Category Archives: cycling

Cadillacs, Yugos and Van Moofs

Being a member of Generation X, I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the Sarajevo Olympics.

“Where is Sarajevo?” I asked my father.

(I knew perfectly well where Sarajevo was. I just wanted to hear my father explain it.)

“It’s in Yugoslavia,” he answered.

“Yugoslavia?” I said.

“It’s kind of like Switzerland,” he said, “only with Polacks, Turks and Greeks instead of Frogs, Germans and Italians.”

To translate from my father to English, “Polacks” meant “Slavs,” all Slavs. “Turks” meant “Muslims” and “Greeks” meant “Orthodox Christians.” So he was basically accurate. Yugoslavia was a multicultural Slavic state full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

“How is it like Switzerland?” I asked.

“It’s got mountains,” he said, “and it’s neutral.”

“Neutral?” I said. “Isn’t it communist?”

“Yes,” he said. “But they’re neutral commies, not like the Russians. That’s why we let them have the Olympics and didn’t boycott them. Unlike the East Germans or Polacks, they can also travel. That’s why there are so many of them here.”

In addition to being an expert on Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe, my father was also a devotee of big American cars. In fact, he didn’t consider anything else a real car, just a toy. For years, our primary vehicle was a gigantic 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. While comfortable on long trips, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood wasn’t particularly fuel efficient. Like like a Leopard II or Abrams Tank, you measured fuel consumption in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.

In other words, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood was capitalism before neoliberalism and neoliberal austerity, capitalism at the height of its power, capitalism before the gas lines and the 1973 recession. That a member of the lower-middle-class (well upper-lower-middle-class) like my father could buy and maintain one was a testament to New Deal America, to the enfranchisement of the working class, to freedom and democracy. Who needed communism when anybody in America could afford to keep a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood? Franklin Roosevelt had already won the Cold War. Marx and Stalin weren’t evil. They were just besides the point.

But what about Joseph Broz Tito? While long dead by 1984, Joseph Broz Tito was the guiding spirit behind the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Long before the bloody civil wars of the 1990s, or the Clinton Administration’s and the ghoulish Madeleine Albright’s use of Al Qaeda and the Kosovo Liberation Army to break up greater Serbia, Sarajevo was the secular capital of a Muslim country, a exotically beautiful “Oriental” city in a communist country which had good relations with the west, a place where people who looked like white Americans bowed towards Mecca five times a day. Not far away was Mostar, home of the famous Ottoman Bridge, that also, according to the nostalgic memories of the Bosnian Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica, made supersonic jets and Yugoslavia a major power. Yugoslavia might not have been as wealthy as Switzerland. But it was a far more interesting place.

Nobody, however, would confuse the Yugo, the sub-compact communist clunker Yugoslavia attempted to export to the United States with a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. The Yugoslavian government’s logic was perfectly sound. By 1984, New Deal American capitalism had given way to neoliberal American capitalism and neoliberal austerity. Gas was now prohibitively expensive. No longer could lower-middle-class (or even upper-lower-middle-class) Americans afford to buy Cadillacs. So the idea of exporting a tiny sub-compact that only cost $3000 was not as ridiculous as a lot of people thought it was at the time. People also forget just how bad the compact cars (that cost at least 3 times as much) coming out of Detroit (incompetently made knockoffs of Japanese made cars) were.

It’s too bad the Simpsons never had the insight to make fun of the 1990 Ford Aspire, which started out at $9860 dollars.

Does anybody in the United States even remember, let along remember fondly, the 1990 Ford Aspire? Unlike the Ford Aspire, the Yugo is in fact remembered fondly by some people, including a Dutch guy named “Ralph” who founded a company dedicated to giving people tours of the monuments of the former Yugoslavia in its most famous, or infamous, export.

YUGO TOUR is a car ride in a vintage Yugoslav Zastava car that gives you a taste of everyday life in Yugoslavia. By driving through the remains of the Yugoslav urban space in Belgrade and Sarajevo, we try to keep everything as authentic as possible and help you experience a day in the life of a typical Yugoslav person. We will play the music from that period, drink “Yugoslav Coca Cola” and tell you about the ideals, architecture, and history of a nation that no longer exists. There is no better way to learn the history of one country than to immerse yourself in it on one of our tours. Experience Belgrade as the booming capital of Yugoslavia in a ride along impressive brutalist architecture, bombed buildings, a concentration camp and Tito’s grave. Or return to the days that Sarajevo was the beating heart of Yugoslav rock music and the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Dear comrade, don’t hesitate; book a YUGO TOUR before it’s too late!

