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.



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