Book Review: Bike Tribes, by Mike Magnuson

A tribe that bikes together, well ...
Image from http://kk.org/streetuse/2008/05/wooden-bikes/


tribe: \ˈtrīb\



a. a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers


b.  a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest

c. a category of taxonomic classification ranking below a subfamily; also :  a natural group irrespective of taxonomic rank <the cat tribe> <the rose tribe>


It would not be a total exaggeration to say (without scientific citations) that as humans, we strongly believe in the social structures that benefit us not only as an individual, but also as a group. From time immemorial (or about 15 thousand years, give or take), we have developed an innate ability to bind together as a group - first to fend of predators (of the feline and the white-shirt-black-tie-on-a-bike type), and then because some bright bulb correctly deduced that you could get away with doing less work and show more for it, if you made others do the work for you.  Whatever the reason, our identities gained a new dimension as a part of something more than ourselves. As these groups grew in size over the centuries, we had to devise more and more ingenious ways to identify the members of the group, should we run into a dark stranger in the darkest of nights in a farway land - we had to know before we decided to fight or flee. Secret passwords tended to mutate every so miles, and even-more-secret handshakes and gestures were soon extinct, along with their inventors. Body painting and cloth-on-a-stick waving were generally accepted as better alternatives, and they survive to this day in some form or another. But arguably, the most important contribution in this classification process came about when we assigned meaningless words to name the groups that we formed. Our shared identity was now expressed (and confirmed) through mere words that once uttered, would identify the land, the people, the soil, the climate and the vintage .... (er, sorry, wrong post - are we not talking about wine?) ... of the specimen involved. In short - the "tribe" was born !

From Aristotle to Neil Strauss to Malcom Gladwell, many have tried to grasp that elusive wisp that defines a 'tribe' (see dictionary definitions above), but few have succeeded in creating an informative and hugely entertaining treatise on group dynamics that also reads like a foggy mirror ( "I am quite sure I am just like this guy/girl" ) - than Mike Magnuson's Magnum Opus (sure sounded much better in my head) - "Bike Tribes: A Field Guide to North American Cyclists." 

The book works on soooo many different levels, starting with the title itself - or more appropriately, the subtitle. By including the geographical domain of his research in the subtitle, Mike (a) excludes any angry cyclists from across the pond who felt snubbed, while including Canadian bikers into the fold, (b) guaranteeing that his book would be a best seller in Belgium, France and England (among other European markets); for which true-blood Euro cyclist does not enjoy a laugh at the expense of the lowly American counterparts, (c) immediately endears himself to the said tribe on this side of the pond (after centuries of being snubbed, someone writes a book about me!), leading inevitably to (d) the Booker prize for Biking Literature, an Oprah book-list shoo-in and a NY Times bestseller list slot, simultaneously. All THIS, on the power of the subtitle alone! Remember kids, the clickety-clack is always more powerful than the boom-bang.

Being as this is a book review, we shall now get to the meat of the matter - should you read this book? The short answer would be: YES, turn your machine off right now and run bike to the nearest bookstore to get your hands on the last two remaining copies of this masterpiece (one for yourself and one for putting it up on eBay when the book will be worth thousands of dollars in fifty years time your best buddy on bike).  For the metric-century version, read on -

The first thing that one would observe when one reads the opening pages of the book is that Mike loves to ride the bicycle. He approaches the subject of biking with the same delicate nuance and restraint as  displayed by a two-year old witnessing the arrival of a shiny christmas present on the night before. Before long, we find ourselves swept away in his enthusiasm and adulation for the Warriors on the Way of the Bike. The prose is very informal, but not flippant; quite firmly tongue-in-cheek, but not overly opinionated. Mike introduces the characters in a fashion where multiple timelines and personalities intersect paths over  the course of a few days in the same idyllic town. His characters are not people, but a collection of personality caricatures represented by an archetype. Expect a lot of incredulous stares from people around you as you put on your goofy-grin face, oblivious to the rest of the world as you recognize a glimmer of yourself, or a fellow rider you know, or even a fellow trail blazer who passes you by in 3 seconds every Saturday ... I could not put the book down once I started reading it, and you may find yourself in a similar situation!

Glorious illustrations by Danica Novogorodoff grace the pages as Mike expounds the profound yet enigmatic world of biking in the Northern America. The book is ultimately Mike's homage to biking and the answer to the second-most* important question of all - "Why do we bike?" The answer, as is the case with most fundamental facts of the Universe, is at once the most simple, and almost unknowable in its depth and complexity. We can only be thankful that we have someone like Mike Magnuson to explore the answer for us.



* (Refer my previous blog post for THE most important question in biking).
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