Book Review Lite

This is not a book review. It’s not even a review of a review. Call this, instead, an indication.

I see in the New York Times Sunday Book Review a new book entitled Just Ride by Grant Petersen. I like the sound of this new book according to the description of the reviewer. It appears Petersen is challenging the hegemony of sport bicycling in our American bicycling culture (such as it is).

I didn’t like the last quote in the review:  “No matter how much your bike costs,” he says, “unless you use it to make a living, it is a toy, and it should be fun.” This single sentence quoted by the reviewer lacks crucial context. So I have no way of knowing if Petersen actually thinks of bicycles as toys or whether he is using toy as a metaphor to make a particular point. I will say this, however: Bicycles, at least in the State of Missouri, are vehicles, and I’m disinclined the think of them any other way no matter what point Petersen is trying to make.

My disinclination springs from my own bicycling context that Carbon Trace readers ought to fully understand by now: I am a transportation bicyclist. I ride to get from point A to point B. It is rare for me to ride just for fun (it’s always fun!), and I never ride for sport. I do no not own a sport bicycle, nor do I own any article of clothing or piece of equipment that can be understood, or used, as sport bicycling equipment. I’m not anti-sport-bicycling. I’m just not interested.

I am, however, anti-sport-bicycling-hegemony. And that appears to be the thematic thrust of Petersen’s book. So, yeah, cool.

I am reading, and intend to review, On Bicycles — a collection of short essays published last year (nothing like getting off the dime!).

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Comments 30

  1. Ian Cooper wrote:

    This post hit me as an example of Jung’s ‘synchronicity’. I had just been on the Rivendell site and noticed they had some books for sale there, and this one struck my eye. I did get a sort of hunch that it would be another of those books on the ‘bike facilities are good’ side of the spectrum, so I gave it a miss.

    I lust after Rivendell bikes – they seem to match my sensibilities (though they are way beyond my price range), but if the owner thinks of bikes – even commuter bikes – as toys, I may have to reassess the respect with which I held the company.

    Apologies, by the way, for any typos or muddled thinking that may appear in my post. I am in the throes of a migraine, and mostly they affect my vision and language processing. But I had to write in response.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 9:27 am
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Ian … Yikes! Take care of yourself.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 9:37 am
  3. Steve A wrote:

    I comment on this on a morning when I rode my road bike for the first time since I last taught a cycling class early last Spring. IMO, the distinction is artificial and helps keep cycling down. Just as a past focus on Owens ignored a larger situation. Simply put, cyclists are road users that also engage in sport, just as motorists do.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 10:33 am
  4. Andy Cline wrote:

    Steve… The distinction seems very real to me given my context.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 11:46 am
  5. Khal Spencer wrote:

    There is a lot of stuff out there that is marketed to people in order that companies sell stuff and make money. We are encouraged to buy more jerseys, fancier drivetrains, ultralight components, etc, etc. It keeps someone in Taiwan or occasionally Italy employed, I suppose. I am hoping the cultural hegemony stuff dies out a little as cycling becomes more mainstream, as it is in Europe, and the silly attitude games are replaced by a live and let live attitude.

    Does the average person need all the stuff to ride a bike? No more than the average person needs a Cadillac rather than a Toyota. In both cases, what is marketed is snob appeal.

    To some degree, one’s needs are defined by how one bicycles. If I rode a mile to work I would do it in street clothing and probably do it on a bike with fenders and internal hub gears. I ride five hilly miles to work and do it in bike togs so I can get there and change into fresh clothing before I start dealing with work stuff. At a file mile commute, even if I take it easy I sweat a lot.

    Not to mention, I am a lifelong cyclist. Give me an excuse, and I’ll jump on my bike, as my long suffering wife often laments. I could ride my commuter on weekends, but its just more fun to ride a lightweight road bike. Even in grad school, some things went wanting so I could scrape up the money for a new set of tires for the original, 1985 Cannondale. But when Campy went from 10 to 11 speeds, I didn’t bite.

