two-wheeled thoughts: Arthur Conan Doyle

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.

–Arthur Conan Doyle, Scientific American, 1896

Thank you, sir. That’s my mental health maintenance plan, right there.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

West Texas bicycle adventures 2014

As you know, gentle reader, I occasionally digress from books to write about bicycles, travel, or other causes for personal celebration. Today is one of those days. If you just want the books, c’mon back tomorrow.

Last week Husband and I left town with a group of friends, as we try to do every February, headed for the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. Unfortunately I have missed the last two years: in 2012 I had just had knee surgery and couldn’t ride, and in 2013 I chose to go to Australia to see friends instead. So I last wrote about Terlingua and Lajitas back in 2011. It was so very good to be back in the big desert: big land, big sky, amazing great mountain bike trails, some of our very closest friends, and not much to do except slow down and enjoy ourselves. I thought I’d share a quick synopsis here with you, accompanied by some great photos. These were all taken by either me or my friends who I trust won’t mind. Thanks, friends. (As always, click to enlarge.)

On day 1, we arrived in Terlingua, checked into the cabins our team rents each year, and started packing up. Four of us (Husband, Holt, Damian and myself) were off for an overnight bikepack – camping out and self-supported, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

fully loaded

fully loaded

Day 1’s riding was pretty consistently up, up, up; we did a lot of hike-a-bike:

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

there was a lot of this.

there was a lot of this.

Just a little wildlife:

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Although not as much as one could wish. We saw bobcat prints, and I think I heard the guys say they heard coyotes yipping at night. (I am a good sleeper.) One year Husband and I saw a mule deer; not this year.

I had some issues with my rack, which afforded us the chance for this dusky repair job at a fortuitously placed picnic table up in the middle of the high nowhere:

lovely view, no?

lovely view, no?

Resulting in this repair (shot taken in the light of day 2):

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But it all worked out fine. And what a sunset!!

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

Settling in for the night…

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We ate, had a few sips of whiskey, and fell asleep under the mixed blessing of a very bright full moon that obscured the outrageous stars visible out there where the light pollution is minimal.

The next morning we got a leisurely start on a much more leisurely ride, generally downhill and starring views like this one.

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Although day 1 had been challenging, I think we were all very pleased with our self-sufficient journey and solitude. I especially had a difficult time with all the hike-a-bike, which aggravated both my feet and my bad knee (and all that pushing of the very heavy bike bothered my lower back) – but I was with a small group of good friends & good people. They helped me out and encouraged me, and never made me feel like I was a bother. Thanks, guys.

what a crew.

what a crew.

On day 3, we did a much lighter-weight ride, with more friends, from the cabin – no gear required.

Husband conquers the ruins

Husband conquers the ruins

And at night, the whole pack of us enjoyed each other’s company.

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I mean, really. Look at these views from the porch of the cabin complex.

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photo 2

It was another great trip, and our love of these parts is confirmed and strengthened once again.

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movie: Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary

pedaldrivenI can’t remember who told me I needed to see this film. Thank you, whoever you are.

Pedal-Driven is a documentary about the relationship between mountain bikers and the US Forest Service, regarding the former’s right or privilege to recreate on public lands. The conflict is fairly well summed up early on: public lands are our lands, so we want access to do what we like on them; but on the other hand, we (mountain bikers or mtbers) are not the only user group in “the public,” and even beyond present-day users, the USFS (Parks services, etc.) feel a responsibility to a future public as well. Therefore the needs/wants of today’s users (mtbers and others) are balanced against a need for conservation and preservation.

The USFS doesn’t want to be entirely anti-mtber, but they can’t condone the practice of building trails on public land without permission; this is illegal. But what is a mtber to do? To go through the proper channels is a 5, 10, or even 15 year process; at some point, we’re building trails for our kids to ride, which is nice for them, but who knows if we will get to ride those trails at all. Then again, builders of illegal trails risk having their work torn down at any moment.

While I’m not particularly on the side of illegal activities – and illegal building of anything on public land rubs me the wrong way – I sympathize with the mtbers, obviously, as I am one myself and understand the desire for trail to ride. Without trail, we can’t be mountain bikers. As I summarized them in my first paragraph, all those user groups indeed deserve their rights and their voices being heard. It’s a sad quandary. This film was in danger of just depressing me, early on, with the stalemates portrayed (centrally in Leavenworth, Washington, not far from where my parents have recently settled; also in the loss of trail systems in Montana). But it does circle back around to success stories like those in Oregon; hope is not lost.

