Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Recommended Read: Fat Tire Flyer

I recently finished reading Charlie Kelly's fantastic, fun, and informative new book Fat Tire Flyer: Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking (2014, Velo Press). Although I've always been partial to road bikes, Kelly's account of the birth of the mountain bike is well worth reading and a very enjoyable story.

The book takes its title from the magazine founded and published by Kelly in the early 1980s, also called Fat Tire Flyer, which was one of the original publications dedicated to mountain biking in the sport's early days. Charlie Kelly is without a doubt one of the best authorities on the subject, having been involved with the sport since its infancy, and as Joe Breeze refers to him in the book's forward, "one of the main instigators of the sport." Kelly was the organizer of the famous Repack downhill races in Marin County, and the co-founder with Gary Fisher of the MountainBikes company which built and sold some of the first examples of the breed, with frames built by Tom Ritchey. Actually, I'm not even scratching the surface on Kelly's involvement in the beginnings of mountain biking. You'll just have to read the book for that.

Charlie Kelly's book is part informative history and part personal memoir. Kelly is a great chronicler of the people, the places, and the events that combined to turn a band of hippie bicycle enthusiasts in the 70s into the fathers of a whole new bicycling movement. His style is informal and personal, and it isn't difficult to "hear" his voice and imagine him telling the story of the "Klunkerz" and the early Repack races, almost as though you were with him gathered 'round a campfire after a long day of riding the trails around Marin.

Joe Breeze created this fantastic
map of the Repack Course
in 1984. It's just one of the many
"historic artifacts" that help bring
 Kelly's chronicle to life.
Not only is it a captivating "read," but Kelly is also quite an archivist. The book is chock full great photos, many candid snapshots from early rides and races, and numerous "artifacts" and mementos that help document his historical account. There are pages from Kelly's old notebooks, chronicling race results from those famous Repack races, original newspaper clippings, old promotional posters, and much more. It's clear that Kelly must not throw anything away, and it makes me wonder how much more must be tucked away in his collection.

Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze at 10,000 ft in Mineral King Valley.
The caption with the photo says, "Yes, we know how lucky we are."
The bikes are two of the very first Breezers, often credited as the
first purpose-built mountain bikes.
The large format (approx. 9-1/2 x 11" and over 250 pages) would make it easy to call Fat Tire Flyer a "coffee table book" but it is really much more. Yes, one could easily entertain themselves just flipping through the book's many photos, but Charlie Kelly's storytelling style makes it a book that people will want to read from cover to cover.
The back cover is graced by a 1977 panoramic group photo of mountain biking's
pioneers, taken just prior to one of the Repack races. Charlie Kelly, Gary
Fisher and Joe Breeze are there in the middle (4th, 5th, and 6th from
the left). The full photo is included within.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Prettiest Road Bikes?

Browsing some of the other bike blogs to see what's new in the non-retrgrouch world, I happened upon this video at BikeRadar showcasing the "Top 5 Prettiest Road Bikes." Hey, I thought - I like pretty road bikes as much as anybody, so I settled in to watch a little "pretty bike porn."

Wow, was I disappointed.

Nevertheless, for your viewing pleasure (or displeasure), here are the Top 5 Prettiest Road Bikes, as selected by BikeRadar:

De Rosa Scandium. Ok, first thing you should know is there are no bikes made of the rare-earth metal known as scandium. However, there is some scandium in the aluminum alloy mix, so bike companies that use the alloy take the liberty to label their bikes "scandium." Just looking for a little truth in advertising, that's all. Anyhow, I looked it up and supposedly the benefit of an Al-Sc alloy is that it yields a slightly different grain structure when heated (as in welding). Beyond that I don't know or care how it's different from plain ol' aluminum. Now, is the bike beautiful? It's welds are nicely smoothed, so it's got that going for it. And the paint job is pretty classy. But is it as beautiful as a 1980s lugged DeRosa in screaming Italian red paint? Please.

I'll give them credit for having some very smooth welds. That's about it, though.
Now THAT's a pretty bike. The model's pretty nice, too.

