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Book Review: The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide

There are a large number of books targeting new commuters…some good, some bad. A few months ago, the publishers of The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2011) offered to send us a review copy. Authored by James Rubin, an L.A. based journalist, and Scott Rowan, a Chicago-area commuter and writer, the book intends to be a primer on the ins and outs of bicycle commuting…hoping to attract new riders to try this two-wheeled transportation thing.

It’s not a rosy picture, however. Start with the cover:

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If a book wants to attract people on the fence or new to the bicycle commuting world, why on EARTH would the authors/publishers choose such a disturbing image for the cover? My hackles were already up, and I’d barely cracked the spine of this book.

The book is divided into the chapters one might expect from such a guide: clothing, choosing a bike, safety issues, accessories, repairs and more. Nothing new here, but there is a good overview of the main issues and logistics in starting to commute by bike. Where this book really falls off the tracks is the authors’ insistence on circling back to the many possible negatives — theft, angry/dangerous motorists, breakdowns on the road, more angry/dangerous motorists, common collision scenarios and the like. I tried to read the book as if I was brand-new to the idea of riding a bike for transportation (a difficult mindset to put myself in, I know), and I was left with a feeling of dread: “man, this bike commuting thing sounds like a genuinely dangerous pain in the ass!” To be fair, many of the concerns and issues raised in the book are important for new (and seasoned) commuters to understand, if nothing more than to avoid such scenarios. But, the tone of the book is very off-putting. Yes, it can be hectic out there on the streets of the U.S. Yes, motorists and cyclists historically have had some issues getting along together. Yes, collisions can happen despite caution and preparation. Repeatedly harping on and on about it, though, drives away those people who might have considered bikes but are still making up their minds. As such, this book is a failure when it comes to providing that last bit of encouragement to a new commuter.

And that’s a shame, really, because the book DOES have a lot of good information, tips and resources contained within it.

One personal pet peeve is the authors’ use of the plural “we” and “our” to describe the events of a single person. During the authors’ visits to several L.A.-based bike shops, they were trying to determine how shops went about getting a rider on an appropriate bike. In one, a FitKit was used:

“For the FitKit, we stood on a nice piece of polished wood that looked like a shoe measure. The board had two holes at one end, and Carretero inserted a roughly 18″ aluminum tube that connected vertically to another piece of wood. The device resembled a surgical cane. Carretero unfastened a lock, and the wooden top rose steadily until it pressing firmly but not painfully into the bottom part of our crotch. We were 55 1/2 centimeters, which he dutifully wrote on a piece of paper.”

See what they’re doing there? I have no idea if this is grammatically correct (somehow I strongly doubt it), but it’s annoying as hell.

In all, the book fails on a few levels for me. As I mentioned earlier, there is a host of useful information in The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide, but too much time and effort is spent on the perils and fears that the “good message” comes through dimly. As it stands, I have a very difficult time recommending this book to anyone. There are a number of similar books on the market that are better suited to giving new commuters the tools they need to hit the streets. In fact, it’s ironic in that in this book’s resource guide, the authors call out MY personal favorite for a similar guide — The Practical Cyclist — by my friend Chip Haynes.

The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide retails for $14.95, but it is available on a certain online bookseller for as low as $10.00. If you’re trying to bulk up your cycling library, by all means, snap up a cheap copy. Otherwise, hang onto your money and spend it wisely elsewhere.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Chip Haynes: Bike Advocate, Author…Mad Scientist

I got a series of emails from noted bicycle author Chip Haynes a couple weeks ago…”Uncle Chippie” has been busy in his laboratory-slash-bike museum in the heart of Pinellas County, Florida. Take a look at the wild creation of his, and read the words he provided to accompany pics of “Underdog”, the prone-recumbent(?) he cooked up:

