Five Questions for Tom Vanderbilt

By: Andrew Gardner Feb 22

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Tom Vanderbilt is a Brooklyn-based writer, a frequent contributor to publications like Outside, Slate and Wired, and the best-selling author of Traffic, a book on the driving habits of Americans that ended up drawing a large response from cyclists. The writer spoke with me on driving madness, cycling advocacy, racers versus utility cyclists and the best fictional cycling characters.


AG - You were drawn into cycling after finishing your best-selling book Traffic, what makes the book compelling to cyclists and what about cycling appealed to you?

TV - What I kept hearing from people who bike is that they were glad to have this examination into the psychology and behavior of this person — the driver — who often causes them such risk or outright menace, even if I did it more from the perspective of a driver himself. The very idea that we talk about “cyclists” or “drivers,” when many of us are both, reveals right away one of the dynamics going on: Social categorization, which affects the way we think and act, often without us being aware of it.

I’ve always been an urban cyclist, but what got me on a road bike in 2012, for the first time in decades — logging some 7000 miles, more than I drove! — was a trip I took with someone for a story I was writing. This guy’s occasional commute was about 45 miles, one way. First, I thought how incredible this was, that this exurban trawl could be managed on a bike. It was like John Cheever’s The Swimmer to me, a secret, almost insane route. Second, I realized how sort of wrecked I felt after my 60 miles. What struck me was the almost narrative satisfaction of the journey, the on-bike camaraderie, and the physical challenge. Whether it was riding through the clouds on Mt. Tam, wheezing to keep up with Cat 2s like yourself (ahem) on short sharp Vermont hills, or even cruising down the Champs-Élysées on a Velib, many of my fondest memories from last year were on two wheels.


Photo courtesy of Alex Ostroy.


AG - You've participated in the Ride on Washington and written about cycling advocacy for Outside- what's your take on the state of cycling advocacy today? What are the largest challenges to improving life for cyclists in the US?

TV - I was just down in D.C., looking at their bike share system, and what struck me was that the people who were first thinking about this, a number of years back, were planning students and bike advocates, noble voices dwelling largely in the wilderness. Now they’re the people administering the programs, doing the consulting, getting the money, making it happen. It’s becoming rather expected that a city will have a bicycle projects coordinator, just as it will soon be expected that any city worth its salt will have something like a bike share system. And hence the answer to the second question: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. People’s choices are shaped largely by their environment; put an escalator next to stairs, 99% of people will not take the stairs. Build things that are good for a person on a bike — whether they are eight or eighty — and you’ll get more people on bikes. Get more people on bikes, and the other issues, like behavior and safety, virtually take care of themselves.


AG - Being keen on racing and interested in advocacy, any thoughts on strategies to bring those communities closer together?

TV - Cycling is incredibly divisive, almost like some mutant dividing cellular organism — the racers snicker at the “Freds” in hi-viz spandex, even as they terrorize people riding Dutch bikes on multi-user paths. There’s division everywhere — steel versus carbon, disc brakes versus cantilever. 29ers versus 26ers. There’s probably some huge clash over wheel skewers I’m not even aware of. It’s so far beyond anything in the world of cars — e.g., I drive a wagon, but it’s not like I harbor some huge suspicion of sedans.

Having ridden with Tim Johnson in the Ride of Washington, I’m of course enthused by his whole approach, which is basically to say that all of us on two wheels are basically on the same road, that the pro racer of today was the kid on the Schwinn a few decades ago, and to enlist those in the racing community to help promote that. There are many noble rides for charity causes, why not rides to make things better for cyclists in general? How many pro riders, after all, have been killed or seriously injured by drivers on training rides?

Another promising turn is the sort of fusing of urban riding and racing, in a kind of socially responsible way. L.A.’s Wolfpack Hustle, for example, which started as a kind of outsider, guerilla midnight ride through the city, recently got the city for the first time to host a closed-course urban race. Closer to my home, there’s the Red Hook Crit, which mixes a number of communities. I was struck, during this last event, how many people had ridden bikes to the race itself, blurring those lines I’m talking about.