I will say that, for me, one weakness in this film is in its specificity to freeriders. Freeride is mountain biking that involves jumps, tricks and stunts; it generally requires what we call “structures” (bridges, dirt jumps, big constructed berms, skinnies, teeter-totters), and structures are a good part of the USFS’s problem with illegal builders. Don’t get me wrong; they wouldn’t let you build natural-surface trail, either, but I think it would be less offensive than the construction in question. To give you some idea:

freeride(photo credit)

freeride, from the film (photo credit)


bridge work (photo credit)

bridge work (photo credit)


wooden berm (photo credit)

wooden berm (photo credit)


Talking about building freeride-style trail with structures, then, is a certain kind of conversation. And it has left out the even larger group of cross-country (XC) mountain bikers: this activity is performed generally on natural-surface trails (bridges thrown in for function – to cross a stream or gulley – rather than for the chance to catch air), and keeps the rider mostly on the ground or close to it. XC riders look different from free-riders: no full-face helmets, different bikes, even sometimes brightly-colored spandex. These are generalizations, and there are exceptions, and there’s crossover between the two groups; but the point I’m trying to make is that as an XC rider, myself, I felt a little left out of the story that this film tells. And that’s a shame; because really, we face the same challenges in using public land, in trail construction and access and our relationship to the public and the government. I would have appreciated a little more inclusive story being told here. On the other hand, maybe there isn’t such a story about XC riders – maybe our conflicts haven’t been played out so dramatically or on such a scale, or such a stage. I’m honestly not sure. And I haven’t been deeply involved in advocacy battles as of yet (except on a local scale where I’ve done some volunteer trail work), so I want to be clear, I’m not criticizing the fine folks portrayed in this movie. Their work can only benefit my kind of rider, too. And you never know, I may find myself in a full-face helmet high up in the air one of these days too! Who knows what the future holds?

As a film, I found Pedal-Driven to be very well put together and visually impressive. I had a few minor gripes with the soundtrack (some of it was great!), but you can’t please them all in that respect! I enjoyed seeing the riding, and I ended up on the hopeful side regarding access and advocacy issues. Most of all, I’m super glad that these issues are being discussed. So thank you, Howell at the Moon, for this movie! It makes me want to ride my bike!


Rating: 7 feet of air, of course.

In the City of Bikes by Pete Jordan

A history of Amsterdam’s love affair with the bicycle contained within an American cyclist’s memoir.

cityofbikes
After the close of his first memoir, Dishwasher, Pete Jordan moved to Amsterdam for a semester to study urban planning, with a focus on his passion: bicycles. He never left.

Jordan’s decision to move was rather capricious–he knew almost nothing about Amsterdam–but he found a city packed with bicycles and rich with cycling history. In the City of Bikes is the story of his journey from itinerant dishwasher to settled family man, as well as a thoroughly researched history of the bicycle in Amsterdam. Beginning with the early bikes of the 1800s and cycling’s golden age in the 1890s, when the safety bicycle hit the streets, Jordan moves on to the tire shortages and (in this case, bicycle-related) atrocities of the city’s Nazi occupation before concluding with his own place in modern cycle-crazy Amsterdam.

Joining Jordan are his new wife, Amy Joy, and their son, Ferris, a passenger and later pilot of Amsterdam bicycles since his conception. When Amy Joy becomes proprietor of a local bike shop, the Jordans have truly found their home in the Dutch capital. Considering his reason for going in the first place, Jordan is especially well suited and qualified to tell this story, and he lives up to expectations with a meticulous detailing of Amsterdam’s bikes. Full of personal anecdote, self-deprecating humor, local lore and a history of cycling that positively bursts with enthusiasm, In the City of Bikes is both a memoir and an ode to bicycles.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 tire-powered light generators.

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Bonus photo I couldn’t resist, of me in the early 2000’s, cycling in Bruges – but it may as well be Amsterdam, and I did ride there too – on a Dutch-style bike. (Hoping this gives me extra reviewer-cred!)

long weekend

To celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary, both our birthdays, and Cinco de Mayo, Husband and I spent a 4-day weekend in and around Fruita, Colorado, doing stuff like this, this and this:
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And in between, we did this:
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Ahhh. Lovely. :)

books from Fil

I thought it was time for a feature post on my most frequent book gifter. He does an excellent job of selecting reading material for me; I’m sure you will recognize the themes from the list below. Nothing he’s given me (that I’ve read) has been less than great, yet. But I still have many of them to read.

