Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”
The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.
What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”
Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!
In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.