    My advisor, who rides “toy bikes” as his daily drivers on Long Island, also made the toy vs. utility bike comment on his own blog after spending a sabbatical commuting to the Univ. of Muenster on a Gazelle. A bike designed to get you from A to B comfortably and cleanly on level ground is not the same as a bike designed to get me from 7500 to 9000 feet as fast as I can pedal on a Sunday morning.

    As the late Rodney King once said, can’t we all just get along? The cyclists who turn up their noses at each other because they either do or don’t dress up in silly outfits and ride unobtainium vs. steel bikes miss the Zen of cycling and need to meditate on reaching a higher plane of understanding.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 2:56 pm
  6. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Get well soon, Ian. Migranes really suck.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 3:07 pm
  7. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Migraine gone, so back to normal (or as close as I get to it).

    By the way, Andy, I should say thanks for inspiring me (via a recent video) to get myself a comfort hybrid. I’ve been riding drop-bar bikes for 30 years, but I saw you happily riding along with your head held high in Springfield, and I decided I wanted some of that experience. It was an N+1 problem solved by the fact that my wife owed me a birthday present. So I tried out a few bikes in my LBS today and ended up ordering a Trek Verve 1. It’s a fairly simple bottom-of-the-range bike, but it suits my need for a runabout.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 3:17 pm
  8. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Where this really hurts cycling for the masses, or cycling for transportation, is when a person who wants to ride a bike as transportation walks into a bike shop. The cultural hegemony piece means comes into play because you are highly unlikely to find a decent bicycle that is built for utility transportation. A non-cyclist is likely to buy something that won’t or can’t work, or at best,something that requires a lot of modification in order to work more than badly.

    Folks like Joe Breeze and Jan VanderTuin build bikes to move people and things. Most of the bike biz builds stuff for Lance wannabes, and to make money. The first priority of any person who has a vision of cycling as a realistic option for future transportation should be exposing the public to the Breezers and the Long Haul, not the Madone.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 3:22 pm
  9. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Going back to the quote in question here, I have to say that I wonder how Grant Petersen’s quote would apply to me. As a stay-at-home dad, I don’t ‘make a living’ in terms of making money at all. So am I some kind of playboy? Since I look after my daughter for 8+ hours a day, I don’t think that’s right. Since my efforts during the day are focused around her, does that make her a ‘toy’? Surely not.

    Conversely, I’ve often had a lot of fun at work while ‘making a living’. So I don’t think that there’s a hard line (or any line at all) dividing fun from work or toys from tools.

    I agree that cycling should be fun, but shouldn’t all our pursuits? Do we have to surrender to the notion that some things we do will have no room for fun? I don’t think so.

    So I think it’s an unfortunate quote that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Not everything that involves fun is for play, and not everything that is about making a living is serious. Much of the stuff we are most serious about is not concerned with making a living. Such things are not necessarily playthings.

    A bicycle is a tool – a vehicle, not a toy, though I suppose it can be if we want it to be. I never cycle for fun – I just don’t. Fun is merely a byproduct. I cycle to get places I need to be. I have never once in my life gone out simply to take a spin around the block – some folks do, but I am just too lazy for that. The fact is, if I never needed to be anywhere, I would never take my bicycle out again. Surely then, my bike is not a toy.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 4:11 pm
  10. Kevin Love wrote:

    Andy, Ian,

    To understand the quote, it is necessary to read the linked New York Times book review.

    When Grant Peterson says “unless you use it to make a living,” he is referring to paid professional athletes who make a living by bicycle racing. He is not talking about someone who rides their bike to work!

    Nonetheless, I still disagree with Mr. Peterson. Where I live in Toronto, the transportation mode share of cars (drivers and passengers) is at 26% and falling fast. Cycling is by far the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of getting from A to B.

    What that means is that there are a very large number of cyclists who absolutely hate cycling. And I am OK with that.

    Transportation cycling is not an end in itself, but a means of building a pleasant, liveable city. Instead of a city where the lethal poisons in car pollution kill and injure large numbers of people and make the urban fabric hostile to human society and social interaction.

