This week’s interview is with Joe Whitehair. He rides with the SingleSpeed Outlaw Factory Team, writes an interesting blog, competes on the mountain bike, and does a lot of work organizing rides and supporting trail work in the area. He’s a racer, rider, writer and advocate, and part of a crew of local guys and gals who work hard to make sure that mountain biking is play. I know Joe from riding ‘with’ him, if ‘with’ means seeing him at ride start, saying hello, then watching him fly off into the distance and then having a beer later. I wanted to get to know him, and the singlespeed and mid-Atlantic MTB scene a little bitter, and thought you might too.
Hey, you’re Joe Whitehair. What’s your deal?
I’m just a guy riding a bike who can’t get enough of it
Age: Closing in on 40 (shit!)
Hometown and where ya live now: Lived most of my life in Baltimore, MD and now I’m in Frederick, digging the small city and its proximity to the best riding in the state.
Family Status: Married to a great wife who understood and tolerated my bike obsessions long before she found her own interest in two wheels. Now she’s a biker too which makes her even better.
Job in ‘real life’: Currently unemployed and being a bike bum. When I earn a paycheck it is in the IS field like so many other people. And I’ll occasionally freelance for mags like Dirt Rag.
Describe your first bike, and the first ride you can recall.
I don’t recall the brand (maybe Monkey Wards) but it was a red fixed gear, solid rubber tires, a “foot brake” mounted to the downtube. I rode it far longer than I should have, but my parents were rather clueless about bikes. I recall riding it in circles on our small patio (derby?) and on our dead end street. Hmmmm, you know, this may explain a lot…
Ahh, early memorable fixed gear exposure. Were you a bikey kid, or was riding an adult onset condition? Did you have an athletic background as a kid? If so, what sports?
I was definitely a bike kid, it was my road to freedom, allowing me to travel to other neighborhoods where most of my classmates lived, to soccer and baseball practice and just go exploring. There weren’t any guys in my neighborhood my age, so the bike was my ticket to get out and about.
What is your cycling background?
After my first bike I was “upgraded” to a 5 speed department store bike with drop bars. Think 10 speed w/ a single ring (ahead of it’s time?) and big foam grips. After breaking the fork jumping it, I eventually saved money from cutting lawns for a chrome Huffy and thus began my BMX “career”. Dirt jumping on local trails, dropping off of walls, just having fun and ripping it up with my friends. This eventually led to freestyle riding which was in its infancy. I remember Bob Haro’s first “how to” book showing basic flatland tricks. From there it was riding as much as we could and learning as many tricks as we could as the sport evolved. Halfpipes, quarter pipes, the Lansdowne Bowl, street riding, more dirt jumping. If it looked fun on a BMX bike we were doing it. Retired the BMX bike in my junior year of high school, had “transportation bikes” for a couple of years, then while in college I discovered mountain biking and said “hey, this is like BMX for big kids”. That was around 1990. The rest, as they say, is history.
What’s the best part of riding for you? What moves you?
This might sound boring, but just getting out and riding does it. Every ride is different, whether it’s location, trail conditions, weather or who you are riding with. The thing I like I like best is the fact that, after all of these years, I can still get stoked to ride every time I head out. That said, I do have a special thing for snow rides. When conditions are prime it’s one of the best times to be on a bike.
I'm with you there. You can't ride fast, you can only have fun - you can just turn the lights off and just go like a ghost in the moonlight. It's pretty special and I envy Jill Homer in some ways.
Assume for a second you are riding down Soapstone at Patapsco. You stop for a drink, and a bush catches fire in front of you but does not burn. You drop the Surly flask containing tequila, thinking it must have quite a bit more cowbell than usual, and then God speaks to you. He sounds (and looks) suspiciously like Sheldon Brown, and tells you that you are only going to be allowed one more ride, then he’s calling you home to build a pump track and some mean single track in this virgin forest they have outside the Pearly Gates. In consolation, before you go, you can take one ride anywhere in the world. What ride do you ask for?
Wow, tough one. On one hand I’d say I want to go somewhere I’ve never been. On the other hand, that ride might be more hype than quality, it’s an unknown quantity. So, I’d have to say I’d take my wife to ride Crested Butte. The trails are high caliber, the views are amazing, the town has a cool vibe and she’s never been there.
What cycling disciplines do you ride (e.g. road, track, cross, MTB, touring, vacations in Hong Kong driving a pedicab)?
MTB is the big one. Fixed gear road rides that usually involve hitting dirt and gravel roads. Small tours of a couple days. S24O rides. Getting around town/commuting.
