Bike Snob Eben Weiss in New York City. Screenshot via Vimeo.
I got off the train and started to jog. I was in Inwood at the very northern end of Manhattan and I was late for my meeting. Given that the man I was holding up has made his name as a scathing critic, I was a little worried. But when I arrived at the Indian Road Cafe, Eben Weiss greeted me at the door and quickly forgave me when he found out I was visiting from a subwayless city. As we waited for our waitress, Weiss explained that the park across the street from us is supposedly where the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Lenape Indians and that the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers was just around under the Henry Hudson bridge into the Bronx.
Weiss is, of course, Bike Snob NYC. He launched the wildly popular blog in 2007 as an anonymous and acerbic cultural critic, picking apart the booming fixed gear fad, the racing world, and the bike industry with daily posts. In 2010, as a lead up to the publication of his first book, Weiss came out to the world as the Snob. At the time, people wondered if the unveiling would mean the end of the blog. But five years and another two books later, Weiss is still posting daily as one of the most vocal cycling world pundits. Over the course of our lengthy lunch, we talked about the start of his blogging career, his evolution as a bike advocate, the oddities of bike world celebrity, becoming pals with Lance Armstrong, and much more.
Let’s start at the beginning of Bike Snob when you kicked off with a “Worst of NYC Craigslist Bike Ads” post. What inspired you to start the blog?
That was back in 2007. I was working in book publishing. I had a full time, real job. That was when the whole fixed gear thing was taking off in the cycling world. It was very visible. I was old enough that I had some perspective on it, so it just struck me as being very funny. At the same time, I was always a writer. Or at least an aspiring writer. And I was always way into cycling. You’re supposed to write about what you know, right? But I always thought how could I write about cycling? You’re either a journalist and you’re covering the racing. Or you’re a product reviewer and you’re writing for Bicycling or whoever. I knew I couldn’t do either of those things.
Then it hit me. Cycling was having this moment where it was becoming a pop culture phenomenon. It was very tied up in hipster culture or whatever you want to call it. If you’ve been around the bike world a long time and you’re of a certain age, it’s inherently funny to you. It just occurred to me to start critiquing that stuff. I decided I would try doing a wise-ass bike blog. I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I just thought I’d open a Blogger account, learn how this format works, and make bike jokes that nobody gets.
But the bike world is a small one. People picked up on it quickly and they had the same attitude. That’s how it started. It was me at my full time job I was not very happy with, looking for a way to express myself. I owe a lot to the whole kooky fixed gear thing that was happening. It was handed to me on a platter.
I was looking back through the early archives and the fixed gear fad was definitely your bread and butter, but you had a lot more criticism of racing and industry stuff than I’d remembered.
That was my bike world experience. When I was younger, I was way into the bike racing thing. There’s a lot of racing and road racing in particular in New York City. Every weekend there’s a race in Central Park or Prospect Park. During the weekdays at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. That was what I did so that was where I was coming from [with the blog]. I still participate in it some, though I’ve kind of fallen off the back with that stuff.
Tell me how you got into bike racing in the first place.
I was always into bikes as a kid. In my early teens I raced BMX. The BMX racing thing was still going pretty strong and there was a track on Long Island that wasn’t too far from us. My later teens I got caught up in other stuff. But once I was in my 20s I got back into racing. I started dabbling with the road racing. Like I said, in New York City there’s so much of it, it’s easy to get started. You never have to get in a car to go race. There’s a race series starting from first weekend in March all the way through. Before that, I messengered for a little while.
Was the messenger gig pre-book publishing?
I worked in book publishing for a while, then I left briefly and messengered for a while. Then I worked for a film director. Then I went back into book publishing. It was my last moment of, “I’m going to try something crazy.” Then I was like, “you know what? I’m not crazy. I want to go back to working inside.” Although that bike messenger job was the most fun job I’ve ever had. Apart from my bike getting stolen it was a universally positive experience. But I knew I’m not cut from the right cloth to be a long time bike messenger.
Eben Weiss in Portland. Photo via Kaptain Amerika flickr.
Cultural criticism has remained a constant, but it seems like there’s been an evolution of the blog towards a lot of mainstream bike advocacy stuff–both as a bike advocate in New York and also making fun of some of the advocacy stuff. Was it a conscious decision to talk about issues you thought were important instead of ridiculous?
I can only write about what I’m thinking about at the time. That’s the luxury of being a blogger. You’re sitting down and saying, “here’s what’s on my mind.” Fortunately there are some people who are similarly interested. Like I said, I come from this bike racing background. I rode my bike to work, too. But as far as advocacy goes I didn’t really pay much attention. I was young and just thinking how can I get through traffic the fastest? When you’re that type of person, you’re only a bike advocate when someone cuts you off. Then you’re annoyed, then you forget about it.
