Back when I was living in Brooklyn, New York, I would often see Jody Rosen on a bike.
I wouldn’t say we were the closest of friends—we went to college together, but now, as then, we moved in slightly different circles. Still, we’d often have a street corner stop and chat, trading the sort of shop-talk only of interest to two full-time Brooklyn journalists.
Rosen, typically clad in a newsboy cap, a bag strapped across his shoulder, and astride a bright red cruiser bike—replete with almost cartoonishly large off-white tires—became a talismanic presence for me on the neighborhood streets. I’d see him taking his son to school on the back of the bike, or coolly navigating the heavy traffic of Court Street at a pace somewhat below the usual frenetic velocity of New York City cyclists. When I didn’t see him, I often saw his bike chained to a parking meter outside a coffee shop or leaning against the natural foods store window. Spotting it became a sort of game for my daughter and me. One day, she called out: “Look, Jody’s seat is missing!” (Alas, someone had pilfered the saddle.) Like most urbanites, my eyes were carefully attuned to the sidewalks, and seeing Jody’s bike was like ticking a square in some game of Gotham bingo.
In his new book, Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, Rosen, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, brings both his acuity as a pop-cultural critic and his genuine—though never overweening or in-your-face—passion for the bicycle to bear in a freewheeling global journey. It begins in a church in a small town in England (where people claim to see, with almost religious conviction, a proto-bicycle in a stained-glass artwork that predates the device’s invention by centuries), and ends with Rosen trying to ride a fixie, less than successfully, in the onetime Kingdom of Bicycles, the city of Beijing.
As you might expect, Rosen has a lot to say about the joys, and travails, of urban riding. “Bike riding is the best way I know to reach an altered consciousness,” he writes. “Not an ennobled state, exactly, but definitely an enlivened one. A bike ride is far better than yoga, or wine, or weed.” The bike is the “best way to imbibe New York, to make sense of the pace, to gulp the town down.” Off the bike, Rosen writes, New York becomes “larger but less magnificent.”
While Rosen’s lyrical odes to city cycling do not lack conviction—or fail to find a complicit audience in me, despite the fact that I now live in New Jersey—what makes Two Wheels Good a particularly fascinating read are his explorations into the rich and peculiar history of the bike, which recount at times the writer Greil Marcus’s foray into the “old, weird America.” The bicycle seems to pop up everywhere and in the most unexpected places. Rosen tells, for instance, the story of a young, aspiring Yukon prospector who falls ill and misses the achievable window to get to the gold fields via dog sled team, so instead acquires a bike and rides for months in sub-zero conditions to beat his gold-rush competitors.
But it’s not always the story you expect. “The popular literature on the bike is a highly sentimental and romantic literature,” he told me, “which construes the bike as this kind of liberating emancipating device, the liberating green machine, the little 19th century machine that’s going to save the world.” There’s something to that, of course, but Rosen says he was interested in a more “tough love” version of bicycle history, whether it’s the extractive industries used to produce it or its curious role in the Age of Empire. “The bike reached many places in the world when it was ridden by soldiers, or prospectors, or missionaries, and that interests me,” he says. One of the most egregious examples, he notes, is the connection of the late 19th century bicycle boom—all those new rubber tires—and the brutal colonization of countries like Brazil or the Belgian Congo. “In Brazil, one person perished for every 150 kilograms of rubber reaped,” he writes. In the Congo, “the figure was one death for every ten kilograms of rubber.”
Which is not to say the bike is nefarious, or that it doesn’t historically figure, Rosen says, as a “means of resistance,” or an “agent of social change.” After assuming power in 1933, Rosen notes, one of Hitler’s first acts was to crush the country’s cycling union (which had become associated with anti-Nazi parties). In 2016, the theocracy of Iran declared a fatwa on female cyclists (“It attracts the attention of male strangers and exposes society to corruption,” the country’s supreme cleric declared). Iranian women, not without risk, have continued riding. “For millions of women across the world,” he writes, “biking riding remains inherently political.” People are always downplaying the bike, forgetting its power. Rosen quotes New York Times editor Harrison Salisbury in 1967 as he delivers testimony to the U.S. Senate on why the U.S. was encountering such headwinds in its war in Vietnam. “I literally believe that without the bikes [the North Vietnamese Army] would have to get out of the war.”
The bike, says Rosen, is ultimately a tool, whose inherent usefulness is not limited to any political party or social group. “To me, the real signal moment of this was during the Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020 in New York City,” he says. “You had a lot of people on bikes in the streets protesting, and they were met by the bicycle cops.” And these were not your normal shorts-clad bicycle cops pleasantly patrolling a pedestrian mall. “They were up-armored, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cops, who wear hockey goalie gear and use the bike as a shield and a battering ram,” he says.
And when the bike is not being used to battle in the streets, it’s often at the center of a rhetorical fight. In recent years, he notes, it’s become a loaded symbol on the right, of a piece with arugula and lattes. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch even lambasted, Rosen notes, the inclusion of “bicycle repair shops” in a list of businesses deemed essential during the pandemic. And sometimes, the bicycle can even seem just a twee lifestyle accessory, displayed in the windows of upmarket boutiques, parked in a rack (but seemingly rarely used) in front of luxury hotels.
But what Gorsuch clearly did not have on his mind was the fact that, as Rosen notes in the book, “around the world, more people travel by bicycle than any other form of transportation.” Sure, bike culture includes Instagram accounts with well-dressed people on beautiful bikes, hipsters on fixies, and Lycra, but it also includes, in a city like New York, a massive fleet of working-class riders—sometimes called deliveristas—who were, particularly during the pandemic, an essential factor in keeping the city functioning.
In less supple, more dogmatic hands, a book like Two Wheels Good might begin to coast a bit on its own self-congratulatory spin, but Rosen pulls off that most wonderful non-fiction trick: making the familiar strange. His narrative is a bit like his self-described cycling style: it’s not rushed, but it deftly maneuvers through crowded terrain, with impressionistic, cinematic glimpses of the world sliding by. One minute you’re learning about a 19th century Edison film called Trick Bicycle Riding—produced by a roller-skate pioneer—the next you’re in Scotland, with ace trials rider Danny MacAskill, as Rosen (a self-professed “turkey” when it comes to raw cycling skill) tries, and fails, to keep up on what he terms a “beginner’s level mountain bike trail.” MacAskill, on the heels of Rosen’s wipeout, says: “I’m a wee bit worried that you’re going to kill yourself.”
I can’t help asking Rosen about that old red bicycle I used to see on the street (which, it turns out, was a Felt “Big Chief”). He’s moved on a bit, stylistically, and is currently riding a bike from Priority; as a self-described “terrible” mechanic he lauds the low-maintenance belt drive. The Big Chief, however, remains in reserve in his condo’s basement storage area. And as it happens, I wasn’t the only one whose eyes were caught by that two-wheeled steed. Once, years ago, the bike was stolen while parked outside a café. Rosen took to Twitter, essentially asking New Yorkers to keep watch. And, in fact, someone spotted the bike, fixed by a cheap combination lock to a pole in Union Square. Within hours, he was reunited with the Chief.