Bicycling in the city: a grown-up manual for adult cyclists

“I’ve been thinking about getting a bicycle,” friends sometimes tell me. “I haven’t been on a bike since I was a kid, but I have to do something to get more exercise and lose a little weight.”

Two responses quickly come to mind. On the one hand, I want to encourage them in their interest. Cycling is something they can keep doing even as they move into their older years. On the other hand, cycling calls for skills and disciplines that need to be developed if the cyclists’ goals are to be realized.

Fortunately, James Rubin and Scott Rowan have just published a book—The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guidethat can serve as a manual of instruction. One of the authors commutes some 200 days a year in downtown Chicago, and the other rides his mountain bike in the Hollywood Hills near Los Angeles. As the title of the book indicates, they are interested in helping adult cyclists ride effectively and enjoyably in cities.

They write in a straightforward, practical way that cyclists and non-cyclists alike can understand and appropriate. Cyclists accustomed to hard, fast riding over long distances will find only a little help for their specialties, but people like many of my friends will be able to learn much of what they need to know by paying attention to what these cyclists tell them.

I have crafted a set of questions that potential new cyclists might ask and provide short answers based on Rubin and Rowan’s book.

Can people lose weight by cycling? Yes, the authors say, and then explain how to ride in order to achieve this goal.

What kind of bike should I buy? Buy for the kind of rider you are, they respond, and then they describe the choices available and offer their pointers for making the choice.

Where should I buy it? They acknowledge that suitable bikes can be bought in several kinds of places, but explain why bike shops are usually the better choice. They also offer a list of characteristics to look for when choosing a shop.

How do I know the bike fits? What about saddle shape and other things like that? Rubin and Rowan offer their advice, based on personal experience and the comments they have gathered from bike shops and cyclists around the country.

How should I dress while biking? “There is no right way,” they answer. “Cycling is the supreme individualist’s sport. You ride who you are.” Although I commuted by bike for twenty years, suit and tie the whole time, and understand the suitability of ordinary clothes, I value cycling-specific clothing, including stretch shorts and special shoes, more than the authors do. Most of the people I see in Portland streets, however, are wearing jeans and ordinary shirts rather than black tights. For people new to urban cycling in our time, Rubin and Rowan point in a good direction.

How do I keep my bike from being stolen or vandalized? With common sense, vigilance, and good locks, they respond, and then offer good advice on which kind of locks to buy and how to use them.

How can I ride safely on city streets? “Survive by being bold and following the rules of the road,” they respond.  “Think risk-reward.” They explain approximately twenty aspects of bicycling on public streets. I really like this heading: “Being predictable will save your life (and aggressiveness is your ally).” Rubin and Rowan offer a solid discussion of how to ride in traffic with a good sense of security. They recognize, however, that things can go wrong and give wise counsel on dealing with road rage and what to do in case of accidents. They give their pointers on repairing flats and other basic repairs on the road.

In a number of places I would have said something a little different from what these authors present. I am a strong supporter of the use of handlebar-mounted bags, for example, which they ignore, and their dismissal of Brooks saddles is misleading. The book says little about the long distance cycling that now constitutes much of the riding that I do.

Yet, the spirit of the book suits me well, and most of what the authors write is practical, down to earth, and doable. It is just the guide that people like my friends can use to think their way into cycling. Whether readers are new to cycling or long-time riders, Rubin and Rowan provide words of wisdom for us all: No matter what happens, get on your bike and ride. In their own words:

“Get away. Be happy. Enjoy your life.”

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One Response to Bicycling in the city: a grown-up manual for adult cyclists

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, thanks for this post. After our group Friday breakfast, with your copy of The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide in hand, I went to Powell’s to obtain my own copy. They were completely sold out, with a new order in shortly. My impression from talking to a Powell’s employee, they have sold quite a few copies, which is no surprise, with Portland one of the leading urban cyclist’s centers in the U.S. I’ve gotten well into to James Rubin & Scott Rowan’s book, and am finding it definitely helpful. Actually, as I contemplate easing into cycling, my vision is as neither an “urban cyclist” riding mostly inside cities, nor to engage in “hard, fast riding over long distances” (mostly I suppose through rural areas), but rather my vision is to engage (at least for starters) in “not so hard, not so fast riding, over not so long distances” mostly outside urban cities. Nevertheless, I am finding the book both interesting & helpful. Thanks again for your post, and for leading me your copy of Rubin & Rowan’s book. Relax, I’ve restrained from multilating your book with marginal notes, underlines & hi-lights, as I often treat many of my own books excluding most fiction literature. Your copy will be returned as if it was never in my possession. 🙂

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