    Source for transportation mode share:

    I live in The Riding of Toronto Centre.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 5:24 pm
  11. Kevin Love wrote:

    Further thoughts…

    Take any large city in the USA where the transportation mode share is dominated by cars. What percentage of the distance travelled by car drivers is not to get somewhere, but “just taking a nice, pleasant drive around the city”?

    I suspect that the answer to this question is “almost none.” There is no expectation that car driving will be fun. Unlike Grant Peterson, I’ve got exactly the same lack of expectation about cycling.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 5:34 pm
  12. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Hey, Kevin

    I hope you elect a less caustic Mayor ASAP. Toronto is a fine city, as seen from across the lake from my original home towns of Buffalo and Rochester.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 5:35 pm
  13. Kevin Love wrote:

    Hi Khal,

    Yes, the mayor is an embarrasment. The man who should have been mayor was knocked off by a sex scandal. But before the scandal broke, he was so far ahead in the polls that this discouraged all the major-league political heavyweights from standing for election against him.

    So the voters were left with a choice between several sensible candidates who were lesser-known political lightweights or the well-known crazy right-wing ranter. Sigh…

    Just goes to prove the saying of Sir Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government… except for the alternatives.

    For a taste of pure, vintage Ford saying that “Cyclists are a pain in the ass,” see:

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 5:54 pm
  14. Ian Cooper wrote:

    “When Grant Peterson says “unless you use it to make a living,” he is referring to paid professional athletes who make a living by bicycle racing. He is not talking about someone who rides their bike to work!”

    Actually, I think that makes it even worse, since it implies that Mr. Petersen thinks any bike that is not used for professional racing is a toy. Previously, I had assumed that he was also counting courier bikes etc. as work bikes.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 6:04 pm
  15. Kevin Love wrote:


    I quite agree with you. Following St. Augustine’s Rule of Charitable Interpretation, what I think Mr. Peterson really meant to say was something along the lines of:

    “In addition to being a practical means of transportation, cycling should also be fun. Bicycles for transportation should be built as practical machines that are easy to use and emphasise the fun, and not as racing machines.”

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 6:52 pm
  16. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Grant can think what he wants to think; a lot of cyclists tend to the eccentric. I’d still prefer him over Rob Ford.

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 8:02 pm
  17. Andy Cline wrote:

    Wow, leave the blog for a couple of hours and you guys go crazy 🙂 Thanks for all the input!

    Posted 29 Jul 2012 at 10:16 pm
  18. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Since Andy keeps throwing this word around…

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 7:41 am
  19. Khal Spencer wrote:

    “In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony describes the ruling-class domination of a culturally diverse society by one social class, who manipulate the societal culture — beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, mores — so that its ruling-class Weltanschauung, becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class…”

    I suppose the domination of cycling by the sportbike concept fits the bill, at least in the US. The mindless parroting of “lower taxes” proffered on the right and adopted by the Tea Party (most of whom will not benefit from more givebacks to the Koch Brothers and their ilk) is even a clearer example of a questionable idea adopted as universally beneficial when in fact that has a long way to go to be proved

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 7:45 am
  20. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Speaking of cultural hegemony, something has always seemed ‘not right’ about the way cycling is portrayed in the US. I’ve often been told that casual (weekend or ‘leisure’) cyclists far outnumber commuter cyclists. I’ve always found this hard to believe, as I always assumed that there would have to be more people using their bikes for basic transportation than merely as a toy or as a way to get fit.

    Does anyone know if any good figures exist that tell the true story? Could it be that this is one of the manipulations of the cycling cultural hegemony? Or are they right – is cycling in this country truly dominated by those who use their bikes as toys?

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 7:55 am
  21. Andy Cline wrote:

    Ian… Excellent question. I’m not sure under what circumstances such data would have been collected. It would have to be a survey that asked bicyclists to classify their riding or list their various uses in a hierarchy of importance.

    Anecdotal: In Springfield it appears to me that this may be a possible hierarchy according to use:

    1. Transportation
    2. Sport
    3. Family recreation

    Perhaps that’s simply what I want to see 😉

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 8:23 am
  22. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I’m not sure where the data come from. There are one or more national polls that ask people if they bicycle, and if so, how often, etc. etc. I suspect the numbers have significant uncertainties on them.