Note: According to a Serbian acquaintance of vast knowledge of the history of Yugoslavia, Yugotours is a silly concept ridiculed with historical inaccuracies.

The interesting thing about the Dutch is that they’re not only the best looking people in the world. They’re the tallest. It’s a land of literal giants. Indeed, the Netherlands is just about the only place where I, being about 6 feet tall, or 183cm, would feel short. The idea of the Dutch driving around in subcompact seems just as hilarious as the idea of Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying coach, and NBA teams did indeed fly commercial until 1990. In fact, just about the only other place in the world, where the average height is more or less the same as the Dutch is the former Yugoslavia, where people in Bosnia and Montenegro clock in at an average height of 184cm, just a hair below the Dutch average of 185cm. A Yugo, while perfectly adequate for an American, average height 5’9″ or 175cm, was probably ridiculously small for the descendants of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš.

In addition to being good-looking giants, the Dutch are also avid cyclists. Indeed, Amsterdam is probably the most bike friendly city in the world.

Nowadays the Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with 2% in the UK – and this rises to 38% in Amsterdam and 59% in the university city of Groningen. All major Dutch cities have designated “bicycle civil servants”, tasked to maintain and improve the network. And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles.The Cyclists’ Union has long ceased to be a group of random activists; it is now a respectable organisation with 34,000 paying members whose expertise is in worldwide demand.

Dutch bicycles are famous for being cheap, simple durable, and easy to repair. It was with great dismay, therefore, that I found out about how the Dutch, those giants with bicycles, have not only fallen for the E-bike craze. They’ve purchased large numbers of Van Moofs, a high-end E-bike starting at $2000 but averaging closer to $3000, about the same price as a Yugo, not accounting for inflation. Sadly for the Dutch, the company has gone bankrupt. Good luck getting your $3000 luxury E-bike repaired if it breaks down, or even starting it.

If the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood represented American capitalism at its height, it’s most egalitarian and prosperous and if the Yugo represented old-school East European communism, then surely the Van Moof represents neoliberal capitalism. I’m of course an old school cyclist who can go over 500 miles on a cheap aluminum road bike. Something about the very concept of an E-bike offends me. But in general it’s not a bad idea for weaker riders. Put a motor powered by a battery on the front wheel and it will help you get up the hill that you can’t quite handle on your own.

But the Van Moof was more than just a bicycle with a motor assist. It was a status symbol for tech bros, a cheap hybrid that you needed an app to start. Like those ubiquitous pepper grinders you find on yuppie tables in Park Slope it was a simple concept with a lot of extra crap added on that did absolutely nothing worth the trouble of the improvement. The Van Moof was above all about making money from suckers who have too much money. It was the essence of neoliberalism. Steal from the poor to give to the rich so you could then steal from the rich.

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike maker that gained a zealous following, tripled its sales in the pandemic and raised more than $180 million in funding, declared bankruptcy last month, leaving riders in limbo. That’s because the eye-catching e-bikes, which start around $2,000, are built from proprietary parts that only the company makes, available mostly at company-run service centers. And many of the bikes’ functions are linked to VanMoof’s smartphone app.“If I break it, or something else happens, I don’t know where to go,” said Gideon Sutaman, 28, who lives in Amsterdam and has been riding his VanMoof e-bike since December.

At least the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood gave you something for your extravagance.

The Bike Boom Continues

Westfield, NJ June 2020

Every day my local bike store takes delivery of at least 10 new bikes. Every evening they put out the same number of empty cartons. They’re easily selling 10-15 per day, probably more. Last Fall I bought a new carbon gravel bike that comes with a free tuneup if you take it in within six months. Their repair shop is so busy that the manager extended it to a year and upgraded it to a complete overhaul instead of a safety tuneup. He says their waiting list is currently “at 160 tickets” and extends into August. So in addition to selling at least 10 new bikes a day, they’re repairing 10-15 bikes a day. Those are amazing numbers for one suburban bike shop. All I know is that when the Covid epidemic is over and people can finally go back to the gym, there are going to be a lot of good deals on used bikes on Craigslist.

Will there be a new “bike boom?”

Westfield, NJ May 2020

Just about the only place I’m seeing long lines in my little corner of the suburban NYC hot zone is my local bike store. It’s easy to see why. All of the gyms are closed, and will be for the foreseeable future, so people are digging up all those old bikes from their basements and getting them repaired.

As Carlton Reid points out in his new book “Bike Boom,” the last time the United States saw a major resurgence of cycling was in the 1970s. Partly because of the 1960s counterculture and partly because of the 1970s oil shocks, everybody started riding bikes.

