Eben Weiss, more widely known as BikeSnobNYC, has been putting his satirical brand of humor on the state of cycling culture for quite some time now. What started out as an anonymous blog by some unknown smartass from the big city has become a social phenomenon, and his popularity — much like cycling — has skyrocketed in the past few years. Coincidence? Maybe so, but I would venture to say that his books and the regular touring and speaking he does to support them have added to the allure and overall boost of urban riding.
His latest effort, Bike Snob Abroad, is a lot less about categorizing and poking fun at tattooed skintight-jean-wearing fixed gear riders and heavily bearded uber commuters who live and sleep in yellow rain jackets and cheap bike shorts. Instead, it is more about the significance and the possible impact of the bicycle being seen as utilitarian here in the United States instead of simply a way to get one’s kicks, terrorize pedestrians, or get in the way of drivers. You see, in many European countries, bikes are as integral in everyday life as the automobile is on America’s roadways. In his travels he finds that other cultures barely bat an eye upon seeing a helmet-less rider or someone transporting a child that’s not stuffed inside a trailer wearing a brain bucket, whereas in the States both instances would undoubtedly be frowned upon ... or even worse if these “infractions” were combined.
He also expounds on the boundaries that keep many from riding. On page 118 he details how many of today’s cyclists started through recreational riding and so they are somewhat pretentious when it comes to the type of bike they’re willing to mount — he admits to being one of those such people.
“This is probably one of our greatest handicaps as a cycling nation — the complete inability to simply jump on any bike and ride ... the few of us who do actually ride can’t so much as hop on a basic city bike without fussing over seat height and bar width and lamenting the lack of foot retention,” he writes.
This mentality later ties into bike sharing programs, which he experienced while briefly visiting London. Americans are very independent, so things tend to have to be personalized to fit our perception of who we think we are — this includes the tricked out Escalade, the souped-up Subaru WRX ... or in Seattle, the shiny black Amazon.com-issued Audi A4 complete with a hurried puffy-jacketed driver. Being seen on a generic step-through bike that others are also on may quell the coolness factor. But what if we didn’t care and saw shared bikes for what they are — convenient. After all, that’s what most of us modernized humans want, something that doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to fulfill our needs. What if you didn’t need to own a bike?
“Fixed-gear riders may talk about ‘Zen,’ but I can’t think of anything more Zen than being a cyclist who doesn’t own a bike,” he writes on page 152. It made me stop and think. Although I could never fathom not having my own, it would sometimes be nice to just grab a bike, head to my destination, do my thing and then grab a different one on the way back — never fretting about someone stealing something I worked so hard for, or in the very least swiping my flask out of its custom cage (true story).
In many ways Weiss calls out our unwillingness to change and let go of tradition. In America we like to own things and let others know this without any uncertainty. Sadly, many out there think they own the roads, especially if paying for gas, the taxes and fees that come along with automobile possession. Add to that the monthly car payment and insurance, there’s a strong feeling of “I pay for this, get out of my way.”
I can relate to much of the reminiscing Weiss writes about in the book, as we are about the same age. His tales of riding to the record store to buy punk and metal albums as a teenager and simply riding around town to watch people was a normal and frequent escape for me and my friends in the small town I grew up in. It was a time of complete freedom, then one day when that magical number 16 came up it was no longer acceptable to be seen pedaling around on two wheels. Instead, the automobile became a status symbol and burning rubber in the parking lot was the next rite of passage and the surefire way to gain acceptance among peers. That said, at least I could play my music on the car stereo — although thinking back, I used to carry a boom box with me while pedaling around my neighborhood, usually something like Judas Priest or Ted Nugent turned up to 10.
So what does my teenage self have to do with this particular book? Much of Bike Snob Abroad is about the simplicity of bicycles and where they stand to help create safer streets and a positive change in our society. This straightforwardly written and rather short publication sometimes goes astray and often the prose does get redundant (his movie to life comparisons, at least five, were a bit much), but in the end it compelled me to think; not only of where we stand as cyclists today, but where we came from, our roots. And if more people remembered where they came from, perhaps we’d all get along a little better and take a few small steps that are necessary to creating a better world to live in.
Bike Snob Abroad, Strange Customs, Incredible Fiets, and the Quest for Cycling Paradise. Eben Weiss, aka BikeSnobNYC. Chronicle Books. Hardback. 192 pages. $16.95.