Traffic. Big town, small town, desolate end of the earth, especially as cyclists, we all deal with it in one way or another.
Tom Vanderbilt and I have orbited similar spheres over the past few years with shared friends. We rekindled our acquaintances again on last week’s SRAM Open the Road ride in Austin, TX. Tom and I were due to lead a panel on the SXSW stage the following day to discuss the intersection of two things that are as intertwined as they come: cycling and food.
Amid a 20 person ride along the southern outskirts of cycling-loving Austin, and while piloting the group through an ever increasing amount of traffic weaving our way back into town, Tom and I got the chance to catch up. Coincidentally, I spearheaded this interview as Tom and I took to the reigns at the front of the group so that we could chat and so that I could navigate us through neighborhoods, roundabouts, and suburbia home. As a result, much of the interview was interrupted with the casual barking of, “Right turn!”, “Slowing!”, “Hole!” which made it all the more entertaining to revisit listening to my recording as I put pen to paper, finger to keyboard at this second ever Ted’s Talk. Without futher ado…
Tell us your name and where you’re from, please.
Tom Vanderbilt. I was born in Chicago, went to school in Wisconsin, and now live in Brooklyn.
Thanks Tom. How do you define what you do for a living?
I am a writer slash author slash journalist. I’ll leave it up to you to parse those distinctions.
So we’re both here in Texas this week as the result of a career move with the bike. Do you consider yourself a professional writer or professional rider?
Writer. Definitely writer. Cycling is a hobby with benefits. On the bike, my mantra is one that I have borrowed from a friend: ‘Look pro, go slow.’
Catchy! Well, you are a rider, professionally or otherwise. What was the gateway to get into the sport?
In 2009 when I wrote Traffic, there was an unexpectedly big readership from the cycling community, basically from people who wanted to try and understand what was going on in the minds of the people they shared the road with. This began to spur my interest. I’d always ridden a bike, but prior to that just casually. I had a flat-bar hybrid city bike with a squeaky chain and the store reflectors still on it, and would ride to play soccer.
Years before, I had a ‘Japanese steel’ race bike, purchased from Yellow Jersey, in Madison, Wisconsin, my first year in college. I thought I might get into cycling then — the whole Breaking Away thing — and I bought scratchy wool shorts and learned the correct spelling of Eddy Merckx and everything. But that was 1986 so could you even watch the Tour de France then…? Maybe Wide World of Sports? It wasn’t the easiest thing to get into if you didn’t already know people.
So years later I started talking to some people, like my friend Paul Steely White, who heads the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. He was doing some amateur racing, and I just got slowly sucked in. In my first ‘real’ race, the Tour of the Catskills, I crashed during the neutral start. Ever see that?
Ouch, I had a future Italian teammate crash right in front of me in a neutral start at the 2009 Tour of California. I landed awkwardly, broke my arm, and that was the end of my race. So you, Cavendish, and I share that awkward distinguishment.
Red light! Slowing!
Sorry to interrupt, Tom. You were saying…?
So I’m now the quintessential MAMIL. You know, the middle-aged-male in-lycra. I think there’s value in that. To discover something later in life gives it a freshness and new appreciation.
I just had this conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, sorry, not to name drop. I was trying to teach him how to get into cycling and he was trying to teach me how to run. He has this whole theory that, if you want to enjoy something for your whole life it’s good to be decently mediocre at it. If you start when you’re eight and you’re quickly a prodigy, how do you not burn out? But if you pick something up at the age of forty, then…
I don’t want to verbally spar Malcolm Gladwell, so you won’t get much debate from me on that. It also makes me glad I didn’t start racing at the age of eight. So you hail from New York, where there’s a pending blizzard right now. Austin could just as well be a sweltering 90 degrees right now, but in fact it’s hardly in the 50s and it’s super windy. Are you just freaking loving it that we’re outside or are you bummed that it’s not 90?
