Bikes and Books

I had an interesting experience over the weekend. The Portland Art Museum is featuring a must-see exhibit about bicycles and bicycle design. As one of this summer’s many bike-related programs, they offered a guided ride around the city looking at changes in street design and planning to make streets safer for cars, bikes, and pedestrians. My biking pal Mary Laughlin found out about it. We had a great time on the ride and learned a lot, mostly about how difficult it is to make changes in urban design when so many city, state, and federal agencies are involved. It’s amazing that Portland is the great biking city it is. It sure didn’t happen overnight.

The ride began and ended at the Art Museum. When it was over, everyone who had signed up for the ride had the opportunity of visiting the bike design exhibit. Mary and I weren’t going to pass that up. As an added treat, a bike mechanic from one of our local bike shops, offered to give us a guided tour. I believe his name was Mark.

The bikes in the exhibit came from a German collection. It was eighty years of weird and wonderful bikes. Mark pointed out significant changes in materials, design, and engineering. I was interested in the constant interplay between function, form, and cost. At the end, I asked Mark, “Would you agree that all the bikes here are variations on one theme: two equal-sized wheels and an upright rider? It seems as if  basic bicycle design hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.”

Mark agreed that was so. He offered two reasons. First, it’s an excellent, highly versatile design that accommodates road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes, and everything in between. The other reason, he explained, is the bicycle racing industry. Bicycle racing is and has been a multi-million dollar industry. This is where the glamor and the big money is. It’s where new designs, equipment, and materials are tested. Helmets, shoes, clothing, accessories—everything connected with bikes that you can imagine—is connected to the racing industry in some way. The industry sets the rules and standards. In other words, it decides what is a bike and what is not.

“I get it!” I said. “Is that why we don’t see any recumbents in this exhibit?” Mark nodded. “That’s right.”

Recumbents are bikes where the rider sits in a laid back, reclining position. Some recumbents have two wheels; some have three. The advantage is they’re more comfortable, less tiring to ride over long distances. The design also allows the rider’s legs to deliver more power to the wheels. You don’t see recumbents in the Tour de France, Mark explained. The industry has ruled that while they may be “human-powered vehicles” they are not bicycles. Mark couldn’t say why. He ventured a guess. Recumbents aren’t as stylish. Except for a helmet, you don’t need fancy clothes or equipment to ride one. Also, they’re not as dramatic. An upright rider pumping up a steep hill is ten times more exciting than another rider cruising along in an armchair.

All of this started me thinking about books. Don’t we have the same situation in the book world as we have in the bike world? What’s a book? A paper and cardboard artifact? An electronic reader? An iPad? An audio file? Some exciting new technology that hasn’t been invented yet? The answer to all of these is YES. We don’t have a racing board to lay down the law. A book is a means of delivering content, even though it may not look anything like a book at all.

That’s scary. And exciting. And challenging.

Like riding a recumbent.

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