But the more you write about cycling, the more you learn about it. I learned a huge amount about cycling and the bike world between when I started [the blog] and now. In the early days of the blog, I would just write a silly post about people blocking the bike lane and how it’s annoying. Over time the mechanics of that become a greater concern. How did this bike lane get here? Why is everyone blocking it? Why do the police not do anything about it? You start to actually probe these things. At the same time, as you get older your riding style changes. When you have kids that changes things a lot, too. Sometimes you want to be able to kick back and not ride aggressively. You think, why is the infrastructure not here? I became a lot more attune to that. When I started my blog, New York City was experiencing this bike advocacy renaissance. This was when all the bike lanes were coming in. We had a DOT commissioner who was doing all this stuff.
In a lot of ways, bike advocacy is not too different than any aspect of the cycling world–marketing or retail or even the pro cycling world. It has its excesses. It has its stuff it does well. It has stuff it doesn’t do well. There’s a lot about it you can kind of make fun of because bike advocates don’t always do the best job of marketing themselves. With advocacy, part of it speaks to me and part of it really alienates me. That’s why sometimes I’m poking fun at it.
What about it alienates you?
There’s just a smugness factor involved that’s sometimes a little off putting. Bike advocates, at least in New York, are sometimes criticized for being out of touch with certain types of people or certain parts of the city. And there’s a little bit of truth to that. There’s a type of person who’s generally involved in the advocacy. And I get it. I come from what they used to call a bridge-and-tunnel background. I have kind of a dual consciousness about it.
There are times when I’m just totally amazed at how much they’ve accomplished as far as bike infrastructure and having a mayor who’s put forth this whole Vision Zero thing and the rest of it. Looking back at what it was like to ride in the city 10, 15, 20 years ago and what it’s like now is night and day. It’s amazing. So on one hand it’s hard not to be optimistic. But on the other, nothing has really changed as far as the way traffic laws are enforced and that sort of thing. So to a certain extent, all of the bike infrastructure starts to feel like window dressing. It doesn’t really mean anything if you’re still not being protected or, in some cases, being actively harassed by the police. Sometimes you’re like, forget it, it’s bullshit. It really depends on what kind of mood I’m in or how my commute was. It vacillates every day.
Do you think Vision Zero is possible in New York City?
I mean, you have to do it. Just the fact that it’s being talked about, the fact that it’s a mayoral policy is meaningful. You can’t dismiss that. How much that actually translates into real change remains to be seen. Even at my most cynical, I’m grateful that they’re talking about it. I’m grateful that there’ve been some new laws passed. The other thing that has become a lot more important to me that was never important to me before because I was young and I wasn’t a parent yet, is the pedestrian side of things. A lot of cyclists don’t pay attention to that part of it, but it’s really important.
When did you realize that you could leave your job and do Bike Snob for a living?
Practically speaking, I was able to do it once I published a book. That’s what made it financially possible. I guess it was a couple of months into the blog that I started to realize I had a readership and I said to myself I’m not going to let this go. This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m writing something and people are reading it everyday. It doesn’t matter how many people it is, but there’s more than one person who wants to read this every day and I clung to that. I poured myself into it. I figured if I got fired from my job in the process of keeping the blog going, I’m fine with that. It’s like being in a break. I put my head down and I went for it. Certainly it was my dream that I could do this full time or semi-full time. Fortunately I had the experience in book publishing to know how to get a book published.
What are you proudest of that you’ve accomplished through the Bike Snob work?
The thing that makes me happiest about it is that people read it or are amused by it. That’s the best thing about it. I remember being miserable at work and having this blog that I could write and it made me really happy. So now the knowledge that there are people at work and reading my blog and getting enjoyment out of it, that’s number one. When people tell me, “I love your reading your blog at work, it gets me through the day,” that’s absolutely the best.
You’ve met lots of people, you became buddies with Lance Armstrong, you’ve traveled abroad. What’s the most ridiculous or most unexpected thing that’s happened because of this gig?
One of the more surreal things was Lance Armstrong emailing me and that whole thing. Every encounter with him is ridiculous in its own way, so that’s a big one. At the time I figured it was somebody pulling my leg. I sent my brother to scope out the meeting spot. It was actually him so I met up with him. His life is just surreal. You think you’re just meeting him for a ride, but there’s this CEO there who’d once been kidnapped and held for ransom so you’ve got an SUV with body guard following you the whole time. Or you go to meet him for a ride and you find out, oh there’s a documentary being filmed, so there’s a camera around you at all times. And so on.
