Books and Movies

Being a compendium of literature and film I have stumbled across…



Bike Snob NYC: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling, 2010

Many of you have no doubt come across Bike Snob’s very popular blogand have enjoyed his sardonic wit.  This book is a distillation of four years of blogging and is filled with the same humor and no-nonsense points of view that characterize his blog.

Bike Snob hails from New York City, so his commentary has a decidedly urban slant to it.  Still, it’s a very humorous and fast read which has a great deal to say to cyclists regardless of their location or abilities.  The book provides a fresh perspective on cycling norms and causes the reader to reevaluate how he approaches the cycling hobby.  Apart from the humor, this is the book’s greatest virtue and it makes it well worth the read.

For those interested in an in-depth discussion on maintenance, nutrition, or some other advanced aspect of cycling, you will be disappointed.  Any book that attempts to survey the entire cycling landscape is by necessity rather short on specifics.  While some helpful tips are provided, they are given in the larger context of a discussion on why people should want to bike and how they should go about doing it.  And the stickers at the end of the book are a great bonus!

Bike Snob Abroad:  Strange Customs, Incredible Fiets, And The Quest For Cycling Paradise, 2013

bikesnobBike Snob took three short trips to Sweden, Italy, and London and combined it with an extended stay in Amsterdam to give his thoughts on how cycling can be incorporated into everyday life.  He compares these cities with his native New York and Portland (which he visited on another short trip).

There really isn’t enough material here to write a book.  Not even when you’re a world-famous blogger who goes on trips to speak at cycling expositions or get interviewed by the BBC.  He has a nice thought – that it would be fantastic if everyone adopted the same cycling attitude as Amsterdam.  That’s hardly a novel thought, but reading Weiss’ descriptions of how cycling is woven into the fabric of life in Amsterdam helps make his point.  Contrasting this atmosphere with his native New York City and even America’s cycling utopia – Portland – also reinforces this idea.  But it’s not a very complicated idea and after a few dozen pages, I found myself wanting to move on to the next thing.

So, if you’re looking for a more tepid version of Bikesnob’s prose which discusses family cycling from the prism of four European cities, this is your book.  Otherwise, I suspect you’ll be mildly disappointed, as I was.

Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of The Tour de France, by Matt Rendell, 2008

 I’m a history buff, so this book naturally appeals to me.  It’s written in a straightforward style which takes the reader through the TdF’s history with a 1-4 page recap of each year’s race.  I particularly enjoyed the stories of the Tour’s earliest days, including the premier event in 1903 which was held to revive the flagging business prospects of the newspaper, L’Auto.  Featured early and often are stories of the Tour’s founding race director, Henri Desgrange, who believed the ideal Tour would be so difficult that only one rider could finish it.   We also learn of riders who gladly grabbed beers as part of their hydration strategy and others who were caught catching rides from trains and automobiles.  The evolution of Tour rules is highlighted (originally, the cyclist could not receive any assistance whatsoever, to include major mechanical repairs, and the inclusion of derailleurs was not without controversy).  Of course, being a cycling history, doping is a dominant theme from even the earliest days.

As the years pile on the reading can be a bit tedious, but this is a great book to have as a reference.  It’s organization into very short chronological chapters makes reading in short quantities very easy.

Chris Sidwell’s Complete Bike Book, by Chris Sidwell, 2005

A nice first edition to a cyclist’s library.  This covers just about everything, from the anatomy of various bike types, to riding techniques, training, and maintenance.  There are lots of pictures, which is always helpful, but it is relatively short on detail.  This is a basic survey of the cycling universe and is great at introducing a novice reader to the various topics a cyclist will eventually want to become familiar with.  I was mostly interested in the maintenance section, which does a nice job of describing how a bike is put together and the steps I need to take to keep it that way.

Comedian Mastermind: The Best of, by Elden Nelson, 2011

For those who don’t know Fatty, he’s probably the most famous cycling blogger in the world.  Although he claims to be fat because he once “soared” all the way up to almost 200 pounds (ha!), this is probably the least compelling thing about his blog.  He is better known for his hilarious writing style and his inspirational efforts to raise money for programs which support cancer victims and those who care for them.  Nelson lost his first wife to cancer and his earlier writings are peppered with references to her fight against the disease (to this day, the Fat Cyclist  motto is, “Fighting like Susan”).

