The Cycling Bookshelf

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 147.

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With many people spending more time at home during the lockdown period, Alan Ackroyd shares his recommendations for cycling-related reads with additional suggestions from other members

Copenhagenize

Mikael Colville-Andersen (Island Press)

Many people down the years may have hoped that posterity will view the time in which they live as a moment of madness, a temporary departure from reason and good judgement. That is a major theme of Mikael Colville-Andersen’s discussion of urban planning, looking particularly at his home city of Copenhagen. He looks back to the centuries before the motor car when streets were places of human interchange and relationship, and contrasts the madness of the last 70 years of planning for the motor car in which drivers, isolated in their cars, sweep at speed (theoretically) through streets where people are marginalised for safety and human interaction is increasingly restricted to private spaces. He goes on to point out that, whilst the last 30 years have seen something of a renaissance for cycling, it is nothing compared with the international golden age of cycling from 1910 to 1950. Now cycling is back and is the answer to so many of the difficulties of urban life, from poor mental and physical health to urban transport pollution.

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His third section, ‘The Toolbox’, summarises swathes of best-practice that have been developed down the years in Copenhagen and other cities around the world, including the work of his own design practice. His point is that there is no need to start from scratch because others have found what works, just ‘copy and paste’. He then gives a broad description of the measures that have been found to work in different situations. Most of this is well thought out, almost standard stuff, but it includes illustration and encouraging anecdote from around the world.

Personally, I found the last chapter, ‘Communication and Advocacy’ to be of greatest interest. He points out the great positives of cycling and describes how different cities have emphasised these to encourage more people to cycle. Not enough people cycle in Cambridge, but we are still among the national champions for cycle use (hooray!) and when did we last thank people for cycling?

Colville-Andersen’s writing style is very diffuse with lots of anecdote and personal example (thinking about ‘desire lines’ as he watches early morning walkers across a park covered in a fresh fall of snow, mapping out where the paths should have been built). This is also a beautifully produced book with many of the writer’s famed photographs and plenty of powerful coloured graphics and drawings. It is a little controversial in that he claims that Danish practice is significantly different from the Dutch and just because it works in Copenhagen may not make something a universal panacea. I wouldn’t say that it is ‘The definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism’ as it claims on the cover, but it is thought-provoking and encouraging. It is an ‘ideas book’. I think it was a good idea to read it, in promotion of a few moments of sanity!

Building the Cycling City

Melissa and Chris Bruntlett (Island Press)

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‘One size fits all’. We know that it’s a lie when they say it about clothes, and it’s not true for cycle planning either! We know what we’d like when we see it – segregated cycle lanes, trafficcalmed streets, sensible cycle parking, just taking cycling seriously as a way of getting around. But look under the surface and it isn’t that simple.

To begin with, we’re starting in different places. Groningen is a city with an historic centre like Cambridge but it has an easily definable ring road and a social history of extensive cycle use. New York has a grid-iron street plan of wide roads and cyclists have historically been a rare breed. Both have seen major increases in citycentre cycling but their routes to that are different. One man in particular in Groningen has given his life to driving back the advance of the car in his city, resisting the destruction of swathes of historic architecture to make wide roads in the centre. He became a councillor and spent ten years developing a plan to prioritise walking and cycling and persuading the city to adopt it. Now they face a real problem with cycle congestion. In New York major changes were carefully designed and then introduced overnight to howls of protest. But after a few months of trial and tweaking they were shown to work and made permanent.

Different streets need different treatment too. Some are throughroutes needing higher speed limits and cycle segregation. Some are neighbourhood streets for low speed limits, traffic calming, and cars, pedestrians and cycles together.

Different people have contributed to different aspects of the development of cycling. Jos Sluijsmans in Nijmegen was captivated by the idea of cargo bikes and negotiated a deal with a local supermarket to do their deliveries on their bike without charge and have the use of it himself at other times. Now he co-ordinates the International Cargo Bike Festival and promotes cargo bike use across Europe and beyond. Simon and Victoria Firth in Philadelphia sell bikes – all sorts of bikes except the sports bikes that dominate the city’s cycle usage. From cargo bikes to Dutchstyle roadsters with bells, mudguards and locks for everyday use: every bike they sell helps fuel a revolution in the city’s transport. Becca Wright isn’t a confrontational character but her cartoons have become a weapon in front-line cycle campaigning in Boston, Mass., empowered by the social media skills of Jonathan Fertig.