Deep-profile rims look totally out of place on that frame.
Ritchey Road Logic. The editors picked a steel-framed bike? Great. And I have some respect for Tom Ritchey, whose hand-built fillet brazed bikes from the old days are really elegant -- even the mountain bikes. This is not one of those bikes, however. Nope. This current Road Logic bears a label saying "Designed by Tom Ritchey" but the bike is cheaply welded, and if I had to say where, I'd guess somewhere in Asia.

The narrator of the video particularly admires the "skinny 1-1/8 steerer tube." Actually, the head tube, with its flared top and bottom sections that house an internal headset, is one of the things I find particularly atrocious. Of course, I also hate the look of a bloated carbon fork attached to relatively skinny-tubed steel frame. The proportions are completely wrong. And then there are the welds, which are just plain ugly. I know beauty is only skin deep, but there is no comparison between the smooth fillet brazing on a classic hand-built Ritchey and the minimally-finished welds on this newer version.

Sorry, nothing pretty about this.
2012 40th Anniversary Ritchey Classic -- hand-built by Tom with smooth fillet brazing. Clean, smooth, and beautiful.  And that steel fork has the right proportion for the frame. That is a pretty bike. (from ritcheylogic.com)

Lapierre Aircode: Carbon fiber with ridiculously over-designed tubing profiles. I'm not feeling it. "You'll have no excuse for a weak performance in the sprints," the narrator says. In other words, spend as much as you want on a bike -- if you sucked before, the bike won't help. The video narrator goes on to say, "Lapierre offer the Aircode in a variety of different build kits to suit different budgets blah blah etc. etc. . . . more importantly it looks very nice in this red color way." So, whatever the bike may offer for equipment and performance, and all of its weird melted-looking tubing, all it really comes down to is the paint job.

Tommasini Mach Titanium: I've got no problems with titanium as a bike-building material -- strong, light, durable, and rust-free. I do have a hard time getting excited about welding from an aesthetic standpoint -- welds might be strong and functional, but they generally aren't "pretty." Having said that, the welds on this Tommasini Mach Titanium are clean-looking (notice I didn't say "pretty"). The polished titanium finish is nice, and the Tommasini name is bead-blasted onto the down tube for a cool look without a decal. That's all fine. Then again, the bike has massive-diameter tubing for complete overkill. And worse, what is with that head tube?

That lower half of that head tube accommodates a 1-1/2 in. fork steerer, plus an internal headset. The outside diameter has to be close to 60mm! Sorry -- NOT PRETTY! And don't forget -- this is a road bike, not a downhill racer.

At least the welds are smooth.
I could do without the deep-profile rims, but Tommasini still makes some traditional bikes -- this frame with its slim tubing diameters, chromed lugs, and classic red with white panels is much prettier to my eye. (from www.Tommasini.it)

Scappa Il Corriero: I've never heard of Scappa. I have no doubt that the Il Corriero is an expensive bike, though. I like black and orange, but the massive, bloated-looking tube diameters, the huge tapered head tube, and oversized carbon fork all make the frame hard to distinguish from most other carbon bikes out there today. Apart from its color combination, what exactly makes it pretty? Again, since the frame is not much different from so many other carbon fiber bikes out there, the only thing that sets it apart is its paint job.

There you have it -- the Top 5 Prettiest Road Bikes. Or are they?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Unloved Varsity

Few vintage bikes get more scorn heaped upon them than the lowly Schwinn Varsity. Disparaging the Varsity is a popular pastime for many bicycle enthusiasts of a certain generation -- that is, any generation old enough to have been riding between about 1960 and 1986. On the Classic Rendezvous Google group, the mere mention of the Varsity in a recent thread on important/significant bikes of the past was enough to get a major back-and-forth argument going on for a couple of weeks.

For my part, I don't think anyone can argue that the Schwinn Varsity was a great bike -- not while maintaining a straight face, anyhow -- but I would argue that it was at least an important bike. There is a difference.

Having recently taken a close look at the classy and under-appreciated hand-built Schwinn models, like the Super Sport, Sports Tourer, and Superior, it might be a good time to examine the bottom-level, budget priced Varsity.

Tom Shaddox, on the late Sheldon Brown's website, said of the Varsity, it has the "oxymoronic distinction of being one of the heaviest lightweight bicycles ever built." It is a bit of irony, to be sure, but for the target market, weight was not as important as durability -- and durability was something the bike had in spades. Schwinns in general were built to last, and that is one of the things the company's customers expected and valued.

