On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life

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Amy Walker, who has been at the forefront of the urban cycling trend, presents stories by a diverse group of cycling enthusiasts and activists that, accompanied by the illustrations of bike culture artist Matt Fleming, reminds readers why biking is fun. They say you never forget how to ride a bike; this collection helps us remember why we ride.

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1. Bicycling Is Contagious by Amy Walker

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Amy Walker

Warning! Cycling can be addictive. Before you grab onto those handlebars, before you throw a leg over the saddle and start pumping away at those pedals, be aware: once you start, you may never want to stop. And like anything that looks good, feels good, and does good, you’ll want to share it. Thankfully, bicycling is easy and sociable. It feels natural to ride at a moderate pace and maintain a conversation, or just fly in a flock, drifting playfully among your companions. The act of balancing combined with gentle physical rhythm activates brain waves and creativity. The bicycle’s effect has even provided a key to understanding the universe: Albert Einstein said of his theory of relativity, “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.” This collection of short essays about biking may not bring you revelations of that magnitude, but it was created to inspire you, whether you are new to cycling or an expert.

Without bicycles, my life would have taken a completely different path. I have always been interested in problem solving and making sense out of the world, and when I first started commuting by bike over twenty years ago (I was 16 and riding forty-five minutes each way to my high school), a major puzzle piece of my life fell into place. Cycling clicked. It simultaneously gave me fast, accessible transportation, exercise, and a clear environmental conscience. I knew that if it worked well for me, it could work well for others, too. I noticed there was a movement growing around transportation cycling, and even though I was a bit shy, I wanted to get involved. Finally, in 2000 I met my cycling mentor, Carmen Mills (author of chapter 10, “Notes from a Bicycle Buddha”), who inspired me with her vision, humor, and collaborative spirit. Together, in 2001, we cofounded Momentum magazine.

 

2. Because It’s Fun! by Terry Lowe

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Terry Lowe

Ahead of me is a long, swooping downhill with no stop sign at the bottom. I climbed this ridge to enjoy the view overlooking the city, with the harbor bridge below and the North Shore mountains looming nearby. This is my city — Vancouver, Canada — and, as the sticker on my bike says, I ride everywhere. And every day.

There is nothing like riding a bike. It’s not all sweat, strain, and endurance, as some riders would have you believe. It’s more the happy awareness of a small, lightweight machine carrying you easily through the streets, the movement of your body, the air on your face, and the world in all its shapes, colors, and flavors.

A light push of the foot sets me off. As my speed increases, I feel like I’m flying. A big, happy grin lights up my face. For adults, riding a bike is one way to recover the sense of play that little children enjoy. That’s the reason we cyclists smile at each other when passing on the bike routes.

Some people guiltily reason that they “should” ride a bike because: (1) it’s green, and they will therefore reduce their carbon footprint; (2) it’s good for them, and they will thus improve their overall health and fitness; and (3) by doing so, they will enjoy the substantial financial savings associated with not owning a car. Those things are all true, of course, but to me they’re side effects. The best reason to ride a bike around town is that it’s fun.

 

3. Cycling Is Faster by Lars Goeller

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Lars Goeller

When I claim that cycling is faster, the first thing you’ll ask is, faster than what? Well, everything else, I’ll say, and mostly cars…. Then you’ll expect me to toss out that old tortoise-and-hare routine and say that slow and steady wins the race. Yes, compared with cars, bicycles are both slow and steady. (Steady because cyclists are notorious for ignoring stop signs.) Unfortunately that particular moral is a load of bull. People never describe Usain Bolt as “slow and steady,” and he wins lots of races. The real moral of that fable is “Don’t be cocky, and don’t take things for granted.” Heeding this moral will help you get where you’re going faster than if you were driving a car.

If you’re traveling less than six miles (ten kilometers), there’s a good chance that riding a bike will be faster than driving a car or even taking the bus. This isn’t because you’re a fast cyclist; it’s because God invented traffic signs. They do several things that favor the cyclist: they limit the speeds that cars travel, the directions they can travel, and where they can park. They also often provide free parking for cyclists right outside their destination. So if you’re traveling a shorter distance, take your bike and get there faster.

 

4. Cycling for Health, Wealth, and Freedom by Todd Litman

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Todd Litman

For honesty’s sake, car advertisements should show motorists who look overweight, impoverished, and stressed, since that is the real outcome of a lifestyle dependent on the automobile. A lifestyle that includes plenty of cycling can make you truly healthy, wealthy, and free.

