Review: The Enlightened Cyclist, by Bike Snob NYC

04.23.2012 | 12:49 pm

9781452105000_norm.jpgToday, I’m reviewing Eben Weiss’s new book, The Enlightened Cyclist. Before I begin, though, I should point out — in the interest of full disclosure and revealing biases and whatnot — that I think of Eben Weiss — aka Bike Snob NYC — as a friend. I’ve met him in person, exchanged email with him a number of times, and have gotten a lot of help from him in fundraising. Plus, I’ve made it pretty clear that I like his blog.

However, he didn’t give me a free copy of his new book; I had to buy it retail, just like everyone else. So that kind of balances things out, right?

In any event, I read Bike Snob’s book not just because I like him. I read it because he’s an important voice in the cycling community. And especially in the cycling blog community. And doubly especially in the cycling comedy blog community, in which I have a passing interest.

Anyway, I read his book, and now I’m going to review it. And I’m going to do my best to be fair.

General Thoughts

I want to make a general observation about The Enlightened Cyclist before I dig into specifics.

This is the book that reveals that Eben Weiss isn’t just a good blogger. He’s a good writer. The thing is, those who love his blog for its style — a couple of paragraphs, a photo, a couple more paragraphs joking about the photo, another paragraph, a photo, repeated and meandering ’til he ties it together at the end of the post — might be a little surprised. Instead of reacting to cycling culture the way he normally does, Weiss has the space a book provides to more thoughtfully develop his cycling philosophy.

And that’s what this book is: a philosophy on cycling as part of life, and how cyclists should perceive the world and exist in it.

In fact, the above paragraph probably would have been a more accurate tagline than the one he actually used, though I doubt it would have sold his book as well.

Perhaps the best example of Weiss’s ability as a writer is the very first chapter in The Enlightened Cyclist: “Revelation: The Worst Day I Ever Had and Why It Gave Me Faith in Humanity.” In it, Weiss tells the story of riding his bike in NYC — trying to locate his wife — on 9/11/01:

…[I]t occurred to me as I picked my way through them that I was the only person actually headed into the city — which, as I entered it, was not thrumming as it usually was, but was instead in a paradoxical state of both lethargy and panic. The shocked denizens of rush hour walked slowly, attempting to get cell phone signals, while people in FBI windbreakers ran around like it was a movie set and jet fighters scrambled overhead. When I finally reached Tamara, maybe fifteen minutes after leaving home, she was standing next to the car, and she and a group of stunned bystanders were simply staring at the sky. When I looked up too (for the second time that day), I could see what they had been watching al this time: people leaping from the flaming buildings to their deaths. It was the first time I ever saw anybody die.

Be Serious

The Enlightened Cyclist is at its very best when Weiss is telling a story about something that happened to him. It’s then that he illustrates his points best, and his narrative feels the most natural.

As I read The Enlightened Cyclist, I found myself wishing Weiss would tell stories more often. Maybe that’s because of what I see as the main weakness of the book: it feels like Weiss doesn’t trust his audience. It seemed as I was reading The Enlightened Cyclist that Weiss is most interested in laying out his philosophy on cycling — and to his credit, it’s a really well-considered philosophy. But in order to cater to the audience he knows reads his blog, he then pads his thoughts with comedy that feels kind of bolted on.

I thought, several times while reading this book, “When you’re making a point, make the point. When you’re making a joke, make a joke.” Sure, it’s possible to do both successfully at the same time, but to me, it felt like Weiss was adding humor in a second draft, to something he originally wrote seriously. Sometimes the effect is that his humor sabotages his point, like when someone says, “Just kidding,” after giving an honest appraisal of whether those shorts make your butt look fat.

This Book Made Me Very Glad I Don’t Live in NYC

A lot of The Enlightened Cyclist applies to any cyclist, in any town. What surprised me, however, was that there were pretty big chunks of this book that were utterly foreign to me. I have never seen a cyclist “salmoning” — riding the wrong way in a bike lane. I’ve never seen or been party to a “shoaling” event (where cyclists come to stop at progressively forward positions) at a streetlight. The idea of “circling” was completely new.

Those may be incredibly annoying and common phenomena in NYC (and elsewhere?), but not everywhere.

As I read about how cyclists treat each other — and how they are treated by non-cyclists — in NYC, I kept thinking to myself, “I would hate living in NYC, or in any big city for that matter.” This shouldn’t be construed as a problem with The Enlightened Cyclist, by the way. In fact, it’s one of the things I liked about the book — getting a sense of how incredibly different the cycling experience can be, depending on where you live.

It did, however, make me want to get Weiss to take a little trip to Alpine, UT, where I have out-the-door access to untold miles of singletrack, and road rides that look like this:


Of course, he might find it disconcerting that there are no stores, cultural events (unless you count deer eating your flowerbed as a cultural event), or businesses (except the guy who sharpens saws out of his garage) whatsoever within walking distance of where I live.