I know you do plenty of ‘grass roots’ mountain biking events, casual things that involve races or other competitions or epic riding put together by yourself or other single speeders. Do you ever do any sanctioned races? Why or why not?
I hardly do sanctioned races, mostly just 24 hour team relay stuff. One big reason is races tend to force you into a schedule and schedules feel like work. I like flexibility in my riding, if I want to take off on a trip to hit new trail system, I don’t want my weekends booked with races. Or, if I’m free I don’t want to not do a particular ride because it’s too long/hard/short/whatever because a race is coming up and it will screw up my “training”. A lot of races tend to be “lap” races and, with the exception of the team relay, I don’t have the desire to pay money to ride around in circles. I’ve got nothing against racers or racing, I’ve just found that most of it doesn’t appeal to my personality.
Can you describe the appeal of grass roots events (such as Liberty Jam or more racey stuff like some of the 12 and 24 hour events)?
Fun, period. Getting out and riding with a bunch of friends who have the proper attitude.
What are your top 3 grass roots events (as distinct from mere informal rides), and briefly explain why.
Dirt Rag’s Punk Bike Enduro: Fun suffering in adverse conditions with good people.
Liberty Jamboree: Beer drinking. Bike racing. Reservoir swimming. Cooking out. What’s not to love. Jim and Co. do it up right.
Single Speed World Championship: an excuse to travel to a cool location with like-minded people who you might only see once a year and ride single speeds on cool local trails. Hard to beat that.
I don't know about the others but second you on the Liberty Jam. Most fun I ever had on a bike, hardest day ever, until I tried a 12 hour solo.
Have you ever had a positive life changing or really glorious moment on a bike?
I suppose when my wife decided to take up MTBing that was pretty life changing. Among other things, the number of bikes in the garage has pretty much doubled and now she has a real appreciation for how much time cycling can eat up ;)
What was the worst moment you’ve ever had, on a bike or immediately attributable to bicycling?
Tearing the ligament in my thumb (on a night road ride) that required surgery and time off the bike. All things considered, it could have been worse.
How did you come to be a one cog enthusiast? (I’ll lump in single and fixed here).
It was pretty anti-climatic. A friend and I had heard about the single speed thing and decided to build up some old frames we had collecting dust. In short time I saw the benefits and quickly was consumed. It wasn’t hard to push me over the edge, I was already a technology hold out (thumb shifters, reluctant to move to a suspension fork) and the single speed thing just felt right for me.
What do you view as the advantages and disadvantages of a single speed MTB over a geared bike?
I prefer riding my bike more than working on it and I’m generally hard on equipment. The single speed means more time riding, less time wrenching.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the 2 (2.5 considering 650b) primary wheel sizes? Do you see any benefits to the mix & match bikes (96’er, 69’er)?
I primarily ride a 29er these days but I’m no zealot. My personal opinion is wheel size should be proportionate to the rider size. You’ll hear people say they have fit riders 5’0” and under on 29ers but there are compromises to be made and it just seems stupid. 29ers aren’t a magic bullet. The 650b movement for MTBs seems unnecessary. Nothing wrong with the wheel size necessarily, but splitting the difference between 26 and 29 seems unnecessarily small. That said, run what works for you. Who am I to say what’s best for you?
Some people are pretty stringent about simplicity and frown on suspension. Do you have any strong feelings about suspension (mainly just front) on single speeds or any suspension on other MTBs? Also, how does the Jones fork and his flexy fat tired Ti bikes fit into this universe? Is it the Unitarian Universalism that will ultimately end the war between the rigid riders and the folks on 140 mm travel downhill forks?
If suspension makes the ride more fun for you, do it. Having fun should be first on the list when riding your bike. I prefer the simplicity of the rigid fork but it’s not for everyone. Contrary to popular belief, the Jones fork is actually stiffer than most standard rigid forks due to the truss design. It doesn’t feel harsh because of the head tube angle and the fork rake. The fat tire is a cool option for a lot of conditions but not for everything. Anyone who wants a lot of travel isn’t going to give up the 140mm for an Endomorph [4" MTB tire manufactured by Surly], but it’s fun to ride.
Jeff Jones 3-D Space Frame
Why ride a fixed gear on the road?
Simplicity. Challenge. Double the workout in the same time as a freewheel.
Why ride a fixed gear mountain bike? What is different / most difficult about it?
The fixed MTB rules in the snow and ice. Direct drive train transfer means less time on the brakes and equals more control, especially in the corners. In the summer it will sharpen your skills or kill you. The toughest part is navigating technical rocks and logs and minimizing pedal strike. The fixed MTB is fun but I doubt I’ll ever give up the freewheel, the fast downhills are just too good on it. For the second year in a row we’ll have an all fixed gear team at the 24 Hours of Big Bear this weekend.