If irony could kill, driving to a health club to exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike would be deadly. Yet many people see this as normal: exercise is considered a commodity they must purchase with time, money, and effort. This approach is also a prescription for failure. Health clubs sell about five times the number of memberships their facilities can actually accommodate because they know most people quickly drop out.

A much better approach is to integrate exercise into your daily transportation routine by walking and cycling. Even if such trips are slower than driving, they provide savings overall by eliminating the need to devote time and money to exercise at a health club.

With a little planning, many trips, even long ones, can be made efficiently by a combination of walking, cycling, and public transport. Social, recreational, and shopping trips, errands, and journeys to school — trips that account for a major portion of personal travel in the United States — are particularly well suited to nonmotorized travel. Automobile transportation is costly. In the United States, owning and operating even a basic car costs $3,000–$5,000 annually in depreciation, fuel costs, insurance, registration, maintenance and repairs, and parking expenses. For many middle- and lower-income households, owning and operating a car for each adult can impose significant financial burdens that prevent people from fulfilling their aspirations. For example, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2008 Consumer Expenditure Survey for the lowest income quintile (households with the lowest 20 percent of incomes) show that costs associated with a motor vehicle accounted for 30 percent of total household income: the average household income was $10,608, and households spent an average of $3,310 on each vehicle they owned, as illustrated in table 1.

 

5. Youth, Sex, and Cake: The Physical Gifts of a Bicycling Lifestyle by Kristen Steele

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Kristen Steele

I know of something that can turn back the clock on aging, make you more attractive, let you eat chocolate cake without gaining weight, make your penis look bigger, and give you more orgasms. And I’m not hawking the next miracle pill.

While millions of well-intentioned folks are popping pills and pharmaceutical executives are getting rich, there is a much simpler, cheaper, and less risky remedy waiting in your garage. It’s called a bicycle.

Saying cycling is good for you is like saying the sky is blue: it’s fairly obvious that riding a bike is healthy exercise. However, many would-be cyclists are letting their bikes collect dust because cycling seems dangerous. Of course cycling has risks (though far fewer than many prescription remedies). Unlike those pharmaceutical commercials that list all the “possible side effects” in triple speed at the end, I’ll deal with those first.

Cyclists risk injury or death if involved in a serious accident. But risks while cycling are actually relatively low. For example, cycling results in 0.005 injuries per hour, compared with 0.06 injuries per hour for playing soccer or 0.19 injuries per hour for football. Urban cyclists also risk effects from increased exposure to smog.1 But a 2010 study by the Dutch researcher Jeroen Johan de Hartog and his colleagues quantified the risks and benefits of cycling, measuring them in life years lost and gained, and concluded that the gains are about nine times greater than the losses.2

 

6. The Environmental Good of Switching from Car to Bike by Stephen Rees

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Stephen Rees

Reducing the impact of the automobile on the environment was important even before we realized, in the late twentieth century, how much the oil we burned in our cars was contributing to climate change. There were already programs and regulations to cut the tailpipe emissions of pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and airborne particulates, which created the unhealthy air of most North American cities. New technologies improved the way gasoline was burned, but instead of becoming more fuel efficient, cars became heavier and more powerful. Because the U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards were much less stringent for light trucks than for cars, automobile makers promoted the sales of heavier vehicles.

Motor vehicle emissions account for 31 percent of total carbon dioxide, 81 percent of carbon monoxide, and 49 percent of nitrogen oxides released in the United States. Car emissions also contribute to smog, acid rain, and ozone depletion. Now the challenge is to cut greenhouse gases, and there is more competition to build efficient cars and look for alternative ways to power them. Unfortunately, these efforts will hardly dent the production of greenhouse gases. Many of the other problems we face as a result of car dependency will persist and probably get worse. Fortunately, there are other choices we can make about where we live and work and how we get between these places. The use of a bicycle instead of a car (or light truck) creates immediate benefits — for ourselves and the environment.

 

7. Less Is More by Amy Walker

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Amy Walker

Perhaps you know the feeling you get when you go camping and leave your house and most of your possessions behind. You have magical moments making dinner on the seashore, washing your dishes with sand, or looking at the stars that you can never see in the city because of all the lights, and you realize that this is the way nature intended you to be.