In Washington DC, there was a young Post staff reporter called Carl Bernstein – later to become half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pair – known as the “office hippie” and a “long-haired freak who rode a bicycle …”

“Many cyclists harbour fierce antipathy for what they regard as an automobile culture that is choking the nation with fumes, speed, noise and concrete,” he wrote in the Post in 1970. He went on to describe a “growing group of cyclists who regard pedalling as an almost political act and inevitably flash the two-finger peace symbol upon encountering another person on a bike”.

There were also plans in the 1970s to build a cycling infrastructure in the United States that would have rivaled that of Germany or the Netherlands, but sadly it never got off the ground. Like many good ideas that came out of the 1970s energy crisis, the bike boom turned out to be a fad. Perhaps it’s possible now, but I suspect people will go back to the gyms as soon as it gets cold (if they’re open).

The Watchung Mountains on a Brompton


Nobody would ever mistake the Watchung  Mountains for the Alps or the Himalayas. Nevertheless, they were an obstacle formidable enough in 1781 to guard the Continental Army against the British, who were defeated in the decisive Battle of Springfield when they tried to march on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown. At almost 1000 feet at their height, they are a nightmare to drive over when the road is covered with ice in the Winter. They are a challenge to ride over on a full sized, 700c road bike. So what is it like riding through the Watchung Mountains on a folding bicycle?

It’s actually much easier than I thought it would be.

Last year, I purchased a Brompton folding bike for the not inconsiderable sum of $1525. It’s by far the most I’ve ever spent for a bike, but that finely designed, hand made British engineering doesn’t come cheap. Spending less on a folding bicycle is not only dangerous but a waste. You’d wind up spending more on repairs anyway. I wouldn’t spend any more than $1525. The more expensive models are pretty much just the base model with a nicer paint job, but $1525 is the folding bike’s equivalent of a $1000 dollar entry level aluminum road bike. In fact, since you get an internally geared hub, it’s probably a bargain. You don’t have to worry about your derailleur getting all gunked up with salt in the Winter.

The Brompton has 16 inch wheels. It’s a bit tricky to fold at first, but you get used to it soon enough, and the base model fits anybody from 4’10” to 5’10”. Technically if you’re over 5’10” you need to buy an extended seat post, but at 5’11” I found that the base seat post fits me just fine, so why spend the money or add the extra weight. The front rack and touring bag are excellent. Unlike a normal touring bike, which locates the extra weight in the back, this distributes it to the front wheel, away from your body weight. The Brompton has 6 gears, ranging from a very forgiving 64mm to a much faster 98mm for going downhill. You can get the gearing adjusted down 18% for steeper hills but I found I didn’t need that either.


I started off in Unami Park in Cranford, about 3 miles from the entrance to the Watchung Reservation. It’s a pleasant little park set in the middle of gentrified working class suburbia (those little 3 bedroom bungalows built out of the Sears Catalogue now go for $500,000 dollars, but that’s another blog post). I dodged the various Labradoodles, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds out in the park and road through downtown Westfield and across Route 22. I noticed that there’s a deer hunt going on. Hey, if you’re in the area of Mountainside or Berkeley Heights, New Jersey and own a bow and arrows, here’s your chance.


In any event, the steep hills began just at about this point, and I downshifted into first gear. I began to mentally prepare myself to swallow my pride just in case I’d have to get off and walk. Then I shifted back up into second gear. The approach to the Watchung Mountains, while steep, wasn’t as bad as I thought. I could save the first gear for later. The biggest challenge riding a folding bike with 16-inch wheels isn’t so much the steep hills, but the amount of debris on the road. There was a major rain storm a few days ago, and the road is littered with twigs, acorns and even larger branches that haven’t been cleaned up yet. There’s also the traffic. Not only do drivers seem more openly hostile on a Brompton, as compared to a full size bike, you can’t accelerate quite as fast. On the other hand, my guess is that drivers are just as hostile to cyclists on full-sized bikes, and if you’re noticing their hostility, it means they’re noticing you, which is always good.

Once I hit the serious incline of WR Tracy Road, the hostility ended. Motorists making their way up the 800 foot incline not only seemed to recognize that they need to share a big park like Watchung Reservation with cyclists, but also curious about this man riding a bike with wheels half the size of a normal bike. Cyclists on the way down the hill gave me the thumbs up. A fox and a herd of deer rushed across the street ahead of me across the road. I finally shifted down into first gear. I suddenly regretted eating so much before I left the house, but that was a minor issue. I’m also sick — I have a mild case of bronchitis, a cold, and a toothache — and chronically sleep deprived. I began to sweat. I didn’t really need the Carhartt hoodie the way I did in yesterday’s wind storm. But nothing was decisive. I made it to the top with barely any more effort than I take on my full sized road bike.

