Wednesday, April 9, 2008

An Interview With David Herlihy, Author of "Bicycle: The History"

David Herlihy's book, Bicycle: The History, was the first and only book on bicycles which made it to the most prominent display stand at my local Barnes and Noble. Published in 2004, it has been a stunning success, bringing the history of bicycles to tens of thousands of people in several different languages. The book is rich and colorful, both in its photos and its words.

I met David while I was in college in the 1980s. He was making a bit of extra cash by buying beautiful, slightly used road bikes in Italy (DeRosas, Cinellis, Tommasinis and the like) and then selling them at remarkably affordable prices to cyclists in the USA. This allowed him to indulge his love of travel, play with wonderful bicycles, and bring joy to people on both sides of the Atlantic. Come to think of it, his books on cycling do pretty much the same things...

David V. Herlihy, Author and Bicycle Lover

Q: Bicycle: The History was a huge success. How has this success changed your life?

A: Thanks, Forbes. “Huge” is a relative (and very flattering) term. But if I may brag a bit, since it came out in fall 2004, Bicycle has sold over 20,000 copies, mostly hard covers. That’s a pretty giddy figure for a book of this nature, published by an academic press. I’m sure it’s a lot more than even Yale had anticipated. From what I hear, it’s now one of their all-time bestsellers (there are even editions out in Russian and Korean).

All this is highly gratifying, as was all the attention it received in the press, including reviews in prestigious publications like The Economist and The New York Times Review of Books (I have to credit my brilliant publicist, Brenda King, for engineering much of that). Most were quite favorable and easy to digest (a few were less satisfying, but I managed to get over them pretty quickly).

The Cover of Herlihy's 2004 Book, Bicycle: The History

(Published by Yale University Press)

And, yes, I relished my fifteen minutes of fame. It was great fun touring and promoting my book, even if I had to cover my own expenses for the most part. I enjoyed giving slide lectures and signing books, and meeting cycling enthusiasts of all sorts. One of my most memorable moments was at a bike show in Edison, New Jersey, where I had a table. After one guy confirmed that I was in fact the author, he kind of lost it. He had his picture taken with me using his cell phone. I felt like a rock star.

Getting back to reality a bit, I can’t say that the book has radically changed my life or lifestyle, at least not yet. But it has been a very positive experience and I think it has opened up new artistic possibilities.

For starters, it was a great relief and satisfaction to finally turn a decade plus of research into something concrete that could give me some recognition and actually generate a little revenue to keep body and soul together (not to mention helping to pay for all that research, which included multiple trips to Europe. Not that I’m asking for sympathy, mind you!) And I must say, in my defense, that much of my best material surfaced toward the end of my inquiry. Had I published the book even a few years earlier, it simply would not have been as colorful or as rich.

Not only was I able to share many interesting discoveries, I also got to air some deeply held convictions. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about bicycle history, especially with regard to the invention and early development. The kick-propelled Draisine of 1817, in particular, was not a bicycle per se and, as it turned out, it did not lead directly to the original bicycles of the 1860s (though it was arguably the primary inspiration). I’ve also concluded that the Scottish priority claims arising during the boom of the late 19th century are dubious at best. And of course the great contribution of Pierre Lallement, the original bicycle patentee, has long been overshadowed by the Michaux name, which likewise shrouded the role of the Oliviers, the true industrial pioneers.

In some sense it may be a losing battle to insist on all these points—myths are stubborn things. But at least now I’ve spoken my peace and I can move on to other exciting projects with a little more financial stability and a little more credibility and clout.

Q: What are some other projects you are working on?

A: Over the past few years, I’ve continued to give lectures here and there for various cycling groups and educational programs. Next month, for example, I’ll participate in a panel discussion at the unveiling of the Major Taylor memorial in Worcester. And on May 24 I’ll give a talk at the Museum of the City of New York. We’re starting to talk about putting together an exhibition on the history of cycling in New York, in conjunction with—appropriately enough—Bike New York, (sponsors of the annual 5 boro ride that draws 30,000 cyclists).

The Cover of Paris-Roubaix:A Journey through Hell

(Published by VeloPress)

I’ve also done several projects with Velopress of late. I translated a great book on the history of Paris Roubaix by the editors of l’Equipe. It’s a beautiful coffee-table book with fabulous photos. And I have to say the text is also quite engaging! I also translated a book on the Alpe d’Huez stage by my good friend Jean-Paul Vespini. It’s coming out in a few weeks and I’m really looking forward to pawing through it. I just saw some proofs and the photos are eye-popping. Plus the author did a great job covering the history of this phenomenon not only as a decisive stage in the Tour but also as a colorful cultural rendez-vous.