Well, biking is a lot like that. Ask people who bike what they love about it, and at least half will say, “Freedom.” Biking is so simple. It gives a big boost to our locomotion and a modest one to our capacity for cargo, without the excessive layers of metal, glass, rubber, upholstery, paperwork, and oil that come with cars.

Offered unlimited power, humans are easily seduced. We overshop, overeat, and overdrive, and then wonder how we got to be overdrawn, overweight, and overtired. We need limits: the internal limits set by our bodies and our intuition, and external limits that we create as a society. Riding a bike to get from A to B — and restricting our ability to impulsively drag stuff back to our dens — is a positive kind of limit.

 

8. The Curious Cyclist by Deb Greco

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Deb Greco

Biking is my favorite way to get to know a new neighborhood. I don’t own a car, so driving is out as a means of exploration. I enjoy the easy pace of walking, but it’s a little too slow when I’m not sure what the payoff might be. I’m not likely to trudge up a big San Francisco hill just to see what’s at the top, because walking down is no more fun than walking up. But on my bike, the ride up is worth it for the downhill alone.

So I wasn’t deterred by the BFH (big f — —ing hill) I had to tackle when I moved to the Richmond district of San Francisco. My new neighborhood is perched on the edge of the Presidio, a former military base turned urban park, with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.

I used to ride to work downtown along the well-wheeled bike lanes of the Panhandle, the Wiggle, and Market Street. These are popular bike-commuter routes because they skirt the larger hills. I always see someone I know on this route. Once I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade and rode away with his old surfboard. This could only happen in the bike lane.

 

9. Cycles and Relocalizing by Amy Walker

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Amy Walker

Think globally, bike locally” reads the sticker from my local bike shop, a two-wheeled twist on a familiar environmental mantra. Today, it seems, “think globally, act locally” simply describes our lives. Roughly a third of the world’s seven billion people are online. As wired — and wireless — Earthlings, we understand other cultures from the inside out and make “friends” with strangers we may never meet face-to-face. We can fly across the world in a day. Our iPods play flamenco, bhangra, and desert blues. Northerners gobble acai and goji berries, quinoa and coconut water while sushi is served in the desert. The Earth seems small.

The “global village” is amazing and full of wonders — yet the globalization of business has increased the divide between rich and poor. An elite few possess obscene wealth while the vast majority live in poverty. The richest 20 percent of people consume over 76 percent of the world’s goods. As far as I can tell, that’s you and me.

The huge profits of the few are built on inequality and cheap oil. Cheap oil makes it possible to produce food in large-scale factory farms with petroleum-based fertilizers and ship it to markets halfway across the world. Cheap oil makes it possible to manufacture cheap plastic products and distribute them to big-box and dollar stores, where they make their way into our lives and the environment like glittering shrapnel — lodging where they land, promising not to degrade for thousands of years. Cheap oil allows people to unthinkingly drive single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) on marathon daily commutes between cities and suburbs while polluting the air and water as well as the spatial and cultural landscape. Yet the era of cheap oil is coming to an end.

 

10. Notes from a Bicycle Bodhisattva: May All Beings Be Liberated! by Carmen Mills

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Carmen Mills

May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected, be fulfilled, awakened, and free. May there be peace in this world and throughout the entire universe, and may we all together complete the spiritual journey.

   –BUDDHIST PRAYER

Once upon a time I went for a ride on Cortes Island, with a sore knee, a rusty chain, and a battered heart. I had no destination in mind, and I chugged over hill after hill until finally the gears seized. I leaned the heavy old bike against a sign in the shape of a wheel and started to walk. An odd warm wind was pulling me forward, playing gently through the fine hairs on my forearms. I heard the distant chime of wind bells and kept following the dusty path, arriving finally at Dorje Ling Dharma Centre — an ersatz Tibetan fantasy of cedar and film set castoffs, rusted metal and sky. I walked into the meditation hall and knew I was home. Years of cycling in city traffic make a person brave, and in that moment I called up all I the courage I could gather. I walked under the prayer flags and stayed for six months, while my dharmic path and my bicycle path merged into a single lane.

 

11. How to Help a Bike Shop Help You by Ulrike Rodrigues

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Ulrike Rodrigues

I’m a lifelong bike rider and sometime bike-shop staffer, and I know the hardest part of getting into biking can be getting into a bike store. Sure, enthusiasts think of the local bike shop as a lively meeting place stocked with cool parts and cool people, but many average folks (and bike forum commentators) say they feel intimidated by bike shops’ unfamiliar gear, jargon, and particular style of customer service.

