Monday, May 30, 2016

The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life (Book Review)

The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American LifeThe Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life by Margaret Guroff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Several times recently I have written Goodreads reviews for books and commented that I was not part of the target audience for the book. When I got this from the public library, I thought to myself, "aha - here is a book where I certainly am part of the target audience!" After all, I read books about cycling history whenever I find them and I even have a bicycle history oriented blog (although I have not published so much in recent times). Once I had read partway through this, I decided I apparently was not really the target audience for this book, either, which I will explain below.

First, I should note that I was a little confused by the title, subtitle, and dust cover illustration of this book. I added up "mechanical horse" and "how the bicycle reshaped American life" (in the past, mind you) with the drawing of a couple in the 1890s riding their then-new safety bicycles and took this to be a book about the early days of cycling. It turns out it covers the entire span of bicycle history, from the earliest days up through now, all in only about 165 pages of text. (Extensive notes and an in-depth bibliography add another 120 pages, which is unusual. Oddly Goodreads says the book is 216 pages, but the copy I have has 287 including the index.)

165 pages isn't much to cover the entire history of cycling in America, certainly not in any kind of depth. That's why this wasn't, I think, a book for an enthusiast like me - there just isn't much depth to what is here. Which is too bad, because in looking through the above-mentioned extensive bibliography and notes, I was able to appreciate how much research went into this book - a lot! I sensed that the author chose not to share much of what she learned with her readers in this book, for whatever reason.

I thought the author made several surprising detours in her discussion of how bicycles reshaped American life. One of the eleven chapters talks about the connection between the development of flight, most notably the Wright brothers, and cycling in general. And another (The Cycles of War) talks about use of bicycles by different armies, with what for this book is a long digression into a discussion of the use of bicycles in the Vietnam War (by the North Vietnamese). I thought the direct connection between these topics and "reshaping American life" was pretty thin.

The book has a few illustrations, but some concepts that would have been helpful to who with illustrations or photographs are not included - for example, the simple difference between a so-called "ordinary" bicycle and a "safety" bicycle.

Although the book has (as noted) page after page of notes on what is in the text, these are not referenced in the text itself. If you wonder what the source was for something, you look to the back of the book and maybe there is relevant note and maybe not. I guess having endnote numbers in the text would be a distraction? Or not appropriate for this popular treatment?

The final chapter tries to briefly summarize the many different cycling tendencies out there now and to argue that the influence of cycling is likely to grow. Sure, maybe. But there isn't much that is persuasive provided here.

If one is interested in the topic and not too familiar with it, this is a reasonably short and certainly quite readable way to learn about some of the ways American society has been influenced by cycling. I was disappointed because for all the effort that seems to have gone into it, it could have been better.

View all my cycling book reviews on Goodreads.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Modern" Ambassador to Vietnam is a Cyclist

Ted Osius’ path to becoming U.S. ambassador to Vietnam began with bicycle diplomacy, soon after relations with Hanoi were restored in 1995. As a consular officer, he pedaled the countryside and endeared himself to the Vietnamese. Osius is gay and married, and represents a modern America: “I'm white, my husband's black and our kids are brown,” he says. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

In the 1990s Ambassador Osius rode 1,200 miles throughout Vietnam as a consular officer and he still rides around the country as ambassador there today.

Of course, Secretary of State Kerry is well known as a serious recreational cyclist himself. The most amazing U.S. cycling diplomat in my view though was Alvey Adee who rode to and from work in Washington by bicycle over 100 years ago into his 70s. He would also travel to France to take bicycle trips in the countryside (until World War I, anyway).

Alvey Adee of Dept of State & Bicycle
Yes, John Kerry is 72 and Adee was 72, but times have changed and Adee didn't have the support for cycling Kerry has

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Bike to Work Day - I Don't

1995 Trek with Michelin Run'r tires installed
Why don't I want to ride this (or some other) bike to work tomorrow?

OK, I guess I'm kind of a grouch, or something. My thought is that since I ride all the other work days, I can take this day off, not just from riding a bike to work, but take the day off from work altogether. The effort of bike advocates to identify a day when good weather can be assured seems to me to miss the point, which is that bike commuting isn't a big deal; no need to wait for perfect weather.


Bike to Work Day, 2011
Apparently this was the last time I rode to work on Bike to Work day, in 2011

If we look at the above photograph, maybe another problem I have with Bike to Work day is that it is an opportunity to encounter a bike traffic jam. Gee, uhm, yeah no.

Now don't get me wrong - I am glad to see more people cycling, and riding in a line like this that might be going more slowly than I otherwise would enjoy is fine too, but the kind of overnight increase in the number of cyclists on some of these trails demonstrates immediately that the existing cycling infrastructure is not all it should be if biking to work is supposed to be a serious alternative (and not a one day celebration). Much of the Mount Vernon trail, shown above, is not wide enough to support the kind of heavy use it gets on Bike to Work day. Where are the pedestrians supposed to go?

Bike to work day poster Moscow 2015
Even the Russians have bike2work day, as evidenced by this poster from last year - this year, same day as here in America!

Another reason why Bike to Work day annoy me is that it is an excuse for the Washington Post to publish more dumb stories about bicycling. Like this one, Biking to work is great. If you can put up with the cars. And the weather. This listicle complains about taxis and cars passing too closely, then moves on to complain that you might get wet, "Riding a bike in wet conditions can too often make people feel like they’ve been returned to a time when they tottered around in soggy diapers." Generally this is baloney - if you ride a bike with fenders, it is amazing how rarely the weather is sufficiently downpour-ish that you get wet-wet. I've been doing this for 15+ years. Really, it isn't that big a problem. "Soggy diapers" - is a reference like that what attracts clicks?

The front page of the Washington Post weekend section on Friday had an illustration showing cyclists around the Lincoln Memorial and a few pedestrians with no cars at all. A caption reads, "A capital idea: forget Metro, ditch the car and start pedaling - Washington on two wheels." Framing the discussion this way is a bit dim - for most people it is an unrealistic idea to make a complete changeover to cycling. I get that the Metro problems present what seems like an opportunity to encourage more cycling, but if we could just get people to make one in ten of their trips usually made by car using a bicycle, that would be grand.

People in cars, myself included, don't seem to need "super fun events" in order to decide to use them