Monday, January 9, 2012

On Bicycles: 50 Ways This Book Can Improve Cycling

Capsule review: 5/5 manatees, go get a copy immediately (unless you want to win the TDF, it's not for that)

But the real draw [of Portland's first Sunday Parkways event] was nothing fancier than residential streets temporarily free of vehicle traffic. They turned into an instant park that attracted thousands of people with the sheer novelty of being able to walk or pedal down an ordinary street without having to worry about cars. -p.238

I finished reading On Bicycling, 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life, (OB50) edited by Amy Walker, the same day that I received a spam email from Buycycling magazine which urged me to purchase the new Big Book of Bicycling because "Professional Cyclists' SECRETS [will be] Revealed!" Being familiar with the magazine, as well as the profession in question, the spam was meant to compel me to click BUY NOW! under the assumption that I, the spam recipient, harbor deep-seated aspirations to be a professional bicycle racer, or if not an actual racer, to ride like one, or if not to ride like one, at least to train like one, or if not to train like one, at least to identify with them via buying the expensive carbon fiber bicycles, sponsor-branded lycra clothing, powertaps, GPS training devices, helmets, performance nutritional products, unguents*, and other gear that the professionals use as they practice their SECRET craft (and advertise in said magazine).

Dear Big Book of Bicycling spammers: I don't aspire to any of those. I am grateful for all that racing does for the technology and engineering of cycling, absolutely (except for the recumbents ban, of course). I enjoy watching bicycle races and my admiration for the elite few who practice it is immense. Sometimes I even enjoy riding "fast", although not a "fast" that any racer would acknowledge. I don't totally exclude myself from the target market(s) of this spam, since I do own three bikes with drop bars, including one with some carbon fiber tubes. Also, I have a framed poster of Miguel Indurain (which I just spelled correctly without looking up) hanging in my bicycle maintenance area. But, at best, I am only on the fringe of the target markets of the spam.

The market segment I do identify with is one that seems very under-everything to me: under marketed, under served, under estimated, under analyzed, under appreciated: everyone else who just wants to ride their bicycle, or would if they weren't intimidated or mystified by the SECRETS. Those of us who commute to work by bicycle, or who use bicycles for 1001 other uses besides racing, and who also often happen to enjoy the ride.

I receive precious few spams targeted to that market. I've seen countless books and magazines targeted at racers and racer-wannabes, some of them very good, but very few for everyone else. And of those other books, very few, possibly none, that I felt like I could hand to my mom**, for example, or a friend who doesn't cycle at all, and who doesn't understand why I ride, and say: here, read this. It's a great book, and it explains Everything Else that is not bicycle racing for the rest of us. This is not an idle distinction, either, since my mom does appear to think that I still aspire to win the Tour, based on the evidence that I commute to work on a converted mountain bike with fenders and a rear rack.

OB50 is the bicycling book for the rest of us. Even those of us who don't cycle. I also found it to be a well-made book, with those rounded corners, and some sort of magical silky coating on the cover. I don't know what it is, but I believe it to be the same coating used on the obelisk in "2001: A Space Odyssey". I did have a few minor areas for improvement in the book that I also want to mention. 

Although you probably wouldn't think so if English is your first language, the title of this blog post is ambiguous. On first reading, you might conclude that this review would be a list of improvements, parallel to the way that the book 50 Ways to Save the Planet is a list of ways: recycle, save the rain forest, don't pollute,etc.

However, due to the flexibility of the language, it could also be about the "can": since the book is upbeat, it can improve cycling, since the book is longish, it can improve cycling, since the book is thorough, it can improve cycling, since the book presents a variety of perspectives, it can improve cycling, and so on, for 46 more ways. Preferably numbered: 1) upbeat, 2) longish, 3) thorough, 4) variety ... 50) fun, if for no other reason than to throw the reader a bone to keep track of where they are as they make progress through the list, since 50 is a lot of ways to track without a running tally. But then, I suppose that a post title which clarified the ambiguity and also provided a strict enumeration, like "36 Ways This Book Can Improve Cycling, with 14 Reasons Why It Will Succeed in that Quest" is a bit unwieldy, but more importantly, lacks shelf luster.

