In the late '70s Dennis Heater threw fat tires on an old single-speed road frame and, in doing so, created one of the world's earliest mountain bikes.
Off-road cycling became an immediate passion. Nearly a decade later, after years of racing and bicycle upgrades, he found himself in the middle of a 100-mile race with a broken derailleur—a serendipitous return to single-speed riding. After that, the Bend mountain bike pioneer switched almost entirely to single speeds until his last race in the early '90s.
Heater's passion for riding is as strong as anyone's, but it's his contributions to trail building and mountain bike land-use advocacy that have made him a legend of Central Oregon singletrack.
Heater is also remembered for championing single speeds. He rode geared bikes along the way, sure, but for Heater no technological innovation has eclipsed the original thrill of tackling trails on a one speed.
"The last thing you want to do—as much as you have to on a single speed—is walk," Heater said. "It's embarrassing. You've got all these guys on gears riding next to you, and you don't want to get off and walk while they're riding, no matter how steep the hill is, so it makes you a tough dog."
Heater used his newfound strength at mountain bike races in Central Oregon in the early '80s. He organized, promoted and raced local events and even kept a logbook for years in which he recorded notable rides in detail. Heater witnessed and participated in such storied events as Cascade Cruise, an early Bend mountain bike race.
"I did all the races around here," Heater said. "I used to make up these funny posters for all our rides. It was kinda fun organizing some of those."
But Heater wasn't just a racehorse. He and his friends pursued the extreme on their regular training rides. In fact, Heater said he's lucky to be alive.
"We were all riding one day, and we were all kinda crazy, you know, and one guy was trying to pass another guy and he passed him on the cliff side—he went off the cliff," Heater said. "He fell, we figured, 50 or 60 feet onto a pile of rocks down below... He landed on his backpack, and it was like a big airbag. It saved his life."
In talking with Heater, it's clear that those early rides made an impact. His lucid, detailed account of such pioneer rides, local and regional, community and solo, seem precise. Heater referenced exact starting and ending points, and recalled the characters involved as fervently and enthusiastically as an excited kid might describe an insect project in school. It's no overstatement to say cycling was Heater's life.
"It was my religion, man," Heater said. "Not so much the racing, but the chance to get out there in the dirt and get away from everybody. That's pretty cool."
If performance was a secondary, supplementary attraction to his already booming love for the pastime, he still dumped plenty of sweat onto his top tube in order to actualize a few personal goals. He pounded out training rides of upwards of 200 miles, and chose races that would maximize his fitness for later rides.
As a result, Heater, racing in the single-speed category, placed in several marathon-distance races around the region—the perfect event for a "tough dog." One year in the Boss 100, a grueling "100 mile race in the mud," Heater took first.
This summer the 66-year-old proved that he's still got the stuff and climbed 5,000 feet on an outdated but well-loved single speed, while on a trail ride in Nevada.
But it was Heater's early contributions to Bend's riding scene that have withstood the test of time.
As part of the Black Rock Mountain Biking Club, Heater fought to keep land use for cyclists unrestricted, and though much of his early terrain has since been privatized or now restricts "mechanized vehicles," Heater, and other early fat-tire notables like Phil Meglasson and Bob Woodward, established access to land and developed some of the region's early trails.
"Phil Meglasson—he's the king trail builder. Back in the day we built a few trails together," he said. "We put in a lot of trails around the area here that are still here, and now they're actually recognized by the Forest Service." Meglasson continues to do trail maintenance today.
Reflecting on his time biking in the region, Heater said Bend has treated him well.
"There's really no place better," said Heater. "We've still got the best place in the world to live. We've got thousands of miles of dirt and roads that are still open to us."