What makes the Varsity an important bike is its impact on the American cycling public in the 60s and 70s. Yes, it continued to be made, virtually unchanged, well into the 1980s, far longer than it ever should have been, which is another story. But to understand the significance of the Varsity, I think it's important to understand the American bicycle market throughout the first half of the 20th century and right up through the 1950s. Hardly anybody old enough to have a driver's license at that time rode a bicycle, yet in 1960, Schwinn made the decision to offer an entry level "10-speed" derailleur-equipped bike (actually, I should note that the first Varsity was an 8-speed -- it would be upgraded to 10 speeds a year or two later). Somebody at Schwinn must have believed it was worthwhile, and I'm sure that it wasn't because they saw dollar signs. They could not have seen adult bicycles as a money maker. For much of America, the Varsity turned out to be the introduction to drop-bar, derailleur-equipped "10-speed" bikes -- solidly built, and from a name they recognized and knew they could trust.

The Varsity was one of Schwinn's "Electro-forged" bicycles -- mass produced in a way that was unduplicated by anyone else. Huge coiled rolls of steel strip were rolled and welded into tubing. Pieces of flat steel were stamped, rolled, and welded into frame fittings such as head-tubes and bottom brackets. The tubes and fittings were flash welded into complete bikes, built up with a combination of Schwinn-made components (like the steel "Schwinn Tubular Rims") and "Schwinn Approved" components that were made elsewhere to the company's strict specifications (including Normandy hubs, Huret Allvit derailleurs, and Weinmann brakes -- all re-labeled "Schwinn Approved").

From the introduction of the Varsity and through the 60s and 70s, Schwinn continued to expand its offerings of "10-speed" and derailleur-equipped bicycles. It should be noted that the Varsity and the Continental were basically the same bike but the Continental came equipped with tubular-steel fork blades as opposed to the Varsity's flat forged fork (and it sold for about $15 more). In fact, many people refer to the Varsity and Continental together as the "Varsinental." The more upscale hand-built Superior/Super Sport/Sports Tourer models were added to the middle level of the lineup. In 1974, there was a "Sprint" model added (below the hand-built models), which was basically a Continental, but with a shorter wheelbase and a curved seat tube, modeled after the "Sprint" framed Paramounts. And of course, the Paramounts were always there at the top of the heap.

Spotted on eBay recently. Try to find a picture of a Varsity
that doesn't have a garage door in the background. Go on. Try.
Sales of the Varsity, and its closely related sibling, the Continental, grew through the 60s, and went through the roof during the bike boom of the early 70s. During those years, Schwinn cranked out more Varsities than all other "10-speeds" combined, and given the long quarter-century production run, the Varsity has the distinction of being the single biggest selling "10-speed" model ever. Millions were built and sold, and because of their near-legendary durability, there are tons of them still out there. At any given moment on eBay, one can find dozens (many dozens, really) of complete examples for sale, ranging from battered and barely functional to pristine and like new -- with prices varying accordingly. Frames, forks, and all kinds of original components are plentiful, too. More are available through Craigslist postings and classified ads, and countless examples can be found routinely at garage and yard sales -- or even on the curb on trash day (a sorry fate, but there's no better bargain than "free"). Though they are far too plentiful to be considered "collectible," it isn't uncommon to find people charging (or people willing to pay) collectible prices for them simply by virtue of the Schwinn name.

Though it's easy to make fun of the Varsity and its close siblings for their "weight problem," I think it's important to look at what else was available in that entry-level market in the early 60s. Imported entry-level "10-speeds" were lighter, but the difference often wasn't as great as some would have you believe, especially if one compared bikes of a similar price. The component choices on the Varsity weren't out of line either. Huret Allvit derailleurs were common on bikes of that level in the early 60s. The steel, one-piece "Ashtabula" cranks were heavy, but how much heavier were they than the cottered steel cranks on the imports? And besides, the one-piece crank was relatively easy to work on, and had a remarkably long service life. Most bikes in the Varsity's price range came with steel rims, so again the weight difference couldn't have been outrageous, and the Schwinn-built rims have been described as "among the sturdiest ever built."

