Two Wheels Good
The History and Mystery of the Bicycle
A panoramic revisionist portrait of the nineteenth-century invention that is transforming the twenty-first-century world
“Excellent . . . calls to mind Bill Bryson, John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New Yorker
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. Readers meet unforgettable characters: feminist rebels who steered bikes to the barricades in the 1890s, a prospector who pedaled across the frozen Yukon to join the Klondike gold rush, a Bhutanese king who races mountain bikes in the Himalayas, a cycle-rickshaw driver who navigates the seething streets of the world’s fastest-growing megacity, astronauts who ride a floating bicycle in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station.
Two Wheels Good examines the bicycle’s past and peers into its future, challenging myths and clichés while uncovering cycling’s connection to colonial conquest and the gentrification of cities. But the book is also a love letter: a reflection on the sensual and spiritual pleasures of bike riding and an ode to an engineering marvel—a wondrous vehicle whose passenger is also its engine.
This high-flying debut history by New York Times Magazine contributor Rosen captures the allure of riding a bike. Through vivid anecdotes, such as how the design of the bicycle led the Wright brothers to invent the airplane, Rosen makes clear how impactful the invention has been for humankind. Baron Karl von Drais, a minor German nobleman, produced the first bike in 1817, and the design was repeatedly improved upon in subsequent decades. For example, in 1888, Belfast-based veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop replaced the solid rubber tires on his son's tricycle with "inflated rubber tubes, sheathed in canvas and an additional outer layer of sheet rubber," leading to the widespread adoption of pneumatic tires. Rosen is equally fascinating in describing the bicycle's changing status in countries like China, which produces more bikes per year than the world builds cars; the "Great Covid-19 Bicycle Boom" that saw people "converging on bike lanes and patronizing cycle-share systems in unprecedented numbers"; and the archetype of "bright-eyed children, bicycling through idyllic suburbs" seen in movies and TV shows like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stranger Things. Witty prose, exhaustive research, and Rosen's contagious enthusiasm ensure that this standout history will appeal to cyclists and non-cyclists alike.