50 ways the new bike culture can change your life

April 19, 2012

The burb on the back of the book says that “On Bicycles has something for everyone who has ever ridden a bike.” Since this 370-page book contains fifty chapters, each one written by Amy Walker, its editor, or one of “a wide-ranging group of cycling writers,” whom she has recruited, the claim may actually come close to being true.

It is clear from photos and drawings, with which the book is profusely illustrated, that the book is designed primarily for people who use bikes to get around town while doing ordinary activities of ordinary life. They wear everyday clothes instead of bike-specific outfits, ride decent enough bikes rather than high tech, expensive, performance oriented equipment, and cycle at a pace that is likely not to raise a sweat.

In other words, this book is designed for a high percentage of cyclists I see every time I ride around the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area where I live. During my working years, when I commuted three miles to a teaching job in Indianapolis, wearing suit and tie, and in all kinds of weather, I might have been that kind of cyclist on those short trips. And there are times now when I ride this way.

Most of the time, however, I ride too hard to judge the adequacy of these essays, but I have read selectively through the book and can report that some of the chapters do discuss topics in ways that I—aggressive cyclist in spandex and wool and always working up a sweat—find to be constructive and provocative. Here are notes on three of them.

Cycles and Relocalizing by Amy Walker: The attitude toward personal life and technology in this chapter is one that a growing number of people affirm and, as Walker asserts later in the essay, getting around by bicycle is an important way to live consistently with this attitude.

Where globalization capitalizes on cheap fuel and cheap labor to manufacture cheap goods, localization encourages self-sustaining and secure systems of trade and fulfillment. Localization is a systemic economic strategy to create resilience by removing dependence on fossil fuels and imported goods. Though there are good reasons to encourage diverse, globalized media and communication technologies, in the case of food and most consumer goods, relocalization seems to benefit individuals and communities better than globalization by recirculating energy and resources within their own ecosystem.

The Case for Internally Geared Bicycle Hubs by Aaron Goss: The writer, who owns a bicycle repair shop in West Seattle, Washington, lists several advantages of hubs that contain a bicycle’s gears: simplicity, durability and ease of maintenance, chain-case compatibility, stationary shifting, and low operating costs. Although I agree with much of his discussion, my experience with derailleur-geared bikes is contrary to some of his claims. His experience in the bicycle repair business, however, gives Goss a significant database. Maybe he’s right in his evaluation of the higher cost of derailleur systems in comparison with internal hubs.

Goss addresses the objections that often are raised to the use of these hubs: lower efficiency, limited gear range, and weight. His basic response is that “in the real world, riding your bike in normal clothes to work, you won’t notice any power loss or extra weight.” He’s probably right. Despite my commitment to aggressive cycling, the idea of using an internal hub attracts me enough that I may, in time, convert my every day bike to this kind of system.

Cycling for All Abilities and Needs by Ron Richings: Although I am still able to ride a conventional bicycle in virtually all kinds of cycling situations, I often think about the fact that much of this could change because of aging, disabling illness, or accident. On my rides, I meet people who have adjusted to these conditions with specially designed bikes and trikes. I’m ready, at least in principle, to use a specialty cycle should I come to the time when I can no longer use my upright bike.

What I have not thought about, however, is the topic which Ron Richings discusses in this chapter: the fact that bicycle advocates and governments at all levels have fallen short in developing the infrastructure that will serve people who use these specially designed human powered cycles. He concludes his essay with the sentiment that every cyclist needs to honor: “And this is not just an exercise in altruism. In the long term the beneficiaries of our efforts are not ‘them’—they are us.”

The blurb is probably right. Everyone interested in bicycles will find something in this book worth reading. On Bicycles is widely available in public libraries, bookstores, and online. It was published by New World Library, Novato, California, in 2011.