Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Better Bikes! - A book

On the cover of my copy of the book, it's subtitled "A Manual for an Alternative Mode of Transportation". Oddly enough, the title page has it as "A Manual for Expanded Use of Bicycles". Both are good, but I tend to think the title page hits closer to the core of the book. Published in 1980 (thus written in the late 70s), this is the least known of three classic bike books written by the late Tom Cuthbertson, who passed away in 2005. The other two books are Anybody's Bike Book, and Bike Tripping, both classics of the 70s. Anybody's is one of the great repair manuals of its day, borrowing its approach and style from the famous John Muir How to Keep Your VW Alive, a Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot , better known as "The Idiot Book". Full of quirky but helpful drawings and solid advice, it got many cycling enthusiasts started on bike repair. Bike Tripping is more of a "here's some fun ways to use a bike" sort of guide, and probably my least favorite of the three.

But the one I keep going back to now and then is Better Bikes! In it, Tom approaches something near and dear to my heart... basically he writes about how to get to where you can and will use your bike for TRANSPORTATION as well as recreation. It's full of lots of practical nuts and bolts tips, as well as some very helpful advice about how to change your thinking about bikes as transportation. It's not a manifesto, it's not advocating societal change on a grand scale, it just tells YOU how you can make a bike more a part of your life. Some of the hardware information is out-dated for sure, but the basic principles, and most of all the philosophy, still apply. And the book is full of charming drawings to illustrate the points.

Just a sampling of some of what's in here... the first part is all about taking that 10 speed (you remember... 2 chainwheels in front, 5 sprockets in back?) you have gathering dust, and preparing it (and you!) for regular use. He covers basic care as well as load-carrying options, all weather riding, theft prevention (his thoughts on status symbols and tubing stickers is priceless) and how to deal with flats. The second section covers what he calls "Alternative Bicycles", including those strange then-new creations he calls "clunkers" and we now know as mountain bikes. A good portion of that section is also devoted to setting up a "Three Speed Station Wagon" as he calls it, for shopping and lugging the kids around. I love this section in particular, and you can tell that this sort of bike was near and dear to the author. As I understand it, he was known around his native Santa Cruz as "the guy on the three speed in a kilt". How can you not like such an author?

The Alternative Bikes section also covers "bicycle trucks" of the sort used in Asia, and now becoming more common, in some variation, in Europe and the US. And he offers advice on the then-tiny folding bike market, as well as adding a motor to your bike to give you some extra help. When I first saw the book in 1982 (in a college bookstore in Arcata, CA), it seemed so forward-thinking and even radical. Today when I look at it, it still seems ahead of its time in some ways... or maybe it's more that it's even harder now to imagine Americans in large numbers embracing the bike as a transportation option. But reading it gives me hope still, and helps remind me about one of the very big reasons I love bicycles, and why they are such an intrinsic part of my life.

Oh, and Cuthbertson also made a "Bike Tripping" video sometime in the 80s. I managed to grab a copy a while back, and it's wonderful. I was particularly happy to get a chance to actually see and hear Tom talking about bikes. I never got the chance to see him in person, so this is as close as I'll get. Unless of course we happen to be on the same road on our bikes where ever it is I end up after this particular life adventure ends. :-)

Below are a couple of links to stories on Tom Cuthbertson that appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel around the time of his death. Worth reading.


beth h said...

"Anybody's Bike Book" was my first bike repair manual, back when I was in high school and wanted to fix my own flat tire. I still have that very same copy and adore it. Cuthbertson gave bicyclists everywhere a great gift with his books.

Anonymous said...

Part 1 of 2


Your above post now is more than six years old, but as the web seemingly gives us all a shot at immortality, I just came upon it. It surfaced when I was looking for info on Tom’s Better Bikes book. I’d always liked (and still have) Anybody’s Bike Book, since receiving my “Compliments of Snow Country” branded copy when purchasing a new Gitane Interclub from them in 1973. In addition to his writing, it was the book’s last page silhouette of Tom wheeling a one-speed that persuaded me “this is a good guy.”

