What is it about bicycles? Like our pets, our cars, our zip codes and our tastes in fashion and music and art and books, they seem to say more about us than they possibly could, or should. And yet, as Americans finally begin to catch up with Europeans on the many joys and benefits of bicycling, in both the remotest countryside and the densest cities, bicycles seem to be saying more about us every day – our politics, our social class, our tribal affiliation. In a word, our values. How is it possible for a simple 2-wheeled contraption to say so much?
“It’s because, like any consumer item, people like to express themselves through their purchases and fashion choices – and the bicycle lends itself to that,” says Eben Weiss, who has just parlayed his popular blog, Bike Snob NYC, into an insightful, irreverent hard-cover book called Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling. “You can customize a bicycle, color-coordinate it, find a rare one to make a statement about yourself. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.”
Weiss, 36, was speaking by telephone from his Brooklyn home, where he produces his blog, writes a Tour de France blog for the NBC Universal Sports website and produces a monthly column for Bicycling magazine. His wife, Sara Goodman, has just given birth to their first child.
Weiss opens the book with a history of the bicycle, going all the way back to Baron Karl von Drais’s invention of the first Laufmaschine in 1818. “Even though it had two in-line wheels and was a precursor to the bicycle,” Weiss writes, “it was really mostly just a rolling crotch-crutch and it went out of style fairly quickly for a number of reasons, chief among them being that it lacked pedals and it was stupid.”
In a chapter titled “Velo-Taxonomy,” Weiss sets out to paint portraits of the various tribes of bicyclists. These include the Roadie (a racer in love with Lycra clothing), the Cyclocrosser (a slightly crazier type of racer), the Triathlete (a truly sick kind of racer), the Mountain Biker, the Urban Cyclist, the Messenger, the Beautiful Godzilla, the Retro-Grouch, the Righteous Cyclist, the Lone Wolf and the Contraption Captain. Each tribe has its own ethos, and Weiss’s thumbnail sketches can be quite deft: “When not racing behind a mask of pain, Cyclossers can be found standing in mud while wearing knee-high rubber boots, ringing cowbells, munching on pretentious french fries, and drinking $9 bottles of beer they’ve been keeping warm in the hatchbacks of their Subarus.” Such finely calibrated status radar merits comparison to Richard Price and Tom Wolfe.
But as someone who used to be a New York City bicycle messenger and is now simply an everyday rider who views bicycling as a free, healthy alternative to riding in those squalid underground sardine cans called subways, I couldn’t help but feel that Weiss’s taxonomy was less than complete. He makes no mention of the growing armada of chic New York City moms who ride $3,000 bikes retrofitted to haul children, organic groceries and potting soil. And where does a fiftysomething guy like me on a cheap old bike wearing zero Lycra or other cycling “gear” fit into his tribal status ladder?
“You’re just somebody riding a bike,” Weiss said. “Everybody, it seems, is caught up with the style of cycling. Nobody seems willing to get on a bike and not be anything. That’s nice what you’re doing. Or not doing.”
Weiss defines a cyclist as “one who rides a bicycle, even when he or she doesn’t have to,” and his book charts his own evolution as a cyclist, from learning to ride on a hand-me-down Schwinn in Rockaway, Queens, then on to his first BMX racer, then a Univega road racer and finally today’s “vast ganglion” of bikes. He races occasionally and sometimes rides for pleasure with Lance Armstrong, who gave the book a blurb, praising Weiss for “keeping us dorks in line.”
Weiss’s love of cycling is apparent and infectious, as is his loathing of pretension. He considers himself a curmudgeon, not an anarchist. He favors obeying traffic laws and riding intelligently and courteously. Unlike fixed-gear fanatics, he thinks bikes should have brakes. He is, in the end, a disciple of the bicycle, and he preaches the simple message that as more people ride, others will be encouraged to join them and the world will become a slightly better place. He doesn’t buy the zealot’s line that bicycling can save the planet, nor does he preach the Manichean gospel that cars are pure evil and bikes are goodness incarnate. In fact, on the rare occasions when his writing shades toward the polemical, some of his prime targets are bicycle companies. “Yes,” he writes, “the cycling world has done as much as anybody to convince us that cycling is a high-risk activity… Rather than sell you on the practicality and inherent safety of cycling, bicycle companies want to sell you on the high-performance, high-risk image of cycling.”
Weiss, to his credit, isn’t buying. He refuses to treat a bicycle as a fetish object worthy of worship, arguing that “you should treat your bicycle like a washing machine – you should constantly subject it to sweat and filth.”
Fans of the free-wheeling Bike Snob NYC blog might be surprised by this book’s relatively sober tone. Weiss explained that when he sat down to write the book he discovered something.
“Books and blogs are very different things,” he said. “You write a blog every day, it’s super-topical, you communicate with your readers – and you can assume your readers have a certain level of knowledge, even that many are geeks. A book is much more personal. It’s more personal to write, and it’s a quieter, more personal, intimate experience to read a book. I didn’t want the book to be dated next week. And in the book I wanted to express something that’s under the surface in the blog – that cycling makes me happy. In the book I wanted to say that overtly.”
And he succeeded handsomely.