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Exploring Fifty American Cities by Bicycle

by Paul F. Pinsky

Pub Date: May 18th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0615369556

Pinsky explores a wide swath of the United States from an unlikely venue—the saddle of a bike—and comes back with gold.

An avid cyclist, Pinsky had grown weary of the bucolic and went looking for a new biking experience. He wound up in Philadelphia and discovered that the city’s kaleidoscopic variety energized him: the people, land use, landscape, architecture, street art; it was all there and, on a bike, it was all very close, heightening his sensory awareness. Pinsky tenders these urban vignettes in a voice inflected with curiosity, polychromatic but blissfully even in tone, thoughtful and considerate of the reader. He’s not writing to strut his stuff, be it literary (though he writes with deceptive ease) or physical accomplishment, but to inform and inspire. He is appealingly unheroic—these are not mighty slogs but shortish hops done on a shoestring: his budget is $100 per trip, and he’s accustomed to Super 8 motels and Subway sandwiches. Yet if found in a less-than-savory neighborhood, with safety beckoning to the right, he’s apt to turn left: “There’s a whole lot more I have to see here,” he says. He has done his homework, bracing himself with the history of the cities he tours, but he allows serendipity to fashion his routes. And he gets around, to all four corners of the country and into all manner of neighborhood, from seedy to tony, industrial to commercial to residential. He is open to their atmosphere—if Cleveland wasn’t pretty, “the city had a certain compelling presence about it”—and compassionate without pulling punches: “there was only sandy dirt covering the yards and no sidewalks, giving many of these areas a third-world look.” He closes with a ride around his home streets of Washington, D.C., and it is a lovely example of what might be called deep riding: being familiar, he probes the area’s most exquisitely remote and unexpected offerings.

An existential guide, though not despairing; these small urban essays are both illuminating place studies and highly motivational to get pedaling.