Some Reviews of Effective Cycling

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Review of the 1986 edition by Greg Kovaciny in Bicycle USA, March/April 1986

Throughout my teens, I would often ride my 3-speed from the northwest suburbs of Chicago to the Loop, always riding on major streets. Years later I would make the ride on my 10-speed, often riding home during the evening rush hour. I always felt that I was a vehicle operator, and acted like one. I was treated respectfully by the vast majority of motorists. I was intuitively developing an unrefined, but effective set of traffic-cycling principles -- it seemed the only safe way to ride.

Cyclists today are fortunate to have traffic-cycling principles carefully laid out in Effective Cycling. What takes years for cyclists to learn on their own (often with many mistakes) can be yours in a relatively short time through reading this book (or, better yet, taking an Effective Cycling course). Many topics covered in Effective Cycling can be found in other cycling books -- but most of the detailed tips can be found nowhere else. And the section on riding in traffic establishes principles that have been adopted by many other authors.

Since 1975 John Forester has been printing spiral-bound editions of Effective Cycling. The printing quality was inconsistent, and difficult to read. The principles of EC were quickly recognized by bicycle authorities and competent cyclists as a substantial contribution to bicycling and bicycle education. In 1984, MIT Press published the fifth edition (first MIT edition) of this important work. The type fonts are much clearer, and illustrations are more carefully drawn. Information on new technologies has been added. The professional publication and distribution under MIT will provide a base for reaching a wider audience. The book is already a resounding success among club cyclists, but significantly wider public education and acceptance is still up the road.

This book exerts a strong impact on the bicycling community, yet relatively little on mass culture. Many millions of Americans own bicycles, but only a small percentage of them know how to ride safely and correctly. Forester's "Cyclist Inferiority Complex" explains much of this, but part of the problem may be in how the material is presented.

Effective Cycling is divided into 6 sections, totaling 44 chapters. The Bicycle; Bicycle Maintenance; The Cyclist; The Cycling Environment; Enjoying Cycling; Education, Regulation, and Politics. It is a densely packed 344 pages, intended as an active learning tool. Each section is really an extended discussion, and sounds much like a veteran teacher lecturing a class. (The original book was an outgrowth of Forester's adult cycling class notes.) The discussions begin at a very basic and clear level, but quickly introduce layers of details compiled from years of experience and revision. The beginning cyclist reading this book needs to sort through many facts which will not always register as essential to the topic at hand. Advanced information "is included because it is needed at the level to which I think cyclists ought to develop, because it discusses questions that are of long term importance," says Forester. This is an admirable apology, but it tries to appeal to every level of cyclist, from novice to advanced. The book needs one target audience.

Effective Cycling "is intended to develop beginning cyclists into advanced cyclists an to be a handbook that is useful for many years." It succeeds admirably in its second goal. Unless the beginning cyclist reads this book as part of an EC course, however, the book falls short of its first goal. Effective Cycling helps solidify and refine an already deep dedication to adult vehicular cycling better than it assists a novice not part of a course. I suspect that the vast majority of people who have read this book are already well beyond novice skill levels. As an example, the discussion of center pull vs side pull brakes commences with a straightforward explanation, but quickly launches into esoterica (pounds of force required for operation and something about a federal brake test program). Forester does explain the effect of the different operating characteristics and why they are important under given conditions. However, the discussion seems to serve more to prove to the reader that Forester is right, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is wrong, than it is to instruct a beginning cyclist.

As a reference book this level of information is valuable -- one may need three or four comprehensive reasons why a certain traffic technique was proper when the non-cycling police officer who stopped you says it wasn't. But it is of value primarily to a cyclist of advanced "cycle-smart" reasoning and skills.

There are some thoughtful and practical tips interspersed through the book which could fill a paperback in themselves. The comprehensive index makes topic searches very quick and easy, and the book has a good, thorough, explanation of basic skills needed to ride a bike.


It's nice that each page of Effective Cycling has a 3x10 inch blank left hand margin. It's excellent for personal notes. Reading a 4.5x9 inch column solid with text, however, is more visually demanding than many modern-day readers will accept. Verbally offering an "exploded" diagram of bicycle parts is a difficult undertaking. Even with Forester precise explanations, diagrammatic and photographic backup is needed. The diagram for Sturmey-Archer 3-speed adjustment is helpful; the diagram on chain tool use makes this common operation very clear. There is not one diagram, however, accompanying the chapter on derailleur adjustment, freewheel clusters or physiology and technique of hard riding. The enlarged 4th edition had around 85 diagrams; the MIT edition has around 100. The book could still use many more diagrams and photographs.

