Before the internet, learning about cycling was a matter of listening to people that I knew who seemed to know a lot about cycling (it took me a while to realise that a lot of people knew very little about very much, often less than me) or reading magazines & books. And it was difficult to put your hands on very many English books about cycling, and the magazines weren’t all that helpful, unless you were keen on reading a lot of classifieds ads & results from obscurely named time trials (Cycling Weekly), or finding out about what the latest thing in mountain biking was (MBR). I mean, I used to get paid to write for some of those monthly magazines (not MBR or Cycling Weekly, I should add!), and I really knew next to nothing about cycling, other than what I had learned from having ridden every day for 6 or 7 years.
The only really enlightening (from the point of view of figuring out how to improve my riding experience) book I can recall reading was co-authored by Claud Genzling & Bernard Hinault and called ‘Road Racing Techniques and Training’. Claude Genzling had worked with Cyrille Guimard, directeur sportif of the Gitane / Renault team, and was the first to systematise the bio-mechanics of bike fitting. It was Genzling’s system that led to Guimard putting up Greg Lemond’s saddle by the legendary 2 cm when Lemond first joined Renault (see Lemond’s book “The Incredible Comeback”). The system set out in this book is the one that is used by pretty much every bike fitter, although most experienced bike-fitters will have developed their own refinements. The book also included a very basic training program, some elementary bike handling tips & a few somewhat whimsical musings on attitude to the bicycle. (If you can find a copy, buy it, as it is very interesting!)
I also tried reading Jobst Brandt’s ‘The Bicycle Wheel’, but not really understanding engineering, it was lost on me. I had read ‘A Rough Ride’ and the very few other books about road-racing then available, but although I found them very interesting and inspiring, they weren’t much practical use. Richard Ballantine’s Book of the Bicycle did have lots of nice pictures in it, but, once again, didn’t add to my technical knowledge.
So it was a matter of snatching conversations with knowledgeable people, listening & learning, not, as now, going onto the internet, looking at Sheldon Brown’s site, and then resorting to google in the unlikely event that the answer to whatever question one might have is not there. There is also, now, a huge body of english language literature on all aspects of cycling that has been published in book form over the last 20 years, everything from Cyclecraft, Weight Training for Cyclists, through all the superb books by William Fotheringham, David Walsh, Rupert Guinness, and Matt Seaton to all the excellent cycling guides by the likes of my friend Patrick Field and so on.
But 20 years ago, cycling literature of any kind was pretty thin on the ground. So when I was handed a couple of Bridgestone Bicycles catalogues by Erik Zo some time in the mid ’90s, I literally had to sit down with shock. It was a beautiful item, the design was lovely, the paper it was printed on was a delight, it was full of Rebour style drawings, and the writing! Well-informed, witty articles about subjects such as how a steel bicycle tube is made, starting with extraction of the ore, and finishing with the drawing of the tube. It was a mine of information, and radically different in attitude to anything I had previously seen, which was almost all overwhelmingly oriented towards the latest gadgets, usually made from unobtanium, and geared towards annual replacement.
I should point out here, to avoid any possible confusion, that this catalogue was produced by Bridgestone Bicycles, which was the US division of the huge Japanese Bridgestone corporation. The bikes were designed & specced by US designers, and, although the frames were made in Japan, were nothing to do with the Bridgestone track bikes. For more on Bridgestone Bicycles, see this piece written after Bridgestone folded up the division (Grant Petersen subsequently founded Rivendell Bicycles). Or, to prove the point I made earlier, have a look at this piece on Sheldon Brown’s site, especially as it includes several facsimiles of the catalogues.
I seem to remember that there was an article in one of the catalogues about how the writer’s father, born in the 30s, used to re-use nails after first hammering them flat, which struck a particular chord with me, as it expressed a disquiet at the speed at which this year’s big cycling innovation, lauded in the magazine’s as a must-have, became last year’s discarded toy.
Grant Petersen and Bridgestone Bicycles, in other words, were well in the vanguard of the movement dubbed in North America retro-grouch. Retro-grouchism could be characterised as stuffy, backwards-looking and resistant to change, but in actual fact, was a reaction to the creep of built-in obsolescence, and the focus on selling race ready bikes. Retro-grouchism was the parent of the ‘steel is real’ movement, if you like.
The retro-grouch objection to the development of bicycle design and marketing can summed up, briefly, thus: cycling is attractive because it is an overwhelmingly practical choice of transport in cities, and also has positive effects on health & mood. The ‘advances’ in design and technology that have led to a situation where this year’s sprockets do not work at all with last year’s levers have made bicycles less practical. Acquaintances often say to me, upon having recently bought a bike, “it’s got 27 gears!” To which I often reply, “yeah, but does it have mudguards and a rack?” The British bicycle industry has badly served the public (and itself) by marketing and selling bikes that are wildly inappropriate for riding to work, or down to the shops, or to the park, or to the bar, which is what most bikes should be used for.
All of this nonsense about what the bike looks like, what exact alloy the frame is made from, how many kilometres you did on your Sunday ride etc etc, obscures what’s important about bicycle riding, which is not what or how you ride, it’s where you ride to. Everything else is just talk. Just ride.
As the articulator of this dictum, Grant Petersen, as far as I am concerned, is a giant amongst pygmys. ‘Just Ride’ is a collection of short essays on bike related thoughts, organised into sections. Ideal for casual consultation, or for use as reference.
Best cycling tops, according to Grant: a seersucker, a snap-button cowboy shirt or just any button-down shirt you may happen to have. Cheapskate’s alternative to ‘technical’ sports drinks: half and half orange juice and water, with a little salt added. Or just tomato juice. ‘No ride too short’, says Grant. ‘Do it on a whim any time. Don’t evaluate a short ride in physiological terms’.
Ok, before you start to think that Mr Petersen is wildly eccentric person, who probably lives in the woods, I should point out that he is a gifted bike designer (I own an RB-1 frame, which I use for bike polo), and there is also heaps of excellent mechanical & technical advice in this book. The section ‘Technicalities’ includes essays frame-sizing, Q Factor, crank length, frame materials and so on.
However, my favourite section is entitled ‘Velosophy’. He discusses ‘Commute Clot dbs Critical Mass’, ‘The Dark Side of Charity Rides’ and, chiming perfectly with what I have written above, ‘Racing Ruins The Breed’
Racing may have been responsible for some improvements up through about the 1950s, maybe even the 1960s, but soon after the practical improvements stopped, the impractical refinements kicked in, and now the modern race bike has become too specialized [sic], a one trick pony, a disposable, fragile flyweight that isn’t suitable for anybody that doesn’t race. Yet it has become the standard road bike of the day.
This book is absolutely brilliant. Everybody who rides a bike, whether they ride it for 5 minutes or 50 hours every week, should have a copy. It will change the way you think about cycling, and help you understand and enjoy riding your bike.