This is foreshadowing for the minor discombobulation I experienced when I opened OB50, and noticed that there were 50 chapters, but saw that the first one is entitled Bicycling is Contagious, and the second, Because It's Fun!. This confused me. These seem more like reasons cycling can change your life, rather than actual changes it could bring to your life. But then the next chapter possibly makes up for that by compressing three possible life changes into one: Cycling for Health, Wealth, and Freedom. Other chapters, like The Case for Internally Geared Bicycle Hubs (which I found very interesting by the way), seem like neither ways or means. I gather, simply, that the actual tagline was chosen for its shiny market attractiveness rather than for clarity's sake. I would have gone with something that described the book's rich and abundant content for the rest of us normal, non-racing cyclists, as well as a clear enumeration scheme which supported that theme, but I'm not a book marketer. As a reader, though, I suppose I could finish the book and feel like I may have missed something: what were those 50 ways exactly?

And one last nit to pick before closing. A few of the chapters need additional editing. Chapter 3 almost seems like she meant to go back and finish editing it later, but forgot to. There's a paragraph on p.20 about dropping a big rock into a river, and I'm still not sure what happens to cyclists if you do that, how that makes bikes faster than cars, or what part of New York City traffic doesn't include as many large vehicles as rural areas.

But those negatives were quite minor to me when reading this book. I plan to give On Bicycling to close friends and family members, and I need to pick up a few more copies, too, since I have a few ideas about other people I think might enjoy reading it. I'm not sure there are actually 50 ways this book will improve cycling. I am sure that it's the cycling book for the rest of us, however. Even if we might miss out on the expert gear-rocking SECRETS on tap in that other book.

*Although there may be an untapped market for commuter-specific unguents

**I did try handing her Bicycle Diaries, to which she replied, "Isn't that the fellow from Talking Heads? She's pretty hip, even if she doesn't understand cycling.   

This is an unsolicited review of a book I purchased myself, see my FTC verbiage if you have any other questions about my reviewing policies.


  1. jra thanks for the great book review . . . i get the bicycling spams which are like carpet bombing in the way they make me wish that someone - anyone out there would just go back to what most people with bikes ride for which is that it's fun, cheap, beautiful, good , and healthy and there's lots more but that's what that book's about right!!!! steven

  2. Funny, I haven't gotten a single spam about bicycles.

    I just get the regular stuff: products which promise award-winning additions to my manhood, emails entreating me to get in touch with some Nigerian general who has MILLIONS of dollars he's willing to share if I'll just email him my bank account information, etc.

  3. If ENGLISH is your first language, I think Cyclecraft is better.

  4. Steve I keep looking for a gently used analog version of Cyclecraft, no luck yet though. Does one have to read it on the right?

    BluesCat, you must be living right, brother.

    Steven sometimes using the Internet is a lot like taking a long walk in a dog park.

  5. I hate that Bicycling spam. Basically every once in a while I get suckered into the "free issue!" nonsense. As soon as you give your email away for that, you'll get that Bicycling spam. I was amazed at the frequency--other spammers might do weekly or so. Not Bicycling. I was getting one a day, sometimes two! Don't those marketers know that at that frequency you'll end up pissing off more than you'll catch? Or are they on the wavelength that as long as they catch someone, it's worth it?

  6. adventure! yes! Also, I was surprised at how similar the spam ends up being: get hard! get strong! get lean! ride hard! last all night! send us your cash!


Please feel free to comment here, almost anything goes, except for obvious spam or blatantly illegal or objectionable material. Spammers may be subject to public ridicule, scorn, or outright shaming, and the companies represented in spam shall earn disrepute and ire for each occurrence.