I'd argue that the Varsity, or "Varsinental," was a decent bike for its time -- but it failed to keep up with the times, and I believe that is where a lot of the derision comes from. Even by the early 70s, the bike was getting long in the tooth, but the Bike Boom buyers weren't very picky. As Schwinn began importing bikes from Japan in the 70s to meet the increased demand, their own imported bikes were lighter and worked better than the "Varsinental" for about the same price. Unfortunately, Schwinn didn't read the signs. As already mentioned, the bike was made with only minor changes for roughly 25 years, right into the mid 80s. There was no "Varsity II" that would improve or build on the reputation and keep the bike competitive with the imports, and that was a story that was all too common with long-established manufacturers. Much the same thing could be said of component manufacturers like Huret, who made the Varsity's Allvit derailleurs as long as Schwinn was willing to spec them, only to be badly outpaced by Japanese competition.

So even though the Varsity was a "heavyweight" masquerading as a "lightweight," and a bike that wore out its welcome by not keeping up with the times or competition, it does still have the significant distinction of having introduced many Americans to the concept of adult bicycling, and igniting a love of bicycles that continued on long after those riders had moved on to better, lighter, and more "desirable" bikes. They may not have been great bikes, but they got a lot of people riding, and there's something pretty great about that.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Never Think About Shifting Again

You could have predicted it. In fact, back in January, I did. With the availability of electronic shifting systems, like Shimano's Di2, I said it was only a matter of time before somebody made fully automatic shifting a reality.

The prototype computer that makes BioShift work.
(from Baron Biosystems).
Enter BioShift, from Baron Biosystems -- an "intelligent gearing system" for bicycles. By combining the capabilities of Shimano's Di2 electronic shifting system with data from Ant+ power meters, heart rate sensors, and speed and cadence sensors, and using a complex computerized algorithm, the Bioshift is supposed to choose the optimal gear for the rider and the conditions at every moment.

"We did extensive regression analysis of ride data to establish the correct gearing needed at all cycling intensity levels," said Armando Mastracci of Baron BioSystems.

The makers claim that automatic shifting will be a benefit to novice and recreational cyclists, who "will enjoy the freedom of just pedaling without having to worry about choosing the right gear." To be honest, I really don't believe that the inability to choose the "optimal" gear for every condition is the thing that keeps people from riding bikes, or from enjoying them.

Likewise, the makers believe that competitive cyclists, especially triathletes, will benefit because "BioShift chooses the gear that enables the desired power to be delivered with the least amount of effort, even as the athlete fatigues."

That's right -- a fatigued triathlete apparently cannot choose the right gear. Even staying on the bike at all is a challenge. Then again, much video evidence exists to say that having automatic shifting won't necessarily help them, either.

The BioShift system can apparently also be configured in different ways to aid training. Different modes include "fixed cadence mode, fixed heart rate mode, as well as fixed power mode." In other words, for training, if someone wants to keep their power output at a certain level throughout their ride, the system will apparently keep the rider in the gear that will make that possible.

Lastly, the company claims that BioShift operates transparently with the Di2 electronic shifting system, and can be enabled or disabled at the touch of a button. What a relief, because otherwise I can imagine lots of shifting-disabled cyclists calling for mercy rides home when this automatic system quits working.

I suppose the next step is when the gearing can be selected remotely -- by a rider's coach, for example. With wireless capability, it is already technically possible. And I'd be willing to bet that somebody's working on a system that will make it happen. Then just imagine the fun that could be had by somebody who could hack into the system to take over the shifting of someone else's bike.

One thing I will never understand is what makes anyone think that shifting gears is such a chore, or so confusing that we need to have a computer to do it for us? Are riders really incapable of learning how to shift gears -- so much so that even push-button electronic shifting is too much to master? Maybe it's just because most of my bikes have no more than 14 speeds, but I'm just not seeing this as a great breakthrough.

As far as making shifting easier for novices, the same basic argument was made for indexed shifting back in the 80s, then for integrated brake/shift levers in the 90s -- that shifting was so difficult, so complex, that novices just couldn't get the hang of it. "Gear fear" was supposedly keeping people from riding. Yet with all these "advances" in shifting technology, we have not seen huge numbers of people suddenly start riding bikes. Sales of bikes climb and fall, but the number of actual riders hasn't really grown significantly -- and there are just as many unridden bikes in basements and garages as ever, regardless of what kinds of shifting systems they have.

