Cycling Books and My Reading List

Over the cold winter break here in Tokyo, there is nothing better than climbing in to the kotatsu with a good book, or even better two good books which is exactly what I did.  Here are two of the great books I consumed during the break.

Ride: Short Fiction About Bicycles by Keith Snyder, Paul Guyot, Simon Woods and Stephen D. Rogers

In this collection of short stories about bicycles, a grocery store worker finds more than he bargained for when he wangles his way into a gated community with a perfect hill for ancient Constantinoplean invents a two-wheeled contraption to impress a girl...a bicycle reflects on its life while chained outside in New York eerie rider exacts gruesome revenge on automobile drivers... These and more in eight stories of gears, pedals, and the need to RIDE.

Comedian Mastermind is the way the unintentionally brilliant Dr. Michael Lämmler once sarcastically described Elden “Fatty” Nelson. Now it’s the name of the first Best of volume.

So take that, Dr. Lämmler.

Taken from the first two-ish years of the blog, but peppered with new insights, introductions, and an absurd number of footnotes describing what Fatty was thinking as he wrote, this book contains valuable information every cyclist absolutely must know. Marvel at Fatty’s penetrating analysis of cycling company ads, his completely scientific method for rating the value of each cyclist you pass during recreational rides, his keen insight regarding how to pee while riding your bike, a whole bunch of epic ride stories, and quite a few pretty decent swipes at Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France. And more. Much more. No, even more than that.

Comedian Mastermind is like the FatCyclist blog, but with Fatty standing behind you, reading over your shoulder, and telling you what he was thinking while he wrote and why he wrote it, all while eating a sizable sandwich. And it’s only the good parts – none of the stuff where Fatty just phoned it in.

It makes excellent bathroom reading material.

My Reading List:

Having enjoyed those books thoroughly I've decided to keep a to-read list here.  If you have any recommendations please let me know and I'll add them here so I don't forget to get around to them.

Recommended by: @HenryVeitch

Cycling is explodingin a good way. Urbanites everywhere, from ironic hipsters to earth-conscious commuters, are taking to the bike like aquatic mammals to water. BikeSnobNYCcycling's most prolific, well-known, hilarious, and anonymous bloggerbrings a fresh and humorous perspective to the most important vehicle to hit personal transportation since the horse. Bike Snob treats readers to a laugh-out-loud rant and rave about the world of bikes and their riders, and offers a unique look at the ins and outs of cycling, from its history and hallmarks to its wide range of bizarre practitioners. Throughout, the author lampoons the missteps, pretensions, and absurdities of bike culture while maintaining a contagious enthusiasm for cycling itself. Bike Snob is an essential volume for anyone who knows, is, or wants to become a cyclist.

Recommended by: @byronkidd

The joys of commuting by bike attract scores of new converts every year. But as fresh-faced cyclists fill the roads, they also encounter their share of frustrations careless drivers, wide-flung car doors, zoned-out pedestrians, and aggressive fellow cyclists, to name a few. In this follow-up to the best-selling Bike Snob, BikeSnobNYC takes on the trials and triumphs of bike commuting with snark, humor, and enthusiasm, asking the question: If we become better commuters, will that make us better people? From the deadly sins of biking to tactics for dealing with cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists, this primer on bike travel is a must-read for cyclists new and seasoned alike.

It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn

Recommended by: @btownbren

Robert Penn has saddled up nearly every day of his adult life. In his late twenties, he pedaled 25,000 miles around the world. Today he rides to get to work, sometimes for work, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel, to go shopping, to stay sane, and to skip bath time with his kids. He's no Sunday pedal pusher. So when the time came for a new bike, he decided to pull out all the stops. He would build his dream bike, the bike he would ride for the rest of his life; a customized machine that reflects the joy of cycling.

It's All About the Bike follows Penn's journey, but this book is more than the story of his hunt for two-wheel perfection. En route, Penn brilliantly explores the culture, science, and history of the bicycle. From artisanal frame shops in the United Kingdom to California, where he finds the perfect wheels, via Portland, Milan, and points in between, his trek follows the serpentine path of our love affair with cycling. It explains why we ride.

It's All About the Bike is, like Penn's dream bike, a tale greater than the sum of its parts. An enthusiastic and charming tour guide, Penn uses each component of the bike as a starting point for illuminating excursions into the rich history of cycling. Just like a long ride on a lovely day, It's All About the Bike is pure joy- enriching, exhilarating, and unforgettable.

Robert Penn has worked as a lawyer, waiter, contractor, DJ, photographer, and journalist-and biked to every single job. He writes for the Financial Times, the Observer, and Condé Nast Traveler, as well as a host of cycling publications. Penn lives in Wales with his wife and three children.

