The bicycle is a vestige of the Victorian era, seemingly at odds with our age of smartphones and ride-sharing apps and driverless cars. Yet we live on a bicycle planet. Across the world, more people travel by bicycle than any other form of transportation. Almost anyone can learn to ride a bike—and nearly everyone does. In Two Wheels Good, journalist and critic Jody Rosen reshapes our understanding of this ubiquitous machine, an ever-present force in humanity's life and dream life—and a flash point in culture wars—for more than two hundred years. Combining history, reportage, travelogue, and memoir, Rosen's book sweeps across centuries and around the globe, unfolding the bicycle's saga from its invention in 1817 to its present-day renaissance as a "green machine," an emblem of sustainability in a world afflicted by pandemic and climate change.
... excellent ... The narrow subject and relatively brief time frame of Two Wheels Good make it a crystalline portrait of modernity, the vexed, exhilarating, murderous, mechanized world left to us by the 19th century. The bicycle has touched nearly every element of life on earth since then, it turns out ... Rosen amasses his examples of these issues expertly ... takes the form of bricolage, blending meticulous historical research, local reporting from bicycle-dependent locales like Bhutan and Bangladesh and personal memories of riding in New York and Boston. Rosen is arguably strongest in the first of these three styles, but the book excels across all of them and, in its curious, mingled character, calls to mind Bill Bryson, John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit — obsessives, for whom the material world and their own infinitesimal presence within it constitute the most natural subject of artistic inquiry ... Still, many readers — riding readers, perhaps — will find the most meaning in Rosen’s carefully curbed but unmistakable personal passion for the bike...All enthusiasms are slightly daffy, and at moments Rosen reaches a kind of embarrassed nirvana as he contemplates his subject, lovingly describing a trick rider’s stunts, traversing Dhaka by rickshaw or his own encounters with snow, car doors and, of course, drivers, too many obnoxious, unfeeling drivers to number.
... takes readers time-traveling and globe-trotting to build up an alternate narrative about a simple machine that becomes harder to categorize the more you learn about it ... Rosen covers this early history because he has to, but immediately starts mining it for nuance ... Even when they’re a bit of a stretch, these historical and global parallels, which Rosen draws throughout the book, disentangle bicycles from the ownership of any one time or type of person ... In the passages where he describes what it actually feels like to ride, he makes it sound irresistible ... His enthusiasm does occasionally overwhelm. Fascinating tidbits organized by loose themes, abrupt topical switches within sections, and chapters on trick cycling, exercise bikes, and bikes as sex objects make the book comprehensive but also unfocused. Still, the meandering structure often feels like a leisurely ride, full of spontaneous detours into unexpected delight ... But what makes the book essential is its rigorous reporting. Rosen holds his responsibility as a journalist higher than his love for his subject, sharing unflattering and sometimes bleak truths about bicycles that rust their shining image ... Rosen doesn’t wrestle with these stories so much as list them in thorny intertwinings, challenging readers to put aside any assumptions they might have had about bikes before picking up the book ... In showing that bikes have always been complicated—accessories to some and essential to others, means of recreation and of labor, signifiers of both wealth and poverty—Rosen also shows that they are universal, inviting even the most skeptical readers along with his humility and humor. Bicycles don’t belong to hipsters in Brooklyn or to parents in Copenhagen, and riding one doesn’t have to signify anything about the rider. You needn’t give your bike a second thought if you don’t want to. In all of their complexity, and maybe because of it, bicycles have always been, and will always be, for everyone.
... shifts from tales of enchantment and wild legends to more factual accounts and events grounded in history. The approach is akin to how Rosen, a longtime cyclist himself, describes the act of traveling on two wheels: an experience like 'gliding somewhere between terra firma and the huge horizonless sky.' That is a beautiful expression of the book’s ambition, but it also covers a lot of territory. In certain chapters, I did find myself wondering if the book’s appeal would be limited to 'bicycle obsessives,' as Rosen calls them, or if his work would charm general audiences in the way that John McPhee, for example, inspires laypeople to read about remote landscapes and geologic history ... At its best, Two Wheels Good serves up wonderful surprises and a cast of whimsical characters ... The book’s far-flung topics are often insightful and rewarding, though lengthy excursions can sometimes dampen the momentum and turn the book into something of a catchall. Extended passages on bicycle innovation, bicycle porn, bicycle traffic in Bangladesh, and other various nuts and bolts — while certainly informative — steal energy from Rosen’s livelier anecdotes and may invite some skimming ... The author’s own relationship to cycling provides a nice personal touch, yet the chapter’s multiple sections and sidebars make it feel less like a narrative than an assembly of parts ... Rosen’s book supplies us with important background while preserving a sense of romanticism and intrigue. The author, to his credit, does not idealize his subject ... He successfully portrays the bicycle as a machine of great consequence — both a vital extension of the human body and an enduring object of our imagination.