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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kids, Books and Bikes

Years ago, in the period after I burned out on the software business the first time and before my friend Kevin lured me back in with the phone equivalent of Herman Mankiewicz's famous telegram to Ben Hecht - "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots", Christine and I managed a used bookstore in Duluth, Minnesota. It was wonderful, dusty work that ultimately proved to be incompatible with Christine's lungs and one of the few jobs where it was possible to make even less than I do currently in the non-profit bike world. But books, like bicycles, are wonderful things that kids take to when given the right encouragement and context. Our kids have grown up with both bikes and books.

Christine and I have written and spoken elsewhere about raising carfree kids and today I'm going to write a bit about a few books, old and new, that showcase the simple wonder of riding a bike.

One book that my mom read to me and that Christine read to the boys, is H. A Rey's classic Curious George Rides a Bike. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's a wonderful tale of a somewhat irresponsible monkey who fails to deliver the newspapers he's supposed to. Of course, bad things happen to him (he wrecks his bike) but his skill at trick riding allows him to persevere and everything works out in the end. Hmm, OK, maybe that's not a great lesson (being cute and tricky helps you get along in the world!) but it is a classic book and you can tell George is having fun. I recall as a kid it not only got me interested in cycling, it turned me on to origami as well (George made the papers into origami boats instead of delivering them.)

The next book, His Finest Hour by David Neuhaus, is a wonderful "Tortoise and the Hare" story featuring Ralph, the fellow with all the latest whiz-bang stuff and Dudley with his old balloon-tired bike. The delightfully droll delivery and illustrations lovingly list all the gear Ralph brings to the race countered with the simple sentence "Dudley brought his bike." A great little book.

Super Grandpa by David M. Schwartz is a the true tale of 66-year old Gustaf Hakansson who, in 1951, was told by the officials of the Tour of Sweden that he was too old to compete. Hakansson did not take no for an answer and rode 600 miles to the start of the race and then unofficially rode and came in first on the 1000 mile course. This is one of those books that really is a great story for all ages of readers.

It seems that every generation decries "kids these days" with their loud music and funny hair, but I get to work with kids every day at Bike Works and I'm here to tell you that the kids are alright. Every Earn-A-Bike class we can offer fills up. Kids still want to learn and still get a thrill from getting places under their own power.

A couple of days ago I got an email from my son Peter (the little tyke you see in the pictures here is now in his twenties, doing his post-grad work in Ice Physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks). The email starts out "Hey Old Man". Both our kids feel like they've grown up in an extended version of a Jean Shepherd story and always refer to me as "the old man." Peter goes on to describe how a friend of his is commuting and crashing on "a very old bike shaped object from Walmart with a completely shot to hell drive train that should never be subjected to everyday use by anyone." He wants me to keep an eye open at Bike Works for a suitable bike for his friend. The supply of decent bikes in Fairbanks is poor, so Peter and his pals have pooled some money and when Peter is back down here for Christmas, he's hoping to get a used bike that he'll take north with him on the plane.

As I said before, the kids are alright.

Keep 'em rolling,


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bike Touring by Raymond Bridge

Raymond Bridge's book, Bike Touring: The Sierra Club Guide to Travel on Two Wheels, is the second, completely revised edition of a book Mr. Bridge originally wrote 30 years ago. In the thirty years since the first edition, some things have changed. We now have Internet forums to discuss our tours, we can track our routes using GPS and theAdventure Cycling Association has mapped out thousands of more miles of routes, but the lure of the open road is still the same.

In this age of Internet wonder, Raymond Bridge has created a book that does the thing that books still do best: he's created a compact, clear guide that condenses a wealth of practical how-to information into a portable, organized form. He explains the various types of bike touring a person might do from commercial tours to roof-to-roof and independent bike camping trips. He discusses a variety of bikes, explaining both fit and function, telling not just what options exist, but why a person might choose one bike or component over another. He explains basic roadside repairs, camping skills and things like the logistics of transporting your bike before and after your tour.

I'm really not the intended audience for a book like this, as I've been traveling by bicycle since before the first edition of this book was new, and yet I still found this book to be wonderfully organized and complete. With a critical eye, I'd find myself asking "yeah, but does he mention alcohol stoves?" Yep, he does, not only mentioning commercial stoves, but pointing his readers to a couple of instruction pages on the Internet for those who like to make their own stuff. This is typical of the book, it is marvelously complete in itself, but it also sends you off on your own journey.

In Bike Touring: The Sierra Club Guide to Travel on Two Wheels, Raymond Bridge has written a marvelous starting point for anyone interested in travel by bicycle. John Lencicki's wonderful drawings are sprinkled throughout the text, adding both clarity and charm to this book. My only complaint with this volume is the cover. This is a book that inspires and enables folks to get out on the road and experience the freedom of two wheels. The text and drawings inside the book capture that far better than the dull photograph of a pannier, water bottle, helmet, map and glove which the Sierra Club chooses for the cover of this book. In this case, don't judge a book by its cover. This one is better. I now have a guide to hand to anyone looking to get out and see the world from the seat of a bicycle.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ghost Trails

In Ghost TrailsJill Homer does something very difficult, she tells the story of riding and pushing a bicycle through 350 miles of frozen Alaskan wilderness on the Iditarod Trail. And while the journey itself is epic, what Jill does in this book is far more impressive than simply competing in this difficult race, she never stops being human and she's never afraid to share that humanity with her readers.

As readers, we know that Jill survives this race, but she still manages to tell a page-turner of a story, painting word pictures of the country, the remote cabins that serve as checkpoints, her fellow competitors, the weather and the darkness. But most importantly, she constantly asks, answers and asks again the Talking Heads question, "well, how did I get here?"

She really captures the thoughts that filled her mind on the 350 miles of the trail by recounting tales from her past, the events that made her not a super-human competitor but a human who competes, and completes, on a course that is far less remote now that Jill has taken us along on the journey.

Her humanity shows through in both tears and a wry sense of humor. She questions herself and concludes that she probably wasted too much time training and not enough time buying peanut butter cups. She holds her frozen Camelbak as an "ice baby" and finally thaws it enough to get a single swallow of water. She doubts and...

But there was one other certainty in my mind — the certainty that I could no longer bear the uncertainty. I could no longer linger in limbo. The longer I stalled, the further I sank into dull madness. I was going to have to decide right there whether I was going to push for McGrath or get on a plane back to Anchorage with Ted and never look back. Either way, I would have to accept the consequences. There was no going back to the start, not any more. I knew there was a reason I had planned so diligently for the race, trained all winter for the race, spent all of my free time thinking about the race.

“If only I could remember what that reason was,” I thought as I mounted my bicycle and pedaled into the dark. And with that, I was finally moving down the trail.

Jill takes us all along on that trail and the other trails that lead her to Alaska and that I know will lead her to further adventures. Ghost Trailsis a wonderful book, one that I rationed out like a precious supply of peanut butter cups. It is a book to be savored, a book to remind you that there always is a reason to be moving down that trail, even if you don't remember what that reason was.