    Bikes Belong has the following. Caveat emptor.

    Trips for recreation, exercise, and sports accounted for 49% of bike trips in 2009. Between 2001 and 2009, the share of all bike trips made for utilitarian reasons increased from 43% to 51%.

    Pucher, J., et al., 2011

    Walking and cycling in the United States, 2001-2009: Evidence from the National Household Travel Surveys, American Journal of Public Health, Supplement 1, Vol 101, No S1

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 8:56 am
  23. Ian Cooper wrote:

    “Trips for recreation, exercise, and sports accounted for 49% of bike trips in 2009. Between 2001 and 2009, the share of all bike trips made for utilitarian reasons increased from 43% to 51%.”

    The thing is, I kinda suspect that a lot of people in the US simply don’t see the bike as a commuting tool, so even though they may use it this way from time to time, they tend to forget it or dismiss that they do use it this way. When you see a bike only as a toy, you’ll tend to ignore the times when you use it as a tool. Not saying that this is always the case – just posing it as a possibility when it comes to ‘self-reporting’ surveys.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 9:08 am
  24. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Good to know that Bikes Belong sees a (small) majority riding for utilitarian reasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with biking for leisure, but when that’s seen as the majority use for the bike, it does tend to cement the idea of a bike being a toy.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 9:16 am
  25. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I think this is where the cultural hegemony argument against U.S. cycling is most damning. The public sees the bicycle as toy, i.e., as a bunch of weekend warriors riding around in spandex on scaled-down Madones. (Even my Long Haul Trucker doesn’t look like a utility bike to most). Buycycling Magazine extolls this sexy, toyish view of cycling. Real-world utility cycling, often done on far less exotic equipment, is invisible, as is the “invisible cyclist” riding to work.

    Dan Koeppel’s article, originally published in Bicycling Magazine, is compelling. Its rare to see such a good article in Bicycling, and unheard of to see the people Dan writes about in that magazine. For they are not “bicyclists” nor do they identify themselves as “bicyclists”. They are people who use their bikes as basic transportation. I doubt they show up on Bike Belong’s pages, either, even though they probably put more miles in the saddle than most “bicyclists”.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 11:51 am
  26. Khal Spencer wrote:

    #25 is referrer spam.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 12:26 pm
  27. Ian Cooper wrote:

    “They are people who use their bikes as basic transportation. I doubt they show up on Bike Belong’s pages, either, even though they probably put more miles in the saddle than most “bicyclists”.”

    I wish they did not seem so keen to ride on the sidewalk for reasons of ‘safety’. I wish the writer had been clued-up enough to know the stats on sidewalk riding, instead of merely parroting the conventional wisdom by saying he “couldn’t argue with Diaz that getting off the sidewalk is simply ‘too dangerous’.”

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 2:50 pm
  28. Khal Spencer wrote:

    My old buddy Patrick O’Grady would beg to differ.

    AFAIC, one can ride safely on the sidewalk, as long as one knows how to ride safely on the sidewalk. The people who I see getting greased are neither fish nor fowl–they don’t know how to ride on the road, nor do they know how to ride on the sidewalk.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 3:41 pm
  29. Ian Cooper wrote:

    My attitude is that there’s a safest facility on which to ride and there’s everywhere else. We can learn to ride as safely as possible on a less safe facility, but we’re wasting effort if there’s a safer facility on which to ride. From the research I’ve done, the sidewalk places cyclists at a disadvantage in terms of visibility, and that adversely affects safety no matter how well we learn to use it.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 4:10 pm
  30. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Without knowing anything about a specific city, all I would be willing to say is that a competent cyclist should know what the risks and benefits are for any facility, and make the intelligent choices.

    I’ve never cycled in Las Vegas, NV, for example. Taught a segment of a short course one summer and was not impressed with the roads, but don’t feel competent to pass judgement.

    Posted 30 Jul 2012 at 8:56 pm