Can I gush for a second? I'm in awe of the guys who can ride fixed MTB and ride them really well, like RickyD. I can't even comprehend the skill it takes. Watching them, I feel like my dog when he takes notice of an NHL game on the TV. I see what they're doing, totally don't know how they do it.
What areas, and what parts of them, are your three favorite rides in the Mid-Atlantic that you’d be willing to share with my readers, many of whom are serious roadies or crossers who maintain a love interest on the side with dirt?
The Tour de Patapsco: an all day adventure right outside of a suburban area. Great trails, long distance on the dirt and a chance to navigate and figure out the route on your own.
Exploring the Frederick Watershed: With no official maps and more trails than you can ride in a day it’s got more options than most realize. Big climbs, small climbs, XC, freeride/downhill, gravel roads, bears and rattlesnakes. Never a boring time.
Elizabeth Furnace – Signal Knob/Meneka Peak/Bear Wallow loop: Around 70 miles from DC and the perfect introduction to the George Washington National Forest. Beautiful views, great climbs, enough technical stuff to keep you on your toes and a 4 – 5 mile downhill finish that will have you grinning ear to ear.
I like your blog, particularly the back issues when the single speed scene was just exploding and there was so much novel stuff for you to review – I’ll google a part and you will have reviewed it, or the first generation version of it, back in 2004. You also seem to take and discuss interesting rides. I get the blogging and like it. But why a Single Speed Outlaw Factory Team?
No team seemed to fit exactly what I was looking for or fit a lot of the people I was riding with so I figured the best way to get that was to do it myself. Most of us wouldn’t fit on a traditional racing team but I felt we had a lot to offer potential sponsors. So far it seems to be working. It’s a lot more work developing a team than I realized, but we’ve also been more successful than I had hoped.
How do you feel about MORE and the work done by the trail liaisons and volunteers, and what has the impact of that group been over the years in this area?
Overall I think MORE is great and has done a lot of good things. No organization is perfect and not every person is going to be happy with every decision. I’m involved because I want better trails, more access and I want to make sure that my voice is heard within MORE. Getting involved means having a seat at the table.
What do you view as our biggest challenges, not just as single speeders but as MTB’ers generally, in the mid-Atlantic?
Educating MTBers, especially about when to ride or not ride and what the impacts of all trail users are on the trail. There are a lot of people using the trails (bikers/hikers/equestrians) that don’t realize the amount of work that goes into local trails to build and maintain them. Educating them about that time spent and getting them to come out to help on trail work days is a challenge, but I think we’ve made great progress over the last few years.
Who has had an influence on you as a cyclist, either from a coaching/racing/performance standpoint, or from a bicycling / cultural standpoint?
You know, in a lot of ways I don’t follow the sport all that closely, like knowing stats of riders/racers over the years and I’ve never been one for hero worship, but a few people come to mind when I think of bicycle culture: Sheldon Brown (RIP) for his vast knowledge of all things bicycle and his wiliness to share it. Richard Sachs, dig around and you’ll see he’s contributed a ton of info to up and coming frame builders on the internet. He represents handcrafted building in a way that seemed in danger of going away but hopefully remains here to stay. Bob Roll for doing it his own way all of these years. Joe Breeze: there from the beginning of the MTB explosion but doesn’t need to tell you about it. Charlie Cunningham: way ahead of his time in terms of MTB innovation.
Who are your favorite MTB riders in the area, to watch or hang out with? Name names.
Tough question, so many great people in this area to ride with and leaving any off of the list is sure to piss someone off. I’ll defer that part and just list a couple of local riders I like to watch: Dan Atkins, who is racing with me at Big Bear. He’s a young gun who is laying the hammer down these days. Good guy with no ego. Keep an eye on him. Another one that comes to mind is Cheryl Sornson, local Trek rider. Down to earth, won the NUE series last year, holds a real job. Role model for the girls and guys alike.
Are you working on any particular bike-related projects that you can talk about right now?
We are currently working on a big reroute of a section of the Catoctin Trail in the Frederick Watershed. The new piece is 9/10th of a mile and is largely complete. We’ve got over 550 volunteer hours in this so far. This is a big deal because it’s the first time we’ve been authorized by the City of Frederick to build new trail. They’ve been really happy with the work and we are looking forward to other projects when this one is complete. You can follow the progress here.
Thanks for playing, Joe!