There is a diagram on proper pedaling action (ankling), but none to enhance the equally important topics of saddle height, bike size, or gear shifting. There is also an unfortunate choice of words on learning to look behind:

"You won't understand how you managed to ride before you learned it [looking behind and maintaining a straight line ahead]. Yet approximately 50% of even adult American cyclists don't know how to look behind, so the continuously take chances on being hit by overtaking cars by turning without looking first. And, of course, these cyclists are extremely dangerous to competent cyclists. So once you have learned, watch out for the idiots who haven't by looking behind and then giving them lots of room as you overtake them. (p 20)"

While this may all be true, the implication is that the beginning cyclist was an idiot prior to learning the technique. Many competent cyclists have strong opinions on less competent bicycle riders, but it's poor public relations and flawed teaching to instruct using this tone.

The dense content, page layout, and physical size of the book, as well as Forester's occasional confrontatory tone, may discourage many newer cyclists from reading it. These are the people who need this information most desperately, particularly in the chapters on the cycling environment and education, regulation, and politics.Advanced, dedicated cyclists will not be as concerned with these factors.

The sections on the cycling environment and education, regulation, and politics are the two sections of Effective Cycling which have had the greatest impact, and for which Forester is probably most well known.Section IV begins with the five basic principles for cycling in traffic.

1. Riding on the right-hand side of the roadway, not on the left and not on the sidewalk.

2. Yielding to crossing traffic on a superior street.

3. Yielding to new lane (overtaking) traffic before changing lanes.

4. Relative speed positioning between intersections.

5. Destination positioning at intersections.

As Forester notes, there are two guides to follow for safe travel: traffic law, and safe traffic-cycling technique, both of which are in agreement.Statute traffic law is more prohibitory than instructional; it sets bounds on legal behavior and leaves conduct within these bounds to the driver's judgement. Forester asserts that "the rules of the road we have now are the safest that we have been able to work out." He sees bicycles as being perfectly capable of operating in the existing traffic system, and much of this section justifies why the bicycle is just another vehicle in the traffic scheme (although "because of their frailty and vulnerability they must exercise better judgement and skill just to travel as effectively and safely as motorists.").

Some will consider the idea of "cyclists controlling motorists," as explained in "Overtaking and being overtaken" as controversial and absurdly dangerous: it's actually very workable. A strong section on bicycle accidents dispels old myths such as the great fear of "motorist-caused car-overtaking-bike collisions," which constitute only about 1 percent of cycling accidents.

"Where to ride on the roadway" was my favorite discussion, and is possibly the most controversial. The bicycle-as-vehicle statements made up to this point culminate in diagrams of the bicycle in narrow and wide lanes, and turning lanes, all in traffic. Explanation is clear and complete as to why the bicycle is where it is. The cyclists' turn-lane rules should be printed in every safety pamphlet.

1. Normally, ride at the right side of the outside through lane.

2. When you enter a turn lane, if it goes to only one destination, ride on its right side.

3. If a lane serves two destinations, like straight or left, move to the appropriate side for your destination.

The section on education, regulation and politics covers the topics of cycling education, the federal bicycle "safety" standard, and an introduction to the politics of cycling transportation engineering. In this section, another Forester concept, the Cyclist Inferiority Complex, is discussed. This complex, perpetuated by both the non-cycling "motoring establishment" and the "antimotoring activist," and used to promote the aims of each, causes cyclists to ride fearfully and dangerously. It details "bike safety" superstitions, including bike lane and side path promotion, which feed the Cyclist Inferiority Complex. Forester again offers vehicular cycling concepts as safer and more workable. Cyclists who apply these strong vehicular principles are perhaps the best pedaling proof of their workability and efficacy.

I've covered a few of the strengths and shortcomings of Effective Cycling. If it appears I've spent more time criticizing than praising this book, it is because I believe in what this book is saying, but in its present textbook reference book form, it will not reach all the people it needs to reach. The Effective Cycling principles are sound, logical, and within the grasp of most people. They need to be made accessible to more cyclists if the skill level of American cyclists is to be substantially improved. It needs to be done without dilution of the principles.

Effective Cycling will continue to be the cornerstone in modern bicycle thinking. It should be read by every cyclist who believes in cycling as real transportation. Along with Bicycle Transportation, it's an excellent off-season project. Get your club to donate a copy to the public library. Better yet, have your club sponsor an EC course -- it's the best and quickest way to learn how to ride.

And finally, do as I have done, and give your bicycling friends a copy of the book. Experienced cyclists will commend the wealth of information, depth of detail, and sincere dedication Forester brings to the subject. Novice cyclists presented with this book may need to wait a while before fully appreciating this substantial text, but the book will be ready when they are, and will show them that their bicycling growth and enjoyment is just beginning.

Greg Kovaciny copyright.