Then just generally speaking, since my blog is so smart-ass I’m really still just an outsider as far as the cycling world goes. Any time I’ve been allowed in to the inner workings of the cycling world, however briefly, is just kind of surreal. Bicycling invited me to come on their editor’s choice testing trip to Austin. All the bike testing and marketing is exactly what I make fun of, so I was in the belly of the beast watching them test bikes.
Another was when that whole horrible thing happened where that woman Jill Tarlov was killed by the cyclist in Central Park. There was a media frenzy. I wrote a blog post excoriating the rider. As far as I’m concerned, I’m a cyclist writing to cyclists. I feel comfortable, when it’s warranted, to call cyclists out. But the mainstream media was all over this. They automatically vilify cyclists anyways. Unfortunately, they saw that I had written this post and I got calls and emails from pretty much every newspaper and TV news programs in town. I wouldn’t talk to any of them. But that was surreal.
The media is thirsty for cyclists who will talk shit about cyclists. I got a call from the Post while I was at the playground with my kid. I usually don’t answer unknown numbers, but for some reason I did. “Oh this is so and so from the New York Post.” I hung right up. There was no way I was talking to those people. They went ahead and wrote an article and pulled half of it from my blog post. At least when they pull from your post, you’ve written it. Almost every time I’ve talked to a mainstream publication and given them a quote, I cringe at the context it was used in. It’s a weird thing to be a bike blogger when you come up against that. It’s one thing to be in the small, comfortable bike world where people understand the conversation. We all ride bikes, we all know how it works. But when you start rubbing up against the mainstream media, it’s uncomfortable. I never expected when I started my blog that I’d be treated like–authority’s not the right word, but–a source.
It doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to see you in that light, though. You are a prominent voice, even if you’re an acerbic one. Does it feel weird to be a celebrity of some sort in the bike world? Did you start getting recognized after the big reveal?
Now and again, but not really. This is New York and it’s a big city. If you’re a popular bike blogger that doesn’t mean anything. Now people know me in the cycling world because of the blog, but that’s no different than the guy who won a bunch of bike races in Central Park. Everybody knows him. It’s the same sort of level. When recognition comes from outside of the cycling world, that’s when it’s surprising.
When I’m writing for cyclists, it’s my job to make us all laugh at ourselves. The cycling world has a great sense of humor. It’s a smart group of people who by and large can all laugh at themselves. That changes when I go outside of the cycling world. I want to defend cycling. I feel like people who read my blog expect that when a stupid story comes out in the paper about how bike lanes are ruining “insert your neighborhood here” it’s my job to jump all over it and pick it apart. I feel like I simultaneously have to make fun of the cycling world and have to defend it.
Eben Weiss in New York City. Photo by Trevor Christensen.
One of my favorite parts of Bike Snob has always been the Indignity of Bike Commuting posts. I feel like they do a great job of highlighting the daily shittiness of being a bike commuter. And though you’re writing for an audience that can relate to that, I think they could help illustrate to an outside audience why it’s so challenging to ride a bike in the city.
Thank you for saying that. I feel the same way when I’m writing a post like that. To the extent anything I do is good, which is debatable … Let’s just say I have the most fun doing that. In Enlightened Cyclist I was trying to build on that. I don’t know how successful I was. But I was trying to take that experience of what you go through on your commute and expand on it. We have a shared experience. We really do. We can all critique each others’ bikes and riding styles and clothing and the rest of it, but we all have the same frustrations when it comes to getting from A to B. All you can do is really laugh at it.
That’s the other thing about bike advocacy. Bike advocacy only takes you so far. You can and should get involved in the advocacy and do whatever you can. But as far as what’s going to make you feel better today that some asshole almost killed you and drove away and nothing’s going to happen to him or her? The only thing you can do is laugh and know that there are other people experiencing the same thing.
You’ve got eight years of blogging and three books under your belt. Where do you go from here?
I’m sure one day there will be an end to it, but it’s not going to be tomorrow. There’s always stuff percolating in the background. I don’t know what’s going to ultimately come to fruition. There could possibly be more Bike Snob related stuff in different media happening, but nothing I can announce right now. I certainly would like to do a podcast one of these days and intend to do so. There’s other stuff I’m talking to people about doing.
Besides all of that, people still read and enjoy the blog and I still enjoy writing it so I have no immediate plans to stop. From the beginning, the blog was always the most important thing. The Bike Snob blog is the one thing I think I’m good at. If you do one stupid thing well, you better keep doing it or you’re an idiot.