So: Back in April I had some time on my hands. I had just finished writing my third novel in March, and I got that pesky 60th birthday thing out of the way as well. What to do? What to do? Hey, I know, I’ll build a bike!
You know me. I “build bikes” all of the time. That is to say, I take an old bike frame, slap some used parts on the thing and wheel it out to the curb with a “FREE!” sign on it. This new/old bike is usually gone within about ten minutes and I’m done. This time, however, the build was substantially different.
My friend Charles Brown builds recumbent bicycles out of boxed and laminated plywood. I have razzed him for years about building a prone instead of a recumbent, so that’s what I did: I built a prone. That is to say, I built a bicycle upon which you lay (lie?) on your stomach, arms out in front of you, and you pedal with your legs behind you rather like swimming. I dubbed it Project Underdog, as you tend to go down the road flying really low to the ground like Superman after a very rough night. Kinda like Underdog.
My neighbor Rudy donated a box aluminum girder to the cause to be used as the monobeam frame, and I bought a 20” wheeled full suspension mountain bike from Goodwill for $20 for the rear triangle, the wheels and other assorted bits and pieces. Chainwheel Drive , City Cycle, The Energy Conservatory and Re-Cycle Bicycles were all sources for parts for Underdog. Plus, you know me- I had a few things in the garage. Home Depot, Lowe’s and Harbor Freight provided the rest, as did JoAnn Fabrics (the foam padding for the hip pad).
I annoyed the neighbors to distraction through the month of May running my pneumatic cutting tool, air wrench and bench grinder. It was like Heavy Metal Heaven in the garage. Even I wore hearing protection. It was that loud. My compressor got a serious workout, as did I. Finally, after much cutting and drilling, Underdog came together on Memorial Day- and pretty much everything fit! Wow.
There was still a bunch of tweaking to do, and those extra-long tandem cables to buy, but the bike got built- AND IT WORKED. Ah, but how did it work, you ask? (Go ahead, ask.) Keep in mind that Underdog is 80 inches long and only 30 inches high at the top of the handlebars. It weighs in at 35 pounds (it’s got a couple of feet of heavy steel angle iron on the back end, along with 16 strong bolts, holding it all together). It’s a six speed with 100 psi road tires and the profile of a Steam Punk torpedo. Ok, so it looks really cool, but how does it ride? I’m glad you asked.
A number of people asked me, as they saw Underdog under construction, if I thought it would be tough to balance. I had no idea. At least it was low to the ground, so if it couldn’t be balanced, I didn’t have far to fall. That beats the snot out of how my high wheeler adventures ended up all those years ago. I will say this: I was seriously concerned with how low to the ground this thing was. NO ONE was going to see this thing on the road. If it was even rideable, was it safe?
Initial short test flights (in the garage and driveway) held on the evening of June 5th proved that it was at least rideable- but perhaps not the ideal machine for a 60-year old man to be playing with. Still, I rode it. It has a high stall speed, and it wants to go fast. Brakes are going to be very important. So is having plenty of rolling room. I need a longer runway for this thing. Much longer.

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(more photos available by visiting my Flickr set entitled “Underdog”)

Took the 99.99% finished prone bike, Project Underdog, out to the park today for its first real shake-down cruise. Had about two dozen friends and well-wishers show up for the fun, and let me tell you: It was all that and a bag of chips. The bike performed above expectations right from the start.
I immediately removed the 6″ long, 16″ wide hip pad I had made for it originally (my thighs kept hitting it), and went with the 6″ wide, 16″ long “sternum pad” that was Plan B, built earlier this week. With that much narrower pad it place, I did the 5/8ths mile upper trail loop with ease one the first try! Underdog FLEW.
As more people stopped by, a few were brave enought to try it, but with mixed results. Some could, some couldn’t. Matt Moffit and Byron Gillett did very well on the thing. It very interesting to watch the machine in action without being on it.
Designer’s note: While your toes are VERY close to the ground (I may make a pair of custom toe clips for the thing) your knees are much higher off the ground that you might think- so no worries there. And it wants HIGH gears- I left it in top cog for the day, and you have to watch and not drag the inside pedal in a turn. The chase bikes- two guys on fixies- had trouble keeping up with me on the route. Go team!
For now, the plan is to upholster the sternum pad in black vinyl tonight, and then look into making a pair of custom super-short toe clips for the narrow track pedals. That should just about do it. It’s taken two months to build from the very first initial sketches done back in early April, and the thing will look great either hanging over the workbench or out in the park, terrorizing the locals. What fun!

Crazy stuff, for sure! I wish I was still in the area to give ol’ Underdog a test spin of my own. Anyone else out there created a weird and wonderful two-wheeled machine? If so, we’d love to hear about it!