The Rider by Tim Krabbe

Recommended by: @rudyinjapan, @momopappa

Originally published in Holland in 1978, The Rider became an instant cult classic, selling over 100,000 copies. Brilliantly conceived and written at a break-neck pace, it is a loving, imaginative, and, above all, passionate tribute to the art of bicycle road racing. 

Not a dry history of the sport, The Rider is beloved as a bicycle odyssey, a literary masterpiece that describes in painstaking detail one 150-kilometer race in a mere 150 pages. The Rider is the ultimate book for bike lovers as well as the arm-chair sports enthusiast. 

Bike Touring Survival Guide by Friedel Grant and Andrew Grant

Recommended by: @glye

Dreaming of a big bike tour? You can do it, and the Bike Touring Survival Guide will help. It includes information on:

  • Getting Ready (packing, planning, finding a route)
  • Daily Logistics (navigating, sleeping, eating)
  • The People You Meet (weird questions people ask, accepting hospitality)
  • Staying Connected (staying in touch, gadgets, electricity, internet)
  • Challenges (dogs, traffic, bad weather, staying healthy)
  • Far Away Places (visas, vaccinations, safety, bribes and bargaining)
  • Coming Home (readjustment, getting a job again)
  • Bike & Gear Tips (caring for your bike, tent, stove, sleeping mat, etc)
  • Resources (packing list, recommended equipment)

The book is written by Andrew & Friedel Grant, who have 60,000km of bike touring experience, including a round-the-world bicycle tour and run the popular bike touring website. The book also includes the tips, stories and photos of 50 other bike tourists.

"This book’s got soul! I’d recommend it to anyone setting out on the road to get the best ‘feel’ for what life on the road is like. -Stephen Lord, author of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook (also a fantastic book)

Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham

Recommended by: @CycleExeter

Tom Simpson was an Olympic medalist, a world champion cyclist, and the first Briton to wear the fabled yellow jersey of the Tour de France. He died a tragic early death on the barren moonscape of the Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour, and fans continue to make the pilgrimage to the windswept memorial that marks the spot where he died. A man of contradictions, Simpson was one of the first cyclists to admit to using banned drugs and was accused of fixing races. Yet the dapper “Major Tom” inspired awe and affection for his obsessive will to win, which ultimately cost him his life. Fully updated, this gripping biography features a new preface and final chapter that provide further revelations about Simpson's life and death.



Cyclists on a snowy morning in Tokyo

It snowed quite hard for Tokyo overnight, but by morning most of the snow had turned to ice. Despite this quite a few people were out and about on their bicycles, business as usual. We're not used to such conditions in Tokyo, but the cyclists that were out were cycling where they thought safe to do so and got off to push their bicycles where the snow was thick or water had turned to ice.



What Makes Japan a Great Cycling Nation?

Mikael Coville-Anderson, of Copenhagenize fame, ranks Japan as the world's third greatest cycling nation behind the Netherlands and Denmark. But just what is it about Japan that makes cycling an attractive transport option to millions of people every day?

Japanese cities are amongst the largest and most populated in the world, but most residential neighbourhoods have their own unique small town feel.  In terms of services, Japanese neighbourhoods are largely self contained.  Residents have to cycle no more than 5 to 10 minutes to reach supermarkets, kindergartens, schools, doctors, dentists, in fact most necessities for everyday living are just a short ride away. Without the need to travel excessive distances for daily life’s basics, a bicycle makes perfect sense.

Public Transport
Japanese cities are crisscrossed with a fast clean and efficient train and subway system, not to mention and reliable cheap bus services. So efficient is the public transport system that it is often faster and more convenient to take the train than to travel by car.  While bicycle commuters did increase after the March 11 earthquake crippled Tokyo's rail system, few people are willing to cycle more than one or two stations from their home.  Many use their bicycles to compliment public transport, cycling from their home to the station.

Owning a car in Tokyo is inconvenient and expensive.  Before purchasing a car the buyer is required to provide proof they have secured an appropriate parking spot.  As most city dwellers have no garage hiring a parking space can be an expensive exercise, and that parking space may be many minutes walk from home. For people working in the city, commuting to work by car is not an option as some inner city parking spaces can cost more per month than a small apartment in the suburbs.  Throw insurance and maintenance costs in with all that and riding a bicycle makes a lot of sense.

