Pedal Pusher

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A popular cycling blog spawns a humorous book about mental and physical survival on big city streets.

America, home of the Cadillac Escalade, has recently seen an upsurge in pedal power. Many influences have contributed to this trend––from fixed gears to expensive gas––but more people are riding more kinds of bicycles than ever before. While the number of “serious” cyclists (that is, cyclist who take themselves seriously) has probably increased somewhat, the real boom has been in casual and practical cycling: people who ride to work, to friend’s houses, and to the grocery store not because they’re trying to burn fat but because it makes sense, saves money, is enjoyable, and, currently at least, is cool.

Since 2007, BikeSnobNYC, a.k.a. Eben Weiss of Brooklyn, has been blogging about this diverse body of cyclists. His first entries parsed the fine degrees of absurdity in Craigslist advertisements for bikes, mostly the trendier models of urban fixed gears. But the blog soon grew into a regular column of satirical comment on the bike industry, cyclists and their often ridiculous styles, and various “indignities” suffered by the author on his rides through New York. Posts, each a crafted essay with images and illustrations, appear Monday through Thursday; a satirical “Fun Quiz” is posted on Friday. The blog form, unimpeded by limitations of space, can be a form of excess, especially an excess of self-involvement; but Weiss keeps it real. The worst he can be accused of is having digressed on a farcical religion involving a lobster god. It’s no surprise that he soon became a columnist for Bicycling Magazine, nor that he now has a book: Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling.

Less insidery than the blog, this cargo-pocket-sized guidebook gives a brief history of cycling, which includes a narrative of a ride along a popular 19th-century route which now, unfortunately, goes from College Point to Far Rockaway, via Jamaica, Queens. Weiss compares different “subsets” of riders: the roadie, the mountain biker, the messenger, the beautiful godzilla (models on Dutch bikes and cell phones), the righteous cyclist, etc., each group evaluated on their idiosyncrasies and their compatibility with other groups. Relative leg hairiness and sock height are considered. On why messengers discourage aspirants to the profession, Weiss, a former messenger, comments:

The mystique of the Messenger depends on people thinking it’s hard, and if people discover that riding around the city all day is actually pretty easy and also a lot of fun they might start running their own errands and the entire house of spoke cards may topple.

From history and taxonomy, Weiss moves to culture, his critical métier, commenting on American life through the lens of its riders (and drivers). Here, he elaborates his position as a pragmatic traditionalist. Although he reserves the right to let people do what they want as long as they don’t bother him, Mr. Snob thinks many people’s cultural identities are too fungible and that this problem is exemplified by various forms of gentrification. Referring to the trendiness of cycling, he says, “it can be annoying to see something you love used as a fashion statement,” though he admits the trend actually “changes things for the better.” Since cycling has an overall positive effect on society and on other cyclists (the more, the safer), the end result is a positive, no matter how temporarily aggravating to those who were in it from the beginning.

For would-be cyclists, perhaps the most useful portion of the book is the chapter “Why is Everybody Trying to Kill Me?: Fear, and How to Survive on a Bicycle.” The section includes the analysis that drivers feel they have more rights than cyclists because a car is more expensive than a bike, which gives the driver an inflated sense of self-importance. This analysis seems trenchant and happens to be useful for people unaccustomed to riding in traffic since, as he suggests, this knowledge should not make you afraid, necessarily. Self-importance is not murderous, just oblivious. Acknowledging the realities of drivers, of cold hands, of funny looks and other discomforts should make it easier, not harder to get out and ride since difficulties overcome and self-importance dodged feel good, especially when the persecution anxiety is removed.

Bike Snob is an unusual combination of history, criticism, and guidance—there’s even a set of directions for keeping your chain in good shape. It’s easy to see how the blog form yields such a hodgepodge, but it’s hard to pull off without being annoying, especially when writing so often about being annoyed. But Weiss’s book is enjoyable to read in the way that all sincerely comic writing is. His points are aided by a buoyant tone and darting wit. What might be insufferable strikes comic notes in odd and original enough ways that you find yourself laughing. Weiss’s experience and sincerity manage to come through as well. Readers of the blog will find much that is new here: a slightly more grown-up feel, more intention and deliberate usefulness. Cyclists will find many of their thoughts and experiences validated (if they’re not distracted by the corny illustrations). For people interested in starting to ride to work, Mr. Snob (who is actually the opposite of one) offers useful, fundamental advice for surviving, at least mentally, out on the streets.

Colin Mort's fiction has appeared in literary journals, online and in print, and he is currently completing a novel. He also writes about cycling and teaches writing. More from this author →