Adventure: The Secret

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Not a bad morning here in coastal Maine. What you can’t see is the crowd behind me, cheering me on and throwing flowers.

The secret to cycling in America is the single-speed bicycle. There, you heard it here first. Remember, because at some point I’m going to be standing over you doing my six-guns and yelling “I told you so!” Who know the key to turning America into a cycling nation was to eliminate all but one gear. Take that to the bank! (cue 1980s movie reference) Forget what you know, forget science and intuition and greed and just hear me out.

Single-speed cycling is easier.

Single-speed cycling, counter to what seems logical, is easier than multi-gear cycling. After a few months of riding the “piece of art” you see above I can say with authority this new “theory’ is true. Case in point, the ride I just finished. Coastal Maine, on my yearly pilgrimage. The exact same morning loop I’ve done for years. Thirty-four miles, sea level, virtually no elevation gain. In cycling terms, as easy as it gets, so the real game begins when you ride right at the bottom of your “red level.” Think green, yellow, red in terms of exertion. Green is for distance training, something else that is counterintuitive, but I’ll get to this in a minute. Yellow is where the fun begins and red is where you verge on soiling yourself. Go too far, too fast into the red and you are cooked no matter who you are.

I’ve done this ride at least thirty times. Today’s was the easiest of the bunch. Why? Because I’m on the single. I clocked in at 2:19 so not breaking any speed barriers here but the ride, due to it’s evenness, is a nonstop pedal event meaning almost no coasting or major climbing. Just consistent output. Now, in keeping with Milnor tradition, I didn’t eat much, only had one bottle and brought no food or sustenance of any kind. Give me credit, I’m consistent in my suffering. And the temps, well, in Maine terms it’s “hot as balls.” Humidity is running at 85% after three days of torrential rain. My kit is crusted in salt and would be a great barrier for keeping wild dogs at bay.

Today’s ride was so simple, so effortless and it got me thinking. Last night my wife and I, and a neighbor, rode to watch fireworks. My wife was on her folder and about halfway to the coast we hit a section of super steep, punchy climbs. She was in front of me and I noticed she was pushing WAY too large a gear. “You need to shift,” I said knowing this would unleash a torrent of “Don’t tell me what to do.” Halfway up the hill she stopped unable to keep turning the pedals. “You have to shift babe,” I said to her. The “babe” part meant to flatter and console. It didn’t work. “It’s broken,” she said. “Okay, let me see.” Click, click, click, it worked fine, but the issue was how to say this without saying it. The gears were an obstacle for her. A nuisance, a hassle, and this was not the first time we had had this little adventure, and not just on the folder. This happens on ALL her geared bikes.

This event triggered so many memories of speaking to other non-cyclists who love to mention all the reasons they can’t cycle, some valid and some completely bogus. Having to deal with shifting was HIGH on the list. Many newcomers to bikes are confused by the shifting process and that is just enough to keep a lot of people off of two wheels. So, just go single. If you live in a place like coastal Maine, this is a no-brainer. You have to hunt for hills around here, but what might surprise you is that I feel the same about singles even if you live in a place like Santa Fe.

I live at 7000 feet in the mountains and the single is the most fun I’ve had on a bike. Again, you would think the lack of gears would mean a lot of “hike a bike,” but that’s not what I’ve experienced. After my second ride on this bike a friend asked “So, how is it?” I took a second then replied, “I know this is gonna sound crazy but I think this bike is easier to ride than my geared version.” “Huh?” he replied then promptly went out and bought his own single-speed which he now rides 99.9% of the time. Perhaps it’s a mental thing. No need to ever think of shifting which means you can allow your mind to delve even deeper into whatever rabbit hole time alone on the bike allows.

If we educate the public about single-speed bikes more people will take to cycling.

I believe this with all my heart. I feel like I need to pull some epic voyage on my single just to prove my point. “One nation, one gear.” Coast to coast with my Fargo Ti, my Fuji x100V, and some jean shorts. By the way, whoever sent me the saddle with chili peppers on it, first of all, thank you. Second, I broke my main saddle, so I am reduced to the chili pepper saddle and let me tell you this, it’s not the right saddle for my skinny butt. Oh, my taint took a beating on this little ride, so I am in desperate need for a new setup and have no idea what I’m looking for, so if you are keen to cycling and know a bit about saddles please let me know where to start looking. For some reason, I can’t quite find the right thing.

If you haven’t ridden a single, or didn’t know they exist, don’t feel bad. This is your lucky day. Talk to your local bike bike. I’ll bet there is a “single-head” in there somewhere. Gear it on the easy side, know that you are limited on your top-end speed, but my guess is you will easily adapt to that reality and the riding will be surprisingly fun. Tell your friends. Tell you neighbors.

(PS: Training for endurance cycling requires long periods of riding in the green. This was counterintuitive for me, but look it up. You learn something every day.)

Comments 17

  1. Bicycle gear fear is an American thing: it derives from having your cars pretty much all equipped with automatic transmission and perhaps coming to bicycles later in life when you have more money than you know how to spend. 😉 (However, in the US, as Jay Leno says, a manual box is the best car security you can buy.)

    As a kid, my first bike, a Raleigh Lenton, came straight out of the shop without changeable gears. I wasn’t going to argue: get the bike first and wear away at the family later on about the gears, but at all costs, get them to get the big bit first! I learned cunning early.

