When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, I often saw Jody Rosen on a bike.
I wouldn’t say we were the closest of friends – we went to college together, but now, as then, we moved in slightly different circles. Still, we would often stop around the corner and chat, exchanging the kind of business conversation that only interested two full-time reporters from Brooklyn.
Rosen, usually dressed in a newsboy cap, a bag strapped over his shoulder, and astride a bright red cruiser bike—filled with chunky, almost cartoonish off-white tires—became a talismanic presence for me on the streets of the neighborhood. I could see him taking his son to school on the back of the bike, or leisurely navigating the heavy traffic of Court Street at a pace slightly below the usual frenetic speed of New York cyclists. When I didn’t see him, I often saw his bike chained to a parking meter outside a coffee shop or leaning against the window of a health food store. Spotting it has become a kind of game for my daughter and me. One day she yelled, “Look, Jody’s seat is missing!” (Alas, someone had stolen the saddle.) Like most city dwellers, my eyes were keenly alert to the sidewalks, and seeing Jody’s bike was like ticking a box in a game of Gotham bingo.
In his new book, Two Wheels Well: The History and Mystery of the BicycleRosen, a writer who contributed to The New York Times magazine, brings both his acumen as a critic of pop culture and his genuine – but never exaggerated or direct – passion for the wearable bike on a freewheeling global journey. It starts in a church in small town England (where people claim to see, with almost religious conviction, a proto-bike in a stained glass artwork that predates the invention of the several centuries), and ends with Rosen trying to ride a fixie, with less success, in the ancient kingdom of the bicycle, the city of Beijing.
As you’d expect, Rosen has a lot to say about the joys and difficulties of city driving. “Cycling is the best way I know to achieve altered consciousness,” he writes. “Not an ennobled state, exactly, but definitely a bustling state. A bike ride is far better than yoga, or wine or weed. Biking is the “best way to soak up New York, give a sense of rhythm, of swallowing up the city.” Outside of biking, Rosen writes, New York is getting “bigger but less beautiful.”
While Rosen’s lyrical odes to city biking don’t lack conviction – or fail to find a conniving audience in me, despite the fact that I now live in New Jersey – what makes two wheels good particularly fascinating reading are his explorations of the rich and peculiar history of the motorcycle, which at times recount writer Greil Marcus’ foray into “strange old America.” The bike seems to pop up everywhere and in the most unexpected places. Rosen, for example, tells the story of a young, aspiring prospector from the Yukon who falls ill and misses the feasible window to get to the gold fields via dog sled team, so instead acquires a bicycle and rides for months. in sub-zero conditions to beat its Gold Rush competitors.
But it’s not always the story you expect. “Popular literature on the bicycle is a very sentimental and romantic literature, he tells me, which makes the bicycle this sort of liberating and emancipating device, the liberating green machine, the little machine of the 19th century which will save the world. “There’s something to that, of course, but Rosen says he was interested in a ‘harder’ version of the bike’s history, whether it’s the extractive industries used to produce it or its curious role in the Age of Empire. “The bike has reached many places around the world when ridden by soldiers, prospectors or missionaries, and that interests me,” he says. One of the most glaring examples, he notes, is the link between the bicycle boom at the end of the 19th century – all those new rubber tires – and the brutal colonization of countries like Brazil or the Congo. Belgian. “In Brazil, one person perishes for every 150 kilograms of rubber harvested,” he writes. In the Congo, “the figure was one death for ten kilograms of rubber”.
Which does not mean the bike is harmful, or that it does not figure historically, Rosen says, as a “means of resistance” or an “agent of social change.” After seizing power in 1933, Rosen notes, one of Hitler’s first acts was to crush the country’s bicycle union (which had allied itself with anti-Nazi parties). In 2016, the Iranian theocracy declared a fatwa on female cyclists (“It attracts the attention of unknown men and exposes society to corruption,” said the country’s top cleric). The Iranian women, not without risk, continued to ride. “For millions of women around the world,” he writes, “cycling remains inherently political.” People always downplay the bike, forgetting about its power. Quotes from Rosen New York Times editor Harrison Salisbury in 1967 as he testifies before the US Senate about why the United States was encountering such headwinds in its war in Vietnam. “I literally believe that without the bikes [the North Vietnamese Army] should come out of the war.
The bicycle, says Rosen, is ultimately a tool, whose inherent usefulness is not limited to a political party or a social group. “For me, the real highlight of that was during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising in New York,” he says. “There were a lot of people on bikes in the streets protesting, and they were greeted by the cops on their bikes.” And these weren’t your usual bike cops in shorts pleasantly patrolling a pedestrian mall. “They were armored, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cops, who wear hockey goalie clothes and use the bike as a shield and a battering ram,” he says.
And when the bike isn’t being used to fight on the streets, it’s often at the center of a rhetorical fight. In recent years, he notes, it has become a symbol loaded on the right, a piece with arugula and lattes. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch even lambasted, Rosen notes, the inclusion of “bicycle repair shops” in a list of businesses deemed essential during the pandemic. And sometimes the bike can even seem like just a lifestyle accessory, displayed in the windows of high-end boutiques, parked in a rack (but apparently rarely used) in front of luxury hotels.
But what Gorsuch clearly didn’t have in mind was the fact that, as Rosen notes in the book, “worldwide, more people travel by bicycle than any other form of transportation.” Sure, bike culture includes Instagram accounts with well-dressed people on nice bikes, hipsters on fixies and Lycra, but it also includes, in a city like New York, a massive fleet of classy cyclists. worker, sometimes called delivery men— which have been, especially during the pandemic, an essential factor in maintaining the functioning of the city.
In less flexible, more dogmatic hands, a book like two wheels good might start to roll a little on his own self-satisfied turn, but Rosen pulls off that most wonderful nonfiction trick: making the familiar strange. His narrative bears a bit of resemblance to his self-proclaimed style of cycling: it’s not rushed, but maneuvers deftly through crowded terrain, with impressionistic, cinematic glimpses of the world whizzing by. One minute you discover a 19th century Edison film titled Ride a bike—produced by a roller-skating pioneer—next time you’re in Scotland, with a rider of trials ace Danny MacAskill, as Rosen (a self-proclaimed “turkey” when it comes to raw cycling skills) tries, and fails, to follow what he calls a “beginner-level mountain bike trail.” MacAskill, on the heels of Rosen’s elimination, said, “I’m a little worried you’re going to kill yourself.”
I can’t help but ask Rosen about that old red bike I saw on the street (which, it turns out, was a “Big Chief” Felt). He has changed his style a bit and currently rides a Priority; as a self-proclaimed “terrible” mechanic, he praises the low-maintenance belt drive. The Big Chief, however, remains in storage in his condo’s basement storage area. And it turns out that I wasn’t the only one whose eyes were drawn to this two-wheeled steed. Once, years ago, the bike was stolen while it was parked in front of a cafe. Rosen took to Twitter, essentially asking New Yorkers to watch. And, in fact, someone spotted the bike, secured by a cheap combination lock to a pole in Union Square. Within hours, he tracked down the leader.