But beyond that, while a traditional shifting system, like friction, or even indexed downtube or bar-end levers might take a little time to master, it's not as though a person can't become at least competent after only a few rides (if even that long). The beauty of them is that such traditional systems themselves are actually very simple -- there is so little to go wrong. Electronic systems and this new "automatic" BioShift, on the other hand, are seriously complicated systems designed to "simplify" an action that really isn't as difficult as some would have us believe. Which means that they probably won't be able to keep them in stock.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bicycle Safety 101: One Got Fat

From the end of WWII and right up through the 1970s, films were used to teach school children everything from innocuous subjects like good hygiene, proper manners, safety, and the art of "fitting in," to more serious subjects as sex education, the dangers of drug abuse, and drivers' education. A lot of the more serious films were really nothing more than "scare films," designed to frighten kids and teens out of bad behavior -- remember those mainstays of drivers' ed, like Red AsphaltSignal 30 and Mechanized Death? (a lot of those were made in the 50s and 60s here in my home state of Ohio, but are still shown in some drivers' ed classes to this day!). Likewise, a lot of sex ed films from that time are mainly about how premarital sex always leads to VD (that's STDs to you younger folks), and the safety films routinely feature kids getting maimed by BB guns and scissors.

In that same vein as those scare-tactic educational films is one of my favorites of the genre: the bicycle-safety film One Got Fat from 1963. I used to teach a film class, and one of my units was on old educational films from the 50s through the 70s, so I have quite a collection of these film treasures. I recently re-discovered this old classic while sorting through my archives and thought I'd share it here.

First of all, One Got Fat is probably one of the most unintentionally creepy films ever made for kids. Ever. The film is about ten friends who decide to ride their bikes to the park for a picnic, then along the way, one-by-one the kids get picked off because of their mistakes -- some in particularly horrible ways -- while the cheerful narrator (voiced by Edward Everett Horton, whom some may remember for his work on F-Troop, or maybe from Fractured Fairy Tales -- yeah, really showing my age here) blithely and glibly describes their fate. OK, that alone is pretty creepy, but what makes it the stuff of absolute childhood nightmares (maybe adulthood nightmares, too) is that all the kids are depicted in hideously gruesome-looking monkey masks.

It's like the freakin' Island of Dr. Moreau. (Shudder)
 Let's meet some of the nightmarish monkey/human hybrids and find out how they met their demise:

First, we meet Rooty-Toot "Rooty" Jasperson. Rooty (riding a Schwinn Varsity) has the nicest and "newest bike in the bunch and he was as proud of it as he could be." Unfortunately, Rooty gets tired of using hand signals, so the minute he skips one hand signal -- "just once" the narrator stresses -- he gets creamed by a car as he makes a left turn! His crash is depicted as Rooty swerves in front of the moving car, then cut to a cartoonish "crash" animation with "Boooiiinngg" sound effects -- you know, because a juvenile rider crushed under a car is funny. "At this point," the narrator adds, "Rooty-Toot Jasperson left the party." 
Look out Rooty!

