St. Louis Solo, On A Single Speed

The title for this ride came to me long before I started it, and for weeks the details unfolded before me, creating the template of how I would achieve it. I am riding my single speed road bike from my home in the suburbs all the way into downtown St. Louis using only pedal power. Although the destination is important, I want to highlight the journey to show that safe transport by bicycle can take place on the streets shared by automobile traffic.

I feel that bicycling can be an expensive activity to get involved in, and that can put a strain on those who would like to ride but feel they cannot afford to. I have good news for you: I regularly find great deals on gear by shopping in second-hand outlets. I read the same magazines and books as the mainstream user does, but my gear closet grows solely with merchandise from thrift stores.

I know it may seem completely nuts to ride a single speed, but in doing so I hope to learn a great deal about my own limits. The thought of riding something so inherently simple on a ride of such complexity is appealing. I am using a second-hand steel road bike with a 42-tooth chainring and a 16-tooth cog on a converted free hub. This allows me easy gearing changes with minimal tools, and the ability to coast when I wish to. As for my camping gear, I chose a messenger bag to carry my eleven-pound load. I've been fascinated with bikepacking and ultralight setups, so I chose to make my load as light as possible. The bulk of my gear consists of a bivy sack; a down sleeping bag; a stuff sack with extra clothing; a food bag with granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit; and an air pump and various tools, plus three inner tubes, a rain jacket, and waterproof socks. In my inside pocket I carried two additional water bottles, I.D., and a spare pair of eyeglasses. I omitted my sleeping pad, DSLR camera, and bicycle lock to save space in my bag and weight on my back.

June 7th, 3:30 a.m. I awake early. My mind was a kaleidoscope of thoughts last night, so I slept lightly. My first plan of action is to start eating everything in sight to further stoke my furnace for the full day of pedaling that stands before me. Brisk 60 degree weather awaits me when I step onto my porch in shorts and a T-shirt at 5:00 a.m. My gear tightly strapped to my back and my helmet snuggly fitted for safety, I warm up quickly pushing myself over the first set of hills on Lucas and Hunt Road on my way to West Florissant Road. There is something very surreal about riding on streets typically frequented by relentless traffic, at an hour early enough to render it a new experience. I have the full lane to myself for the first 45 minutes of my trip and, just as planned, sunrise greets me as I arrive at my first stop.

As I stand at the corner of Scranton and Riverview memories flood my mind of the months I worked alongside the late Bob Cassilly and the "Cassilly Crew" at Cementland.

I learned about adaptive reuse, operating construction equipment, and the tireless efforts of many to build environments that foster a youthful spirit. Each day was something new and unique. Each project tested the crew in ways that challenged us to learn and grow. Suddenly, riding a single-speed through the city with camping gear on my back seems like a good personal challenge. Bob Cassilly left behind a legacy for his family and whimsical art for everyone to enjoy, all because he wasn't afraid to do things differently.

Allow me to show you St. Louis from a different viewpoint.

To my back just beyond the trees is the Missouri Riverfront Trail, which will take me into downtown St. Louis. As I turn around, I'm greeted with the harsh reality of flooding that has lingered in the area; sadly, the trail is submerged in water. 

Luckily, I have a Plan B. Hall Street is frequented by heavy truck traffic and isn't the first choice a bicyclist would normally consider for travel. But I decide to take it because it is the most direct route, and offers fewer stoplights than Riverview Drive, which runs parallel to it.

Coming out of the first turn just beyond the bus terminal I find a $20 bill hanging on for just the right person to free it from the clenching hands of cracked pavement. Few things register so quickly as free money. A quick glance over my shoulder to check traffic and I return to collect it. I stop once more to take a break before continuing at a steady cadence on my way to Grand Avenue.  

A leg of the Gateway Arch.

Once I arrive in downtown St. Louis I stop by the Gateway Arch to take some photos. Moving along Broadway I stop at Soulard Farmer's Market, then onward to Anheuser Busch Brewery.

Soulard Farmer's Market.

I decide to visit the old Lemp Brewery complex next. It covers roughly eleven city blocks and in its day was the dominant beer maker in St. Louis, brewer of the Falstaff brand. The story is actually pretty sad and includes the use of guns in enclosed spaces and the debilitating effects of prohibition on a company that couldn't diversify its business fast enough to survive. Anheuser Busch, on the other hand, stayed afloat by making non-alcoholic and near beer beverages, opening three high-end restaurants, and manufacturing a host of other products. It is a business model that appears to be working well for them to this day.

Almost torn down!

Temptation gets the better of me during a visit to the local bicycle shop, where I purchase a lightweight lock. I read about the good deeds of strangers all the time in bicycle touring circles, and I have to say they are a common occurrence. As I question where to eat lunch to regain some additional energy, a young man in an apron walks in and presents me with a buy-one/get-one-free coupon for a new sandwich shop down the street. Consuming calories to fuel the machine is essential to the efficiency of every bicyclist. Two sandwiches and a 24-ounce smoothie later I'm ready to take on the world, again.

St. Louis Cardinals great Stan "The Man" Musial.

I'm pedaling in circles again, on my way to Busch Stadium, home of our St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. I arrive at the main doors to the gift shop, when I pause staring only at the statue of Stan "The Man" Musial. He passed away on January 19th, 2013, at the age of 92. Hundreds of people sent him off with prayers and a gratitude of thanks for his dedication to baseball, and for living a life of integrity and humility. I believe we should all, like Stan, aspire to achieve greatness without losing sight of what matters most.