But according to a Shimano-sponsored study, today’s bike shops are changing. Because they’re surviving on slim profit margins in an extremely competitive industry, they need you to like them. Sure, they want you to buy lots of stuff, but they also want to see you riding your bike. It’s good for them and it’s good for you. But they can’t help you with that if you’re too nervous to walk through the door.

My advice? Remember that — as the customer — you hold the power. Armed with some basic information and a few insider tips, you can help a bike shop help you.

A bike shop is just a retail environment that sells products and services. One tip to finding the right bike shop for your needs is to understand that there are different kinds of bike shops with different products and services.

 

12. A Rough Guide to the City Bike by Wendell Challenger

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Wendell Challenger

In North America, bikes sold as ready to ride in the city are often anything but. While the geometry and handling of “hybrid” or “comfort” bikes have been designed with urban riding in mind, these bikes often lack important transportation-oriented features such as a chain guard, fenders, lights, and racks. This sends a message that these bikes should not be ridden with regular clothing, in the rain, at night, or with a load. In other words, they are for recreational purposes only. By comparison, in Europe, where cycling is a well-accepted form of urban transportation, city bikes come standard with all these features.

In North America, the onus has been on the urban cyclist to do a three-step city-bike shuffle: buy a bike; buy everything else you need; mount these extra purchases on said bike; and (optional) curse profusely when purchased add-ons don’t fit the bike, requiring exchange or modifications. While all this may be great fun for DIY types, it is an unnecessary barrier for most others. The message is clear: either cycling is not for daily transportation, or bike commuting is only for some type of cycling elite.

 

13. Bike Style: What to Wear When Riding a Bike by Amy Walker

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Amy Walker

When Novella Carpenter, urban farmer, forager, and author of Farm City, invited Hamish Bowles, the editor at large for Vogue, to visit Oakland for a taste of gourmet urban scavenging, one of their only non-food-related stops was a visit to the artisan tailor Nan Eastep. As passionate about natural fibers as she is about cycling, Eastep creates some of the most comfortable and attractive wool cycling attire on the continent under the moniker B Spoke Tailor (bspoketailor.com). So on questions of what to wear on a bike, Eastep’s opinion carries some weight.

The Minnesota-born Eastep favors clothing with old-world styling and an active edge. Her designs have room in the shoulders and knees and anywhere else the body moves: “Before the car, tailored clothing was made for hunting and fishing and sport. Once we had cars,… the typical suit-wearer was not doing anything active — they took the action out of suits. So I’m putting the action back into suits.”

For Bowles, Eastep fashioned a vest of grape- and mosscolored Lumatwill, a reflective-threaded tweed fabric. Along with gusseted wool knickers, the vest is a garment particularly suitable for cycling: “A vest protects the front of your body from the wind, and it protects the whole heart area and the stomach area. For women, I’m tucking them in tighter so they’re supportive, almost like a sports bra. There are no sleeves, so you have full mobility of your arms, and I create a collar so you can close it up through the neck. I think about warmth and mobility — you can take off your jacket, and you still have that wind buffer.”

 

14. Five Stages in Le Tour de Parent by Chris Keam

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Chris Keam

Propelling our special snowflakes by bike in the earliest stages of their lives also means shepherding them through some distinct phases. At each stage, the right gear makes life simpler. Here are some of the things to keep in mind when you’re choosing the equipment to pedal-power your family’s everyday travels.

They say you shouldn’t take a kid in a trailer before the age of one. “They” say a lot of things, but a lot of people are finding out that even small babies can be safely transported by bike. When your baby is an infant, you have essentially two options: a Dutch-style bakfiets, with the baby carried in a cargo compartment in the front, or a regular bike with a trailer. Either way, if you use an appropriate baby car seat and secure it to the bike, barring a serious accident, your child is just as safe as in a car. When my daughter was an infant, I used a double kids’ trailer and suspended her car seat with bungee cords from the top of the trailer’s aluminum frame. It was secure and relatively isolated from road shock. The bakfiets is the more elegant solution but requires buying a large, expensive bike and finding a place to store it. The upside is the convenience of being able to toss kids, groceries, and even small, well-behaved pets into a big wooden box right where you can see them, making riding with kids less like flying blind.