Forget expensive road, hybrid and mountain bikes, the majority of Japanese ride mama-chari, they're the family station wagon of Japan.  Mama-chari cheap, and come equipped with dynamo lights, horseshoe locks and sturdy rear wheel kickstands right out of the box.  While baskets on the front and racks on the back are standard the options for carrying cargo and children with the addition of accessories are limitless. Carrying two (or more) children by bicycle is not an uncommon sight. Although heavy and somewhat clunky the mama-chari is perfectly suited to the Japanese city environment, and to the tasks that millions use them for in daily life.

Japanese cycling laws are largely unenforced until such time that there is an accident.  This makes for an incredibly free and liberating cycling experience.  I attribute a lot of the popularity of the bicycle in Japan to the ability to cycle wherever and however you like.  Confident in traffic? Ride on the road. Have child passengers? Stick to the sidewalk. Roads congested? Jump on the sidewalk and vice versa.  As long as you are riding safely and with respect for others it doesn't matter how many of Japan's cycling laws (or as I like to call them "guidelines") you're breaking, just don't get into an accident.

Japan has terrible bicycle infrastructure yet millions of people cycle every single day.  Most suburban Japanese streets often do not have a sidewalks so pedestrians, bicycles and car are comfortable sharing the same space. Bicycle lanes are practically non existent, when there is often not enough space for even a sidewalk, how can we expect bicycle lanes? Finding a (legal) place to park is often quite difficult, so parking illegally with everyone else is the accepted norm. Despite this few people are calling for improved cycling infrastructure, and cycling is booming.

A big factor in making cycling work in Japan is the Japanese people themselves. For the most part incredibly patient and polite they're tolerant of the people around them.  You can't live in a city with 12.9 million others without exercising some degree of tolerance and patience.  Pedestrians, cyclists and cars often share the same space and that can not work unless a drivers and cyclists are prepared to travel at walking pace until a pedestrian can get out of their way.

Japanese people also have what is termed the "gaman spirit", which loosely translated is the "just get on with it" along with a "shoganai", or " what are you going to do?" attitude.  So when it comes to cycling to the station in the dead of winter just get on with it, because what else can you do?

There are many factors that go into making cycling the best form of local transport in Japanese cities. Partly infrastructure, partly urban design and partly the police turning a blind eye to cycling offenses when no damage is being done.  But I believe it is the attitude of the Japanese people, the politeness they display to each other on the road that really makes a difference.

Cycling in Japan really is a polite form of anarchy.  People ignoring the rules, cycling and parking wherever they like, yet doing their best to impact as little on others as they can.  Can we replicate this success overseas?



Hokkaido Resident's Home Built Mountain Tricycle

Last month I wrote about bicycles for the elderly, in particular tricycles that are gaining popularity among Japan's senior citizens.

Well in freezing Hokkaido such tricycle wouldn't get far in the deep snow and icy roads which has prompted 72 year old resident Sada Yoshi to construct his own winter mountain bike (trike?) exclusively for the harsh Hokkaido environment.

It appears to be a second frame simply welded to the first at an angle providing a rear tire for added balance.  Not sure how this affects pedalling, but you've got to give it to him for using parts and tools at his disposal to solve an immediate problem.


Things That Annoy Cyclists

In Tokyo I rate taxi's as one of the most annoying things I have to put up with on the roads.  I hear that in London it is bendy busses and lorries. This led me to ask on twitter :
London has lorries, Tokyo has taxi's. What is the cyclists mortal enemy in your city?
I was expecting answers like dump trucks, busses, soccer moms etc. but the range of answers I received really surprised me.  Some of the annoyances included:
  • potholes
  • urban planners
  • senior cyclists
  • cycling advocates
  • dooring
  • pollution
  • compulsory helmet laws
  • 4WD's
  • every other vehicle that can kill a cyclist
I was thinking traffic is a major annoyance to cyclists, but it turns out there is a lot more we need to improve to make cycling attractive to all. Everyone who wants to see more people cycling should take a step back and examine the multitude of things that need fixing and not just concentrate on traffic and safety.

What are the major annoyances where you ride?



My New Bicycle Navigation Device

I purchased a new bicycle navigation device over the weekend. It requires no batteries, GPS signal, or 3G contract and it is perfectly legible at any angle, even in direct sunlight.  If it’s dropped, broken or stolen it can be replaced for 105 yen.  

In addition to the navigation functionality is also has a built in, thumb activated, collision warning system.  

It's also tacky, barely accurate, and kind of embarrassing, but I love it and you should too.



How to Cycle Japanese Style

There is nothing worse when visiting a foreign country for the first time and looking like a tourist. As the majority of my readers are cyclists (and by “majority”, I mean six), who would like to cycle around Tokyo when they visit Japan, I have compiled this list of tips to help you fit right in to Japanese cycling culture. No need to thank me.

