Complete Bike Book by Chris Sidwells

He opens with an overview of bike history. To those unfamiliar, cycling in the states had a significant impact on our roadways. Banded together in clubs and interest groups, cyclists succeeded in advancing the Good Roads Movement in the late 19th century. Tinkerers rolled out innovation after innovation at a furious pace to make the bicycle the most efficient, self-powered transportation device ever. Even today cyclists are in the vanguard of a step forward into an ‘active transportation’ future.

But the pace of innovation in the bicycle itself slowed considerably through the 20th century, with the basic design of the ‘safety bicycle’ that came to market in the late 1880s undergoing no real revolutionary change. (New chain and belt drives on the safety bicycle obviated those old big wheels, so riders could more safely pilot the bicycle.) The innovations in the last fifty years, for example, improved the marginal efficiency of the bike, brought it to more people at lower price point, and especially where materials are concerned, brought space-age technology to everyday rides, but the days of serious innovation were long behind.

What has changed is how we regard the bicycle. At its nadir in the 1960s, it found a smaller and smaller market. Mass transit, and later the automobile, relegated the bicycle to a distant third place as a practical mode choice. Growing suburban areas made bicycling less practical. Yet the bicycle had lost none of its allure in Asia and even found new fans in northern Europe.

Columbia Mach advertisement
Courtesy Kenneth Kowal's incredible Mr. Columbia site.

The 1970s marked an upturn in the States, however. Manufacturers satisfied a growing consumer market by retooling for cheap production, and the biggest producers cranked out leaden frames (even as they continued to market quality bikes) and eventually turned to Asia for bottom-shelf components. But the real evolution here was not on the production side but rather the marketing of bikes to new buyers.

Today there is tremendous variety in cycling interests and bike types, Sidwells makes clear, and he about covers it all in this handbook. Not surprisingly that is its chief handicap: such a big sport and difficult to cover in all its permutations in just a single volume. For one thing, riders interested in bike history or safety and handling might want to turn to specialized sources (online or off). And second, pictures are wonderful but there are times when there is no good substitute for video. Advanced handling techniques such as high-speed cornering are difficult to describe in a blurb, so a handbook can only go so far.

The real contribution of Complete Bike Book is the overview it provides. There are other opportunities to dig down into any aspect of cycling, of course, but a handbook like Complete Bike Book is a great place to start. Heck, buying a new bike is only somewhat less complicated than buying a consumer digital camera; getting the terminology down is a challenge. Sidwells’s 40-page overview of bike types makes choosing and outfitting your ride much easier. That chapter alone is worth the few bucks this worthy out-of-print volume fetches on Amazon.

Likewise, the maintenance section is indispensable for the weekend mechanic. No rider should totally outsource basic maintenance to a shop, especially because the occasional pre-flight check is key to riding safely. (Many injury bike crashes result from improper maintenance.) From basic adjustments to the fine point of wheel hubs, it is all here and then some. It’s all you need to keep yourself in the saddle (with a little bit of good fortune too). His exploded views of road and hybrid bikes, too, are valuable as they visually take apart today’s complex machines to make then more understandable.

Lastly, no bike handbook is complete without a ‘riding with care’ section that includes the basics like following road rules, signaling turns, etc. For those inclined to serious cycling (but not there yet), Sidwells hits finer points like comfort and position that affect long-term enjoyment. He even gives a whiff of what it’s like to ride in the peloton, which may prove inspiring for those long climbs off the PCH.