The Cover of The Tour is Won on the Alpe

(Published by VeloPress)

And I just signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin to write a book on Frank Lenz. Researching his fascinating but forgotten story has been my focus for the past few years and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future.

To summarize: in May 1892, on the cusp of the bicycle boom, Lenz set off from his hometown of Pittsburgh to circle the globe on the latest “safety” bicycle with inflatable tires. Two years into his journey, after crossing North America, Japan, China, Burma, India, and Persia, he mysteriously vanished. Investigators later traced him past the Persian border, into Turkey and the foreboding land of the Kurds. Ironically, Outing magazine, Lenz’s sponsor, sent another American “globe girdler,” William Sachtleben, to find Lenz dead or alive. It turned out to be a very bad time to visit Turkey, with massacres of Armenians unfolding before his own eyes. Sachtleben himself was lucky to return home alive. He firmly believed he had resolved the mystery, but his failure to find Lenz’s bones or bicycle, or to secure satisfactory convictions for murder, left the matter festering. Lenz’s heartbroken mom eventually received an indemnity from the Turkish government, but his legacy quickly faded in the 20th century as the public lost interest in the bicycle. I’ll discuss Lenz’s background and personality, and what motivated him to go off on this dangerous adventure. I’ll also trace the trip in detail, putting a positive spin on it. Finally, I’ll take a hard look at Sachtleben’s findings and try to figure out what really happened to poor Lenz.

Q: Do you still have time to ride your bike?

A: I confess that I have the time in theory. And the bikes. But I don’t do as much recreational riding as I should (and it shows, I’m afraid!). Lately, I’ve mostly done organized rides from time to time. Bike New York has become a tradition every May, and it’s a blast. I also did part of Cycle Oregon a few years back, and a few other group rides since then. But mostly I cycle in the Boston area, just to get around. I just acquired a new Bike Friday, which I still need to assemble. I expect to ride a lot more after that. I would like to get back into road riding, too. In theory I could use one of my old Italian racers, but I would love to get something more contemporary. And maybe a mountain bike too. Got to get this book done first, though, so I have some discretionary funds.

Q: Your book made it clear that you love bicycles. Do you love any one type of bicycle more than others? Is there a particular kind of bicycle that is nearest and dearest to your heart?

A: I’d have to say the classic light weight road bike with skinny tires is still my favorite. But I’m also into the idea of bicycles as basic transportation, especially in these times. The Bike Friday offers a great combination off both riding pleasure and practicality. I can’t really speak to mountain biking as I’ve never really indulged in that sport. But I have friends who are really into it, and I know someday I should really give it a try.

An Illustration from Bicycle: The History

Q: You used to bring wonderful used road bikes back from Italy. Do you still have connections over there?

A: In theory, yes, though I haven’t bought any bikes over there in quite some time. I spent a number of years in Italy growing up, and I still go at least once a year. So I’m still fluent in the language. There was a time when I went regularly to the Milan trade show. And I got the chance to meet and interview some legendary names like Cino Cinelli and Valentino Campagnolo, when I wrote for Bicycle Guide. But I haven’t kept up my contacts in the bike industry, I’m afraid. Lately when I’ve gone over it’s been more researching, dining, touring, and socializing. In that order, of course.

Q: Have bicycles gotten better through their history? Or were the old bicycle designs more practical than the designs for new bicycles?

A: Well you can certainly make the case that the bicycle progressed in the second half of the 19th century, becoming increasingly roadworthy and hence practical in that sense. The original “boneshaker” of the 1860s was a noble idea but one in desperate need of material improvement. You could argue that its replacement, the fleet but precarious high wheeler, took the concept in the wrong direction, that is, away from practicality. After all, the original bicycle caused an international sensation precisely because it was supposed to serve as a practical “people’s nag.” And the high-wheeler, of course, became an expensive toy for athletic males. But the high-wheeler and its racing culture did establish much of the basic technology necessary to make roadworthy bicycles, including tubular steel frames, wire wheels, rubber tires, and ball bearings. And it did set the stage for the great bicycle boom, when the bicycle truly showed the world all its marvelous potential, utilitarian and recreational. The chain-driven “safety” bicycle with inflatable tires was, in essence, the culmination of an age-old dream: a valid human-powered vehicle that was both pleasurable and practical.

