Two Wheels Good

Monday, 2 January 2023

Jody Rosen’s delightful history-of-the-bicycle book Two Wheels Good was a big hit in 2022. Check the enthusiastic review in The Economist.

Highlights for me include the up and down history of the bicycle in China. Owning a bicycle was part of every good Communist’s dream, everybody wanted the sanzhuan yixiang or three rounds (a watch, a sewing machine, a bicycle) and a sound (a transistor radio). Then the bicycle fell rapidly out of favour, there was more money to be made for the Chinese economy with cars. In my early visits to China it was bicycles everywhere, then suddenly it was horrendous traffic jams. The fact that student protesters rode their bicycles to Tiananmen Square didn’t help, they were crushed under the Peoples’ Army tanks.

In 2017 I rented a bicycle and rode around the 14km circuit of the Xian city walls – Xian in China – cycling the city wall. At one point there’s a little display of the classic bicycles of the 1960s through the 1980s, when owning a Flying Pigeon would have been the equivalent of a new BMW today.

The Economist review complains about too much sex, well bicycle porn does feature, but Rosen also emphasises what a force for liberation the bicycle was. A woman could swing her leg across a bicycle – no riding side-saddle – and pedal off on her own. It’s also very much a personal account, there are some painful accidents and bicycles do get stolen, including Mr Rosen’s.

Amusingly I chanced upon two other cases of Two Wheels Good, I had a note about a bicycle shop with that name in Crouch Hill in North London. I didn’t buy my Brompton fold-up-bicycle there’ but perhaps I was thinking about it? That bicycle shop appears to have changed names, but another Two Wheels Good has popped up not far away in Stoke Newington. Plus my outdated vinyl record collection features Two Wheels Good by Prefab Sprout, which in fact is the US and Canadian title of their album Steve McQueen, because they were afraid of legal complaints in those countries from the estate of Mr McQueen.