I always prefer to be outside. It’s hard to do a four or five hour ride like I used to do at least once — and sometimes twice — per weekend, it’s just hard to find the time. Especially riding from the city, where it’s two hours just to and from ‘the ride.’ I saw a chart recently, in a book about swimming science, that showed the number of ‘annual training hours required for champion athletes’ —cyclists were second! No one warned me in advance about the time commitment!
(I realize I’ve now overshot our turn, so I casually say:) I like to keep it fresh Tom. This isn’t the route we’re meant to go, but I’ll make it work.
See?! The sheer time! Here we are navigating our way home with what could be considered junk miles. Plus right now, you could be a case study for what could be considered the dangers of multi-tasking. You’re navigating a group of us home, while conducting an interview, while on the bike.
I think it’s “the dangers of modern technology”, a direct descendent of multi-tasking. My phone proceeds to lock rather than staying on the map, meanwhile my fingers are too cold to unlock the phone. What do you suggest we do?
We should do the old school method of an interview over a beer.
Drinking during an interview? Never heard of it. RIGHT ON COOPER! My older brother is in medical school in Columbia. So he’s actually in a good spot near the GW bridge, so by New York riding standards he has it made. But I find his riding abysmal! So how often when the weather actually turns acceptable do you get out and ride, say, in the summer?
Maybe four times a week. The usual lunchtime circuit around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, with the bigger foray on 9W. A friend and I have started a new kind of biathlon event: Riding to Rockaway Beach, surfing, and then riding back. We stash the bikes at a surf shop and change there. I go from MAMIL to MAMIN — neoprene — and back.
I actually do a lot of riding at my in-law’s place Sussex County, New Jersey, which is surprisingly good, both for road and mountain, as long as you stay away from the quintessential ‘what exit’ Jersey highways. There’s horse farms, black bears, and I recently discovered a fruit stand that sells homemade milk shakes.
This fact has forced me to entirely re-route my training rides; it sometimes spurs me to take rides I wouldn’t have otherwise done. I’m surprised more pro teams don’t incorporate milkshake stops into their training regimens.
Coffee is pretty quintessential. I’ll be sure to tell my younger riding brethren to add milkshakes to their rides. Maple shake anyone?
Your newest book, You May Also Like is all about the choices we make and how we’re inundated with options. The “peanut butter in the grocery store dilemma”, as it were. We’re overwhelmed with decisions in the sport of cycling — what kit to wear, the type of components, disc brake or rim, deep dish or aluminum, electric or mechanical. So how does that translate to how you ride a bike and make cycling decisions?
It’s actually ‘the jelly dilemma’ identified by the researcher Sheena Iyengar. Not to be too pedantic — although isn’t using the word pedantic rather pedantic in and of itself?
Not at all.
I like to ride nice bikes, but I don’t fuss too much over the details, and I’m always late-adopting technology. And I’m an absolute crap mechanic. I think I’m more of an ‘experiential cyclist,’ if we can call it that. The ride means more to me than the vehicle — some of my best rides have been on dodgy hotel mountain bikes. I’m just happy to be on two wheels, regardless of their material, width, weight, spoke pattern or aerodynamic profile.
T’is noble. It’s come to my attention that you were a contestant on Jeopardy! I admit, I haven’t seen it, but if I’m not mistaken it was a one hit wonder. What was the final question and did you go all in?
Yeah, I was one and done. I played aggressively, with a “true Daily Double” and all. The guy who beat me went on to win a bunch of games, which made me feel better. It was a tough game, and Alex Trebek himself was a bit frustrated at the number of times no one answered correctly — there’s a special name for that that I’ve forgotten. The final question was something like: This 1984 album had seven Top 10 singles in the Billboard charts. We were all guessing Prince and Michael Jackson. It was Born in the U.S.A.! I bet everything at that point, but I had nothing left to lose.
To conclude this Ted’s Talk with Tom, we have to ask one final hard hitting question. If you had to put maple syrup on just one thing what would it be?
Pancakes. Of course this opens up the question of waffles or pancakes, which are really quite similar. I’ll stick to pancakes.