I also got a good look at the NYC skyline. If Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house. I can see the Freedom Tower at the midpoint of my normal bike ride.


I tried to get the Brompton and the Freedom Tower in the same frame but there was too much brush and too many trees. I also road around the (very wealthy neighborhood) to find the right angle. I walked up on a few porches and road up into a few driveways but none of them let me get the perfect shot. I suppose I made the footage on a few security cameras. “Who is this weird looking guy with this weird looking little bike.”


In any event, the final mileage was about 15 steep miles and it was all pretty easy. If you live in a city like San Francisco or Seattle, a place that has a lot of hills, you can manage it easily on a folding bike. The Brompton is also the perfect bike for touring. Just throw it in the baggage check of a Greyhound or an Amtrak and take public transportation in between rides. It’s not as much fun riding a Brompton as it is riding a full sized 700c road bike with drop bars and clip in pedals, but there’s nothing really stopping you using it as your main or only bike.

I Bought a Jaguar

Actually better. But still British. Over the next two years I’m going to be commuting frequently in and out of Newark, NJ and Manhattan, which means New Jersey Transit. You can bring full-sized bikes on NJ Transit trains but not at peak times. So the solution is a folding bike. This also lets me have my own bike pretty much anywhere I go. I can put it in the overheard luggage compartments on a plain or a Greyhound.

I don’t have a lot of experience cycling in Manhattan but after picking the Brompton up from Brompton Junction in the Village I road up to my old apartment at 106th and Manhattan, then back down to Penn Station. Then I got off the train in Elizabeth instead of my usual stop in Westfield. I knew this was a well-crafted bike but I was surprised at just how fast I can go. It’s almost as quick as a full sized bike but there’s something more. With the smaller wheels, you’re closer to the road, more connected with the experience of cycling. It’s a bit like switching from an SUV with an automatic to a sub compact with a stick.

I’m over 50 and I never plan to buy a car. Hopefully I’ll be cycling well into my 80s.

Like this guy.

Speaking of very old men, Holy Shit, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive, old enough to be Bernie Sanders’s father.


A Brief Meditation on Clipless Pedals


Last year, while riding in Watchung Reservation, a cyclist passed me on WR Tracy Drive. “On your left,” he shouted as he whizzed by me as if I were standing still. There was no shame in being passed. WR Tracy Drive is a steep incline. The cyclist who passed me was training for hills, and I was just out for a pleasant ride in the park. Nevertheless, as is my habit, whenever someone shouts “on your left” (asshole for “I’m faster than you”) and puts a significant amount of distance between himself and me in a short period of time, I always try to close the gap, or even pass the offending showoff. Usually I have little trouble. I’m a fairly strong cyclist and there are few people I can’t catch if I’m genuinely determined. This guy, however, moved like a grey ghost through the mist. By the time I downshifted and started to pedal in earnest he had already rounded the circle on Summit Lane and was nearly out of sight. Try as I might I couldn’t catch up. I never even came close.

I went home that evening demoralized, feeling weak and old. What was it about the demon cyclist that I lacked? I suppose it could have been age. He appeared to be in his prime cycling years. I’m well into middle age. It could have been conditioning, but it wasn’t being winded that held me back. It was a simple lack of speed. I suppose it could have also been physical strength, but then again, cycling isn’t a sport that involves brute strength. Nobody trains for the Tour de France doing squats. I decided it was form, technique. He was getting more of out his bike than I was. He was younger, stronger, and better conditioned than I was, but he also employed what he had more effectively than I did. I looked down and noticed I was still using my ancient platform pedals with toe clips. I needed something to force me to keep the balls of my feet firmly in the center of the pedal. I also needed to tighten my straps and my toe clips to the point where I’d be using the upward stroke as well as the downward stroke.

I decided it was finally time to switch to clipless pedals.

The term clipless pedals is highly misleading. Even though you literally “clip in” the way you do on a pair of skis, we still use the name invented back in the 1980s to describe pedals without straps or toe clips. They’ve been standard on high end mountain bikes and road bikes for a long time, and they’re starting to trickle down to the masses. The only reason I had put off making the switch for so long was, oddly enough, the Internet. The idea of “clipping into” pedals on crowded suburban roads had always made me nervous. It’s one thing to have your feet bound to your pedals on a group ride out in the countryside. It’s another thing altogether when you have to stop for a red light every few blocks. What’s more, there is a generally accepted truism on the Internet that clipless pedals have a learning curve, that for the first few weeks that you use them you have a tendency to get your feet stuck and fall off your bike. The idea that falling off your bike while learning how to use clipless pedals is so well-accepted on every cycling forum and discussion board and stated with so much confidence I never thought to doubt it. That fall just seemed like something you’d have to go through. It was kind of like losing your virginity, something I didn’t want to experience on a crowded city street.