Cambridge will never be like any other city because we have a unique history and we’re developing in different ways. Our streets are similar to those in many other cities but our cyclists have some different priorities. However, we can still be inspired by the successes of others and learn from what has worked for them. This is a selection of the experiences of other people in other places. Some of them could well help us here.

In the City of Bikes

Pete Jordan (Harper Collins)

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Within half an hour of arriving in Europe from the USA, Pete Jordan had been knocked down by one Amsterdam cyclist and narrowly missed by two others. It wasn’t an auspicious start but he responded by getting his own bike and falling in love with European city cycling.

Not only did he ride but he watched and counted. Did you know that out of 1,000 Amsterdam cyclists carrying dogs around 63% will be female, as will 61% of those cycling with open umbrellas? Only very rarely will one see an adult cyclist with a helmet (unless also fitted out with lycra) but of those riding whilst guiding a second bike, 87% are likely to be male. Numbers of cyclists carrying ironing boards are likely to be evenly gender-matched.

Alongside soaking up the cycling culture – few hand signals, fewer lights and no shortage of cycle-borne handholding and waist-embracing – Jordan did some extensive research. Here is the truth of the ‘white bicycle’ scheme, Victorian cycling schools and the ‘Provos’ (nothing to do with Ulster!). And here is the history of how the Nazis attempted to control the population by confiscating bicycles – and heart-warming tales of their failures that left city people equipped in some measure to fight the effects of the starvation winter of 1945/6.

A major theme of this book is that even in Amsterdam where (almost) everyone does it, riding a bicycle is somehow an act of rebellion and cyclists have always been somewhat beyond control. If cyclists are to be channelled or constrained it must be by making the desired behaviour the easiest thing to do. Good cycling infrastructure is important: Amsterdam has plenty of it and work continues to improve places where it’s lacking. One of the most thought-provoking chapters for me was a consideration of why the car is king in Jordan’s native USA while it hasn’t dominated the scene in the Netherlands.

This book isn’t about cycle-campaigning or political action or urban planning or history or cycle engineering, although it has some of each of them. Its main purpose is to celebrate the fact that it is just so good to be out on a bike. Let’s go and join the party!

Richard’s New Bicycle Book

Richard Ballantine (Ballantine Book)

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The 1970s saw a turning of the tide for cycling across Europe. The precipitous decline in cycling that came with the massproduced car and post-war prosperity reached its nadir in the late 1960s. The early 70s saw, if not a rise in cycle use, at least an arresting of the decline. There began to be a realisation of what planning for swarms of cars was doing to our towns and cities and a recognition of what the effects of car use were on the people in and around them. Some people bucked the trend and started cycling again.

Richard Ballantine arrived in the UK from America in the early 1970s. Brought up in a publishing family, he loved bikes and cycling and Richard’s Bicycle Book was published in 1975 and became a ‘must have’ for those rediscovering cycling. It became Richard’s New Bicycle Book and Richard’s 21st Century Bicycle Book was translated into several languages.

My copy of Richard’s New Bicycle Book lies in front of me now. In the early 1990s I thought I might get back into cycling for urban transport and exercise. Richard rekindled a love affair with bicycles and cycling that has never left me. I purposely make the distinction between the machine and the activity; Ballantine was fascinated by both, and so am I! The book starts with a potted history of the bicycle and then explains why everyday urban cycling makes sense, sketching out the economics of urban cycle transport versus the car, cycling’s speed and convenience, its health and fitness benefits and environmental advantages. But, as he writes, it is a great thing to do: ‘You have to expect that I would believe that cycling is a good idea, but how do I get off expressing the notion that it is philosophically and morally sound? Because it is something you do, not something that is done to you…You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalised!’ It’s still true. I write under a lock-down regime but on my daily exercise cycle ride I see more and more families rediscovering what Richard writes about, making the best of their exercise by bowling along under their own power and pushing out the boundaries of our necessary confinement with all the sense of achievement that brings. The best thing I’ve seen for ages is the broad grins of children enjoying the freedom to ride on the road, not, for the time being, confined to the garden or the pavement! Contrast that with the stares of bored, blank passivity looking out of the windows of the next loaded bus you see!

