Imagine that you have in your hands a mysterious book titled Just Walk. It seems to be some kind of manual of advice on how to walk, and includes useful tips like these:
There’s no need for able-bodied adults to use walking poles when you go shopping. You’ll find that you can walk perfectly well on level pavement without them, and if you leave them at home your hands will be free to pick up goods from the shelves.
You don’t have to spend hundreds of pounds on a pair of high performance air-cushion trainers for a stroll around the neighbourhood: you can buy perfectly comfortable shoes for a fraction of the price.
You don’t have to maintain a cadence of 180 steps per minute to enjoy walking: why not slow down and try strolling? Stop looking at your step count and start looking at the view!
What kind of nonsense is this? you ask yourself at first, but gradually it dawns on you that this book reveals a nightmarish dystopia where the entire adult population has forgotten how to walk, and a few courageous individuals have tried to learn on their own, using only the marketing material provided by sports equipment manufacturers.
Grant Petersen’s Just Ride is a book that I can only interpret as being addressed to a readership that have no idea how to cycle and for whom the only role models are professional bicycle racers and people who have something to sell them.
Does this world really exist? Does any cyclist really have to be told that they can get out of the saddle? And if they do, will this kind of paragraph really help them?
There is one trick that will help you climb faster and with no more effort1 in a higher gear: Stand up, lean forward, hold the bars lightly, and find the gear you can pedal almost with your body weight alone. Then, as your right foot is moving down, unweight your left foot, so it isn’t pressing hard on the pedal and fighting your right foot. It’s easier to do this if you rock the bike side to side, so when the right foot is falling, the bike is leaned to the right, and so on.
Eventually I decided that the only way to read this book is to treat it as I would a work of science fiction. I have to suspend my disbelief, peer through the darkened glass, and make use of every clue as to the strange world implied by the text. If every piece of advice implies the existence of readers who need that advice, what can I learn about that implied readership?
In Petersen’s book, people apparently need to be weaned off these beliefs:
That the only legitimate form of cycling that adults can take part in is sport cycling.
That cyclists form a great chain of being, with the aristocracy of professional racers at the top looking down at the amateur racers, who look down on club cyclists, who scorn the mere recreational riders.
That no-one gets any respect unless they assert the highest possible position within this hierarchy by aping the clothing and equipment choices of riders with higher status.
That if professional racers ride feather-light bicycles costing thousands of dollars that need maintenance after every ride, then everyone must do the same, for fear of the mockery of their peers.
That, although they are dimly aware that one doesn’t have to wear specialized cycle clothing to ride around town, they dare not: lycra shows they are serious riders, dedicated to their training, but riding in ordinary clothing would reveal their mode of transport for a childish pursuit.
That purchasing the best equipment is the key to successful cycling, much more so than improving their fitness, skill and knowledge. (For example, wearing a helmet is more important than riding with care and attention.)
That manufacturers’ marketing materials are a better guide than their own experience on the bike.
That no ride counts unless it involves pain and suffering.
Gradually the implied historical background becomes clear: Petersen asks us to imagine that a whole country stopped cycling as adults, except for a few professional and amateur racers, and that when people tried to take up the activity again, the only models they had on which to base their conduct were those same dedicated racers, and the only written culture they had access to consisted of product catalogs put out by racing bike manufacturers and magazines for racing cyclists.
It’s a horrifying portrait of a society, but hardly a realistic one. The imaginary readers to whom Petersen addresses this book surely could not exist: either they would have learned the material in the book for themselves, just by riding their bikes, or else they would have had such a horrible time that they would have given up. So the nightmare world portrayed in this book can never come to pass.
↩ It is of course not true that this technique allows you to “climb faster and with no more effort”—you can’t trick the laws of nature!—but I guess that this is the kind of lying with the aim of encouraging learners that is endemic in sports instruction. (Like “lean forward” in skiing.)