Next comes Tinkerbell "Tink" MacDillyfiddy who is so forgetful that she forgets to pay attention to signs. "She's so busy being happy all of the time that her little thoughts tend to wander." (That's right kids, the lesson here is don't be happy). Of course, in her innocent youthful happiness, she wanders right through a stop sign only to get broadsided by a truck. . .
Cue the goofy sound effects. Boooiiinnnggg. "Oops," says the narrator. "Exit Tinkerbell MacDillyfiddy. She forgot, now and then."
Then there's Phillip Floogel -- known to his friends as "Floog." He's the star athlete and class president -- but he's also very easily bored. Because he's "in the mood to do something different," Floog decides to ride on the other side of the street, against the traffic. Narrowly missing one oncoming car, Floog plows head first right into another one that happens to be pulling out of a curbside parking space. As with each unlucky monkey, the scene closes with a shot of a kid's lunchbag, which he'll no longer be needing, while the narrator assures us, "Phillip Floogel isn't bored anymore."
It's like Faces of Death.
Mossby Pomegranate didn't register his bike, so when it got stolen, there was nothing the police could do. Yeah, right -- like they would have done something anyhow. Without a bike, Mossby burned up his sneakers pounding the pavement (no, literally -- the things are smoking) and never made it to the picnic. Sorry Mossby. At least being stranded by the side of the road and "a victim of fallen arches" is a better fate than most of his friends meet.    
Trigby Fipps (the little guy) and "Slim" Jim Macguffny (the husky kid on the handlebars) are riding double. You can almost guess what happens. Glib narrators and society in general have always been hard on the "Slim" Macguffnys of the world. We are told that Slim's own bike "collapsed from the effects of his diet," but his friend Trigby, being a "nice little fellow" (with apparently a much sturdier bicycle) agreed to give him a lift. They disappear down a big hole in the road because Trigby's vision is blocked by the "eclipse" of his massive friend.
Nellie Zwieback (shaking her fist at a fellow rider) doesn't like to share the road, so she chooses to ride on the sidewalk instead. Turns out, she doesn't share well on the sidewalk, either. Pedestrians always have the right of way, we are told, but Nellie "can't think of one good reason why." After she hits a couple pedestrians (inexplicably sending them skyward into a tree), she discovers the reason.
Next on the chopping block is Filbert Bagel, a spoiled kid who refuses to take care of his bike and keep it in good working order "because his parents will probably buy him a new one." Of course, as he careens into the path of a huge steamroller, he discovers that he has no brakes. With the sound of a crunch, followed by a squishy splat (yeah, really) we can only presume that Fil ends up flattened.
Crunch. Squish. Splat.
The last of the creepy monkey children to meet a grisly end is Stan Higgenbottom. Stan rides without lights or reflectors, and predictably rides into a pitch black tunnel (where apparently none of the cars has lights, either). As Stan disappears into the blackness, we hear the crash. The narrator tells us that Stan "wasn't quite bright enough." Get it? Oddly, there is no mention at all about the weird modification that Stan has performed on his bike, relocating his brake levers to what may just be the most awkward and inaccessible part of his "ape hanger" handlebars (I know, I know -- but it was unavoidable).
At least somebody lived. It isn't clear what happened to all the freakish monkey/human hybrids, but we do get a shot of one or two in the hospital, bandaged from head to toe. You know, otherwise the movie might be too disturbing.
And then there are all those lunches whose owners won't be eating them (Notice that "Slim's" lunch is like a freakin' banquet. Ha ha -- 'cause he's fat, get it?).

Wait -- that was only nine. So, what about the 10th kid? Well, that would be little Orville Slump, or "Orv" as he is known.

"I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am . . . a man!" 

Orville Slump is no chump (or chimp?). Orv follows the rules of the road, and takes care of his bike, so he lives to ride again. Not only that, but since he was the only kid whose bike had a basket, he was carrying everyone else's lunches to the picnic. And it's here that we finally get the meaning of the film's title. Now with all those unclaimed lunches at the picnic, Orville gets to have a feast all to himself, so we can presume, as the narrator tells us, he's going to get fat. I suppose that also means that in the film's sequel, we'll get to make fun of Orville for his own bike-crushing mass. 

As a final disturbing note to the film, some might wonder what kind of friend Orville must be, considering that he continues riding on to the picnic to have a massive feast-for-one while all his simian friends are left maimed, disfigured, stranded, or flattened on the side of the road in the worst kind of traffic carnage outside of Red Asphalt and Mechanized Death. In fact, all the characters ride on without a clue as their pals are dispatched one by one.

More than a decade before John Forester published his classic bicycle skills guide Effective Cycling, the film One Got Fat predicated the principles of "vehicular cycling" through its basic lessons of riding with traffic, following the same rules of the road that the cars follow, staying off the sidewalk, obeying signs, and more. Unfortunately, it also gave juvenile viewers the unforgettable lessons that "Bicycling can get you killed," "Happiness leads to death and dismemberment," and "Even your best friend will leave you for dead if it means he can eat your lunch." And all of it came delivered with a healthy dose of fear.

