers. Nothing out there but amazing views and a helicopter landing pad that made for a perfect dancefloor.
They start working their weird down the station and can now see that we’ve planted Brian Vance from Catalina Brewing Company on Juniper Flats road. He was pouring beers out of kegs from his brewery and pointing folks down towards a trail marker on Bill’s property if they wanted to see some nice single-track. There’s kind of the main trail in Bisbee that the hiking app suggests to trail users. Minimizing our impact on the hiking and jogging community was a major mission of mine with the event. Our group was full of respectful and kind individuals but I wanted to see what a hiker experience would be like. We decided to forego any riding at Single Speed Arizona and Simone and I started hiking up the trail uphill. I wanted to see what the multi-user experience would be like for non-cyclists not involved with our little outdoor conference. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as great as it was. Even on steep inclines riders were stopping well away from us, dismounting, calling out to us the number in their group, and halting their groups from behind so we could pass. I’d yell ahead “It’s me, Nate!” and we’d wave them by.
It was so funny to Simone and me to compare the attitudes of the people at the bottom of the single track versus the attitudes of the folks who’d just finished the big climb up the mountains. People on the bottom had shit-eating grins after miles of face-melting single track. The folks at the top were dead and laying on the ground “why are we doinggg thisssss?” We ended up hiking a ton around Bisbee that day and had a great time! Hiking is single speeding too, right? I couldn’t believe how many cool people we bumped into out on the trails. People were sharing trail-beta with each other and sending each other all over the place to check out cool areas. Organic experiences! This was something special.
I must note that one of my favorite things I saw out that a local 14-year-old kid had jumped on with a group and everyone was stoked. He was showing us his whip skills and pedaled all the way up the big mountain just like all that grown-ass adults. He was super stoked that so many people were riding bikes in his little town and we were just as stoked that he was so young and wanted to ride single track. It’s important to have groms that ride with your crew, I know I sure wouldn’t be typing this if the folks at my local shop growing up weren’t cool to me when I was a kid.
At 5:00 PM I walked down to the saloon we were hosting the after-party at. We had them cook up 300 BBQ dinners and pre-purchased about one-thousand beers so folks could just roll in from the trails and enjoy dinner, sunset, and drinks. The mystery of not knowing where they’d be riding the day was no longer agitating people and you could notice it across the party. The party raged well into the evening and I awarded hosting rights to Kaolin from Flat Tire because he brought a huge rock down from the top of the mountain with “SSAZ2021 @ CAVE CREEK” written on it with a sharpie. A stronger declaration of the desire to host a wild party than anybody else put forward. I left a 5-foot tall trophy out on the front porch of the Copper City Saloon and went to bed at 8:30 PM. I was spent. I hear a crazy party happened? Someone decided they deserved to win that trophy and it made it’s way home with someone. Perfect.
While being a wild time, we still accomplished a lot with Single Speed Arizona. We benefited multiple trail building organizations so that trails would continue being better because of our little party we threw. We bought trail tools for guerilla free-ride builders in town because SSAZ should always “up the punx” as hard as possible. We left all the trails that we might have rolled tires on nicer than we first found them, and strengthened communication and relationships with private landowners that will serve to better the riding in the host communities. We blew the doors off of a handful of small-town businesses tipping heavily and making friends with the locals all along the way. We got hundreds of folks out on single track they wouldn’t have explored otherwise, instead of using the more burned-in lines. Single Speed Arizona will always serve to accomplish these basic goals. Around Arizona, we call SSAZ our “family reunion.”
Year after year we grow the mountain bike community, grow the single speed community, spread goodwill and stoke, benefit some folks that deserve it, and most importantly have fun! Hopefully next year you’ll come party with us at SSAZ, and if you don’t have a Single Speed ___________ in your state… this is your call. Start calling friends, start working those shitty trails in your area, and make it a thing for your community. Carry these basic goals and spread stoke among your crew.