 

15. The Case for Internally Geared Bicycle Hubs by Aaron Goss

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Aaron Goss

Take a look at the next bike you see. Chances are it will have a derailleur drivetrain, with a cluster of different-sized gears at the center of the rear wheel. I like to call them external gears. The modern bicycle’s derailleur-based drivetrain has evolved with one purpose in mind: racing. There is a more sensible alternative for everyday bikes: the internally geared planetary hub (IGH). Along with fixed-gear or coaster (back-pedal) brake bikes, those with internal gears have a simple drivetrain that is more durable and easier to maintain. Belt- and shaft-drive bikes are also included in this category. Instead of being externally mounted on the rear hub, an internal gearing mechanism is contained within the rear hub. Like a derailleur system, it is controlled by a shifter mounted on or near the handlebars. The number of gears varies among models, from as few as two to as many as fourteen. The range of gears can be varied to suit your riding terrain.

Internal hubs offer several key advantages over derailleur systems.

 

16. Light Up Your Life by Lars Goeller

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Lars Goeller

The electric light, wrote Marshall McLuhan, is pure information; it is a medium without a message. The light creates an experience that wouldn’t otherwise exist: on a bike it is a medium that the rider fills with black asphalt, dirt paths, and overhanging branches. It doesn’t matter if a light is used for brain surgery or bike riding at night; some things can only be done safely with an electric light.

Cyclists out at night adopt a few different styles to deal with the danger of being fast, quiet, and only lightly armored while mingling with car traffic. On the deadlier end of the spectrum, there are the ninjas. Dressed in black and gliding silently through the darkened streets, they trust in their catlike agility to save them from disaster. Without so much as a single reflector on their bikes, nothing else will. Then there are the moving stop signs. These are riders who wear highly reflective clothing in the hope that a combination of street lamps and car headlights will keep them visible. These people may well be a thousand times brighter than the ninjas, but that isn’t really saying a lot. A driver making a sharp left turn will probably lose sight of them somewhere as the car’s headlights swing around, and then just barely catch a flash of reflected light as the “stop sign” disappears underneath the car.

 

17. The Art and Craft of Handmade Bicycles by Amy Walker

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Amy Walker

The most influential people in bike culture today are those making and riding handmade bicycles. The intimate relationship between builder and rider is based on fine-tuning all aspects of the bicycle’s fit, function, and aesthetics. An explosion of interest via the Internet and consumer exhibitions has put handmade frame builders in the spotlight. Each one-of-a-kind design is created to suit an individual’s needs and tastes, but when these designs are shared online, the appreciation of bicycle art and science spreads far beyond the individual rider to become public knowledge, increasing the demand for better bicycles. With a strong and growing community of artisan bicycle builders and interested buyers for their work, bicycle craftsmanship and education are flourishing.

Assuming that you have access to a wide enough selection of bike brands, an off-the-shelf bike works well for most people. Scheduling a professional fitting and buying the best bike you can afford will usually be satisfactory. But for people who are very tall, very short, or unusually proportioned, finding a comfortable bike can be next to impossible. Consequently, until very recently, the demand for hand-built bicycles came from high-performance athletes, wealthy aficionados, or cyclists with unusual physiques.

 

18. Cargo Bikes by Finley Fagan

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Finley Fagan

Hauling stuff by pedal power is nothing new. In 1898, when Morris Worksman established Worksman Cycles in New York City, he believed that a well-designed cargo bike could replace the horse and wagon. Henry Ford begged to differ, and so King Car all but killed the fledgling cargo bike. The towns, cities, and suburbs of North America grew to rely on and reinforce the convenience of the automobile, bicycles were largely relegated to the role of toys, and cargo cycling didn’t evolve much beyond the factory floor. But in the late 1990s, almost a century after Worksman Cycles built its first heavy-duty trike, cargo biking started making a comeback on the streets of North America, with hot spots in Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area, New York, and Colorado.

So what do we know about cargo cyclists, this curious breed who set themselves up for hauling heavy or cumbersome loads? Sales figures indicate that the buyers of cargo bikes are just as likely to be male as they are female, and that the new cargo is not strictly business. While some entrepreneurs and couriers are zipping around laden with mail, organic fruit and vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and Christmas trees, for others cargo cycling is all about the everyday A to B — getting the kids to school, the pets to the park, the groceries into the fridge, the fridge into the new apartment.

 

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