Different strokes, etc.

It made me think, though: The Enlightened Cyclist could only be written by a big city dweller, and is written — in large part — to other big city dwellers, whether they ride a bike or not.

Yokel cyclists like myself may find themselves feeling more and more in love with where they are (thus becoming smug, one of Weiss’s most-referred-to cycling sins).

Should You Read This Book?

This book isn’t for everyone. Language in it will offend some people, the humor won’t make everyone laugh (The “Dachsund of Time” section is funny for a while, but stops being funny before the section ends), and some people — a lot of Weiss’s blog readers, I’ll guess — will be surprised that it’s not very much like his blog at all.

The Enlightened Cyclist is a short book: 217 pages, and even the pages are kind of small. I read it in its entirety over the course of two recent flights (Austin and back). So it’s not like it’s a massive investment in time to read. It’s definitely worth your time to read a a well-reasoned, surprisingly serious plea from a cyclist both to cyclists and everyone else, on why it makes sense to behave less badly toward each other.

The Enlightened Cyclist is available from in hardcover for $11.53, and on Kindle for $9.39. It’s probably available in a bunch of other places, too.

PS: I was going to do a live Q&A with Bike Snob later this week, but a family emergency he’s had has made that impossible. Which sucks, in at least two ways.


  1. Comment by Chris Engle | 04.23.2012 | 1:09 pm

    Seems like a fair review,

  2. Comment by Nick P | 04.23.2012 | 1:17 pm

    I agree with almost all points made in your review (and I also recently finished the book over the course of two flights). I really enjoyed seeing the more serious side of the Snob in this example of his writing – his true passion for bikes, riding them, and the people who ride them really shines through.

  3. Comment by roan | 04.23.2012 | 1:57 pm

    Thanks for the review. As once (when you & The Hammer were toying with Andy Freakin Hampsten) a yodel to another yokel. I rarely ride in the big city (Seattle) though I commute there everyday. Avoid the Burke-Gilman of weekends. Long for rides east of the mtns, the lonely road or pathway. You should invite the Bike Snob NYC out for a visit…but make sure he returns home…like the 100MoN, he could bring his SS.

  4. Comment by Liz | 04.23.2012 | 2:11 pm

    Thank you — I am about a third of the way through the book. It didn’t occur to me that non-urban cyclists wouldn’t get some of the references, but makes sense. I have been having no trouble discerning his serious message despite the humorous segues.

    I am not in NYC but do live and ride in another urban area and can certainly relate to the phenomena of salmoning, shoaling, etc. There are consolations, however — you can almost always find an impromptu riding buddy, help is immediately available if you have a mechanical (no matter the hour), you can run errands on your way to or from work, etc. However . . . I also love reading Fatty’s blog and Comedian Mastermind, even though it illustrates an exotic, alien world of dirt trails, aspen trees and MTB races. If it involves a bike, it’s all good!

  5. Comment by Paul Guyot | 04.23.2012 | 2:52 pm

    May be your best review ever, the Assos letters notwithstanding.

  6. Comment by Clydesteve | 04.23.2012 | 4:35 pm

    Wait! – You are having a deer eating your flowerbed cultural event already this year??? We aren’t scheduled for that for another 6 to 8 weeks.

    But we did finally have an entire weekend of weather that a flower would find fitting weather for growth. that is perfect cycling weather – on roads like the one you have depicted.


  7. Comment by dominic | 04.24.2012 | 6:03 am

    SNOB is all those things you say. But, he can’t be everything to everybody. The urban bike ride he lives and shares with other urban bike riders is just one aspect of his fan base. Smugness will survive his blog, your blog and my blog since bike riding is considered so many things to so many people. My question is will bike riding survive smugness and what is the future of bike riding when non bike riders refuse to acknowledge it’s beauty and simplicity?

  8. Comment by N1LUL | 04.24.2012 | 6:25 am

    Nice review. Refreshingly honest. I will buy the book (I was going to get it anyway, I would buy anything you all published)


  9. Comment by Tim Joe Comstock | 04.24.2012 | 7:10 am

    Very astute comments, Fatty. There is a certain danger in being categorized as a one-note writer, particularly for someone as talented as Eben Weiss. But he is, after all, making a living at it, and traveling all over the world doing it. No small accomplishment considering it started with a Blog about bicycles.

    I look forward to reading both his books and yours.


  10. Comment by Ashley | 04.24.2012 | 8:38 am

    Sorry to hear about Bike Snob’s family emergency, but well done with the review. I’ll need to pick this one up to read, along with his first book.

  11. Comment by leroy | 04.24.2012 | 9:07 am

    I’m almost finished reading BSNYC’s book.