That Gitane ultimately succumbed in Evanston IL to frame damage incurred when one night riding in the rain on M St from Georgetown to an off-campus class at George Washington, the station wagon in front of me stopped at Wisconsin and I stopped into it. Foolish youth for sure. The Interclub was replaced by a still-owned Niko Semi-Pro (flattering name, no?) from Bike-ecology, the then big catalog bike shop mentioned in Better Bikes.

Our family ultimately moved into the Trek world and we’ve a selection of their nice stuff. Now with retiree free time and access to anything Amazon, I decided to see what other bike books Tom had written. For me it was a case of diminishing returns. Like you, I found Bike Tripping a minor effort, little more than “ride where cars aren’t” and now largely made superfluous by one click of google maps bike routing. Somewhere I’ve a copy of a miniature sized, airmail thin paged copy of his carry along repair manual. And like you I thought it would be fun to see his VHS video, Bicycle Repair (not Bike Tripping—I’d be hard pressed to imagine that in video), worthwhile certainly but the lasting impression made by Tom’s “period costume” was “geez, that was a long time ago.”

Anonymous said...

Part 2 of 2

So, although I’d thought my interest in Tom’s writing had run its course, one day I decided Better Bikes had an intriguing subtitle—good work in your detection of its different versions—and had Amazon send a copy. I too enjoyed his encouraging better utilization of bikes, and I’ve a Trek 4300 with everything replaced but frame, stem and seat that serves as my “trekking” bike. With rack and multiple bags always mounted I also think of it as a two-wheeled SUV, of course today’s automotive equivalent of Tom’s station wagon. Better Bikes repeated reference to fuel shortages and OPEC also were a reminder of what was on our minds then—and how things change over time.

But I did find repetition an unfortunate feature of Better Bikes. More than once when reading, I’d think “boy, it seems like I’ve read this before” and paging back, sure enough I had—in the same book! Come on, Tom!! Further, I found the book’s second half discussion frequently frustrating. Some general discussion of various types of bicycles then available, fine; but pages devoted to setting up folders or trailers seemed to have too much Anybody’s level of detail for Better’s more general audience. And including a section on a rear wheel mounted Bike Machine motor that he had only seen in a brochure? Again, come on, Tom! To me it also was surprising that motor-powered bicycles were discussed with no mention of legality or licensing, important concerns even back in the late ‘70s.

One final Tom book you may wish to read, his very last, the oddly titled Dear Sweeties: Tom Cuthbertson on his Dance with Cancer. Its one Amazon review is favorable, the reviewer finding the book inspirational. My reaction to it was quite different and I found it sad, sad, sad. Sad because in the contemporary sixty year old Tom we see indication of money troubles. Sad because we learn of his inability to keep a marriage together with a woman who loved him enough to publish Sweeties posthumously with their son. But mostly sad because we read of Tom’s regime of quack medicine (coffee enemas feature prominently) in his unsuccessful fight with pancreatic cancer. Mainstream medicine has little to offer against Tom’s killer, but it likely would have given him a more peaceful exit. My conclusion was that Tom’s “do it yourself” ethos and counter-culture personality served him poorly in the end. But I did find it fascinating to read Sweeties with the knowledge that Tom doesn’t make it; when written of course he hadn’t that knowledge. There won’t be a movie version of this one for sure, and it was self-published by Dog Ear Publishing, rather than 10 Speed—the publisher whose first book was Anybody’s—for good reason.

BS Smith
Upstate NY

(after pasting in the above comment I've learned Blogger doesn't directly accept text formatting from Word and I've not the patience in key in the HTML-grrr...)

(second grrrr: then I learned Blogger only accepts 4k comments. Wonderful…)

(final complaint: Blogger’s captcha’s are near undecipherable by this human and it wasn’t immediately apparent to me if text published after preview in fact was. I look to you to omit any double posts.)

Tim said...

BB Smith, thanks so much for your extensive and thoughtful comments. I picked up a copy of "Dear Sweeties" but have not yet found it in me to read it. It strikes me as something that won't be easy to read, but worth making the effort.