Book Review: The Cyclist's Manifesto


The Cyclist's Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four has a title that may evoke images of some earnest treatise, a dry rant. Oh, but it is nothing of the sort. It's the inverse opposite. A wonderfully whimsical exploration of America's transport choices. A rollicking account of how those decisions were made (and why people elsewhere travelled in other directions) and what all that means for the future of getting from A to B. Central to Robert Hurst's story is the hugely significant influence the humble bicycle has had on personal transport. For as he points out, with all seriousness, "We almost had camels."Robert Hurst has a writing style like, "Wildflowers waving in the breeze," to steal another of his own phrases. It is delightful and uplifting, all the while well rooted in a solid firmament. His light, witty turn of phrase is ably supported by extensive footnotes, and an exhaustive bibliography and index.

Bicycle as Own Worst Enemy
Aside from being rudely interrupted with a call to come from dinner I would've read The Cyclist's Manifesto 200 something pages in one sitting. The bright and boppy prose took me, on an exhilarating ride up and down the hills of the bicycle's many triumphs and tragedies. In particular, the book traces the role bicycles played in a world before cheap, available oil arrived, and how it might regain some of that lost ground when oil soon returns to being scarce and expensive.

We learn how bicycles were the perfect partner for trains. One providing cross country travel for the masses, albeit with lockstep, regimented timetabling and fixed routes. The other offered a hitherto unimagined personal freedom. "Suddenly everyone could see the possibility of using machines to roll freely over the roads for long distances, at any time of their choosing, at twice the speed of a horse."

But this freedom was a dangerous thing. For it led to people thinking. To imagining. To seeking to 'improve' on the bicycle. The inspiration that sprang from the 'Safety Bicycle' would eventually manifest itself in the automobile. With emphasis on the auto, it afforded a similar degree of freedom, without the need of manual pedalling. The bike was ultimately its own worst enemy. "Thus with a pedal stroke it vanquished foot travel, horse travel, train travel— and bicycle travel, too."

Robert Hurst drives his various and many points home with a plethora of perfectly placed anecdotes, like this one, "Ford was selling brand-new Model T's in the 1920s for less than what people were paying for bicycles in the 1880s."

Recreational Riding vs Cycle Commuting
Whilst observing that Americans have a great love of recreational cycling, spawning an industry worth some $6 Billion USD annually, they have strong aversion to functional bike riding, whether for commuting, or other endeavours. A phobia not shared by other nationalities. Like the Japanese Colonel who routed the British Asian stronghold of Singapore in 1941. "Even the long-legged Englishmen could not escape our troops on bicycles."

He explains that American road were originally surfaced not for cars, but the narrow wheels of bikes. How NASCAR's grandfather was bicycle racing. Why road rules evolved such that bicycles have the same rights and responsibilities as four wheeled vehicles.

The Cyclist's Manifesto explores, to some considerable depth, why it might be that Americans are so adverse to riding bikes as transport on city streets. "Among the million bicyclists who show up at emergency rooms or doctor's offices seeking treatment for bicycle-related injuries every year, only about 15 percent are there because of collisions with cars."

And this, "For adult bicyclists, rule-following and safety are really two separate issues and, for safety's sake, should be recognized as such."

Environmental Heretic
Robert shrugs on the cloak of a environmental heretic on more than one occasion. To start with, he openly questions the holy grail of many bicycle advocates: cycle paths.

He really cranks into gear when he arrives at the subject of transport energy. "Okay, people, let's get this straight. Your Prius is not environmentally friendly. It may be relatively environmentally friendly compared to other vehicles sold in the United States, but that really isn't much to boast about."

Further suggesting that, "Comparing gasoline's kilocalories to the range consumed in exercise, we find that a bicyclist could easily achieve the equivalent of one thousand miles per gallon, even at a relatively brisk pace."

Simple Message
I didn't find that the book had a particularly strong narrative thread that collected together all its varied elements. But, in the end, I really wasn't fussed, I was so caught up in the ride that it didn't matter where the road was heading. The journey was more enjoyable than whatever the destination might be. And indeed it turned out they were one and the same. For Robert Hurst's message is strikingly simple: Drive Less, Live More.

It could be argued that Robert Hurst is biased. He is, after all, the author of many bicycle books, an urban cyclist who has cycled more than 15,000 hours in
heavy traffic, and a bicycle messenger with 80,000 deliveries to his credit. Alternatively you could take this wealth of experience as a sign that he knows what he is talking about. He is a very skilful raconteur and sure engaged this audience of one. I'm confident his writing will impress you too.

Do you remember being a kid with streamers flapping widely from the handlebars of your trike? Or on a groceries foray, gliding silently and swiftly past car drivers desperate for somewhere to park their behemoth? If you have ever been touched by the joy of cycling this a book for you.

Even if you have never ridden a bicycle, but are simply intrigued by the state of American transport, and how it got there, then this is also the book for you. Highly recommended.

The Cyclist's Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four is published by ::Falcon Guides, part of Globe Pequot Press

But is also widely available, including, of course, through the likes of Amazon.

More Bicycle Evangelism
17 Examples of Pedal Power and Propulsion
13 Quadracycles: Four Wheeled Bike Round-Up
Tricycle Round-up
21 Small Wheel Bikes - The Zippy Revolution
16 Crazy Bikes
How Fast Can a Bicycle Go? 8 Videos Bring Us to Speed
Buy Green: Large Wheel Folding Bikes
BuyGreen: Small Wheel Folding Bikes
10 Wild 'N Crazy Bike Designs (Slideshow)

Update: for some indeterminate time, and unknown reason, the bulk of this review went AWOL. It has now been reinstated.

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