    From following his blog over the years, it was clear that he was a talented writer and very funny. His ability to turn out an insightful, humorous blog 5 days a week is no small feat.

    A blogger, however, can rely on wit and wiles to produce a decent regular column. A book, as you point out, takes more.

    I’ve suspected for a long time that in addition to BSNYC’s craft, he has a first rate mind. He wrote a column on a different 9/11, contemplating cycling and mortality that is serious, insightful, entertaining and humorous. It is one of the best short pieces on cycling I have read. (Need proof? I still remember it. How many pieces that you’ve read on the internet can you say that about?) His 9/11/08 post is here and worth a re-read.

    BSNYC’s latest book confirms that there is more to him than just well-honed craft. It is a treat to tag along while he applies himself to a philosophy for which cycling is just a metaphor (albeit a very, very good metaphor).

    For me, the humor doesn’t feel bolted on. It seems part of an American literary tradition of wrapping short, serious observations in humor and casually tossing them off. It’s a tradition that runs from Mark Twain to Will Rogers to Andy Borowitz. BSNYC fits nicely in that tradition.

    On a personal note, like BSNYC, I was on the Brooklyn Bridge heading into Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. BSNYC is way ahead of me in making sense of that experience and — since we’re talking cycling and metaphors — I am grateful for the draft.

  12. Comment by bikesgonewild | 04.24.2012 | 3:12 pm

    …haven’t been here in a while but i hadda check out your take of the snobsters latest…

    …my revue of your revue in a word: meh…

    …while it’s obvious you can appreciate the man’s skills, i felt you approached it from a rather subjective viewpoint…

    …my personal following of bikesnob nyc dates back close to the beginning & whist ‘bikesnob’ has now written two interesting & funny paeans to cycling, i’ll simply suggest that the man behind it, eben weiss, while truly a cyclist at heart, is merely stretching his writing legs…

    …wait’ll he’s really warmed up & takes a pull at the front…

  13. Comment by wishiwasmerckx | 04.24.2012 | 3:22 pm

    Leroy, I took the time to go back and re-read that post, and, ironically, in the comments was this from a former regular commenter:

    AnnaZed said…
    And the death membrane has extraordinary wicking properties, so sometimes all you need to do is touch it in order to wind up on the other side of it in a puff of vapor like an evaporating bead of sweat.

    Wow, that is one of the most extraordinary sentences I have ever read, and I read a lot. Dude, you need a book deal. This is pearls before swine.

    SEPTEMBER 11, 2008 2:55 PM

  14. Comment by Paul Guyot | 04.24.2012 | 4:37 pm

    What many people fail to understand about writing, be it reviews or blogs, movies or novels, is that just because one writes about a dense subject matter (death, etc) does not make it great writing. Just as writing silly open letters does not mean the writing is weak.

    I think Bikesnob is a tremendous writer. But not because he goes “deep” so often, or is so funny sometimes, but rather because of his use of language, and his inherent balance of undercutting drama with comedy and undercutting comedy with drama. And a bunch of other writerly stuff I won’t bore you with.

    I think Fatty is a very underrated writer – he’s not given the same hype as others in the sphere because he tends to write “light” and toward the comedy. He is victim of the same thing that comedic actors and writers are when it comes to Oscar time – comedy is never taken as seriously as drama.

    But here’s a secret – comedy is WAY harder to write than drama. Or good comedy I should say.

    As to Fatty’s review – again, some don’t understand. The reason the review is so good is not because of the opinions contained in it, but because of the writing.

  15. Comment by Andrew | 04.24.2012 | 4:48 pm

    I’m only a few miles from you (in Provo), and I see students salmoning all the time.

  16. Comment by leroy | 04.24.2012 | 9:40 pm

    Paul — you’re absolutely right, good comedy is way harder to write than drama. Serious subjects come with built in gravitas; no one ever said “shucks, that Kubler-Ross lady’s stuff about grieving would be more effective if’n she paid a tad more attention to meter.”

    In comedic writing, if you don’t get the rhythm and word choice just right, everyone knows something is off even if everyone can’t say why. Mess up the meter and the humor falls flat no matter how good the premise. (Of course, get the meter just right in drama, tackle dense topics deftly, and you get Shakespeare.)

    Elden and Eben both understand the music of language. That’s one reason why I follow both their blogs.

    They both also take on big serious ideas from time to time. And both do so with refreshing directness, humility and insight. That too is why I follow their blogs.

    The topic doesn’t make the writer, but a writer who handles the big topics well is something special. It’s the difference between Jimmy Joyce and a walking tour guide to Dublin; between Blake and a Hallmark card. And anyone who opens a book about bicycle commuting with an anecdote about 9/11 is taking a risk, not going deep to distract from poor prose.

