Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Ride with the Bike Snob of New York

Eben Weiss, the notorious BikeSnobNYC blogger, stopped by Chicago on his promotional tour for his second book "The Enlightened Cyclist" a couple of nights ago. His appearance at On the Route bike shop was preceded by a 15 mile ride, mostly along Lake Michigan, from the Tati bike shop in Hyde Park on the city's south side not far from President's Obama's house.

When I arrived at Tati shortly before six the tiny shop was crammed with about 20 cyclists surrounding Eben making awkward small talk. The bearded, burly Eben was wearing a cycling cap such as he advertises on his blog and burdened with a hefty black backpack. With no one having much to say I helped fill in the silences with a brief interchange on this weekend's Tour of Flanders and asking if we'd be passing the President's house. Eben didn't know about the proximity of Obama's house and was delighted that it would be part of his Chicago experience.

We rode double file for several blocks to the lake front bike path with Eben near the front of the pack. I drafted his wheel for the first few miles waiting for the opportunity to slip up alongside him for a chat. We were both riding Surlys with clipless pedals, he the version with couplers so he could disassemble it and pack it for flights without charge and me on my Long Haul Trucker. There was no specific conversational rotation. It wasn't until we passed Soldier Field that at last he was momentarily unflanked by another and it was my turn for a few words.

His first book was so thick with movie mentions that one blurb on the book commented. "You'll probably think he's seen too many movies for his own good." So I began, "Does your latest book have as many movie references as the first?"

He said there weren't. Then I asked if he knew anything about the Hollywood messenger movie "Premium Rush" filmed in New York that was supposed to have been released in August, but has been delayed. He said he had friends who were involved with it but didn't know much about it other than it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In his first book he said that the ridiculous "Quicksilver" with Kevin Bacon was the only bicycle messenger movie ever made. I didn't correct him on that figuring that countless others had, but simply asked if he had ever seen "Two Seconds," a much more authentic French Canadian messenger movie from 1998 that was good enough to have played at Sundance. He hadn't, nor was he even aware of it. When I began describing it to him, he thought he might have seen a clip of it on youtube.

Since he'd worked as a messenger in New York, I wondered if he knew a couple of friends of mine from Chicago who had gone on to New York. He said he had only messengered for six months and that was back in l996. He had mentioned in his first book how much he enjoyed being a messenger. I asked if it was the best job he'd ever had, as he had written. At first he said yes, but then corrected himself saying that he really likes writing and would have to say what he is doing now is the best job he's ever had.

His five-day a week blog posts are so prodigiously long and cover such a wide-range of topics I wondered if he published elsewhere other than his monthly column for "Bicycling" magazine. That's it, other than working on a third book, evidently involving his young son, soon to turn two. He said he had written for "Outside" magazine for a spell, but didn't particularly enjoy that experience as its editors kept trying to dictate his writing, unlike "Bicycling" who let him be himself. "That's what is so great about blogging, I can write about whatever I want," he added.

I wondered about his freelancing, as I'd seen a piece of his in "VeloNews" a few years ago as an "At the Back" feature. I told him that when I saw it I was hoping that he might be taking over that column that had been made famous by Maynard Hershon. He was too, but it didn't work out. I mentioned that I too had had an "At the Back" column published in "VeloNews" a year or so after his. That piqued his interest. I told him it was about my scavenging a Tour de France course marker for Christian Vande Velde, and riding out to his house in a Chicago suburb to give it to him and what a genuinely nice guy he was. Then the conversation turned to me and my riding the Tour de France and being a messenger and traveling the world.

That reminded me I had a souvenir from the Tour de France for him, a Festina reflective band he could wrap around his wrist or ankle that I had collected from the publicity caravan preceding the race. He wrapped it around his handlebar.

We were still talking when we reached Wilson Avenue and had to leave the bike path and head to On the Route. There were another couple dozen cyclists awaiting us when we reached our destination a little behind schedule at 7:40. The bike shop didn't have a screen for his presentation, as he said had happened in Madison the day before, so he just used his computer as a prompter for his fifteen minute presentation that centered on bicyclists creating a religion to promote their cause. Not only would it provide them with tax-exempt status, but would also allow them to charge drivers who hit them with committing a hate crime.

Then he fielded questions for nearly half an hour from his very appreciative and mostly male audience. One woman observed that she was in a distinct minority and wondered if that had been true at all his presentations. He didn't really have an answer. Nor did he have an answer when someone asked how many bikes he has and where he stores them, giving a glimpse of his testy side that comes out in his blogging. His posts regularly receive over 100 comments, many of them as acerbic as his writing. I asked if he ever deletes comments that go too far. The only comments he deletes are spam promoting some product. "I didn't even delete comments that identified me back when I was anonymous," he said.

Someone else asked how he managed to avoid repeating himself in his second book. "I used different words," he said, drawing the biggest of his many laughs.

(The Snob wrote about his Chicago experience several days later on April 3. It includes a photo of me shot over his shoulder along the bike path, though there is no mention that the guy in the blue jacket presented him with a souvenir from the Tour de France on the ride. I was never more than half a wheel from him the entire ride. I was so engrossed in conversation with him that somehow I missed the wave that he says "nearly washed us out into the Atlantic or Pacific or whatever ocean it is that's next to Chicago.")


Chris said...

I've always wondered what the snob would be like in person...when I travel though, I take my folding bike along - I find it to be easier than coupler systems.

Stuart said...

Well, my two favorite bicycle bloggers finally meet! The tone of your blogs is very different. The Snob is a sarcastic and cynical New Yorker. You have the kindness of a Midwesterner. I guess we can call the Snob an urban biker whereas you are perhaps the greatest bicycle tourer who ever lived. The only two bicycle blogs I read. I wish you wrote as often as the Snob does!

george christensen said...

The Snob isn't as sardonic in person as he is in his writing. It is an act of a sort, though he knows he has an image to uphold and seemed to force his crankiness and outspokenness at times. In his latest book he makes a series of derisive remarks about Critical Mass calling it "essentially a big circle-jerk." During the Q&A at his book signing someone asked him what he thought about Critical Mass. He didn't wish to be so harsh or inflammatory among a group that all looked as if they participated in it, so simply said he didn't think it was so necessary in cities like Chicago and New York where there was a strong bike presence. He did snarl at the woman who asked him about there being so few women in attendance for not paying attention to him as he answered her. She apologized, saying she was just responding to someone who started talking to her after she asked the question. He has no doubt mellowed over the years. Friends who knew Edward Abbey said he was nothing like his writing personality. They referred to him as "Edward Drabbey."