Tuesday 10 April 2007

Book Review: Bike Cult, by David Perry

Bike Cult?–Seems Normal to Me

This is a great book, and it is unfortunate that it no longer seems to be in print. At time of its release in 1995, “Bike Cult” was the first attempt at an encyclopedia of cycling. This fat book (570 rather dense pages) covers the history of the bicycle its high-performance engine (that is, the human body), the bicycle as transportation and, lastly, the culture of the bicycle and the effect it has had on the human spirit.

There have been some changes in bicycle technology since 1995, and of course the tables of race winners is out of date, but “Bike Cult” remains a fascinating look into the origins and use of “the perfect machine.” I enjoyed the lovingly described history, which not only went over the bicycle as a whole but devotes sections to individual parts of the bike, such as handlebars and seats, and the whole question of how a bicycle is steered. It is a mad compendium of information: there is a list of international names for bicycles and related items on page 99, and we learn that the Hawaiian word for bicycle is ka’a paikikala, while in Uruguay it is known as a chiba.

The benefits of cycling are described in detail but there is no attempt to shield us from descriptions of bicycle ailments discovered in the heyday of cycling in the 1890s. However, in these times of great concern about the rise of obesity in America and Europe it is clear that the bicycle offers a solution, particularly when we read that Tour de France riders burn 6,000-9,000 calories per day!

But where are we to ride, given the modern, car-centric world we live in? The section of the book entitled “Bikeable Planet” is beguiling. For a brief and glorious moment, bicycles were actually seen as the best transportation alternative for the West and in some countries they still are. Too often derided as a child’s toy and treated by motorists as a menace, the bicycle can, with proper planning, be integrated into an urban transportation network. Low-cost in terms of acquisition, space requirements and maintenance, the bicycle in operation does not pollute, create noise or horrific traffic congestion. In the United States alone each year more than 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents. Nonetheless, those who would propose bicycle-inclusive transportation systems are often derided as dreamers or utopian socialists or worse. This section of “Bike Cult” is provocative but perhaps only because our society has gone in such an illogical direction. Even today, Time magazine can run an article about how individuals can reduce carbon emissions, listing 51 ways to do so and not mentioning bicycles.

Author David Perry then takes us on a tour of cycling as a sport, including not only the expected pro racing/Tour de France information, but also strange sports such as Indoor Cycling and Bicycle Polo. Then our long journey takes us into art and bicycles and fashion and bicycles and even sex and bicycles.

There is a Bike Cult website maintained by David Perry, but it is really just a collection of links for the cycling community based in New York.

“Whoever invented the bicycle deserves the thanks of humanity,” said Lord Charles Beresford. And we should thank David Perry for this enchanting and entertaining look at the bicycle in all its forms and seasons. This is the kind of book that gives pleasure every time one opens it, reading at random. Addictive! It went through four printings and there were 20,000 copies made so if you are lucky you will locate one to cherish.

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