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Review of the fifth edition by Ron Shepherd, in Freewheeling (Australia), November 1984

Ron Shepherd reviews what is possibly the most important book for adult cyclists of the decade.

This isn't just another book on how to ride a bike. It is the best one ever written. John Forester's Effective Cycling is intended to cover "everything a cyclist needs to know in order to use a bicycle every day, for whatever purpose he desires, under any reasonable conditions of terrain, weather, and traffic." The advice it offers is inadequate on touring or racing, despite Forester's long experience as a hard rider, but it is brilliant on commuting in traffic, and on do-it-yourself maintenance and improvisation.

Effective Cycling has grown over the past ten years from some notes on cycling in traffic which Forester wrote for his adult cycling class. The course he developed has now been accepted by the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) and there are now more than a hundred qualified instructors throughout the USA. Effective Cycling is still a controversial course because fearful politicians and parents believe that people should not be taught how to ride bicycles in traffic, and many cyclists, being rugged individualists, think that there is nothing for them to learn. It is only when it is all put down in a book like this that you realize just how much knowledge and skill the experienced cyclist picks up through years of trial and error, and how much better it would be for newcomers to have something to learn from.

The strength and weakness of Effective Cycling is that Forester has worked it all out for himself over a lifetime of effort. When there was no research data on whether side pull brakes work better than center pull brakes, for example, Forester designed his own test rig and did his own measurements. As a result of this uncompromising approach he has definite opinions on every aspect of cycling, and most of his comments are illuminating and indisputable. But he can also be dogmatic where other experienced, thoughtful cyclists have come to different conclusions -- for example, Forester believes that half-step gearing is best, that rear-view mirrors have no safety value, that leather saddles are best, and that you need to take extra salt in hot weather. At least you are in no doubt about where he stands on any topic.

The sheer honesty of the man shines from every page. You know exactly what John Forester is after -- a recognition that bicycles can be made into reliable vehicles, and that people can be taught how to ride them competently and safely on the roads. He reveals, to the embarrassment of the bicycle trade and government "planners" alike, that modern bicycles are unsatisfactory vehicles and that "bicycle facilities" such as paths and lanes are useless humbug. What Forester gives us instead is hard-won information on how to make our bikes roadworthy, and how to ride them, for utility travel or for recreation, on any road in any weather.

Effective Cycling, now published by the MIT Press, is a big book, 334 pages, a quarter of a million words. Far too many words with too few illustrations. Yet Forester writes clearly and personally, and making the effort to read right through this book gives you an insight into the man himself. The book has six sections -- on bicycle components, on maintenance, on position and fitness, on riding in traffic, on recreational cycling, and on education, enforcement and politics. This final section is a considerable overlap with his other book, Bicycle Transportation, which was reviewed in the May/June 1984 issue of Freewheeling. Forester shines a searching light into the dark corners of a cynical bicycle trade and of Government departments defending their meaningless regulations, and into the warped minds of bicycle "activists" who are more interested in browbeating politicians than in helping other cyclists.

Every bicycle organization and club in Australia should get a copy of Effective Cycling. So should all government departments which concern themselves with bicycle education, regulation, or facilities. And as a keen cyclist, of course, you'll want your personal copy, too.

Most everything in Forester's books applies with frightening accuracy to this country. Governments in Australia at present hammer a theme of "bicycles are dangerous -- get them off the roads." They paint lines and signs which relegate cycling to rough, inconvenient paths to nowhere. The only counter to this idiocy is to teach people, as Forester does, how to ride bicycles competently in traffic. After all, we are required to be adults and to undergo stringent training and testing before being permitted to use other vehicles on the roads. We are closely watched and likely to be fined if we break traffic laws.

Yet anyone of any age is free to ride a bicycle without training and with little fear of law enforcement. No wonder cyclists have unnecessary accidents! The first step to a recognition of cyclists as legitimate road users is to agree on how we should behave in traffic, and to develop a course to teach this behavior.

As its 1984 conference, the Bicycle Federation of Australia decided to ask the Commonwealth Government to recognize cyclists' rights to ride on all roads, and to establish an Australian Competent Cycling Course for teenagers and adults. Effective Cycling provides a good model to work from, although a version should be developed to suit Australian conditions and its content put into a more teachable format than Forester's discursive treatise. The existing Bike Ed course for kids is only a start, and needs to be followed a few years later by the teaching of advanced cycling skills -- efficient position and cadence, gearing, use of traffic lanes, emergency maneuvers, riding at night, coping with weather extremes, carrying luggage, long-distance riding, routine maintenance -- enough for a useful and fascinating course to challenge teenagers and adults. As the Education Committee of the BFA, David Martin and I would be very glad to receive comments from readers of Freewheeling on what is needed for an Australian Competent Cycling Course.

Ron Shepherd, copyright


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