Nelson organizes his posts into themes, including topics any of his readers would recognize, such as Fake News, Open Letters, Epic Rides, Practical Guidance From an Expert, How To Do Very Important Things, and Tour de Lance.  He also sprinkles many footnotes into his posts, wherein he comments on what he was originally writing, either to provide more (humorous) background, or remark on how insane/prescient/ridiculous he was “back then.”  The footnotes and the topical sections make the book a far more interesting read.  The posts are all relatively short and can be taken in small chunks (placing the book in your bathroom would make perfect sense).

cycling-science-book-coverCycling Science: How Rider and Machine Work Together, by Max Glaskin, 2012

Through a series of two-page articles, Glaskin explores a specific aspect of the science which makes bicycles and their riders work. He pretty much covers the gamut of topics, with chapters devoted to fundamentals, strength and stability, materials, power on, aerodynamics, and the human factor. Each chapter has several heavily illustrated articles, each exploring a specific question.

Although the book isn’t afraid to take on scientific concepts such as rolling resistance, carbon foot prints, circular force, and other scary terms, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist (or any kind of scientist for that matter) to understand and enjoy the book. Glaskin keeps the formulas to a minimum and explains concepts in laymen’s terms. The illustrations (about half the page space is devoted to artwork) serve to explain the more complex concepts and how a cyclist might use them to his advantage.

Each article stands alone and can be read in less than five minutes, thus making this book excellent bathroom material. If you’d like to learn a thing or two about why your bike works and how you might get it to work better, this is worth your time. It’s also a handy way to get some trivia so you sound important at all the cyclist parties you attend. It’s an easy read that is sure to have something of interest for almost any cyclist.

Heft On Wheels: A Field Guide For Doing A 180, by Mike Magnuson, 2004

The author leads us through a critical period in his life where, at the age of 39, he realizes he is slowly killing himself as a chain-smoking, chronically obese, borderline alcoholic.  On his 39th birthday, he gives up alcohol and smoking and begins a frenetic diet and cycling workout regimen which transforms him from a guy constantly being dropped on local group rides to a budding Category V rider who regularly stomps anyone in Southern Illinois who attempts to challenge his preeminence.  Magnuson’s laser-like focus on suffering for the sheer purpose of being an uber-cyclist becomes tiresome.  The self-centered nature of the prose compounds the issue.  There is very little joy in the tale.

At the end of the book – a mere 20 pages from the finish – Mike reaches the same conclusion as I came to about 150 pages earlier; his life still lacks balance and he has gone from one extreme to another.  He acknowledges he has made many mistakes in his exercise and diet, some of them extremely dangerous.  He realizes he needs to be a better husband and father and becomes more comfortable with the notion he doesn’t need to be the very best cyclist to still enjoy cycling.  This is encouraging and it keeps the book from being completely irresponsible.

Long Distance Cycling, by Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka, 2000

A great reference that is chock-full of handy information for cyclists who want to ride far.  And I mean really far.  These guys are off the charts extreme, with entire chapters and discussions devoted to rides over 200 miles or 24 hours in length.

Despite the more extreme topics, there are still plenty of sections that are quite useful to a humble beginner.  There are sections on such helpful topics as heart rate training, eating/drinking, equipment, injury prevention, riding in the rain, climbing hills, and just about anything else you can think of.  There is even a section about dogs.  




Blood, Sweat, and Gears

 I was intrigued by the premise of the documentary, which covers the Garmin Slipstream racing team as they pledge to compete at the highest levels of cycling while not using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping.  Despite its title, the documentary spends almost no time showing how the team alters its training or otherwise proves to the racing public that they are not doping.  The team simply asserts that they don’t dope and that’s that.

Although I was largely disappointed in this flick, it was mildly interesting to see how a professional race team organizes itself and prepares for the racing season.  Races in Qatar, Paris-Roubaix, and Olympic Track Cycling Qualifiers are featured, with the climax being the Tour de France.  I learned that professional teams are quite big, often racing in more than one location and in more than one type of discipline (road and velodromes, for example) at the same time.

The Nine Ball Diaries

If you want to learn more about cyclocross, check out The Nine Ball Diaries (available for immediate online viewing on Netflix).  This 45 minute documentary follows cyclist Tim Johnson through a cyclocross season.  The film is titled after Johnson’s unorthodox cycling uniform which is dotted with nine balls.  If the film ever explains why he wears that outfit, I missed it!  You can get a sense for just how fast these guys can go despite the course conditions. 