You can watch One Got Fat right here, but don't blame me for resulting nightmares:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Art of Cycling

I recently finished reading Robert Hurst's book, The Art of Cycling, (2nd Ed., FalconGuides, 2014), a guide that I would recommend for commuting cyclists and anyone else who navigates a lot of miles on traffic-clogged streets. Though Hurst's book is sub-titled "Staying Safe on Urban Streets," there is a lot of useful advice for dealing with traffic in general -- not just in urban environments.

One of the first things people might want to know about the book is how it compares to John Forester's Effective Cycling, which is for many people the ultimate authority on riding skills, and the source of the principle that has come to be known generally as "vehicular cycling." While I would say that the advice given in Hurst's book is, for the most part, generally consistent with Effective Cycling, it does have a somewhat more flexible, nuanced view. Hurst occasionally refers to Forester's work directly, but likewise points to some differences:

"Next to the absentminded anarchy practiced by many novices, the vehicular cycling principle is a stellar guideline. Just by obeying traditional traffic-law principles and riding predictably, a bicyclist eliminates a large portion of the danger of cycling. However, the vehicular-cycling principle has a big hole in it: The strict vehicular cyclist who has eliminated many of his or her own mistakes by riding lawfully will still remain quite vulnerable to the mistakes of others."

In some parts of The Art of Cycling, Hurst is more directly critical of Forester's message -- or at least, critical of the way some people interpret it. He writes, "Some cyclists have added a very confrontational tone to the framework of Forester's message. It is a small group, but a very visible and loud group. Through their riding habits in traffic, which are often deliberately, theatrically antagonistic, they seek to make some kind of point to their special audience of other road users."

Hurst's riding advice tries to take into account the riding behavior of experienced cyclists -- including those who are vocal proponents of vehicular cycling, but whose actual riding actions may deviate from the strict interpretation of that very principle. In his alternative, Hurst says his book provides a "synthesis of sorts between old-fashioned vehicular cycling and the reality of modern street riding. We'll pay homage to the masters who have molded vehicular cycling to their needs, creating a more enlightened and nuanced style."

In offering a more "flexible" version of vehicular cycling, Hurst does not suggest riding strategies that would put one outside the law, such as running red lights, hopping from street to sidewalk and back again, or even filtering to the front of a line of stopped cars (apart from some legal exceptions -- and even then, he recommends caution and common sense). Instead, he stresses adapting "to the ever-changing chaos of city life," finding the "path of least resistance," and using the "safest, easiest, and most stress free options" for getting where we want to go. For example, whereas Effective Cycling and many strict vehicular cyclists may express opposition to bike-specific infrastructure such as bike lanes, cycle-paths, etc., and some may even recommend against using such infrastructure as a matter of principle -- Hurst says riders should remain open to such options. He stresses that all cycle-specific facilities are not created equally, but when well-designed, they can be worthwhile. Some people argue that the presence of both pedestrians (who seem to have the right-of-way even on bike lanes) and inexperienced and unpredictable novice cyclists makes such bike lanes and cycle paths even more dangerous than the streets. Hurst, instead, points out that one needs to exercise some caution -- don't get lulled into a sense of complacency just because it's a "bike path" -- but if there is bike-specific infrastructure available, and it gets you where you need to go (or at least close to it) then one should use it.

If there is an overall theme to the advice put forth in The Art of Cycling, it would be that responsibility is more important than blame. If someone in a car runs a red light and hits a cyclist, then of course the driver is at fault -- we can assign blame to the driver. But assigning the blame to the driver does little to help the injured cyclist who would clearly be better off if he/she had not been hit by the car in the first place. Hurst maintains that it is the responsibility of the cyclist to remain vigilant -- to be alert and watchful of what might potentially happen, and to be prepared for it at all times. Hurst says, "Car-versus-bike accidents require two parties: one to make a colossal mistake and another to be caught off guard by it, one to screw up and another who fails to fully respect the potential of the other road user to screw up."