    Anyway, when I did eventually get a new back end with three choices of gear, I was over the Moon. It was not complicated, it was instinctive. Or at least, the first hill rendered it so. Of course, all our “affordable” cars were also manual transmission, so early training with the bike made understanding gears on a car very simple: think legs instead of engine: same thing, power and ratios. Back to basics makes for an easier life.

    The real problem with the bike today – not mine as I don’t have one anymore – is that there is just too much traffic. I remember going to school on mine; today, the same route would have made me a statistic in the first week.

    The problem with these things is age and the enthusiasm quotient: for hears, my neighbour used to windsurf all summer, then he stopped. Today, around sixty years of age, he can’t do it because he let go of the skill and especially the strength that comes with the discipline. Can’t go back for more. Don’t stop – whatever physical effort thing it is – unless you intend to stop for ever.

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      I love seeing a manual trans. Saw a young girl in a subaru the other day. Manual trans. She looked like a doer. As for the traffic, that’s a common complaint. There are ways to make it safer and you may or may not be able to do an entire route but working the bike into our lives is totally doable. If we want to do it.

  2. I was skeptical, got my single in May and liked it almost immediately. The minimalist feel, and the maintenance going forward, almost nothing. And quiet, so quiet.

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  3. Also grew up with a single speed and finally got a 3-speed three in my teens (I am noe 59). My current bike is now a 27 speed mountain bike with 29″ wheels, and I use it all year – with spiked tires in the winter.
    Still miss the grip shift from my previous bike, I found them a lot quicker to use not having to click through one gear at a time.

    Would not really consider changing to single speed. Hills I remember as a pain, both up and down, and head wind, and luggage or groceries etc.
    At some point – often – the single speed, as I remember it from my childhood is too low geared to make progress or too high geared even get moving.

    But you keep hammering your point and you are getting my attention so I’d like to try it of curiosity.
    What is the gearing ratio of your single speed (number of sprockets back and front), I could select a combination and stick with it for a while (akin to gaffa taping a zoom lens to a fixed focal length I guess)

    Or what would you suggest for my ride to/from work here in Oslo. Mixed surface, shortish commute – 7 kilometers roughly – 200 meters height difference down/back up with a few steep hills in between. Little need to cross trafic as the cycle road network is great but there are pedestrians, kids, dogs, old people and sadly a few traffic lights that have to be “adjusted for”.

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  4. When my wife bought her bicycle I took her to the dealer and decided to leave her and the mechanic alone to find the best fit for her. All I said was, “make sure it has enough gears for all these hills around us.”

    She walked out with a single speed All City and had never looked back.

    Saddles – I use Brooks. My road bike has a carved C13 that I love.

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  5. I hate shifting. I grew up never shifting my bike, ever. Top gear is all I rode on. (I’m old now, I’ve accepted the occasional down shift) But then again, I live a few steps from Maine, in the land of green terrain.

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  6. Why do you hate shifting gear?

    I don’t think it was even a conscious decision, just something that daily riding to school and, later on to work, was just muscle memory operating totally beneath the surface.

    That said, I do accept that one could allow gear changing to become a complex… I have managed to cultivate more than a few in my life.

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  7. Ok – tried it for my commute.
    Started out 44:21 (2.1 ratio) which was fine going flat, slower and probably safer with a lot of coasting in the longer hilss. Going up here and there were also OK.

    Going back was a lot harder and I had to stop at one of the steeper parts of the trail not being able to build enough speed to pedal the last 10-15 meters. Felt like doing a maxed out deadlift (legs won’t move and arms pull as much as they can) but the bike would not move. Changed to 32:18 (1.8 ratio) for the rest of the trip – a a few more steep and far longer hills. This worked fine.

    Do I like it – not sure but I’ll stick with it for a while. I will get to work without breaking a sweat, and have a proper though short workput going home.Not having gears does change the way I think and plan my riding – so its different at least.

    It in some ways follow the advice of Gunn Rita Dahle (å) – “Rest on the flats and downhill and go as hard as you can uphill to get maximum training.”

    For a discussion of ratios see

    I fiddle around with different sprockets on my Roadracing bike as well – different tracks and riding skills require different setup to get the most out of it.

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  8. Rode a single for years. I just bought a 7 speed fold up after I wore out the single speed china made special. This one is nice though and I just turned 61, so slowing down a bit. I ride about an hour a day and sit on a Planet Bike A.R.S. Classic, cheap online and I change them often. Comfortable although perhaps a bit wide if you have a skinny ass.

  9. I’m big, lazy, and love my granny gear, so I’ll be sticking with my shifters. Also, I’m a decent bike mechanic, so I can usually keep them running smoothly.

    On the saddle front, you should check out this article from Clive Thompson – – sorry about the paywall if you’re not a Medium member.

    Clive is currently riding from Brooklyn to Portland (OR). You guys share a lot of common interests, so you would probably enjoy a bunch of his articles if you are a Medium member. I like to think of him as the non-photo-nerd version of Dan Milnor.

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      I had a Brooks years ago and never liked it. Plus, it was heavy. And it didn’t do well in the wet conditions. I know they have the exact same saddles today but they also have some new models that might be a good option.

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