Category: Book Reviews

A couple of months ago, the publicity manager for the Independent Publishers Group offered to send a review copy of William Fotheringham’s new book Cyclopedia: It’s All About the Bike (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011). Funny how that title keeps popping up..since Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike, a number of cycling authors have used a variation on that title. Why, it was only a few short weeks ago that I reviewed ANOTHER book with a similar title!

Author William Fotheringham gained wide acclaim for his biography of legendary British racer Tom Simpson in Put Me Back on My Bike, and has quite the list of cycle-related “palmares”: cycling correspondent at the Guardian, launch editor of Cycle Sport, founder of procycling magazine, writer at Rouler Magazine. The man lives and breathes cycling history…so I was eager to read Cyclopedia.

Cyclopedia

I was NOT disappointed…this book is a treasure trove of cycling/bicycle racing facts and anecdotes — including many things I had not heard of. From Uzbek sensation Djamolidin Abduzhaparov to “The Flying Yankee” Arthur Zimmerman, the book simply blew me away. As Fotheringham is a UK-based writer, the content leans a bit heavily toward British racing legends, but rest assured, there is something for everyone here. But, it’s not an exhaustive encyclopedia — it focuses on the highlights (and some lowlights), as a true encyclopedia of bike racing would take several volumes. Throughout the book, there are diagrams, maps, timelines and tables to help illustrate some of the subject matter. My favorite? French drug slang…a colorful glimpse into the sordid past of professional racing.

I consider myself a fairly well-read amateur bike historian, and I welcomed learning new tidbits along the way. Best of all, Cyclopedia got me interested in tracking down additional bike history books to read further on some of the subjects Fotheringham touched on. For anyone interested in learning more bicycle and racing history, this is a great jumping-off point. Cyclopedia deserves a place on any bike fan’s bookshelf.

I also got a copy of Fotheringham’s Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi for Christmas, and so far I am enthralled. Stay tuned for a review on that and some other bikey book goodness in the coming weeks.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of receiving a review copy of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010). The book is the retelling of the author’s quest in obtaining a custom, handmade bicycle, and I hate to gush so early on in a review, but I LOVED the tale.

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Many of us, myself included, have long dreamed of a bicycle handmade to our exact specifications…with just the perfect geometry and handling, the hand-chosen parts, and the overall aesthetic hammered out over months and years of fantasizing. Even for a longtime bicycle collector like myself, the following passage resonated with me…Penn has just described his current fleet but:

With this small troop of hard-working bicycles, my bases are covered. Yet something fundamental is missing. Like tens of thousands of everyday cyclists with utilitarian machines, I recognize there is a glaring hole in my bike shed, a cavernous space for something else, something special. I’m in the middle of a lifelong affair with the bicycle: none of my bikes even hints at this…I need a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and carries my cycling aspirations. I want craftsmanship, not technology; I want the bike to be man-made; I want a bike that has character, a bike that will never be last year’s model. I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles. The French nickname for the bicycle is La Petite Reine — I want my own ‘little queen’.”

And with that, Penn sets off on a whirlwind journey to get his “little queen” made: alighting on the doorstep of renowned bespoke builder Brian Rourke Cycles, traveling halfway around the world to procure a set of wheels from Steve “Gravy” Gravenites (and getting to ride down Repack with Gravy and MTB legends Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze!), getting rare factory tours at Chris King Precision Components in Portland, Continental in Germany and both Cinelli and Campagnolo in Italy, among other stops. At each stop, Penn delves into the history of bicycles and the development of various components and technologies that we now take for granted. Penn’s coverage of the history and lore of the bicycle never bogs down the story; in fact, these tidbits enhance the tale and show that Penn truly respects everything having to do with these two-wheeled wonders.

It’s All About the Bike is a quick read…”engrossing” is a word that comes to mind. Perhaps the idea of a custom bike can be seen as an extravagance, and I can understand that. Penn’s tale is more authentic than that, however. Never once did I feel that Penn was simply a wealthy man looking for something expensive to incite jealousy among his peers; rather, here is a man who put in the miles on many other bikes and earned the privilege of being able to fulfill his dreams of a handmade, perfectly-fitting machine that he would then ride with abandon all over the globe. Penn’s storytelling skill is refreshing and honest and his love for the bike carries throughout the book. I’ve recommended a lot of books over the years; in fact, sometimes it is hard for me to remember a book I really disliked. Nevertheless, It’s All About the Bike stands out as a passionate, fact-rich and thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone who loves the artistry, history and craftsmanship of a good bicycle. Pick up a copy for your favorite cyclist for Christmas…they’ll thank you for it!

