Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Essential Bike Library

A few posts ago, I did a couple book reviews, and Local Steve kicked in a recommendation of Tim Krabbe's The Rider. That got me thinking about my favorite paper-based bike reading material. So, in no particular order (and with many links to Amazon that -- if used by you -- make money for me), here's Jason's List of the Greatest Bike Books Ever.

First up is Steve's recommendation, Krabbe's The Rider. This is a fascinating fictional look inside the head of a bike racer as he tackles a difficult race. The prose is short, crisp and vivid, descriptive without dragging. Take Ralph Hume's The Yellow Jersey (another classic work of racer-fiction), compress it down into a rock-hard nugget of language, and you've got The Rider. While I don't have the proper perspective to know for sure, I'd guess that this is a piece of bike fiction that even non-bikers can enjoy.

Next on the bookshelf is Paul Fournel's Need for the Bike. This is an odd little bugger, a book that isn't all that well-known even among bike-book nerds. I was lucky enough to find a copy in a small, independent bookstore on vacation in Seattle, read it once on the train down to Portland, and read it again on the train ride back a couple days later. This collection of short essays (translated from the author's native French into English by Allan Stoekl) is one of the few books I've read that really puts words to the joy, freedom and -- yes -- pain that can come from the bicycle. For lack of a better word, Fournel's "Frenchiness" still comes through in the translation, and Need for the Bike is better for it (hence my shout-out to translater Stoekl above). Why would anyone suffer a crude, American "bonk" (which is even cruder for my British readers, I'm told) when they can go to meet "the man with the hammer"? Whenever I need a bite-sized inspiration to ride or to write, I reach for Fournel's little collection.

If those were too chewy and literary for you, pick up a copy of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles written by Jan Heine and photographed by Jean-Pierre Praderes. I get no kickback on this one, but if you're a biker and don't have it, go find a credit card. The drool-worthy studio photography alone would be enough to recommend this book, but the text also takes the reader through a part of bicycle history that probably isn't too familiar to the average American biker. I know I was surprised to find that the comfortable, fast, light, fully-accessorized bikes I've been hoping/searching for over the last decade had already been designed and built by the French over a half-century ago. Who knew? Well, Jan Heine, for one.

Shifting gears (okay, I confess, pun intended) from photography to illustration, take a flip through William Nealy's Mountain Bike!

This is a great offroad skills manual masquerading as a comic book. The illustrations are entertaining, and the advice behind them is solid, even though the book (like me) came from an era when suspension of any sort was a rarity, and we still (gasp!) used toe clips. Kids, if you ask your grandpa about unsuspended bikes, he'll probably launch into a diatribe about how that's the only way to learn any off-road skills, how suspension makes you soft, and how back in his day, we only had 18 speeds... and we LIKED IT. Wait, what was I talking about there? And what are you dang kids doing on my yard?

As long as I'm in a how-to mode, I really like a book by Robert Hurst and Marla Streb that's now on its second printing and second title. My old-school copy is The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons From The Street, while the latest printing has morphed into The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America:

Think of Art of (Urban) Cycling as John Forester's Effective Cycling with a bit less cantankerousness and a dash of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not that I mind a bit of cantankerousness, of course, but Hurst/Streb take Forester's "play by the rules, no exceptions" approach and soften the edges to take into account the reality of playing in traffic with large beasts that don't always accept the tenets of vehicular cycling. There are about a jillion how-to books out there for people who want to race or tour or (heaven forfend) do a triathlon, but if someone comes to me looking to start riding every day in the real world, I loan them Art.

And, since I've mentioned the word Zen, I'm now contractually obligated as a bike writer to say something about fixed-gear bikes, messengers, or both. Luckily, Travis Hugh Culley has my back:

Culley was on the street delivering packages (yes, that's what those big bags are for, hipster fakengers) on a bike before messengering was a "culture" you could buy as a ready-made Specialized Langster in your choice of "cityways." Some of THC's "noble, wheeled proletariat" shtick starts to wear on me after a while, but I still found myself immersed in his story and glad to have a glimpse into a corner of the cycling world I'll never get to experience on my own. I always want to figure out a way to quit my job and earn a salary in the saddle when I put this book down -- which will probably motivate my wife to hide it when she reads this.

So there you have it: Six ways to stave off winter insanity in a handy, portable paper form -- 100% eyeball-compatible with no wi-fi, 3G or Kindle required. Happy reading! 


Steve Fuller said...

I'll also echo the recommendation for The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles. I had fairly high hopes for this after subscribing to BQ for the last two years. I wasn't disappointed. There's a related book, The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, that appears to be worth a purchase

David said...

In terms of bang-for-the-buck, it's hard to beat John Allen's Bicycling Street Smarts. First, it's one of the best illustrated and most concise guides to riding a bike amidst motor-vehicle traffic safely and effectively. Second, it's cheap. I can't recommend it enough.

The online version is free: