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His name is Eben Weiss, but most cyclists know him better as Bike Snob, a lacerating blogger and book author who has spent a decade taking aim at everything from the absurdity of fixie culture and the consumerist excess of roadies to the overearnest nature of racing fans and the slippery charm of Mario Cipollini. Contributor Peter Flax spent two hours on the phone with Weiss, discussing his early riding life, his emergence as a sort of cycling comedian, and his more recent pivot into advocacy. Here are highlights of that wide-ranging interview, presented in Weiss’ own words.
The origin story
I always loved bikes. I grew up in Queens and Long Island. As a kid in Far Rockaway, my friends and I used to tear around the neighborhood. We had total freedom; we just went wherever we wanted on our bikes.
When I got a bit older, I got into BMX. There was a track out in Long Island — and every weekend when I was 12, I’d go out there and race BMX. I was way into that.
In my later teens, I got deep into music and going to see bands at CBGB and diving off of stages, so bikes took a back seat for a while. But in college, I started getting back into riding. After I graduated, I moved to Brooklyn — I had an editorial assistant job at an imprint of Penguin Books and I rode in my spare time.
After a few years in the book business, I decided to leave my job and become a bike messenger. I did that for six months — not long enough to give me a ton of street cred, but at least I did it for one winter. I would just wake up and pick up the phone and start rolling. I loved being on my bike all day. I got to know the city in a way I never would otherwise have done. I got to that point where someone could throw an address at me, and I’d know the cross streets and where all the service entrances were. I felt like I knew the inner workings of the city.
Other than those days where it was 40 degrees and pouring and people wouldn’t answer the door, it was great. I remember finding it just really meditative to ride in the city. I was young and I was willing to ride aggressively and I never gave any thought to infrastructure. I was just out on my bike, weaving through traffic.
Manhattan, for all of its infrastructure problems and traffic, is an ideal place to get around on a bicycle. Most of the time, the density works in your favor. Some of the avenues are almost highways but at the same time the streets are being used by everybody and you can always find your place. It’s not sprawl, which as a cyclist is your worst enemy.
At some point, I got offered a job to be Michael Moore’s assistant and so I quit messengering. It wasn’t working out financially, and my bike got stolen.
Working for Michael Moore was tough. He and the film world kind of chewed me up and spat me out — I took plenty of abuse from people with big egos. After that I worked as a literary agent. It also was clear that I wasn’t cut out for that job, either.
But I was an aspiring writer and I was starting to write humor pieces. These were the days of Internet 1.0 — I was writing some humor stuff that wound up on a website called Modern Humorist.
When I went back into working indoors, I got into racing road bikes. I was like how most people in the New York bike racing scene are, the guy with an ostensible career working in an office, riding my bike whenever I could, waking up at 5am and training, doing races in Prospect Park and Central Park. I was never any good, nothing more than pack fill once I upgraded to Cat 3, but I was out there racing every weekend. I was your typical bike racer: Lycra and clipless pedals all the time.
I was increasingly frustrated in my job and I just wanted to write funny stuff. But there wasn’t really an outlet for what I wanted to do. I wasn’t cut out to write about pro racing or advocacy or do serious product reviews. None of those things seemed like who I was.
The monologue emerges
But suddenly around 2006 I got this idea what to write about. Lucky for me, the whole fixie thing started to become very visible in New York. I was in my early 30s, this older bike guy laughing at this fake messenger scene, these people appearing seemingly out of nowhere, riding around the city with naïve exuberance on these ridiculous bikes. Really expensive track frames with no brakes and they’re all riding them gingerly because they can’t stop. I had this older brother sort of bemusement with maybe a little bit of disdain over these people who didn’t know what they were doing. I’d be riding around with this monologue in my head and it hit me that I could write about it.
At the time, nobody seemed to be writing about cycling in a pop culture way. We’re used to reading social commentary about movies and music and dance and style and we take the characters for granted. I realized the bike world is just like that too, just smaller and more insular — we have our characters and our stereotypes.
Without giving it too much thought, I started this blog. I picked the name Bike Snob, which I kind of regret, but it seemed right because I knew I was going to have this intentionally over-the-top attitude. And I did it anonymously because I didn’t want people to have a good picture of me.
I think my first post was about some ridiculous fixie for sale on Craigslist. Like a lot of bike weenies, I spent my spare time at work looking up race results and pictures of myself at mountain-bike races, and combing eBay and Craigslist for parts. I had no idea how to track web traffic at that point, but I could see that I was getting comments. So I knew people were reading it. I decided early on that I’d just do a blog post every day. I still had my job so I’d basically hide in my office at work and make fun of fixies.
I was introverted; I wasn’t one of these people in the New York City racing scene that everyone knew. I was pack fill, fairly anonymous in that world. But I was immersed in that world and I loved it and I was always observing. So I was in a good position to comment.
At a certain point in writing, I got more confident and I started to comment about more aspects of cycling. I wrote about racing and silly new products and cycling in Portland. This is around the time that I wrote my first book — once I had that book deal lined up I was able to quit my job. The book came out in 2010. I was on a book tour but I still was blogging every day.
It started to feel really silly and contrived to be anonymous. People wanted to interact me with me and I couldn’t really do that. It made sense to reveal myself when the book came out — I needed to be able to promote it. So in 2010, right as the book came out, Jason Gay did a profile of me for the Wall Street Journal. That’s when people learned my name and that I was the Bike Snob.
In the beginning, when I was just anonymous pack fill, my only connection to the bike industry were my friends who owned bike shops. But once I started, I got to know pro riders and people in the bike world and the bike industry, and there were these moments where it was strange. It’s different to make a Grant Petersen joke once you know Grant Petersen. But it’s not that hard to revert back when you’re on your laptop in the privacy of your own home.
Around this time, Lance Armstrong started reaching out to me. He was reading my blog. It’s embarrassing to say, but of course I was thrilled. He used to come to New York; we used to ride around here a lot. It was fun but I didn’t quite know what to make of it. We’d talk about all sorts of stuff — from kids and family, to work and riding. He’d ask me questions about the bike scene and the bike world. Lance would talk about some of the controversy he was going through but it’s not like he was spilling his guts or anything. I just tried to treat it like we were two guys who were riding. I’m still in touch with him from time to time. Just recently, he invited to me to the screening for Icarus in New York.
A pivot into advocacy
I had a pretty narrow view when I started my blog. As someone who rode around the city all the time, I had my share of run-ins with motorists. But for a long time, I’d be mad for a block and then brush it off. When you’re young, you just don’t think the same way.
But readers kept sending me stuff. Eventually I could no longer ignore all the horrible stories of what happens when a driver hits a cyclist. The first time you read a story like that, you think Jesus, that’s fucked up. And then you kind of forget. But then you read another one — and another one and another one. And you realize that enormity of the problem; you realize what’s going on out there. The truth is that drivers are killing and maiming cyclists with virtually no consequences. Once you’re aware of that, it’s just not possible to ignore it.
One of the things I’m always making fun of on my blog is stupidity. I live for stupidity, whether it’s a ridiculous new product or an article about bikes that’s dumb. And there’s nothing as easy to ridicule as anti-bike editorials and anti-bike comments in anti-bike-lane articles. They’re all just so stupid.
I feel like if someone writes a really stupid anti-bike screed, I owe it to my readers to tear it apart, to be the person to rip it up in front of everyone so we all can feel better and laugh about it. Instead of getting angry, people should just see that author is just an idiot.
Maybe it’s my imagination, but I feel that some people look to me in those situations. So writing an advocacy piece for the Washington Post or an outlet like that, it feels like a natural kind of progression. I try to be insightful, I try to be funny, and I’m not afraid to be mean when it’s necessary. I’ve been wanting to do a podcast forever, and I really would like to talk to some of these anti bike people
Part of the reason that I’m more interested in advocacy is a product of how my approach to bikes has changed now that I’m older and have kids. I’m not racing or putting on Lycra for a road ride as often as I used to. Now I’m riding with a kid on my bike and I’m not interested in hammering to beat drivers through the intersection.
Because for a long time I was a bike racer with my head up my ass, I didn’t really pay attention to all the bike lanes going in around New York. But as I was blogging, Janette Sadik-Khan and the Bloomberg administration were changing the nature of the city’s streets. So I started thinking about it a lot more — both how much I appreciated all the new infrastructure and how it’s bringing into sharper relief just how car-centric we are.
Now, there are more of these protected bike lanes in New York, and I’m grateful for them. They are making normal, non-hurried riding on a heavy or slow bicycle possible. Without that infrastructure, you have to be on a bare-bones quick bike—you’ve got to be ready to ride fast if you have to. But now I can go out on my Big Dummy with my kid and go to the park or run errands. And anybody who would fight against this, arguing that we shouldn’t have this because it makes driving more difficult in the biggest, densest city in America, it’s absurd and really hateful.
In retrospect, I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to become aware of all the advocacy issues. I made fun of fixie kids and roadies and mountain bikers, and I’d also make fun of advocacy. I made fun of David Byrne. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have.
I don’t deserve to be called an advocate. They’re the people at every community board meeting — it can be hard, soul-crushing work. The real advocates are the people who are wallowing in that all the time. I can’t handle that.
Sometimes I get despondent. It’s hard not to get despondent when you read these stories. Some basic problems haven’t improved here in New York — the bad stuff that happens right after a cyclist gets hit. The instant victim blaming, the police immediately releasing a narrative to the newspaper that’s based entirely on the driver account with erroneous information. I don’t think that’s gotten any better as long as I’ve been paying attention.
Progress can be slow. Here, people have been getting killed by trucks and buses in the West 20s in Manhattan and the city finally announced protected crosstown bike lanes there, months and months after the first-ever Citi Bike fatality. And that’s just for the announcement; it’s going to be a long time before we actually see these bike lanes. It’s great that it’s happening, but it’s maddening how long it takes, and it’s maddening how any suggestion that there should be more control around driving is seen as an impingement of our fundamental liberty.
At the same time, what’s gotten a hell of a lot better is that there are a lot of people riding, there’s a lot more infrastructure in New York and a lot of other places. Ten years ago, if I wanted to ride from where I lived in Brooklyn to my mother’s place in Astoria, Queens, I would have gone over the bridge and rode through Manhattan and then taken another bridge to Queens. Otherwise, you’d be taking your life into your own hands if you rode those streets. Now, that route is like the most sumptuous bike route in the city; you can pretty much go at your own pace from Red Hook, Brooklyn, all the way to northern Astoria in a protected bike lane. It’s an incredible transformation.
Maybe I’m wrong, but if you look in New York and L.A. and other big cities, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a Department of Transportation that doesn’t understand that things have to change, that the car thing is not working. They may be going at it in a half-assed manner or be a little too solicitous to the NIMBYs, but they all understand that car culture has real problems and that bikes need to play more of a role in getting around cities.
Also Citi Bike is astounding. When I started my blog I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me there’s going to be this thing called Citi Bike, with tons of bikes on every corner and you’re just going to take one and it’s going to be a huge success. Now, even the anti-bike cranks don’t try to argue that Citi Bike isn’t a success. Now you have politicians in these outlying neighborhoods complaining that they don’t have Citi Bike.
Right now the hot issue we have going on here is congestion pricing. It’s so important and it needs to happen so badly. And it’s so infuriating that we have a mayor who won’t get behind it. The transit system needs the money. Forget bikes for a second; it’s embarrassing that our transit system is in the state it’s in. We’re supposed to be one of the greatest cities on the planet.
I’m still blogging every day. I also write a daily bike forecast for Transportation Alternatives; I kind of aggregate news stories for New York riders. I like to see and write about what’s going on in the city, like when I was a bike messenger. Beyond that, I’ve been doing a weekly column for Outside, which is a distillation of what I’ve been doing for years. I guess I’m getting older; I’m saying what I’ve always been saying, but with fewer Cipollini memes.
The Bike Snob speaks: Our Fixation on Helmets
I think that our fixation on helmets is terrible and it’s really holding us back. In 100 years, one of two things is going to happen: Either we’re going to look back at this puritanical preoccupation that cyclists have to wear a helmet on a bicycle all the time and laugh about it, like how people laugh at chastity belts today, or nobody’s going to ride bikes anymore because people think they’re too dangerous. That’s the bottom line. The helmet thing is so incompatible with riding bikes normally — we have to lose it. I’m not talking about going fast on a road bike; I’m talking about riding bikes to get around, normal upright city riding.
People talk about research. But I’ve reviewed the data, too, and I’m completely certain that in the context of riding your bike to the store or around the city, the safety impact of wearing a helmet or not wearing a helmet is statistical noise. The set of circumstances in which a helmet might help you are very specific, a tiny impact compared to the importance of using bikes and implementing safer infrastructure and improving enforcement. Having more people on bikes is what makes people on bikes safer. And insisting on helmets and making such a big deal out of them is simply not compatible with getting more people on bikes, with making bikes normal and easy. The focus on the helmets is a complete and utter waste of time.
If it was illegal to ride a bike without a helmet I would ride my bike less, and I live and breathe bikes. There are times when I’m out riding without a helmet and I get attitude from people. I’ve had people yell at me “Where’s your helmet?” Think about how that impacts a normal person, who gets on a bike to ride a mile to the store only to have someone shouts “Where’s your helmet?” People will second guess what they’re doing.
I see parents in playgrounds with kids playing on a jungle gym but if one of the kids starts to ride their scooter, a parent will literally scream “Where’s your helmet?” What usually happens is the kid puts the scooter aside and instead goes back to playing on the monkey bars, which surely poses a greater risk of a head injury than a three-wheeled scooter. It’s ridiculous and it’s toxic.
People don’t want to acknowledge how many different kinds of riding there are. Look, when you’re on a road bike, you’re going fast, you’re in a position in which if something happens you’re going to fall differently than if you’re sitting on an upright city bike. A road bike is designed to put you on your head, it’s going to launch you forward. The idea that we should approach different bicycles and different riding styles the same is silly.