    You’re absolutely right when you point out that the quality of a review doesn’t turn on whether one agrees with it. But as for Elden being underrated, I can’t agree with you there. They don’t hand out those lifetime blogging awards to just anybody. And it’s clear he can write too.

  17. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 04.25.2012 | 4:12 am

    Fatty, your Facebook post (and, presumably, Tweet) says you’re “flummoxed” by the response to your review of BSNYC2. Why? Your piece was interesting and insightful (I was planning to buy his book, and still plan to) and the comments have been too.

    Mostly I’m flummoxed at a few of the comments on BSNYC’s own blog (and BikesGoneWild’s here, too) that take the position that this was an unfair, negative review. Also, that over on BSNYC’s site Tim Joe Comstock trashes me, and here he says I’m “very astute.” – FC

  18. Comment by bikesgonewild | 04.25.2012 | 3:38 pm

    …fatty – personally, i wasn’t inferring that you were being unfair or negative but i came away feeling that while overall, you can appreciate eben’s writing, his latest book wasn’t your cup of tea simply because you felt insulated from his world…

    …i used the word ‘meh’ as my ‘take away’ from your revue was that it you had little enthusiasm for the book…

    …eldon – as an aside…i have a dedicated copy of eben’s latest, picked up at his sf book signing & admittedly i have not yet had the time to immerse myself…therefore my experience with his “book writin’ ” is predicated on his last tome & years of the snoblog…but…

    …good writing has the ability transport one into the implied environment, be it physical or mental & whilst i live in a small town myself, bsnyc has always had me riding in his world, as well as my own…perhaps my allowance for such is due to my experience when i do ride in sf…

    …not trying to scathe you, fatty…although i’ve spent little time at your site as of recent, i have enough respect for you so as to try & clarify my position…dunno if i accomplished that but the intent is there…


    It sure did, and I really appreciate it. Thank you! – FC

  19. Comment by Tim Joe Comstock | 04.25.2012 | 6:54 pm

    Maybe the coolest thing…the hell with that; THE COOLEST THING that has happened to me in recent years was seeing my stuff published as a Guest Post on the Fat Cyclist. I had just come in from a ride and checked my e-mail and there it was: a note from Fatty saying “You’re on in fifteen minutes!”

    That was over a year ago and then I got put up on his pages another time. My second effort didn’t even exactly fit the format but Fatty was gracious enough to post it anyway. The Trailer Park Cyclist became a Blog and I started having a little fun again just when I thought the fun was over.

    Now I have offended the guy who gave me the boost and that is unforgivable. This ain’t an ass kissin’, Elden, this is from the heart. I am sorry.

    These various bicycling websites are to me like saloons, or salons. Each has its own attitude and just like when you go to a quiet gathering at one house or a hell-bent-for leather throw down at another, I conduct myself accordingly. I don’t have multiple personalities. I just know where to go when I am in the mood for quiet conversation and where to go when I want to get into a lighting-farts-with-a-lighter competition.

    If you review the comments at Snob’s you will see that earlier I made a joke about his Wildcat name by calling him Wild Crack Rock Machine and suggesting that his family emergency was actually rehab. BSNYC always brings out my manic side. But what is his family emergency? Who knows? But now I am sorry about THAT comment, too. Good Lord. Where does it end?

    Well, it ends here. When my little brother (who was about your age) sent me an e-mail ten years ago saying I was all he had left since his divorce and how devastated he was that I had abandoned him; I didn’t reply. I was busy chasing money and being a Big Man and didn’t have time for his sniveling.

    Yeah. At the funeral I didn’t make any dramatic vows or promises but you know how that goes. But I have never since intentionally harmed or slighted another person and it was not my intent here.

    I’m sorry, Brother.

    Tim Joe Comstock

    You’re a helluva writer and that’s a helluvan apology. Most people say “I’m sorry” and then go on to justify themselves; you just straight-up apologize. I appreciate it. And I should stop being so thin-skinned. – FC

  20. Comment by JIm B | 04.26.2012 | 2:11 pm

    Fatty, thanks for the review. I was quite excited to go buy BSNYC’s new book, but after reading your review, I’m definitely going to skip it.

    Just kidding; I’m just trying to get you in trouble with BSNYC.

  21. Comment by Bruce E | 04.30.2012 | 8:58 pm

    “It was the first time I ever saw anybody die.”

    That changes you. Seriously. I imagine the Hammer is familar with that.

    I had a 15-year old kid die under me from nothing, just altitude maybe. We tried everything, I was first responder. Autopsy found nothing. His Dad was watching the whole time. He just collapsed in the liftline. It was the son’s trip to Alta for him getting accepted early to the college he wanted. I can’t imagine how his Dad felt.

    Seen too many more. Never thought it affected me too much, but now, maybe. Years later.

    Great post, BTW. I ripped through your book overnight, going to have to buy Eben’s, too, now.


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