You can even carry the notion of “better” bicycles well into the 20th century (in terms of more practical design, not to mention vastly more affordable price-tags). As impressive as boom-era bicycles were, they were generally too light for everyday use, with their relatively fragile frames and wheels. And they lacked basic amenities such as freewheels and a selection of gears on the fly. By the middle of the century the market offered much more practical—as in versatile and robust—bicycles. But they weren’t necessarily much fun to ride. Many were intolerably heavy and sluggish by today’s standards. Even as late as the 1970s you pretty much had to buy a fancy (but not so practical) ten-speed to get any real thrill from riding.

Another Illustration from Bicycle: The History

So from the consumer’s perspective, although bicycle technology was already highly developed and varied by the mid-20th century, there was a still a need for useful innovations that could enhance riding pleasure while offering greater roaming possibilities. The introduction of mountain biking helped establish useful and attractive new features such as indexed shifting, greater gear range, and more robust frames, wheels, and tires to enable off-road riding. Much of this technology had already been introduced in one form or another, but the Mountain Bike created a compelling new package that for once transcended the marketing hype. It not only helped lure millions of adults back to recreational cycling, it opened the door to a much greater variety of bikes that are both fun to ride and practical.

Today, though, I think the notion of “better” bikes on the way is getting fuzzier. There’s already so much good technology out there, and so many different models to chose from, the trick is really to define your riding style, ambitions, and budget, and then make an intelligent selection based on those criteria. In many situations, some relatively basic and “old-fashioned” models will do just fine, thank you. Some would even say there’s already an abundance of underutilized bike technology out there, like recumbents, which claim superior speed and comfort. So while you never want to close the door entirely on progress, the truth is cyclists have never had it better and finding the “right” bike for a given situation has never been easier.

Q: How can we, as a society, replace cars with bicycles?

A: Well, I think we have to start with realistic goals. The humble bicycle cannot solve all our transportation needs, and it is not a practical transportation alternative in many situations, particularly in rural locations. That said, the bicycle is great resource, especially in congested cities where traffic and pollution are major issues. And it is one that is still woefully underutilized, and least in many American cities. So there is the possibility—some would even say necessity—to encourage greater reliance on the bicycle, at least in urban settings. And few would argue that that is a highly desirable goal from a number of respects. The less we rely on cars within the city, and the more we cycle, the happier and healthier we’ll become.

As to how to bring this about, I think it’s sort of a carrot and stick problem. On the one hand, you want better facilities, such as bike lanes, parking stations, and bicycle-friendly transportation systems. On other hand, you might need to take certain steps to get people off their duffs and out of their cars. London, for example, imposes fees to drive into city limits.

A good example of dangling a carrot may be found in Paris. It has recently launched a highly successful bike rental system with depots scattered across the city. The cost is minimal and you pay by credit card. I hear all sorts of people use it, including many who never used to cycle. And it may be that urbanites will find increasing incentives to cycle, even without the prospect of punitive measures. That may be the silver lining to rising fuel costs.

Still Another Illustration from Bicycle: The History

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: I’m not really a big breakfast person, though I do need plenty of coffee in the morning and an occasional glass of orange juice. When I’m home, I’m often too lazy to prepare anything for myself. If there’s cold cereal around and the milk hasn’t gone bad I might have that. Or if it’s a weekend I might make an omelet. If I’m a guest somewhere, that’s different. When I’m visiting my brother in New York, if it’s a Saturday, he makes tasty waffles from scratch. If it’s cold out and my host offers me oatmeal, I’ll probably have that. Don’t tell my mom, but I actually kind of like it. I used to have it all the time, though, as a kid growing up in Madison, and I kind of burned out on it.

If I’m in Europe I usually do the pastry and café crème or cappuccino thing. In France I’ll take a fresh croissant au beurre. In Italy I’ll usually go for a rice “budino.” If I’m traveling in the US on a research mission, I often go for a big breakfast so I can skip lunch. I’ve had more than my share of Egg Mcmuffins (the inventor recently died, by the way). I’ve even had their pancakes, and I was recently induced in Erie to try a steak with bagel thing. Once was enough. If time and budget permit, I’ll upgrade to a Denny’s, IHOP or Waffle House depending on what’s available. But I much prefer eating breakfast at an authentic greasy-spoon. That’s still one of the best bargains out there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to both parties for making this interview available. I especially enjoyed David's thoughts on the future of the bicycle as a means of everyday transportation. The times they are a changin' to be sure.

phil varner said...

Great interview. I'm reading the book right now. I find it particularly interesting how changes in "generic" technology (e.g., pneumatic tires, "spider wheels", and chains) led to huge revolutions in bicycles quickly after their introduction.