I’ve never fallen off my bike while using clipless pedals. I’ve never even come close. In fact, they’re so easy to use, I can clip in and clip out so fast, I’m baffled as to where the idea came from. I’ve even tried to get my feel stuck in my Shimano SPD clipless pedals, and take that obligatory fall, but I can’t seem to manage it. My feet always come out effortlessly, and I have a hard time believing that anybody else has had a different experience. So how did it become such a truism on the Internet that getting your feet stuck and falling off your bike is part of the process of learning how to use clipless pedals? I suppose maybe somewhere, sometimes, one person did. Perhaps it was the ghost of Buster Keaton rehearsing for a new silent film somewhere in cinematic heaven. Then he posted it on a cycling forum. Somebody else reposted it, then someone else reposted it again. Eventually it became conventional wisdom. People started to believe it happened to other people even though it never happened to them. Then maybe they made up stories about getting their feet stuck in their clipless pedals (even though they never did) just to feel like part of the crowd.

I’ve away from my ongoing experience with clipless pedals sure of only two things. They work. I’ll never take a long ride without them again. But above all this. People on the Internet are full of shit.

Feeling Anglophilic




Last year I cycled 500 miles through New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut on my road bike. I traveled as lightly as possible, bringing only a very small backpack and a handlebar bag. On the whole it was a good experience, but there was one thing I couldn’t stand, walking around in cycling shoes (I used clipless pedals).

So I bought a Carradice “College” saddlebag from Carradice of Nelson, handmade (and signed) by a genuine British person named “Emma.” It seems well made and has a ton of room, enough for a heavy texbook, my raingear, and a pair of running shoes. I may regret not buying one of the smaller bags. I only bought the huge one because it was on clearance, 31 pounds plus shipping, about 65 bucks overall, but then again, I probably won’t. My bike is a “large” and fits someone between 6’0″ and 6’3.” So I don’t raise the saddle that high. But the bag still seems to have plenty of clearance. I’m a little surprised at just how well engineered this thing is. I test road carrying at least 10 pounds and barely knew it was there.

So why not just buy a touring bike with a rack? Well, they’re expensive and hard to find, for one. But they’re also heavy and slow. Doing 100 miles a day requires you to travel as light as possible, and what I’ll mostly be taking on long trips are clothes and spare shoes (not particularly heavy). This bag seems to fit the bill.

So why don’t Americans make more stuff like this? Who knows. American bike stores seem mostly interested in selling you carbon road bikes that weigh 12 pounds or full suspension mountain bikes. This saddlebag is a product of an English cycling (and touring) culture that goes back 100 years. Young Franklin Roosevelt probably used something very much like it on his long cycling tour of Germany.

Images of my suburban dreamworld: 10


This is my 2013 Jamis Commuter 1 propped up on its seat and handlebars for its monthly chain cleaning. Don’t ask my why I love this bike so much. It’s cheap, heavy, slow, and has required a lot of maintenance over the past few years. Nevertheless it gets me 7 miles to work in the morning, and 7 miles back home in the evening. It’s got a rack for panniers and a chain guard so I don’t have to roll my pants up. It’s so cheap I really don’t have to worry about it being stolen. It’s my bad weather bad neighborhood, leave it at the train station all day and ride it through the rain any time I want bike. When it breaks I’ll get a new one.

I sometimes wonder why people buy mountain bikes for commuting, especially full suspension mountain bikes, especially poorly made, and quite frankly dangerous full suspension mountain bikes from department stores. The Jamis Commuter 1 is cheap and heavy but it’s also simple and well-made. Front shocks are meaningless on suburban streets. A rear suspension on a bike that costs under $2000 is absurd. I suppose it’s all about the “cool factor.” Department stores like Walmart sell dangerous, $200 dollar full suspension mountain bikes because kids like to pretend they’re riding state of the art $2000 dollar full suspension mountain bikes. Then these bikes don’t get used and get sold to very poor people for $25 dollars. I’ve seen Hispanic restaurant workers riding $25 dollar used mountain bikes in January through snow packed roads. They put me to shame, but they’re something to aspire to as worthy in their own way as Chris Froome or Peter Sagan.

The Jamis Commuter 1 will get me through snow-packed salt and brine covered roads this Winter.