Occupy one hand with something other than cycling at all times.
Most bicycles have two hand grips, its a little known fact that in Japan one of those is considered a backup for use only when the first one fails.  Be it an umbrella, mobile phone, bag of groceries or a rubber chicken, always have one hand fully occupied at all times.  If you’ve nothing to carry then it is perfectly acceptable to cycle while picking your nose.
Cycling while holding an umbrella, common in Tokyo, Japan.
Do not, under any circumstances, maintain your brakes.
They’re delicate and should never be adjusted, ever.  Ideally your brakes should emit a sound akin to fingers down a blackboard when applied. If you’re cycling correctly, i.e. your free hand is occupied with Angry Birds or nose picking, you must use your brakes rather than your bell to inform pedestrians of your impending collision.

Maintain correct tyre pressure.
You may not know it, but Japan has four seasons, Japanese people are lack an enzyme that processes alcohol and air pressure works completely differently over here.  With that in mind be careful never to over inflate your tires to the point where they are actually round and firm.

Carry more than two children on your bicycle.
Everyone in Japan cycles with children in front and rear child seats, sometimes with a third child seat behind the handlebars. If you do the same you’ll stick right out as a try hard tourist. Therefore, you should carry at least 4 children under the age of 9, and a small dog, to demonstrate just how comfortable you are with the idea of ferrying passengers around by bike. Trust me, you’ll blend right in.

Ride against traffic.
That way you’ll get a good fix on the number of the car that is most certainly going to kill you.

Set your seat height correctly.
When sitting stationary on your bicycle you should be able to place both feet firmly on the ground while remaining in your saddle with your knees bent at 90 degrees.

Pedal for maximum power.
This is a tip aimed at advanced riders who want extract the most power form their pedal stroke.  With your saddle height set as described above, place your heels on the pedals with your feet pointing 90 degrees out from the frame and begin pedaling squares. Be sure to lean in the direction of the foot making the down-stroke or maximum efficiency.

Avoid noisy distractions.
Cycling requires concentration and you don’t want that to be broken by annoying noises. To block out distracting traffic noise, sirens, and shouts from that pedestrian you almost toppled (but didn’t notice because you were reading a newspaper held firmly in your free hand) you should always listen to music with ear buds, or ideally, noise canceling headphones.  If you’re not the musical type then wear fluffy earmuffs (yes, even in the summer).

These are just a handful of tips I could list off the top of my head.  For a more comprehensive list please feel free to pick up a bicycle safety pamphlet from your city hall and proceed to do the exact opposite of what it recommends.  Do that and you’ll be cycling like a local in no time at all.



On Your Bike Grandpa: Bicycles for Japan's elderly

As Japan's population ages many goods and services are being developed to cater for the elderly.  Items such as these tricycles which provide elderly riders with stable transport that has ample carrying capacity have become a common site around the suburbs of Tokyo.
Standard accessories include baskets (both front and rear), a dynamo light, mudguards, and a lock.  With an average weight of 25kg the 3 speed internal hub gears offer a some help when the going gets steep.  Prices start around ¥25,000 for the most basic models and extend to above ¥10,0000 for models with electric pedal assist.

As Japan's population shrinks, many elderly are are living alone and must take care of themselves.  Tricycles such as these allow them to maintain independence well into their senior years.


How Costco is killing Japanese cycling culture

Its true, Costco, Ikea and other large retailers are slowly eroding the usefulness of the bicycle in Japan as they promote a car centric approach to shopping.

In Japan large stores have historically tended to cluster around highly trafficked railway stations close to major population centres rather than along heavily trafficked highways out in the sticks.  Companies such as Costco and Ikea however set up business in the most inconvenient of locations for Japan's massive base of city dwelling, cycling shoppers, on large, cheap plots of land, far from stations and population centres making them largely inaccessible by bicycle. In some locations the line for parking stretches over many kilometres on public roads, creating even further congestion, not to mention polluting the air with all those idling engines.  How is this healthy for Japan?

Both Ikea and Costco offer home delivery, should an adventurous cyclist or user of public transport make the trek to one of their stores, but judging by the size of their car parks there is no mistake who their target market is.

To be fair I should point out that more and more often large Japanese owned shopping malls such as Aeon are popping up in all manner of sparsely populated locations essentially inaccessible by bicycle. Surely this is an aspect of western culture we should not mimic.

I sincerely hope this trend towards car centric shopping begins to fade here in Japan, before it negates the convenience of the bicycle completely.