AG - You've blogged about popular culture's unflattering take on cycling. With many bad examples, who's your favorite fictional cycling hero? Who gets it right?

TV - I’m definitely a sucker for Jacques Tati, in his raincoat and pipe, on his Veloselex. Just that perfect mixture of dignity and whimsy that urban cycling should be. And of course Dennis Christopher in Breaking Away, the bike as metaphysical transport. And when things are getting a bit too smug, Portlandia. But cycling is rarely presented without some kind of agenda, comic or otherwise (e.g., Life at 40). When I saw some recently coverage marveling at how LeBron James rides his bike to and from Heat games, I was flabbergasted how the story didn’t even mention the first thing any self-respecting cyclist would want to know: What’s he riding?


AG - In addition to cycling, you write about technology for a number of publications. To you, what's the most important technological improvement to hit the cycling world? (Ebikes? Strava? Compression socks?)

TV - I’d have to go with the simple, yet utterly indispensable, smart phone. With one device you can track your ride on Strava, Instagram that epic ascent, conduct your business even as you’re playing hooky, find the nearest bike share station in cities around the world, locate the closest bike shop when that mechanical strands you — the list goes on. It goes in my jersey pocket even before that spare tube.

 

The Informal Guide To Bikes in the Presidential Election

By: Andrew Gardner Oct 29

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Obama wears jeans. Romney drives.

Chances are you’re tired of the election coverage: the internet memes, the incessant squabbling, the interruptions of debate commentary amidst your typically bike-centric social media feed. But among the binders and pension plan insults, the political puffery and the endless punditry, there are still a few looming questions surrounding this presidential election. Those questions, to those of us that organize our lives around pedaling, are about bicycles. Specifically where bikes fit into either of the would-be presidential administrations and what the future holds for bike policy.

Let’s start with the personal. Both President Obama and Governor Romney have had passing time with bicycles. While neither has been seen in lycra, both have used bicycles as a part of a fitness routine, though Obama is more known for his basketball game and Romney admits to jogging more often.



In addition to the occasional pedal for mere fun, both men have done some utility cycling: Mitt Romney used a bicycle while acting as a missionary for the Mormon Church in France in the 1960s. In the case of the president, personal transportation via bicycle on his trips to Martha’s Vinyard was met with some severe style critiques, especially when he appeared without a helmet.

Style aside, how, if at all, do either politician view the bicycle in the context of policy? The Romney campaign has its most overt connection to bicycles as a business example. Through their campaign website, Romney officials have used the involvement of Bain capital in GT Bicycles during the 1990s as a model of business success. GT CEO Mike Haynes is seen here celebrating Romney and Bain.


Since its inclusion in Romney campaign materials, the story has been countered by articles claiming that Bain succeeded at GT through outsourcing and dubious strategies. Aside from his loose involvement with GT, Romney has made no further connection to bicycles for policy. His policies have bicycles and any alternative transportation conspicuously absent.



For his part, the president has paid lip service to alternative transportation, especially rail and fuel-efficient busses, but bicycles have suffered at the federal level due to a recalcitrant congress and the deal-making nature of democracy. A transportation bill submitted to the president by the republican congress radically rolled back funds, accountability and support for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. (One of the major caveats of the bill allowed states to opt out of the required pedestrian and bicycle expectations for new projects, a huge bummer for those hungering for city-like bike lanes outside of cities.) In his defense, Obama gave up the bike and pedestrian expectations in trade for removing an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from the bill, a noble, if brief, environmental victory. The end result, however, was a black eye for bikes.

When politically possible, the Obama administration has pushed an agenda of public transportation, alternative transportation infrastructure, and support for non-motorized progress. This is not something seen from the Romney camp. Governor Romney has typically aligned with his party in issues of transportation, stopping short of the Tea Party claims in 2010 that bicycling is the gateway drug to communism. While the Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romey oversaw a highway account that provided five times the support for roads than for public transit, a particularly high number for a state with a public-transit focused city like Boston in its midst. Through his campaign, the Governor has pushed for privatization of all forms of public transportation but has advocated greater spending on support for roads and cars.



