Book Review: In Praise of the Bicycle

SHORT REVIEW: Ask yourself three questions before picking up In Praise of the Bicycle, by Marc Augé: Am I French? Am I a French Boomer who knows the geographical layout of major French cities? Do I have an irrational affinity for major bike races and racers of the 1950s and ’60s and the ability to recall minute details of long-ago contests as though it was my own beloved father leading the pack while wrapped in a jersey that reads ‘I LOVE YOU, SON” in block lettering?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then I recommend just one more before delving into Augé‘s mercifully short book: Do I have a strong will to live?

LONGER REVIEW: I have great luck with books, always have. I can pluck a book from a stack blindly with no previous knowledge of the writer nor the subject, and have on numerous occasions. Nearly without fail, I end up with a great read, something good enough to recommend to friends. So it is rare and shocking when I encounter a book I truly do not like. In Praise of the Bicycle is one.

In Praise, ostensibly, is a philosophical rumination on the machine that changed the way people across the globe live, which is why I was attracted to it from the start. But Augé, being French, has a distinctly different perspective on the bicycle than most Americans. The French, most especially the French of the Boomer generation, love the sport of bicycle racing, dearly. To Americans, that may as well be soccer, for all it matters.

Augé writes wistfully, and in excruciating detail, about racers and races of the 1950s and ’60s. He is unabashed in his fan-girl love of Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, the dominant international cyclist in the years after WWII. Augé‘s recollection of bicycle races — major and minor — is acute, admirable, and wholly unrelatable to an American audience.

Augé reasons that part of the downfall of bicycling generally is reflected in the 3 a.m. pharmacy counter bender that professional cycling has become. I am of the belief — not unsupported by facts — that basically all professional sports have become a Dope Show, and that bicycle racing is merely the Dopiest. Perhaps that’s too jaded, but I’m just not as crestfallen over the besmirching of the Once Great Sport Of Cycling. I mean, we American’s produced Lance Armstrong, arguably the sport’s biggest besmircher, so, you know.

Augé mercifully moves past his childhood crush on cyclists you’ve never heard of in races you’ve never cared about and eyes the Current Situation of bikes in cities. That may be over stating it a bit. He eyes the Current Situation of bikes in Paris. This is, frankly, the best part of the book, because he does some actual journalism here, examining the effect and affect of the Parisian bike-share system, Vélib. There are some actual facts and figures in there, mainly revolving around the number of bike riders who have died in traffic in the past few years, but solid information just the same. However, it’s all quite focused. Augé never bothers to get comparative numbers from anywhere or extrapolate out from the numbers he has gathered to make any sort of universal statement or plea beyond what his happening in present day Paris, all of which is curious since Augé‘s an anthropologist in his day job.

It’s after this romp through very specific Parisian neighborhoods you know nothing about that Augé really brings the hammer down. “Let us allow our imaginations to run wild,” he says, kicking off a good 20 or so pages of a bizarre, bicycle-centric fever dream where bike riders gleefully interact with shiny, happy Taxi drivers and relaxed, not-at-all murdery Police while pedaling through the bucolic, car-free landscape of some kind of Bicycle Disneyland, Paris. It’s all quite weird, fact free and oddly specific.

You have a better chance liking this book if you’re French, and from Paris, specifically. But Augé‘s trite treatment of bicycling’s challenges, his lack of philosophical heft and whatever rabbit hole excursion that last section is supposed to be would also disqualify it as something you’d recommend to a friend, even a Parisian.

Got a book you’d recommend? I’m more than open to it.

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