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The Enlightened Cyclist by BikeSnobNYC – book review

Bike Snob – a manifesto for the cycling realist, in my opinion!

I enjoy Bike Snob’s blog. It’s probably one of the only blogs that I regularly follow and snigger at in a self-satisfied fashion while sitting smugly at my desk. He is definitely an avid cyclist and fan of cycling in general, and he enjoys deconstructing and mocking all of the cliques, communities and movements that seem to strangely grow off of a simple machine with two wheels. Anyone is a target – including himself, and especially Mario Cipollini – and his language is at once hilarious, scathing, and disarming. If he just completely insulted you, you’d probably have to give a sigh and admit “yeah, you got that right, Bike Snob.”

The Enlightened Cyclist – a manual for how not to commute like a jerk.

I read his first book and utterly enjoyed it. I enjoyed classifying my friends as combinations of the different cycling stereotype “species” that Bike Snob identified. I am at once a retro-grouch and a bit of a lone-wolf, with a roadie and mountain biker mixed in… among other things. The book lashed out at the more polarizing aspects of cycling that would intentionally exclude other cyclists. Those hipsters look on the roadies and the roadies look on the hipsters with equal amounts of disdain. It all seems so silly, doesn’t it? It call comes down to this bizarre phenomenon that one group of cyclists looks at another group of cyclists and determines “you’re doing it wrong.”

Bike Snob’s second book is all about commuting. If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know that the bulk of the 18 pounds I lost last year was done on a bike between my home and my workplace. Because of that, I was pretty interested to see the full take on commuting from the snob’s point of view. What I like about his outlook is that it’s inclusive as opposed to the often fragmenting aspects of cycling communities. If you’re riding, you’re riding, and that’s a good thing. It’s what you do while you’re riding that defines the way the rest of the world sees you. A dirty hipster on a ridiculous track bike with no brakes running a red light is every bit as annoying as a full-kit roadie with 20 gears and sponsor stickers running a red light.

He talks about the position of cyclists in the commuting world as being the “chosen commuters.” We’re the annoying ones. Cars don’t want us on the roads, and pedestrians don’t want us on the sidewalks. Cars think we are slow and unpredictable and in the way, and will go out of their way to get around us if only to turn right immediately and cut us off (a move identified by Bike Snob as the “right hook”). Pedestrians think we are dangerous people-bombs that don’t pay attention to our surroundings and dangerously use pedestrians as challenging pylons to navigate like a game. If the world had no cyclists, cars and pedestrians would be happy: walkers stick to the sidewalks and the trains, and cars stick to the streets.

There’s another aspect of being the “chosen commuter” that Snob seems to point to as an opportunity. As the perceived enemy of both, cyclists have a chance to step above that self-propagating label and become a unifying factor in the human drive to get from A to B without getting killed. By following a few simple rules (some practical, some law), everyone can get along. As cyclists, the more we enjoy the way in which we’re getting from A to B (riding can be immensely satisfying and enjoyable), the more that will rub off on the people who are around us. I make a habit of making sure there’s enough room for cars to turn right beside me if I’m stopped at light – it can be that simple!

Some of the more depressing aspects of the book highlight some disturbing trends in bicycle advocacy. First, advocacy is one of the cycling habits that make you look like a jerk. Critical Mass is not making a point and raising awareness for cyclist rights, it is just getting in the way and pissing everyone who’s not on a bike off. Some constituencies and neighborhoods are pushing out cyclists through special interest, which really reminded me of this article I read on the Bicycling website about a school that banned riding to school. Bike Snob’s breakdown of bicycle infrastructure improvement followed by that infrastructure’s removal and a “crackdown on cyclists” in New York was particularly bizarre.

By far the most trying tale in the book was his own personal account of the day of the twin-tower disaster on 9/11. His wife at the time, stuck downtown in her car because of the disaster, was cut off from moving. The only way he could get to her was with his bike, which he didn’t even think twice about at the time – it was just the thing to do.

To me, there’s a real balance about all of this, and it seems that it’s the perspective that Bike Snob writes from. You are not going to get more people cycling by banning cars. Similarly, you are not going to get rid of cars by banning cars; our cities are not designed for it. Bikes and cars are going to coexist, no matter how many gentrified hipsters ride fixies in a parade, blocking traffic to exercise their rights as commuters. The book talks about the bad things cyclists do, and the bad things that drivers do. It also talks about the assumptions cyclists have about cars, and the assumptions cars have about cyclists. Really, it’s an awareness thing.

All of Bike Snob’s points get tied back to what he calls the “Dachsund of time,” a time scale that places different eras of human commuting along a line from the tail to the snout of a cute little dachsund. It’s that kind of ridiculous out-of-nowhere analogy that makes the Bike Snob so entertaining. At times scathing, at times insightful, and at times humorous, Bike Snob deconstructs commuting by all modes of transport and makes any of the prejudices you have about other forms of commuting seem irrelevant.

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as his first book. Still, the writing style appeals, and his analogies are just downright hilarious. The first book is almost required before reading this one, as he sets the stage for some language and terminology that he uses throughout. Heck, he uses the terminology on a regular basis on his blog, and I’m still not entirely sure what a “Fred” is, only that I don’t want to be one, and that I certainly don’t want to be Mario Cippolini. While you are enthusiastically awaiting the day when Cat 6 racing becomes a reality and you wear a number when you leave work to jump on your bike, let this book tie you over, good stuff.

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One response to “The Enlightened Cyclist by BikeSnobNYC – book review

  1. Pingback: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card – book review « azzurriffopubijix

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