December 11, 2017

Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better. Riding. Racing. Touring. Wherever travels take you, the opportunity exists to see more and to do more. The end of the calendar year has long been a reset, a restart, a chance to be better. We're chatting with riders of all flavors to highlight ways to get more from riding to resolve more in the year ahead.

Tom Vanderbilt is a rider and a writer. A contributing editor to Wired and Outside, his work explores the intersections of creativity and humanity, tech and art. His book Traffic, a New York Times bestseller drew him into cycling. (The book is a must-read for those that share the road with cars.) 

We chat with Tom about how riding and writing and how each inform the other. Writers are lightning rods for living, capable of channeling complicated feelings and experience into discernible text. Tom gives insights into those looking to capture riding more clearly.


You write. You ride. How does one inform the other?

I have read accounts by people who were cycling, or running, or mountain climbing, and reported moments of great insight.  That has never happened to me.  If it’s a hard ride, I’m generally just thinking about the next hill.  If it’s an easier ride, I’m generally just letting my brain unwind, trying to remember lyrics to obscure songs that pop into my head.  Any good thoughts tend to come after the ride, in the shower.  

So I don’t think riding directly influences my writing, or vice versa, but there’s still a nice symbiotic relationship in that riding provides a reset — cognitive, physical, some days almost spiritual.  Writing feels so ephemeral in the moment — tracking the play of photons on a computer screen — whereas riding just grounds you in something simple and tangible.  I’m sure anyone with a desk job can relate.

How'd you find the trade? Were you always a writer?

I followed a pretty stereotypical path — quiet, bookish kid who preferred saying things through words on a page. Then I decided I had things I wanted to say.  Then I just started sending pieces to people until someone (The Baffler magazine, way back in the early 1990s) liked what I wrote — and paid me for it.  Then the realization dawned that I didn’t actually know how to do anything else.  The rider/writer Phil Gaimon, whose book Draft Animals I would recommend, recently wrote to me: “I think in pro cycling, since it’s such an ugly ladder to climb, and it's so rarely lucrative, it self-selects with people that really love it or need it emotionally somehow. If you don’t love it you quit early.”  That definitely resonated with me in terms of the writing life.

You've written about technology and how we interact with it. Most folks will likely read this on a phone. Has that changed your writing? Writing in general? How we interact with writing?

I don’t know if it has changed my writing but it has definitely, as with so many of us, affected my reading, and not in a good way (the work of Nicholas Carr is instructive here).  I am struck by the way articles on the web are accompanied by an estimate of how long it will take you to read it.  On the one hand, this is a useful metric in an age when attention has become a more valuable commodity than information.  On the other hand, good writing makes you forget time, so there’s something drearily transactional in having it so packaged.  

I read voraciously online but when I really need to engage with something, I need it in print.  I can still remember weird details of books I read decades ago.  I can remember precisely where I read them — e.g., Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh, found in a hotel, on a beach in Puerto Angel, Mexico — but also the typeface, the colophon, the yellowish tint of the pages, the bookstore price tag, the order forms that used to be in the back of paperbacks. I have already forgotten yesterday’s internet.     

Your work has been celebrated for its clarity. (For example, "Traffic", perhaps your most bike related long work, was celebrated by the New York Times as "a surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels.") Do you have a process around writing that helps you find clarity?

While I relish a good turn of phrase as much as the next person, I think of what I do as primarily trying to get ideas across.  Quite often, I am trying to break down ideas that are beyond my immediate comprehension, so I’ve no choice but to aim for clarity — otherwise I’m lost.  The classic trick is to ask:  How would I explain this to my kids (or my parents). 

What do you say to those that would protest- I'm not much of a writer- how can writing enrich our lives regardless of its intended audience?

I am currently working on a book that is, in part, about how we give up all these things we happily do as children, like singing or drawing, because, eventually, we feel — or are told —  we are not good at them.  Yes, you have to work to get better, but don’t let the mantle of professionalism put you off. Not many of us think we’re Walker Evans, but that doesn’t stop us from posting pictures to Instagram.  I think of writing as an almost sculptural act, not just the process of carving and shaping sentences, but putting a representation of you and your thoughts into the world, something you can stand back and look at, freed from the tyranny of the present and your own inchoate internal self.

Do you do any exercises to improve your writing? And do any involve a Strava score?

As one old writer said, “it never gets easier, you just get faster.”  But seriously it’s nothing fancy.  In cycling lingo, it would just be: Repeats.  Just wake up every day and try to do it better than the day before.  Having good editors, or someone to give you feedback, is crucial to getting better.  There are days when the “suffer score” is high.

You recently wrote on cycling's most recognized literary contribution, The Rider by Tim Krabbé. Did diving into that book change it for you at all? Are there any other works you'd put on the shelf (or in the same grupetto) as Krabbe's? 

I hadn’t realized just how autobiographical it was.  Tim is the real deal, and in his 70s, he still gets that twitch when he gets passed.  I can’t think of any other novels that so crack open the psyche of cycling.  I’ve enjoyed, with a kind of grim fascination, books like David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark and Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race. In the U.K. — where’s there so much more cycling related writing going on — I like the work of Max Leonard and the crazy adventures of Tim Moore.  I am looking forward to reading my friend Colin O’Brien’s new book on the Giro, as well as Bird on the Wire, the new biography of Tommy Simpson.  And two books not about cycling, but get at some of the same obsessions: John Parker Jr.’s great novel Once a Runner and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days.       

Who are you reading? Who is a must-read and why?

I just picked up Christophe Chaboute’s graphic novel version of Moby Dick for my eight year old after she was heroically trying to read the actual, difficult, book, and I ended up devouring it myself. Otherwise:  Robert Macfarlane is so good on the natural world and our place in it.  Teju Cole, Geoff Dyer, Kathryn Schulz — you can never go wrong.  Geoff Manaugh (A Burglar’s Guide to the City), and his wife, Nicola Twilley, have the most febrile minds I know. Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit is a book you will end up recommending to others.  The last book that made me laugh out loud (and think, not out loud) was Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room, about cats.  I could so go on here.

Any resolutions for your own riding or writing?

Mountain biking has always been foreign to me — this year I’d really like to have a go.  I just have to get a bike.  As for writing, the most immediate thing, that white whale on the horizon, is finishing the next book.   

photos: Gruber


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