Saturday, May 30, 2009

city cycling

David Byrne is an avid cyclist. This drawing comes from a NYT blog post describing the biking he does while on tour. The post also calls attention to Byrne's review of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes’s and it says a book of his own, Bicycle Diaries — about city cycling, will be published in September. The review is Bike Messenger (NYT May 28, 2009). In it he makes a point that I've been seeing more frequently lately: biking on city streets is seen as risky, sweaty, and vaguely anti-social. Urban bicyclists are perceived as hell-bent messengers, out-of-the-mainstream enthusiasts, or somewhat grubby and bearded eccentrics. He says the urban cycling movement will have turned a crucial corner when it's common to see women on bikes (dressed in street attire rather than be-spandexed). This corner has yet to be turned anywhere on the continents of America so far as I know, but it's evident in some European cities: notably Copenhagen. For a compelling example, just scan Mikael Colville-Andersen's celebration of Copenhagen cycling in his Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog, in his flickr photoset -- Copenhagen Cycle Chic, and in his companion blog, Copenhagenize with its 18 Ways To Know That You Have Bicycle Culture. His extensive blog-links give many other examples of cities where bike use is both extensive and not overwhelmingly masculine.

Byrne's review brought to mind another author, Richard Ballantine who is justly famous among bikers for his series of books on urban cycling, bike repair, and the pleasures of riding in general. There's a useful introduction to him and his impact on the world of cyclists in the BikeBiz web site: INTERVIEW: Richard Ballantine. It says in part:
Richard Ballantine, author of the 1970s million-copy classic Richard’s Bicycle Book, is back with a book about commuter cycling. He wants to fuel the growth of city cycling, reports Carlton Reid. Sex had Dr Alex Comfort. Cycling had Richard Ballantine. Cyclists of a certain age – bearded or otherwise – cut their teeth on dog-eared paperback copies of Richard Ballantine’s Richard’s Bicycle Book.

The green tome was a 1970s publishing sensation, selling in excess of one million copies, making the American-born, London-based magazine editor not just cycling’s biggest author but a market-creator. The pre-MTB cycling mini-boom of the 1970s and 1980s was fuelled, and partly created, by his book.
Ballantine has his own City Cycling book, whose jacket blurb reads: "Cycling is fast, cheap, green, and healthy. City Cycling is his distilled expertise on the techniques and pleasures of cycling as an urban lifestyle." The photo shows him as chair of the British Human Power Club.

Ballantine is known for his championing of "traffic jamming," a technique of cycling just about totally inimicable to the girls-in-heels cycling ethos. The essence of traffic jamming is an attitude: as cyclist you have as much right to the road as any other vehicle and you not only assert that right, you flaunt it, forcing drivers to acknowledge you and give you space. Taken to extreme, jamming involves breaking some traffic laws to gain position. It's fast, aggressive, and exhilarating. Ballatine says its safer than riding slowly and obsequiously. See this excerpt (pdf) from City Cycling for Ballantine's current version of jamming (it begins with the section on "Sprinting," p. 177).

I expect that Ballantine would say traffic jamming isn't needed -- is in fact unwanted -- in places like Copenhagen, but is a required practice in cities where traffic engineers have given the car, truck, and bus wildly unfair advantage over bikers.

{front and back covers of the original Richard's Bicycle Book; source:}

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found City Cycling to be mostly a regurgitation of the author's earlier work. 'Obsolescent' would be the term I would use for this book.

For non-UK readers, the book's narrow scope will be less than helpfu. Many of the author's observations pertain to commuting conditions found only in the UK.

That's not the only problem. Mr. Ballantine makes several curious recommendations, such as buying and using adjustable stems for hard everyday use on commuting bikes (an accident waiting to happen, as these use mere bolt friction to hold their position).

Much of the rest of the material seems quite dated, and fails to cover popular trends such as singlespeed and internal gear city bikes. The advice to start off a mountain bike with a rigid fork as a 'training' tool was obsolescent in 1994, let alone now.

Other ideas from the past, like putting in the usual skimpy, add-on chapter on bike maintenance and repair, have also become obsolete with the years (there are simply too many technical variations in bicycle systems today for such a chapter to have any possible utility.)

Until Mr. Ballantine can update his views and gather more information on city cycling outside of London, I'd recommend that readers pass on this book.