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Nothing that you read about Two Wheels Good in advance will fully prepare you for the eclectic mix of contents within: whether it be a different take on history, or Jody Rosen's personal experiences, there's plenty of surprising material to reward you.
When I was trying to figure out what was coming my way in this book, claims that it was 'a panoramic revisionist portrait' of the bicycle didn't really help me. However, the idea of it 'combining history, reportage, travelogue, and memoir' did make more sense, and gives notice to expect wide-ranging content during an exploration of 'the history and mystery of the bicycle'.
Many histories of the magnificent machine have already been written; recent examples are publications from Michael Hutchinson and William Manners, which followed different styles – despite largely covering the same story. Rather than go into competition with those (and others) when describing the history of the bicycle, Rosen decided that 'major themes have been left to other chroniclers', leaving him to 'highlight some different stories'.
This is evident immediately, where Rosen's account of the origins of the bicycle are centred on 'The Bicycle Window', a 16th century stained-glass window in St Giles church, Stoke Poges. Some claim that it depicts a precursor to the bicycle. Rosen agrees that it is a great tale, and so uses it as the focus of this part of history, but concludes that 'it has nothing to do with bicycles'.
In most cases, when it comes to historical accuracy Rosen sensibly uses Bicycle Design by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing as his guide, a book that, if I were to have reviewed it here, would be an easy 10/10. (It's available in paperback if you are interested.)
Beyond that, it is hard to describe what is on offer from Two Wheels Good, mainly because it is full of unexpected information – and it is that unpredictability which holds your interest.
After all, where else would you hear about 'Trotify' (apart from on road.cc of course)? It's 'a wooden device that sits on your front wheel' and makes a 'sound that is eerily identical to the one made by a cantering horse'. The manufacturers even claim that it is 'the leading bike-horse hybridiser in the world'. Leading? There are others??
road.cc readers will also be aware of Bike Smut, whose 'signature event' is the Bike Smut Film Festival. It makes the distinction 'between mainstream bicycle porn and a more underground variety', according to Rosen, with 'the leering camera lenses directed at chainrings and diamond frames as much as human limbs and loins'. Even so, I would still be a bit careful of investigating further while at work.
Moving on to safer ground, a visit to Danny MacAskill adds little to what we already know from his biography, but is the centrepiece of a chapter on trick, stunt, and artistic cycling. Actually, 'safer' is a poor choice of word: Rosen takes the opportunity to ride with the man himself, with predictably painful consequences. If you have had your fill of Danny Mac videos, Rosen suggests a YouTube link to what might be the very first bicycle tricks to be captured on camera.
Rosen comes up to date with an exploration of the 'Great Covid-19 Bicycle Boom', and also covers the rise of Peloton, and the idea that 'if Peloton meets its membership goals, it may yet lay claim to the largest mass bike rides in history – a virtual phalanx of millions, pedaling together through cyberspace'.
As you would expect from the title, Rosen clearly believes that two wheels are good, but doesn't really go down the 'four wheels bad' campaigning route. He feels that 'the motto smacks of sanctimony: the certainty that bikes are morally superior to cars, and that cyclists are nobler than motorists'. (That audience is better served by Peter Walker's excellent Bike Nation.)
Although Two Wheels Good provides some history, it is selective; Rosen knows that he is not trying to compete with others, which means that his work is a good complement to other publications, rather than the complete story. The mystery aspect is better served – you can never tell where Rosen is taking the narrative next, but everyone will find something of interest.
If your interest is piqued by anything and you want to know more, the single biggest chapter is the 43 pages given over to a bibliography and listing of source material: it's a rich seam of fascinating nuggets that will reward the curious.
Compare that abundance to the paucity of photos: the cover artwork is pretty minimalist, and that theme continues inside. With only a tiny black and white image at the start of each chapter, don't come here for the illustrations.
Unusual but enjoyable foray into many facets of the bicycle and its history
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Two Wheels Good The History and Mystery of the Bicycle
Size tested: 416 pages
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
From the Publisher:
A panoramic revisionist portrait of the nineteenth-century invention that is transforming the twenty-first-century world.
The bicycle is a vestige of the Victorian era, seemingly out of pace with our age of smartphones and ridesharing apps and driverless cars. Yet across the world, more people travel by bicycle than by any other form of transportation. Almost anyone can learn to ride a bike - and nearly everyone does.
In Two Wheels Good, writer and critic Jody Rosen reshapes our understanding of this ubiquitous machine, an ever-present force in humanity's life and dreamlife, and a flashpoint in culture wars for more for than two hundred years. Combining history, reportage, travelogue, and memoir, Rosen unfolds the bicycle's saga from its invention in 1817 to its present-day renaissance as a 'green machine' in a world afflicted by pandemic and climate change.
Readers meet unforgettable characters: feminist rebels who steered bikes to the barricades in the 1890s, a Bhutanese king who races mountain bikes in the Himalayas, astronauts who ride a floating bicycle in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station.
Two Wheels Good examines the bicycle's past and peers into its future, challenging myths and clichés, while uncovering cycling's connection to colonial conquest and the gentrification of cities. But the book is also a love letter: a reflection on the sensual and spiritual pleasures of bike riding and an ode to an engineering marvel - a wondrous vehicle whose passenger is also its engine.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: Two Wheels Good
Author: Jody Rosen
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The wide-ranging and varied content.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The few images add little and are barely worthwhile.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes – selectively.
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's very good – different enough to most other books to make it a worthwhile read, let down slightly by the absence of pictures.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,