Book Reviews: Bike Snob's cycling manual plus a history of 2-wheelers

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submitted by Grace Lichtenstein

Two 2016 bicycle books

Ultimate Bicycle Owner's Manual and The Mechanical Horse

May 15, 2016

Rating: 4/5 stars

Eben Weiss, a/k/a "Bike SnobNYC," is a wise-ass; but he’s a knowledgeable, amusing and very helpful one. His new book: "The Ultimate Bicycle Owner's Manual," (Black Dog and Leventhal) takes beginner and experienced bike riders by the handlebars to show them how to keep pedaling safely and have a sense of humor about it.

Among the refreshing twists in the manual is the popular blogger’s suggestion that for anyone starting out it's more important to choose a bike shop than it is a bike. Regular riders know how a good neighborhood shop will make the adjustments needed on a new bike that you've bought there. Typically it will treat you well on repairs, accessories and the like.

Another twist: when buying your first bike, "adopt if possible.” In other words, get a used bike from a friend, neighbor or someone who has a bike they don't use. Why? A "fancy purebred can wind up being a huge and costly mistake....What happens when you realize you can't carry anything on it and your crotch is numb for six hours" after a ride?

His advice on maintenance, riding skills, bike subcultures, co-existing with drivers, and cycling with children boils down to a simple truth: "It's just a seat and some wheels. Don't overthink it." This refers to bikes for your kids, but I think it works for just about everything. For instance, on covering a saddle while leaving a bike outside? Don't be fancy; "a plastic bag will work fine - unless you live in a city like Portland where they hate plastic bags and using one will likely get you pelted with artisanal pickles." (Full disclosure: this reviewer uses a shower cap.)

Quibbles: Okay, not every adult must wear a helmet for trips around the block, but children? Bike Snob equivocates. But kids fall. Isn't it better to err on the side of safety? And touring bikes are useful for, well, touring, not just for those who "regularly wear Birkenstocks."

All in all, the guy is very funny, yet sensible. A New Yorker, Weiss's prejudices are in line with my own, since I'm an NYC rider myself. Still, I've looked at many manuals. This is the best I’ve read; it’s up-to-date, grounded in common sense. Bike Snob is not a snob about little things, just big ones like cars. One section is headlined: "Clawing Back Your Little Sliver of Tarmac Out from Under the Four Wheels of Tyranny."

Weiss covers the evolution of the bicycle since the 1880s in a few pages. For the full picture in a jaunty, concise history, try "The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life," by Margaret Guroff (University of Texas Press)

Guroff defty tells how cycling grew, literally, from the iron drasine and wooden-wheeled velocipedes in the early 19th century to giant-front-wheel penny farthings. Finally along came the "safety" bicycle, with two symmetrical wheels and pneumatic rubber tires, the predecessor of today's road and recreational styles.

But how frustrating is this? Guroff notes that "bicycles made cars feasible." Lobbying by enthusiasts like the League of American Wheelmen (now the gender-neutral League of American Bicyclists) led to muddy, rutted dirt roads being paved. Then once the bicycle craze waned at the end of the 19th century, you-know-whats appropriated those highways and we two-wheeled types have been trying to gain back our share of them ever since.

(reprinted from


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