walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Bicycling for Dummies_, Allen St. John

Picked it from the library after requesting it via ILL. Interestingly, it was in Belmont's collection.

St. John's book is out of print, as near as I can tell. It was published in 1999.

Because it's 10 years old, there are several things I object to about this book that perhaps could not be expected to be other than they are. There are also other things I object to that the age of it provides no excuse.

First, a look at the organization and assumptions about the reader. There are some cheat sheets at the beginning that tell you how much to spend on a bike (how many times a year will you ride X 10 in dollars), how to size a bike, what to bring on a ride (sunglasses/screen...) and what tools to bring (it's quite a list). The book assumes the reader already knows how to ride a bike, which is unfortunate, given that more and more people failed to learn as children. The rundown of types of bikes (road, mountain, hybrid, city bike, other), is both unfortunate and a little odd. While "internal" and "planetary" don't show up anywhere in the index, that kind of gear does show up at least twice in the text. In the brief section on city bikes, the author advocates finding an old Raleigh 3 speed or similar, make sure the "three-speed hub" works, and use it as a utility/commuter bike. Later, the author notes that this is one of the few parts of the bike that you should never, ever, ever mess with.

In the chapter on fitting a bike (and there's a second chapter, later on, about adjusting that bike to _really_ fit you, and you can imagine what I think of that one), there is a callout box for women's bikes, which he actually calls "girl's bike". I know, I call them girly bikes, but honestly, that was kinda shocking. Then he proceeds to call bikes with two parallel down tubes and no top tube (his words) "especially prone to snap in half right at the bottom bracket". I'll jump ahead to p 96's pre-ride checklist to give you an indication of this guy's experience of bicycles:

"Once upon a time, I was ready to put my $2,500 custom-built racing bike into my girlfriend's $400 car...There was a crack halfway around the back side of the right fork blade."

Is he unusually hard on bikes? Unlucky? Buys weak-ass badly made crap and gets ripped off for it as well? Tough to say. But if you actually get a well made bike with a step-through configuration (as in, they _welded it properly_, snapping at the bottom bracket seems vastly unlikely.

Towards the end of the fitting chapter (which is so full of the usual crap I'm just going to ignore it), he produces this particular piece of wisdom: "toe clips serve an important safety function; they keep your foot from sliding off the pedal, preventing the sudden and serious kind of fall that happens when your sneaker meets the front wheels spokes. Yes there is a learning curve to getting in and out of toe clips, but most riders can master it in an afternoon." Well, sure, if you just scare the crap out of everyone who has trouble with that system so they never ride again. Then, yeah, most riders would master it in an afternoon. Also, please explain all those 0-low speed crashes I see at the beginning of every sunny season when people get back on their bikes after an absence of months or years.

The section on buying a bike was short and not particularly illuminating. The accessories chapter was, actually, substantially worse. He says he won't even ride to the bottom of his driveway without a helmet (one does wonder what he thinks might happen in his driveway). For reasons that are utterly unclear to me, he's a huge fan of detachable fenders, mentioning them in this chapter, and later in the chapter on using your bike to do stuff other than recreate. But you know, I'd forgive him for all of it. I mean, whatever. But he said this, in the callout box, "Four accessories you probably don't need": "A kickstand: You can lean your bike against a tree." He's also opposed to gel saddles.

There is probably a universe in which an entire chapter devoted to Turning the Pedals properly makes sense. It's not clear to me that an IDG For Dummies book is that universe. It is in no way surprising that his description of getting underway makes absolutely no sense with a step-thru configuration, but it is sad that it is also completely incompatible with the rear child seat he mentions in the chapter bicycling with children. I also found it sad that he advocates _standing up out of the saddle_ prior to shifting to the lowest gear. WTF?

The chapter on road hazards is really weak, missing any discussion of road hazards like sand, and what is meant by "as possible" when discussing as far to the right "as possible". That's a huge, gaping hole of debate in the vehicular cycling community.

The chapter on fitness is just beyond depressing. Yes, I get that pressing really hard on the pedals is likely to lead to knee problems. But that doesn't mean you have to have a high cadence. Telling people to switch to a lower gear is helpful; telling them to have a high cadence is not. And amazingly enough, he proposes solving some problems by moving the saddle further forward (*bangs head on wall*). For wrist pain, he suggests shortening the stem (!). Seriously.

Several chapters on bike repair, the drivetrain, etc. follow, assuming you have derailleurs and want to faff. Notably, he says don't take apart an internal hub, an item otherwise only mentioned once in the book and nowhere indexed.

Part IV, Having Fun With Your Bike, is the most promising, in principle, part of the book from my perspective. In practice, it is just sad. Riding with kids has a picture of a diamond frame bike with a rear kids seat, complains about instability, no comment about the impossibility of mounting/dismounting/obeying traffic laws with this setup, and then moves on to trailers. Very briefly, "bolt on tandems" are mentioned. The section on teaching a kid to ride is aimed at older children, and an old-school approach (run alongside holding on to the seat). Stupid. And, really, inexcusable, even in 1999. He says, "a bike that's slightly too small poses fewer safety problems as long as the saddle and bars aren't raised too high". In fact, a bike that's slightly (or significantly) too small is the best way for _anyone_ to learn how to ride.

Sadly, the author then proposes to make the kid to bike maintenance, and in the "Riding with Your Kids" (which is way too short) has some doozies in it. "A lazy Sunday afternoon makes for a safer and less-stressful ride than a Saturday morning abuzz with moms shuttling the kids to soccer practice and dads hurrying back from the home center." Depends on your definition of afternoon and morning. Saturday morning before 10 a.m. is usually dead dead dead in our neighborhood. And Sunday afternoon can be really bad. But worse than that is that he is so focused on going somewhere with the kids. Why not just go out and play in the street with them?

I'm ignoring the chapter on social cycling (okay, I read part of it. you don't want to read my comments. _I_ don't want to read my comments), the chapters on mountain biking, bike touring. The chapter on using your bike as a "second car" puts _way_ too much emphasis on just do it, make up your mind to do it, make a resolution, don't let yourself make excuses, etc. There's a little on appropriate bike choice, storing it where you can get at it, keeping it well maintained, and having a cushy saddle on it so you can wear normal clothes on it (ha! Maybe he'd let you have a gel saddle here?). Oddly, he does not advocate a weekend trial run of a work-commute route, which strikes me as not just odd, but actually like sabotage.

And then a chapter on racing, and a resource list of websites about bicycling. A chapter with 10 places to bicycle at least once (which does include the White Mountains, but does not include Acadia, and if you can make any sense out of _that_, I would pretty please like an explanation. Also, the failure to include anywhere in the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia, while including the French Alps and China). Then movies, bike slang...

Second: an assessment, and a little explanation about why I did this (since this is pretty damn atypical for my reviews). The book is not worth your time, so don't put any effort in to tracking it down. St. John's authorial voice (even allowing for IDG's brand, which does tend to flatten authorial voice) alternates evenly between unremarkable and irritating. It's out of date (not his fault) and not very good (possibly his fault, altho there's always the chance IDG edited out everything I thought was missing -- but no chance that IDG told him to say kickstands are useless). I picked it up because I've been iteratively working on some bicycle web pages (there's one posted in repro, and I'm debating about posting a set of bicycling specific pages, rather than parenting specific pages that are about bikes) and wondering if it might be worth it to think about this as a book project. I don't like to reinvent the wheel (har de har har), tho, and wanted to know what was out there already. The Dummies and Idiot's Guides seemed like approximately the right starting point and audience. A used copy of the Idiot's Guide is headed my way.
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