The book follows on with a look at the variety of different genres of cycles and cycling with sources of information on how to get involved with them. He goes with the ‘fast is safe’ approach to riding in traffic. Touring, racing and commuting all get some good practical guidance, sources of further information – and pictures. Oh, the pictures! Hundreds of line drawings, cartoons and historical advertising pictures, including many from the classic cycling artist Frank Patterson. Who needs photographs with pictures like these?

In the early 1990s Richard rekindled a love affair with bicycles and cycling that has never left me

For Ballantine, it was not just the act of cycling but an enjoyment of the machines themselves. Today, battery power is reshaping the cycling landscape. Then, Ballantine was captivated by recumbent cycling and was a founder member, with Mike Burrows, of the British Human Power Club. But he also imported the first 20 Richley mountain bikes into the UK in the early 1980s and organised a series of competitions for them. He was also instrumental in founding the London Cycling Campaign. Recognising that the right tool for the job is an important part of fulfilling cycling, he looked down on no variation of bike except a bad design that would spoil the experience and disappoint the rider. The latter part of the Bicycle Book is all about how a bicycle works and how to maintain it. Parts of it are a bit dated now (remember roller-cam brakes?) but as the owner of several older machines, it is still my ‘go-to’ maintenance guide because it explains how it all works (brilliant pictures and diagrams), points out what I might be able to do for myself and when I should go to the professionals.

Other books on cycling are available, but for some of us Richard Ballantine will always be a hard act to follow.

Cyclecraft

John Franklin

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As reviewed in Newsletter 15 (December 1997) by Clare Macrae

I’ve heard about this book many times, but as it’s been out of print for some time, I haven’t been able to get a copy. However, a new edition has just been published, so I wanted to see if it lived up to my great expectations.

This book is rightly subtitled ‘Skilled Cycling Techniques for Adults’. The author stresses that the techniques require an adult’s skills of judgement, and that children should be taught somewhat different technique.

A number of surveys suggest that experienced cyclists are many times less likely to be involved in a conflict than riders with less experience. The author’s assertion is that although you may encounter bad driving and many hazards whilst cycling, most of it is foreseeable and avoidable.

The book is packed with clear information on cycling confidently and skilfully in Britain. It’s well-written, and not in the sort of patronising tone I’ve seen in one or two other cycling skills books. There are plenty of clear diagrams throughout. There are sections on selecting a bike, maintaining it, and adjusting it for greatest efficiency. Also mentioned is pedalling technique – how to ride efficiently.

The author’s credentials are impressive. Amongst other things, the blurb on the back cover states that he is registered as an Expert Witness on cycling techniques and proficiency. The book is eagerly endorsed by RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents).

Therefore I find the following statement particularly important:

One of the biggest mistakes a cyclist can make is to think that cycle facilities are inherently safer than using the general roads. Not all facilities will be safer, particularly for a similar level of mobility, whilst there is evidence that some facilities are both dangerous in themselves and lead to unsafe cycling practices.

There is some overlap with the material covered on our training course last year, but there’s room in a book for much more detail.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any adult cyclist.

  • The latest edition of Cyclecraft (2014) contains advice for children as well as adults. It is the recommended course book for Bikeability, the National Cycle Training Standard, and required reading by trainee cycle instructors. It is sometimes criticised for its vehicular approach to cycling which may exclude those uncomfortable riding in busy traffic.

Other Member Recommendations:

Bluffer’s Guide To Cycling

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Rob Ainsley

One of the bestselling series of Bluffer’s Guides, this is a pocket-sized book which is an entertaining, easy read about cycling to dip in to.

Bicycle: Love Your Bike: The Complete Guide to Everyday Cycling

Helen Pidd

A guide for ordinary, non Lycra-wearing people who happen to cycle or want to start.

Re:Cyclists

Michael Hutchinson

A well-referenced dive into the history of cycling, covering its rise, glories and despairs.

The Escape Artist

Matt Seaton

Autobiographical story about the early life of the author in the racing clubs and culture of south London.

  • Find more recommendations of cycling books to read, films to watch, podcasts to listen to and courses to study on our website at camcycle.org.uk/readwatchlisten