Union Station.

For the next few hours I weave a interconnected web of destinations spanning St. Louis City, the downtown business district, Soulard, Lafayette Square, and The Gateway Mall.

My legs propel me into Midtown, home to our Arts District and St. Louis University. I admire the unique buildings which elevate my view up to architectural details often missed while safely ensconced in a moving vehicle. My viewpoint shifts back to street level, admiring the people who call St. Louis home. Continuing down Lindell Boulevard to Forest Park, I feel my rolling testament to bicycle advocacy is clear. I really can do more with less, and so can others.

I'm saving up for monster quads.

The road is filling like clogged arteries. Now I have to turn my attention to evening rush hour as my mind is beginning to spell out the word "stop" distinctly in my line of vision. It is 5:30 p.m., and time to start bringing my day-trip to a close. Fourteen minutes and $2.25 is all I need for my light rail angel to take me home. For my first overnight I have chosen to camp at the most comfortable location that I know of: my own backyard. I wait until darkness has fallen completely before setting up camp. After dinner I put on my remaining clothes and hat and slip into my bivy. The hum of distant aircraft and memories of my day carry me to sleep.

Read about the author of this story, Julian Hadley, by clicking here.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: You can take the most unlikely of bikes and ride the most unlikely route into the city, forgoing all gasoline-powered vehicles with minimal gear and have the time of your life. Take a day trip and discover something new in your own backyard!

13 responses so far ↓

Julian - Jul 8, 2013 at 2:06 PM

You can also view a more expanded version of my ride here:

C. James - Jul 8, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Oh man! I can literally visualize this amazing trip you've undertaken... I can only imagine that there are many folks out there wondering why you would take on such a project. However, the truly passionate would read your article and understand. You were meant to take that ride and show us a St. Louis we don't often see, through the eyes of a man doing something that just isn't done. This was a great project and I have to ask, are you planning to do another trip?

Julian - Jul 8, 2013 at 3:26 PM

I'm in the early stages of planning my next trip, this time on a geared bicycle and with a real camera for better photographs.

jalexartis - Jul 9, 2013 at 4:23 AM

I read your very well written story earlier this morning. It is amazing what you did in your day trip.

I can relate, in that I rode my single speed from Toronto to Niagara Falls, Canada, to include climbing the escarpment in the rain with just my quads to get me there.

I like your pictures as well--don't know that you need a 35mm for cycling.

Thanks for sharing!

BTW, do you have a map that shows the route you rode [for non-locals]?


Julian - Jul 9, 2013 at 5:50 AM

Thank you Jim, that sounds like a nice trip as well. Do you have a link to photos from your trip? I documented my stops using the Foursquare app on my phone. You can search for my route and check in history by using my full name as a search query on their website.

Julian - Jul 9, 2013 at 4:29 PM

Thank you for your suggestion Jim. I can imagine how frustrated you may have become searching for the information. You can find the check-ins here: The map pictured on the history page does not show mileage from point to point.

Jim Sayer - Jul 16, 2013 at 9:06 AM

Fantastic story Julian -- I love urban adventures like that -- good luck with your next trip!

Steve - Jul 22, 2013 at 7:29 PM

I truly enjoyed reading of your adventure. I live in southwest Missouri about an hour from the Kansas line. St. Louis has always seemed like another "state" to me. I was there recently to buy a bicycle in University City. What a beautiful part of the city! Your story reminded me of what a neat city St. Louis is. Simply eloquent insights and writing. Please let us know about your geared bike trip!

Julian - Jul 22, 2013 at 8:44 PM

Steve, I'm currently planning my route and upgrading my gear a bit. I decided to use my recumbent trike on my second trip. I'm currently building custom camcorder mounts so I can shoot video and still footage without having to stop and setup a tripod. I will also have an external battery charged with a solar cell so that all of my electronics are sustainable during the trip. I want to travel as self contained as possible. Check out this test video I shot and edited:

Tracy B - Jul 29, 2013 at 1:41 PM

Hi Julian,

Your story was wonderful to read, highlighting the fact cycling can be affordable and available for all. I too, am an African American 40 something (woman) and an avid cyclist. I actually grew up in East St. Louis, right across the river. I live in Northern California and have been road cycling for about 10 years. In recent years, I have begun to see more and more African Americans take on this recreational activity. It warms my heart, as we've a history of diabetes, hypertension and so on in our communities. Thanks for the article and continue to spread the word.

Julian - Jul 29, 2013 at 6:36 PM

Thank you for your reply Tracy. I do agree that change is coming as more people take a serious look at the choices they make and how it directly affects their quality of life. Cycling is an outlet for improved health and just plain fun. My hope is that more people will dust off those garage and basement bound bicycles, have them tuned up a bit and swing a leg over to start really enjoying the simple things once more. Send me your email address on my Crazyguyonabike journal guestbook page so we may stay in touch and share stories.

Katherine - Aug 26, 2013 at 8:09 PM

Great post! I recently (and very sadly) moved away from St Louis. I really miss biking there! The number of bike lanes and trails is just great. My husband and I always talked about riding from our apartment in St Louis to my aunt's house in Kansas City, using the Katy Trail for most of the route. Maybe someday we'll have to make a trip back just to do that ride ;)

Julian - Aug 27, 2013 at 5:14 AM

Thank you for your comment Katherine. I have also considered a trip such as the one you have contemplated. I tend to lose enthusiasm when I think of traveling such a distance on crushed limestone. However, the Katy Trail does offer a unique method to reach Kansas City by bicycle.

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