Towards the end of last year, author David Nghiem contacted us to see if we were interested in taking a look at his book Jackfruit: A Bicycle Quest Through Latin America (Bangor, ME: Booklocker.com, 2009). Being a fan of bicycle travelogues, I of course said YES!

jackfruit

Jackfruit is the story of Nghiem’s personal and spiritual journey through Central and South America. The author had finished a research project for NASA and was doing some soul-searching to determine his place in the world. Something “spoke” to him about getting himself and his bicycle down to Peru to kick off a lengthy trip. The author tends to ramble at times, particularly in the chapters leading up to the start of his journey. Throughout, there seems to be a lack of cohesiveness — as if Nghiem has so much to tell that he doesn’t really know where to start (or stop). Also, the English-composition tutor in me (during my undergraduate years, I tutored English-comp students) cringes at the punctuation and grammatical errors peppered throughout the text. Both of these detractions suggest that the author was in desperate need of a better editor.

But fear not: despite the grammatical problems and the rambling prose, this book is packed with glorious descriptions. Nghiem is extremely talented at painting the people he met, the situations he found himself in, and the terrain he rode through. Much of the descriptions are simply breathtaking, and those parts kept me slogging through the rest of the book. That slog can be tough; Nghiem brings up a variety of sub-topics that tend to fizzle out on their own with no resolution. In particular, there is a recurring bit about ancient symbols and an ancient earth-based power source I was dying to hear the conclusion to, but alas, that storyline petered out.

At his best, Nghiem captured the personalities and the generosity of the people he met along the way. He seemed to have a great ability to make real connections with these people and those interactions are some of the most heartwarming tales of his journey. This book isn’t for everyone; it is sparse on the technical details of bike touring, and the flow/grammar problems can be difficult to overlook at times. But, if you appreciate a good story about adventure in exotic locales, it might be worthwhile to track down a copy of Jackfruit.

Longtime readers of Bikecommuters.com may remember Russ Roca, our good friend and contributor to the site. Russ and his partner Laura sold most of their belongings a little over a year ago and embarked on an open-ended bicycle journey across the United States.

Now, with all that experience under their wheels, they compiled a bunch of their tips, tricks and observations into Panniers and Peanut Butter:The Path Less Pedaled Bike Camping Gear Guide:

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The book is a PDF-format e-book, and it is available for $20.00 by clicking this link (to secure PayPal shopping cart). Help support Russ and Laura as they continue their journey…if the writing on their website and Facebook presence is any indication of the contents of Panniers & Peanut Butter, this e-book should be pure cyclotouring gold!!!

I recently had the pleasure of reading Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009). Mr. Mapes is a political reporter for the Oregonian, and he put together a great overall look at American bicycle culture.

pedaling revolution

Mapes gives a pretty thorough overview of the major (and some minor, but influential) players in the U.S. bicycle advocacy movement and traces the history of our bicycle culture and advocacy progress from the early 1970s to the present. All the high points are covered: politicians such as Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota), John Forester of the vehicular cycling movement, advocacy groups like the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (now called the Active Transportation Alliance) and Bike Portland, the Critical Mass movement, even Reverend Phil of Bike Porn Tour fame. This gives the reader a good picture of how modern bike culture developed.

As with many such books, a trip to Amsterdam, the fabled bicycle mecca, was included. Mapes is careful to point out that although bicycling is ingrained in Dutch society (as it is in Copenhagen, Denmark…the “other” mecca), many of the real developments didn’t happen until the the late 1960s for both areas. And, Mapes points out that both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are not without their car problems; despite barriers such as high sales and ownership taxes and the cost of fuel, car miles have increased.

Pedaling Revolution has chapters on safety issues, describing many U.S. cities as “in that awkward period where utilitarian cycling has become visible but still not mainstream”. Mapes touches on some of the vehicular cycling vs. dedicated bicycle infrastructure points in this chapter. There are also chapters on getting kids back on bikes and health considerations (the American decrease in physical activity and subsequent explosion in obesity and diabetes epidemics). The health chapter does not focus its sights squarely on the motor vehicle as villian, but Mapes is careful to list it as one of many contributing factors to the health crisis facing U.S. cities.

Overall, the book is a good read — complete, well-researched and sprinkled throughout with fascinating experiences and interactions between the author and people involved in bicycle culture at all levels. Add it to your booklist; it’s worth checking out.

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