I first met Fil at the bike shop where he works, and where I would later work alongside him. That would have been, oh, almost ten years ago. The first book gifts he got me were back when we were coworkers, for my birthday, I’m fairly sure; and those were bike themed. Since then, we have also shared interests in Mexico and in travel in general. I’ve made this list in vague alphabetical order, from memory, and I’m not completely sure that it’s exhaustive, but it’s a great start:

six days

Six Days of Madness by Ted Harper: a 1993 book about six-day racing in the United States in the “Golden Age” of cycling, the 1890’s. I read it, pre-blog, and LOVED it: track racing is obscure enough, but six-day racing is an extra-special, rare reading subject.

bicycle racing

Bicycle Racing in the Modern Era: a VeloNews production covering 25 years of pro cycling in multiple disciplines (road, track, mountain, cyclocross, BMX), and the beauty of it is that the 25 years covered are 1975-2000 – meaning that Lance Armstrong has only a bit part. In a totally Lance-saturated world, this was inexpressibly refreshing; and I learned a lot. I read it pre-blog.

londonderry

Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutlin: the story of Annie Londonderry’s bike ride (ostensibly) around the world incorporates adventure, women’s issues, world travel & cultures, as well as the Golden Age of cycling. There is even a thread running through it regarding women’s clothing and clothing reform – interesting stuff.

spokesongs

Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents by Willie Weir: a series of anecdotes by a man who cycle-tours several continents. A focus on the developing world makes for some interesting cultural tidbits.

geese

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell: the memoir of a woman who headed off into the unknown of far southwest Texas in the 1910’s to work as a schoolteacher and live on a ranch. Sounds good! I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

fromalaska

From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego: Across the Americas in Two Years by Michael Boyny: just looking at that gorgeous cover (click to enlarge) makes me anxious to get to this one, a coffee-table book, which I think was technically given to Husband but Husband does not read… It’s the story of a couple that traveled the length of the Americas in an old pick-up truck, and promises “superb pictures.”

mangostreet

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: an exceptionally beautiful and powerful collection of short stories that might be poems. Not one to miss! And Fil had never read it; so I was able to recommend it back to him. Note that this edition is extra-special because of the lovely introduction (by Cisneros) that is included.

volume1volume2

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, Volumes I & II: Barnes & Noble claims that “Edgar Allan Poe called it ‘perhaps the most interesting travel book ever published.'” That might do it for me, right there! Husband and I have a special fondness for Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and an 1800’s-era travelogue with that kind of blurb definitely belongs on my book shelf.

cruisers

Cruisers by Jonny Fuego and Michael Ames: another given to Husband, and more of a coffee table book than a cover-to-cover, although I confess I haven’t looked at it much yet. Pictures of beautiful bicycles, of course, do belong on our coffee table. For a little context, here’s Husband on our wedding day on the bike I got him for a wedding present:
weddingbike
I brought Ritchey to the wedding on my cruiser:
tattoopic
Sorry, I got distracted.

solace

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich: reputed to be a fine, lyrical observation of the American West of the 1970’s. Hopefully – and I think this is Fil’s intention – it will fall in line with the tradition of Edward Abbey and Phil Connors; and more recently, Isabella Bird (see below). Bonus: just the other day, A.Word.A.Day featured Ehrlich for their “thought for the day”:

Walking is also an ambulation of mind.

Which is a lovely one.

noblest

The Noblest Invention from Bicycling Magazine: another coffee-table bike book, this one on the history of the bicycle, presumably a celebration of our relationship with two wheels and with lots of good pictures, as well as a well-advertised foreword by Lance Armstrong, who has been inescapable in cycling publications for years – maybe that will change now with his newfound ignominy?

wellville

The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle: I know nothing about this one, and I believe the same goes for Fil; I think it was purchased on the strength of Boyle’s reputation, which I know although I have read none of his yet. So, fair enough, Fil. A reading assignment. Okay.

justride

Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Petersen: “radically practical” sounds like a quite fine way to describe Petersen himself, a personality I’m familiar with through the Rivendell Reader (an occasional serial publication from Rivendell Bicycle Works, Petersen’s company – you can see a few issues here). He is the definitive retro-grouch when it comes to bicycles, and my reaction to his philosophies is mixed: much of what he says makes sense (and I have a little retro-grouch, even a little Luddite, running through me), but some of it seems to be clearly grouchiness for its own sake. Fil had already become ambivalent about this book by the time he gifted it to me! And I haven’t looked at it yet; but I will. I have David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries on my shelf, too (also a gift, from another friend), despite BikeSnob‘s relentless fun-making of him, and I may as well get all sides of this story! I suspect I will fall in line with the majority of Petersen’s directives, at least.

711

Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won by Geoff Drake: the story of professional road racing in the pre-Lance era, back when all their gear was recognizable and Americans were new on the scene. I can read that.

adventures

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird: just recently read, of course. I have an idea that this might make a fine comparison read next to The Solace of Open Spaces, above, which is similar in being a woman’s perspective on the natural beauty and benefits of the American West, but from precisely 100 years later. Perhaps that’s the next Fil-gifted read I shall look forward to. Hm. I am also most attracted (in making this list) by I’ll Gather My Geese, From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (who can resist the Poe endorsement!). In other words, Fil is still doing well around here! Oh, and I feel I should get to the David Byrne book, too, and compare it to Bike Snob and Just Ride.

Which books on this list appeal to you especially? Do you have friends who consistently give you books, or consistently give really good gifts, or (lucky you!) both?

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