I read Richard Ballantine’s book early last fall. I had every intention of reviewing it then, but other things came up, and it was brushed aside. Having an opportunity to return to it now, months later, I’m actually glad the review was delayed.
Initially, I was not especially impressed with the book. I felt as if it were preaching to the proverbial choir. Upon further reflection, I realize that this book is better viewed as a source book for those of us who are already persuaded of the merits of bicycling for transportation, equipping us (i) to model it in the best possible way, and (ii) to make a case to others. On the latter, it prepares you especially well for the sorts of arguments you make over a pint at the local brew pub. In other words, this is not the manual for professional lobbyists; rather, it’s a handbook for ordinary folk at street level.
City Cycling is loaded with fantastic photos, useful illustrations, nifty tips, practical advice, and valuable information, including a short reading list at the end for those interested in learning more about a particular topic. The writing is light, casual, and frequently humorous. The entire book gives a vibe that seems to ask, “Why wouldn’t you do this?”
The book is divided into five sections: City Cycling, Wheel Dealing, Tactics, Riding, and Mechanics. The first section is all about the growth of transportation cycling and urban bike culture. These first few pages do a fine job of conveying the sense that all are welcome. Section two focuses on getting a bike: what you can expect to pay for various types of bikes with various degrees of quality, things to look for when buying a used ride, how to go about making a purchase, sizing and set-up, gear and accessories. Sections three and four might well be the best parts of the book. Together, they are devoted entirely to strategies for riding your bike as a regular mode of transportation in an urban environment. Ballantine offers advice on everything from finding the best routes, to security, to hauling stuff, to general bike-handling, to dealing with traffic. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the latter is the way he describes the advantages of being on two wheels. It makes you wonder how or why anyone ever put up with driving a car (including yourself!). Finally, the fifth section deals with bike maintenance. The book is almost worth buying for these chapters alone. Reading various bike blogs, I’m struck by the number of folks who are either unable to fix and maintain their bicycles, or who are apprehensive about doing so for some reason. Not only is roadside repair know-how a must for those of us who travel by bike regularly, but I think the ease of carring for a bicycle is part of the allure. Ballantine does an excellent job of showing readers how to do simple repairs and basic maintenance in a way that is not overwhelming. Best of all he offers outstanding examples of emergency, makeshift fixes for when you are without the proper tools or resources. Think of it as a branch of city-cyclist first aid.
The book concludes with an eight-page manifesto advocating for an increase in urban cycling and other modes of alternative transportation. Whether or not you agree with Ballantine’s recommendations, some of the data he provides really makes you wonder what’s holding us back, and it certainly motivates you to keep doing what you’re already doing.
Like I said, much of what’s in this book will seem obvious to those who already ride and irrelevant to those who do not. The former don’t need to read the book, and the latter don’t want to read the book. But I am recommending to those who ride that they do read the book. Not only will the information make you a better evangelists for the cause, but you will inevitably stumble upon all sorts of information that you’ll find useful and worthy of note. Then, I’m recommending you pass it on. There’s something about this book that, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, commends itself to sharing and circulation. It is best read, I think, as a used copy.