Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review: THE GIRLS' CYCLING HANDBOOK by Caz Nicklin

Caz Nicklin, co-founder of the online retail shop specialising in cycling accessories for women, has a new book coming out on Thursday, 3 April 2014:

The Girls' Bicycle Handbook
Everything You Need to Know About Life on Two Wheels

This book strikes the right balance between depth and breadth: it covers a wide range of topics of concern to women considering taking up cycling or who are just starting out, and gives enough advice and explanation to truly be useful without being confusing. 

I don't want to give too much away but if you're considering buying this book either for yourself or as for someone else, here's what you can expect.

The book is attractive. The presentation is clear and uncluttered. The information is very well-organised and accessible. It is aimed at women just starting to cycle (or coming back to it) and those considering it. 

It is easy to find information you need -- you can dip in and out of the various sections, and there is an index at the back that is comprehensive enough to reference what you need without being overwhelming. 

The book is liberally illustrated with gorgeous photographs and charming line drawings. 

As to content, the author takes the kind of tone you'd hope for from your older sister, who knows the ropes and wants to see you succeed.  

Getting Started: The Right Bike

Perhaps one of the most helpful things she does is start off by encouraging new riders to think about what they want and need. When you're starting out (or even just asking a few tentative questions), you often get bombarded with information and advice -- often conflicting! If you can keep clearly in mind what it is you need  i.e. the kind of riding you're interested in doing, this will steer you through -- indeed safeguard you from -- quite a lot of confusion. The author helps you understand what different types of bikes are good for -- and what they're not quite so good for -- and how to decide which type is best for you.

Looking After Your Bicycle

What I think sets this book apart from various others on the market aimed at women starting out, is the attention given to looking after your bicycle. The author's aim clearly is to build confidence and pride in developing a degree of self-sufficiency, and in this I think she succeeds. Other books touch on maintenance and basic repairs, but so far I haven't seen any as good as this one at striking the right balance between giving enough information (that's clear and precise enough for you to actually act on) and helping you decide when a job really is better handled by someone with more experience. In fact, the instructions and photographs for many of the basic tasks covered are so clear, you'll be surprised how much you can learn to do on your own instead of paying someone else to do it. 

(If you get a chance to read the maintenance sections, I'd love to hear from you: do you agree that the advice is practical and well-written? What else would help you?)

Photographs serve to illustrate the points being made. Again, the book shines in this regard. Sadly, this isn't always the case in books aimed at novices.

Most bicycle repair guides include a full-page diagram identifying the various parts of a bicycle, but I've never seen a "beginners guide" bother with detailed diagrams of brakes and drivechains before -- good call here! (I certainly would have appreciated seeing this when I first started wondering how things worked!)

Here's an illustration to help you remember what the M check is. Again, this pre-ride check is not something typically included in beginners' guides. It jolly well should be.

Many women first "get told" (not the same thing as "taught") how to put the chain back on in the heat and fluster of a group ride.  The information doesn't go in and they may end feeling embarrassed that they still don't "get it". 

Read this! You can do it! 

It's the same with repairing a puncture. Follow the steps here and have a go at home with no pressure.  

Keeping Your Bike Secure

The book also covers security. The author has experienced the distress of having a bicycle stolen herself, and she covers both how best to prevent theft in the first place (or at least how to minimise the risk) and what to do if the worst should happen. (This section does however contain one of the few "flaws" in the book. The written text describes best practice. However, "a picture is worth a thousand words", so it would have been better if the red lock in the photo had been shown securing both the frame and the front wheel of the bike, as advised.)

Safety on the Roads

There is also a section with advice on cycle safety. This mostly corresponds to the "vehicular cycling" school of thought (in line with current Bikeability instruction methods and standards). The kind of assertiveness required for this approach may not appeal or indeed be possible for some cyclists (whether beginning, aspiring or otherwise). But sadly, this line of thought reflects the current realities of the roads in the UK and indeed many other countries. The author does a good job of describing what a rider needs to do, to try and ensure they can see and be seen by other road users and to minimise conflict wherever possible.  