He continues, "The motorist backing blindly and illegally into the roadway is just another something that happens in the city. Drivers back out of hidden alleys, parking spots, and driveways all the time. It must be expected. It must be prepared for. The law blames the motorist for such a collision -- as it should -- but the safe cyclist blames him- or herself for being distracted and unprepared. It's either that or get used to eating trunks and side panels." It's tough advice that we as cyclists might not want to hear. But ultimately, there's something to it. Nobody is more responsible for our well being than we are ourselves. Not only that, but it fits with something I've long told myself when riding with traffic -- that we can never assume or expect that drivers see us, and we should probably assume that even if they do see us, they probably don't care. I know it may be cynical, but it's the kind of cynicism that keeps a cyclist from getting complacent -- and it could be worse. An old friend of mine, a former NYC bike messenger, used to assume that it wasn't even a question of whether drivers saw him or not, but rather it was his belief that they actually wanted to hit him.

On the always-challenging subject of helmets, The Art of Cycling takes a similarly nuanced view. Hurst recommends helmet use for the protection that helmets can give in certain kinds of accidents -- but also gives a straightforward account of the deficiencies of helmets, unrealistic testing standards, and even of the flaws in accident data that people use to support vociferous demands for helmet usage. For example, regarding testing standards, Hurst writes, "If you look on the inside of a new helmet these days, you should find a sticker stating that the helmet meets the standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Make sure the sticker is on any helmet you purchase. But don't get too excited about it."

In addition to the book's guidance on riding techniques, there is also a bit of advice on minor repairs, and choosing tools and equipment -- without getting so specific that the advice would be obsolete within a year or two. And there is also quite a bit of bicycling history -- not just for the sake of including "colorful side matter," but rather to help illustrate how "the birth of the bicycle, the rise of the auto, and the postmodern American sprawled-out city are all lined up along the same continuum." Hurst shows how many of the problems faced by bicyclists today have their roots in the distant past and the early days of the bicycle. It makes for some interesting and enjoyable reading.

I found The Art of Cycling to be a worthwhile read -- and an interesting counterpoint to Effective Cycling (which I also recommend reading). The style is light, informal, sometimes irreverent, and sometimes humorous. Much of what Hurst writes about negotiating traffic seemed to fit with what I see and do myself through my many miles of bicycle commuting. While I can't say I agree with everything in Hurst's book, I did find myself agreeing a lot more often than not, and even then, any differences would be more a question of style than substance. He has some solid advice that could help different kinds riders, whether experienced high-milers, or nervous novices.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Two Wheel Trip Posters - From Velo-Retro

Earlier this month, I wrote about the now-defunct magazine Two Wheel Trip -- notable for having published just two issues in the early 70s before going bust. The cover art on those two issues was really cool, fitting in with the bold colors and graphic style of that era. The plan of the magazine's publishers was to run original bicycle-themed artwork on each issue's cover, and then to release those covers as full-size posters. I had suggested in my article that perhaps someone should reissue those posters.

Enter Chuck Schmidt, of Velo-Retro. Chuck offers reissues or re-creations of all manner of vintage bicycle advertising, logos, and catalogs -- available as posters, t-shirts, musette bags, and more. After reading about TWT here in The Retrogrouch, Chuck contacted me saying he'd be able (and willing) to make it happen. Starting with super high-res scans of my two magazine covers, Chuck cleaned up a few blemishes and flaws in the 40-year-old magazines and turned them into eye-catching, high-quality Giclée prints on high-quality heavyweight paper stock -- suitable for framing.

Two very cool posters, brought to you by Velo-Retro and
the Retrogrouch!
One thing I worried about was how the resolution of the artwork would hold up after being enlarged so much. We were able to get great resolution in our scans so pixelization wasn't an issue, but the artwork on the covers was printed with a "halftone" method -- that is, the different colors were made up of many tiny dots. Enlarging the artwork would also enlarge the dots. I was afraid that when enlarged, they might end up looking like Roy Lichtenstein  pop-art prints. I needn't have worried. The posters look fantastic and the colors are great. Chuck did a really nice job on them.

The posters are available in two sizes: a smaller size, approx. 13 x 19 for $14.95, and a much larger 24 x 36 for $44.95.

The two magazine covers from Two Wheel Trip are bold expressions of the bike-boom era, and would be nice additions to any cyclist's poster/art collection. If interested in ordering one of the posters, check out the Velo-Retro site (www.velo-retro.com) -- if the posters aren't shown yet on the site, contact Chuck through the "Contact Us" link, as they are available even if the webpage hasn't been updated yet to reflect that.