Premium Rush

premium-rushGordon-Levitt plays a bike messenger who needs to take an important package across town. He doesn’t realize just how important it is until a bad man (Michael Shannon) tries to stop him. The rest are just details necessary to set up a series of beautifully shot chase scenes through the heart of NYC. If you are looking for character development, deep meaning, or even an intriguing plot twist, you will be disappointed. This movie is all about cyclists zooming through downtown Manhattan.

In between bike stunts, we are briefly introduced to most of the stereotypical members of the urban cycling scene, including bicycle messengers, bicycle cops, roadies, and mountain bikers.

Although Gordon-Levitt’s character is certainly sympathetic, the movie fails in its attempt to portray bike messengers as some sort of noble breed of free spirits living life as it is meant to be lived. In fact, they are extraordinarily dangerous scofflaws who routinely run red lights, hang on to cars, destroy car mirrors when their drivers cause offense, ride on sidewalks, ride against traffic, and do pretty much whatever they please with reckless abandon and with impunity.  The movie certainly does little as a good-will ambassador for the urban cycling community.  This will not go down as one of the great movies of all-time, or even this year. But it does have some cool chase scenes and for ninety minutes it entertains on that level. All in all, a good rental.

Ride of My Life

This one was cool.   Penn is an extremely experienced cyclist, who once cycled around the world.  Based on the book, It’s All About the Bike, the documentary follows Penn as he builds his dream bike.  He travels to bike factories in Germany, Italy, England, and America to meet with the very best designers of bicycle parts and purchase their equipment.  Often, he watches the part crafted in front of his eyes.  Each part is chosen for its unique contribution to the history of cycling.  Along the way, we learn about Draisines, Penny Farthings, Bone Shakers, Safety Bikes, and Mountain Bikes.  We see the Italian shrine to the patron saint of cyclists, the last bicycle factory in Birmingham (it’s Brooks), and meet the Americans who launched the mountain bike craze.  The end result is an outstanding bicycle that will last decades and is the ultimate conversation piece.    This movie has something for everybody, whether you are a rabid enthusiast or an occasional pedaler.  The movie can be viewed for free here.

Ride The Divide

The toughest bicycle race in the world is not in France.  So say the organizers of Ride The Divide, an offroad bicycle race from Banff, Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border.  The 2008 edition of this race was recently documented in a film by the same title.  The race covers over 2,700 miles and 200,000 feet of climbing along the Continental Divide, from which the ride gets its name. Almost all of the race is on dirt roads, goat paths or snowblocked trails.  There are no designated rest stops or “stages” scheduled for each day.  The clock runs nonstop and riders sleep, eat, and ride whenever they want.  It’s extremely brutal.  Only 100 riders have ever attempted this race.  40 of them have actually finished it.

The 2008 race had 16 riders.  The film focuses on three: Matt (the eventual winner), Mary (the first female to complete the race), and Mike (a 40-something who nurses his failing knees well into Colorado before abandoning).  While it is obvious this ride will challenge even the most fit and accomplished cyclist, it is interesting to watch fatigue and even boredom weigh on the riders.  The ones who are best able to cope with the mental aspects are the ones who succeed.  Nine riders did not finish.

The film is 80 minutes long and features some great scenery along with some interesting storylines.  I saw it on streaming video from Netflix and it was well worth my time.

Take A Seat: Sharing A Ride Across America

A great 10-part television series, featuring cycling adventurer Dominic Gill and his cross-country bike tour,  which was originally planned to take place on a specially-built tandem bicycle for Dominic and his partner Ernie Greenwald, a 70-year old Californian battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  Ernie’s dream was to cycle across the United States.   Dominic designed a tandem bike which would allow Ernie to pedal in relative comfort while Dominic picked up his slack when necessary.  The pair was ready to depart when Ernie learned his cancer had spread and he could no longer go on the ride.  Dominic decided to conduct the ride as a tribute to Ernie by seeking out physically disabled people who were willing to ride a portion of the trip.

Riders with disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease volunteered to ride from one to 25 days with Dominic on his 124-day, 4,000 mile journey.  Universal Sports filmed the event and the result is a 10-part documentary titled, Take A Seat: Sharing A Ride Across America.  The story is amazing and the scenery is fantastic.  Oh yeah, there’s some cycling too!

Each episode is 22 minutes long.  You can watch the series by clicking here.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

4 thoughts on “Books and Movies

  1. HI Steve – you might enjoy The Lost Cyclist by David V. Herlihy, a historian who has researched the story of Frank Lenz, one of the first round-the-world cyclists. It’s an amazing piece of bicycle research and very well told.

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