The specific tips for cyclists who don't drive are a useful supplement in this context. 

Your Own Style

Naturally, given the author's own desire to never sacrifice her own personal style in order to cycle, a sizeable portion of the book is given over to "Cycle Style". 

I've been a customer of CycleChic for several years and have to say, the product range in the shop definitely reflects the author's own personal preferences! (This isn't a bad thing, since, when the business started out, there really wasn't anyone else stocking truly feminine items of clothing or accessories that were specifically designed for cycling as a physical activity. So CycleChic definitely addressed a need and filled a gap in the market.

Browsing through the "style" pages, you'll probably see a certain character: colourful, feminine (and by that I refer to floral patterns and the odd ruffle or two!) but not delicate, somewhat traditional or conservative with the occasional quirky vintage flourish.

Of course, not every woman dresses this way -- I certainly don't! This is why the spread over pages 140-141 is possibly my favourite feature in the "Cycle Style" section, as it opens the door to a lot of different looks other than the author's. It's titled "San Francisco Style". Two of the women shown here are bloggers that I've followed for some time. They each have a style very much their own. (I cannot even imagine Meli out and about in the city without a trilby hat or similar! And Kirstin is renowned for her bold and striking wrap dresses.

Vintage fashion can also be a wealth of inspiration for fashion that works on a bike. The book has some wonderful examples to get your creative juices flowing. You'll be hitting the charity shops with a whole new purpose! 

So what's YOUR style? What do you normally like to wear that expresses YOU? Can you wear that while riding a bicycle? You may be surprised to learn you can. Read all about Meli's "Invisible Bicycle Dance" (on page 141) and the author's own "Cubicle Test" (on page 147).

Of course, the recent launches of several womens-specific cycling brands have not gone unnoticed. The book shines a light on Cyclodelic, Ana Nichoola, Urban Legend, Georgia in Dublin and Water Off A Duck's Back, to name only a few of the amazing new cycling brands that have emerged in the few years since CycleChic itself launched. 


Another aspect that helps this book shine is the author's conversations with many women from all backgrounds doing all sorts of bicycle riding. She herself doesn't do any competitive racing, technical mountain biking, endurance events or round the world touring, but she has obviously conducted in-depth interviews with women who do and does a nice job of summarising their needs and experiences.  And she has test-ridden the various types of bikes typically used for these types of activities. 

At the heart of it is a recognition that women love all kinds of cycling. Beginners may find it a bit of an eye-opener -- and an inspiration -- to know about all the opportunities out there. 

So... don't be afraid to try new things. You may just fall in love with something unexpected. (Like me with night riding.


Exercise and Fitness

Towards the end of the book is a chapter on the role of fitness, both how cycling improves fitness and also things you can do to improve your fitness so as to enjoy your time on your bike even more. I particularly liked this drawing showing how many more leg muscles than just your quads are involved in pedalling!

Where Do I Find...?

Last but not least, the author includes a "little black book" to let you in on all her style secrets! Now you know where to find a lot of the items modeled in various photographs throughout the book. Quite a few are in my own "little black book" so I can vouch for the author's choices. 

In summary, this is a wonderful book -- truly helpful and well-written, without an ounce of condescension. "You can do it" is the author's main message and she gets this across very well!

The book is aimed at novices so there isn't a lot in it that will be new to more experienced cyclists. However, I like the tone - it's matter of fact and friendly, light headed in some places and serious where it needs to be. Tips and advice start with the very first steps -- no prior knowledge is presumed or required. There is nothing here to make a reader feel that cycling is beyond her capabilities -- nothing to suggest that other people expect her to get it right the first time.  At the same time, readers feel encouraged, not talked-down-to.

I highly recommend this book for anyone just starting to cycle. It may be the perfect gift for someone you know who you've have caught gazing wistfully at other people cycling. Help them get on a bike and realise their dream!

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