Thursday, December 23, 2010
Bicycle Quarterly: The Art and Science of Velo-Fetishism
As a holiday gift, I received a subscription to Bicycle Quarterly and a set of back-issues containing articles I had been wanting to read for some time. The Winter 2010 issue and the older set arrived a little while ago, and I have been in a BQ-induced trance ever since. To describe this publication is challenging, as it defies easy classification. Part quasi-scholarly journal, part illustrated adventure book, something like this could only have been created by somebody with the mind of the relentlessly tenacious scientist and the spirit of the boy explorer. The result is wild, spectacular, engaging and maddening all at once - which is probably more emotion than any periodical has gotten out of me, ever. For that alone, the Bicycle Quarterly is worth every penny of its $30/year subscription fee.
Bicycle Quarterly focuses on randonneuring and cyclo-touring, and on the classic and vintage bicycles designed for these forms of cycling. Its content includes elaborate bicycle reviews, detailed historical articles, technical articles on frame building and ride quality, travel stories, book and product reviews, and much more in the same vein. But to leave the description at that would be to understate the unique nature of this magazine. First, there are the hand-drawn black and white illustrations. And then, there is the inimitable narrative voice of Jan Heine - both the publisher of Bicycle Quarterly and the author of most of the articles. Dr. Heine writes like a research scientist who, without the pressure of having to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals, has given free reign to his poetic side. With scientific phraseology interwoven with florid descriptions and subjective assertions, it is like some fantastic tapestry that draws me in with the eccentricity of its patterns.
At the same time, Dr. Heine has a very distinct perspective, which must be kept in mind when reading his assertions, reviews and critiques. He favours a specific kind of (1950s French randonneuring) bicycle design and is convinced of the superiority of this design to a degree that, in my view, makes him deeply biased. He also has a number of theories - such as that on "planing," on the virtues of low-trail geometry, and on the superiority of flexible frames - which he tends to treat as fact, or at least as self-fulfilling prophecies. As a trained researcher myself (psychology and neuroscience), I cannot agree that the tests and reviews printed in Bicycle Quarterly are "scientific" - Yet they are presented that way to readers, and that is my biggest criticism of the magazine. Bicycle Quarterly has much to offer - as long as the author's assertions are not taken as gospel by the eager novice. It is the art and (pseudo-)science of velo-fetishism at its best, and I am addicted.