JUNE 26, 2022
I RECENTLY GOT rid of my vintage Raleigh cruiser, a dusky brown survivor with numerous patches of rust that, to my mind, made the 1960s bicycle look more distinguished. The finicky gears weren’t the problem. Nor was it the handbrake cable that frequently jutted straight up like an antenna. What wore me down were the slim tires that routinely got banged up on New York City streets, turning the wheels into dead weights riding on thin scalps of rubber.
Thankfully, since upgrading to a used Fuji BMX, with a black frame and much thicker tires, I’ve been spared that recurring scenario. But memories of my Raleigh came rushing back as I read Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, which opens with colorful descriptions of bicycle ads from the turn of the 20th century: Art Nouveau posters that depict the faddish invention soaring through the air, riding through the clouds, and ascending into the reaches of outer space.
Rosen reminds us that the inventors of the first true flying machine were a pair of bicycle mechanics from North Carolina: Orville and Wilbur Wright. Less known is the story of John Boyd Dunlop from Belfast, who, in 1888, created what was falsely patented as the first rubber tire. Inspired by his son’s complaints about his tricycle, Dunlop contrived a rubber tube filled with compressed air that he affixed to a wooden wheel, a shock-absorbing sleeve that brought more comfort and efficiency and that became the standard for bicycles and, eventually, the automobile. A similar invention, the aerial wheel, had preceded Dunlop’s by almost 50 years, but he reaped the credit. This intersection of myth and reality is a prelude to how much of the book will treat its subject.
Two Wheels Good shifts from tales of enchantment and wild legends to more factual accounts and events grounded in history. The approach is akin to how Rosen, a longtime cyclist himself, describes the act of traveling on two wheels: an experience like “gliding somewhere between terra firma and the huge horizonless sky.” That is a beautiful expression of the book’s ambition, but it also covers a lot of territory. In certain chapters, I did find myself wondering if the book’s appeal would be limited to “bicycle obsessives,” as Rosen calls them, or if his work would charm general audiences in the way that John McPhee, for example, inspires laypeople to read about remote landscapes and geologic history.
Early on, Rosen visits a small English town, where he goes in search of a “bicycle window”: an old stained-glass panel purported to show a bicycle from the 16th century or even earlier. The author is intrigued by the image he sees in Saint Giles Church, though he ultimately finds it unpersuasive. Nevertheless, he’s struck by how the legend of a premodern bicycle lives on, continuing to draw pilgrims like himself. The vicar responds with a wise and well-informed opinion, telling Rosen that people “like mysteries […] as much as they like certainties.” Rosen is quick to grasp this concept. In the pages to follow, many of his bright tales will be shaded with just enough truth for readers to linger on — if not outright accept — what the stories represent.
Take, for instance, the creation of the Laufmaschine, by Baron Karl von Drais, in 1817. Considered the first bicycle, this hobbyhorse-like vehicle lacked pedals, crank, and chain; it was propelled instead by pushing your feet off the ground — thus, a “running machine” — not unlike what you’d see on The Flintstones. Drais’s biographer claims the brainchild was an 1815 supervolcano in Indonesia, whose eruption spread ash over Europe and led to massive crop failures, a feed shortage for horses, and a sharp drop in the equine population. The theory that the Laufmaschine intentionally replaced horseless carriages is far from consensus among historians, but the potential cause and effect is a credible and compelling reminder of how interconnected we are by the world’s climate.
Rosen’s tales pave the way for a broader study of the bike’s sociological, cultural, and political implications. In the unconfirmed story of an early two-man bike race, a nobleman supposedly crashes into an errant cow, gets helped off the ground by a chimney sweep, and recovers to finish the race in a virtual tie with his opponent. The chapter explores how this velocipede, or so-called “Dandy horse,” typified class tensions in England, where the well-to-do flaunted their recreation while the workers suffered in poverty and toiled without leisure. Then there’s the story of Angus MacAskill, a seven-foot-nine Scottish giant who joined the circus in the mid-1800s. One of his supposed descendants is a cyclist who performs bone-shattering stunts — scaling brick walls, jumping across rooftops — which he films and puts on YouTube. These audacious performers, whether or not truly related, chart Rosen’s course into the history of trick riding, P. T. Barnum’s antics, and bicycle entertainment.
At its best, Two Wheels Good serves up wonderful surprises and a cast of whimsical characters. The chapter “Bicycle Mania: 1890s” offers dispatches from newspapers around the country (and a few overseas) that sound like they’ve been lifted from The Onion. From The Des Moines Register: An ex-alderman chains his daughter’s foot to a log to keep her from biking while he’s gone. From The Oshkosh Northwestern: The term bicychloris, a word invented by doctors to describe diminished vitality due to excessive riding. Though laughable today, these stories of mayhem and domestic trouble reflect the genuine upheaval brought about by the cycling craze. The book is threaded with similarly provocative tidbits and trivia, such as the significant role that bicycles played in the Northern Vietnamese military supply chain during the Vietnam War. Or the story of a father and son who rode stationary bikes in the Titanic’s gymnasium right after the ship hit an iceberg: though the father perished, the son survived with severe frostbite on his feet, refused amputation, and went on to win two singles titles at the US National Championships in tennis.
The book’s far-flung topics are often insightful and rewarding, though lengthy excursions can sometimes dampen the momentum and turn the book into something of a catchall. Extended passages on bicycle innovation, bicycle porn, bicycle traffic in Bangladesh, and other various nuts and bolts — while certainly informative — steal energy from Rosen’s livelier anecdotes and may invite some skimming. For example, I found the story about the former king of Bhutan, who relinquished his throne out of a passion for riding in the mountains, more inspiring than Rosen’s deep dive into the country’s geopolitics. The author’s own relationship to cycling provides a nice personal touch — including his boyhood, his college years as a bike messenger, and his fatherhood in New York City — yet the chapter’s multiple sections and sidebars make it feel less like a narrative than an assembly of parts.
In the end, Two Wheels Good proves faithful to its subtitle: “The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.” Rosen’s book supplies us with important background while preserving a sense of romanticism and intrigue. The author, to his credit, does not idealize his subject. He calls his work “a story about bicycle love and bicycle loathing,” and Rosen fairly addresses the complicated past and mixed reputation of this vehicle. Often a tool for social change, the bicycle also perpetuates inequality and can reinforce subjugation. The former is evident in the freedoms it helped instigate in the women’s rights movement or in the activists it marshaled for Black Lives Matter. However, as Rosen points out, those same activists were confronted by bicycle policemen who used tear gas and other riot-control tactics. In the West Indies, servants chauffeur their plantation owners around like indentured pedicab drivers, while in Africa, worldwide demand for rubber has long exploited workers and natural resources. To understand how divisive cycling can be in the United States, look no further than the protest over bike lanes and the gentrification that often accompanies them.
And yet Rosen remains a true believer. That puts him in the company of millions of Americans and billions of others around the world, and there’s no doubt his book will win more converts along the way. He successfully portrays the bicycle as a machine of great consequence — both a vital extension of the human body and an enduring object of our imagination.
Jonathan Liebson’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Tablet Magazine, and The Georgia Review, among other journals. He teaches at The New School and NYU, and his work can be found at jonathanliebson.com.