Bike commuting is the intersection at which nearly all sub-genres of cyclists meet. There are no doubt people out there for whom bikes are solely a form of recreation or exercise. But, the vast majority of cyclists I know—whether they’re carbon-riding racers, retro-grouchy randonneurs, bureaucratic advocates, or something in between—like to ride their bikes to work or the store or around town whenever it’s possible. As such, commuting provides a common ground for bike riders that might otherwise never see eye-to-eye. We can all relate to the pleasure of a pre-work boost of endorphins, the fun of coasting down a long hill, and the selfish-satisfaction of cruising past a long-line of cars mired in inevitable evening traffic jams. We all know the frustration of getting cut off by a car racing to the next red light, the fear of a close call at the hands of a distracted driver, and the anger of being told to “get off the road.” The Enlightened Cyclist hinges on this collective experience as it explores the past, present, and future of commuting of all types in order to define the road to bike commuter bliss.
Eben Weiss’ (known to most as Bike Snob NYC) second book, The Enlightened Cyclist is modeled after a religious self-help book, albeit with tongue firmly planted in cheek throughout. Weiss’ goal is ostensibly to help all cyclists reach a state of commuter nirvana while using their bike to go about their daily businesses—something he readily admits he has not achieved with complete success. In order to build the case for the advice he offers, Weiss starts by taking the long view of the history of commuting and then draws on his experience as a commuter in New York City to examine the current state of commuting in America.
The book’s history of commuting begins in the Garden of Eden (Weiss’ biblical-parody extends nearly cover-to-cover, with somewhat mixed success. It’s also worth noting that while he parodys the Bible’s structure and makes endless biblical analogies, you’d have to work hard to actually take offense). Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden marked the beginning of humanity’s commuter suffering. Weiss writes, “eating from the Tree of Knowledge was the Original Commuting Sin, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.” His history of commuting continues throughout the old and new testaments: forty years of wandering in the desert, Noah’s Arc (the birth of “humankind’s lust for gigantic vehicles”), Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem by donkey, and Paul’s delivery of the epistles. Weiss continues his history through “The Olden Days” (The Crusades), the “Old School” period (17th century European explorers), and eventually makes his way to modern day.
The religious analogies wear thin at times during the long history of commuting, but it is nonetheless a humorous explanation as to why commuting makes us miserable so often. We’ve got (at least) 6,000 years of suffering as commuters bearing down on our subconscious. With history behind him, Weiss begins his examination of our modern state of commuting affairs. He looks at cyclist, driver, and pedestrian relations (including the awful things drivers do to cyclists, cyclists do to drivers, and that we all do to pedestrians). He talks about the ridiculous things bike commuters do around other bike commuters such as salmoning, shoaling, wheelsucking, and commute racing (summarized eloquently as the “anonymous dry humping of the cycling world”), and others. He examines the seemingly ever-present backlash against cycling and bikes-vs-cars meme that the media loves to espouse in tandem with any news related to bikes-as-transportation.
It is in his exploration of the current state of commuting that Weiss’ is at his best. He possesses a keen ability to articulate the absurdities of human interaction. The greatest BikeSnobNYC blog posts have always been the ones that deconstruct the ridiculous things human beings do and especially do to each other. In doing so, he is able to shed some light on why we do what we do, which in turn allows us to be understanding of our fellow humans for a little longer, before dismissing them as assholes.
When he looks at our modern commutes, Weiss deconstructs some of the myths surrounding bikes and cars. With that, he begins to make his compelling case that the better we understand our fellow commuters—bicyclists, drivers, and walkers alike—the happier we can all be. This is certainly not to say that we should all pretend everything is great all the time, even when it’s not. But instead, we should choose not to get “right up in someone’s face and [call] them a ‘cocksucker’” just because they inconvenienced us momentarily on our ride to work.
This understanding is only the start of the path to Enlightenment. Weiss spends the final section of the book laying out a how-to of sorts for being the happy and satisfied bike commuters we all ultimately want to be. Given that this is the crux of his book, I’ll spare you any spoilers. Instead I’ll just say, Weiss’ advice is practical, levelheaded, and sincere.
The Enlightened Cyclist is a demonstration of Weiss’ maturation as an author. His first book Bike Snob was funny and at times poignant, but ultimately reads like a disjointed collection of blog posts that sometimes suffered from its excess of extended-metaphors. The Enlightened Cyclist is very much a cohesive book (and one that mostly reins in those really-extended metaphors) and provides valuable insight to and understanding of the often-crazy world of bike commuting in America.