Neither candidate is an overt advocate for bicycles. Neither has an emotional connection to the bike in an athletic way, like the remarkably legitimate efforts of President Bush. President Obama, however, has policy views that could, in time, bear results for fans of cycling and in the single issue of voting for bikes, has gained more credibility as a defender for the cycling scene. Just don’t expect him to ride in anything but jeans.

 

Profiles in Advocacy: Mitch Hoke

By: Andrew Gardner Oct 1

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Even at 24 years old, even after multiple years as a pro cyclocross racer with the Elite Team Clif Bar Program, after trips to Europe with the US team and multiple top-ten finishes at the US Mountain Bike National Championships, Colorado rider Mitch Hoke, hasn’t lost his childlike giddiness from discovering cycling, “At first I just loved riding my mountain bike and having fun.”

“Fun”, for Mitch Hoke, has been a decade of jean shorts, impressive forays into elite racing and bad mustaches. In mid-September, Mitch flew to Germany, then traveled to Austria for the World Mountain Bike Championships finishing in the top fifty after a 90th place starting position, a finish he’s pleased with, though he doesn’t use the word “fun.”

Photo courtesy of Mitch Hoke.

“It takes a little bit more than fun to get out and motor pace for an hour and I do that. As hard as that is, I do enjoy training hard. But it’s a good thing that in cross is not everyone is taking it super seriously, which brings a good atmosphere to the races. Even if you are super serious, you can’t help but smile at beer and dollars bills hand ups.” Despite an inclination to be a racer, Mitch has left the obsessive out of compulsive. He’s compelled by a lighter feel, a looser atmosphere in racing.

It is that atmosphere that Mitchell hopes to share. Hoping to reach developing riders, Mitch helps administer the Clif Bar Development Cross Team a squad that can boast a list of alumni riders like Troy Wells, Danny Summerhill, Pete Stetina and Tejay Van Garderen. Of the current development program, Mitch explains his role, “We have six juniors and three U23s. I do everything from contacting sponsors to picking the kids up at the airport to get them to race. Our goal for the devo squad is get the kids experience racing and traveling and growing as cyclists. I owe everything to people that got me into racing, so because of that I want to make sure younger riders get that opportunity.”

Photo Credit: Leslie McShane

It’s impressive to hear Mitch wax philosophically about the need to give back at his advanced age of 24. Equally impressive is that the space between racing and the rest of the world is a place that Mitch ponders, “Most people who race realize how much bikes have changed their lives for the better so they are pretty excited to help out an organization trying to change peoples lives with bicycles.” To that end, Mitch is a member of Bikes Belong and works with the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance Through his sponsors Clif Bar & SRAM, he’s raised money for World Bicycle Relief.

“Those are organizations that tie so nicely into racing. I have a real identity crisis with two parts of my life that are at odds with each other: On the one side I love bike racing, the challenge of traveling and racing the best people in the country and the world keeps me motivated and moving forward. But i have this other large part of me that wants to live simply and have a smaller footprint. Logging 50,000 frequent flyer miles in a year isn’t exactly living simply.”

For the coming season, Mitch Hoke does have a fairly simple focus. In addition to doing his advocacy thing, his hopes are set on taking another jump up the national cyclocross rankings.

“I would really love to be a part of the Worlds Team for Louisville. So to that end I would like to race consistently in the top 10 at the USGPs the other C1 race weekends.”

Photo courtesy of Mitch Hoke.

This goal seems wildly possible for Hoke given his low key approach and general easy going manner. Take, as closing evidence of his relaxed demeanor his response when asked about a race he rode as a junior when he unintentionally rode with his shorts on backwards.

“That happened. I burned them out of shame. I can send you the urn.”

 

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