“If I am asked to explain why I learned the bicycle,” writes Frances E. Willard in her 1895 book How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, “I should say I did it as an act of grace, if not of actual religion” (p. 73). I grew up riding bicycles, so I often take the fun and freedom they afford for granted. Having seen several adults squeal with childlike glee after riding a bike for the first time in years or the first time ever, I am reminded of my own love for what Alfred Jarry called “that which rolls.” Willard continues,
The cardinal doctrine laid down by my physician was, ‘Live out of doors and take congenial exercise;’ but from the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys (p. 73-74).
Willard was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until the age of 53. Like most of the things she tackled in her life (e.g., women’s suffrage, politics, education, etc.), she took it as a challenge. As she so boldly puts it, “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Bikes can empower the weakest of spirit and liberate the most muddled of minds.
In Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (Microcosm, 2013), Elly Blue argues that they can also fix the recession. Starting with the myth that cyclists don’t pay for roads and motorists do. Car drivers pay for about half of the paved infrastructure in the U.S. The other half comes from everyone, regardless of our choice of vehicle. Blue lives and rides in “bike friendly” Portland, Oregon, where its growing citizenry is able to pay higher rents because they don’t have to own or drive cars. I lived in Portland for a year myself, and it’s a great town to ride in. Out of the cities I’ve lived in since getting rid of my last car in 1998 (e.g., Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, Flagstaff, AZ, Athens, GA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL), it’s easily one of the most comfortable. That makes a big difference.
A quick aside: I used scare quotes around the term “bike friendly” above because it’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around during urban mayoral elections and the like by people who don’t ride bikes. I hear it regularly here in Chicago. The friendliness of your city to bicycles is not about how many miles of bike lane your roads contain. It’s about how your city’s cyclists are treated while on those roads. With that said, Portland is way ahead of most cities in this respect.
Blue concludes Bikenomics with a re-envisioning of the future as seen through increasing trends in bicycle use. From global warming and access during power outages to general health and safety, she makes a strong case for the bicycle as the best choice for getting around. As David Byrne (2009) puts it in his Bicycle Diaries, “Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore” (p. 40). Here’s hoping that sentiment continues to spread.
If you’re looking for a close-up view of the machine itself, Richard Hallett’s The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) breaks it down to the last bolt and bracket. As the former editor of RoadCyclingUK.com, Hallett knows his shifters. I’m learning and will continue to learn from Hallett’s thorough guide being relatively new to anything outside of a BMX set-up. As Isabel Marks (1901) once put it, “to the ardent cyclist no side of the sport is devoid of interest…” (p. 5). If you need to know more about the mechanical minutia of your rig or just love to geek out on gears and gadgets, this book is perfect for both.
As the sticker goes, cars run on money and make us fat; bikes run on fat and save us money. Exercise is essential, and our technologies tend to sway us away from getting enough. “The bicycle…” Frances E. Willard concludes, “will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home” (p. 74). Everything is better with bicycles.
Blue, Elly. (2013). Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. Portland, OR: Microcosm.
Brotchie, Alastair (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.
Hallett, Richard. (2014). The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling. Oxford, UK: Old House Books.
Willard, Frances, E. (1895/1991). How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).