Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ken Kifer Revisited

When I first returned to cycling 6 years ago, I was confused by how much cycling had changed during the 35 years I had been away. I spent a lot of time on the Internet trying to get back up to speed, and one of the more helpful sites I came across was that of Ken Kifer. I rather bonded to the author in the course of reading his site, and was heartbroken to later read that what I was looking at was not a live site, but an homage; Ken Kifer was killed by a drunk driver in 2003. Copies of Ken's site are maintain in two places:
Some compare Ken Kifer to Sheldon Brown, and the parallels are strong. Both were passionate bicycling advocates with strong opinions and a burning need to share those opinions. Both were early publishers on the World Wide Web. And sadly, both authors died before my return to cycling, Sheldon in 2008 and Ken in 2003. While these similarities clearly put them into the same category ("apples to apples"), these two historic icons of the biking community are, in my opinion, very different in detail. Many of the differences between them are subjective, so everything in the following list is just my opinion:
  • Sheldon Brown wrote an encyclopedia. Ken Kifer wrote an advice book based on his personal experiences. Without Sheldon, our ability to work with bicycles, especially older bicycles, would be much poorer. Ken Kifer's contributions are more difficult to quantitate, though perhaps no less valuable.
  • When I change my beliefs as a result of using Sheldon Brown's site, it will most likely be because my understanding of the facts have changed. If I change my beliefs as a result of using Ken Kifer's site, it will most likely because my interpretation of the facts has changed.
  • Their writing styles are very different. I claim that, given a paragraph or so of writing from either one, I could identify whether it came from Ken or Sheldon with reasonable accuracy. 
I first read Ken's site a number of years ago, so what makes me write a blog post about it now? Perhaps that is the wrong question; I have not blogged about Ken Kifer before, he is worth blogging about, and now is as good a time as any. That said, two things happened recently that caused me to write this post:
  1. I had lost track of Ken's website. Among the posters I follow on Tumblr is oldbikesbelong, a bike shop in St. Louis that specializes in restored classic bikes. A few weeks ago, one of the bikes they offered caught my eye, a Schwinn Voyager, a Japanese-built Schwinn touring bike, so I did some research. It turns out that Ken Kifer was particularly fond of this bike, so my research lead back to his site. Having re-found it, it made it possible for me to blog about it.
  2. When I looked at the site years ago, I was most interested in what Ken had to say about desirable bikes and bicycle touring and ignored a lot of the other topics he covered. Since then, I have become much more interested in training and nutrition, and so having re-found the site, read more of what Ken had to say about a wider range of topics. Coincidentally, Grant Pedersen, one of the most authoritative contemporary voices in cycling, has just published a new book on these topics1, and the contrast between Ken's opinions and Grant's opinions is striking indeed! Thus, I had more to talk about than when I first encountered the site.
Ken Kifer stopped contributing to his website 12 years ago, when he was killed. Is this site still interesting today, or is it merely an historical curiosity? I maintain it is still interesting today. It is probably not the first cycling website I would recommend to a new cyclist, but I think a connoisseur of cycling, someone who enjoys reading what the web has to offer about their chose sport, would do well to give this site a look.

I might worry that my love for Ken's site might be "just me", but there is widespread homage to Ken on the web; I am not alone. That said, it is me expressing this high opinion of Ken, and here are some of the many things I found helpful or soul satisfying on Ken's site:
  • Old bikes are worth riding, they are often better than new bikes which change as much in response to fashion as they do to technological progress.
  • On the other hand, old bikes are not always worth fixing up.
  • What makes one bike good and another less good are not always obvious differences in specifications. Characteristics which feel glaringly obvious when you ride a bike can be difficult to explain.
  • Riding long hours at low speed can be good for you.
  • Current fads in nutrition can be bad for you.
  • More cycling paths may not be the best way to make cycling practical, safe, and fun.
  • In planning how to live your life, think carefully about your definition of success. The definitions and goals that are assumed by the majority may well be tragically wrong. Specifically, keeping in close contact with nature is valuable.
I can't think of a case where Ken ever told me something I did not know, but what he did do was help me sort through my confusion and gave me moral support when I found myself marching to the beat of a different drummer. Who am I to question a cycling great like Grant Pederson? Yet, when he councils "Eat Bacon, Don't Jog2" I beg to differ, and Ken supports me in that. But all of that is beside the point. The reason I suggest you might want to read Ken's website is not very much about the content of the site, but but very much about the art; Ken's voice. Give his website a look, and if the spirit moves you, let me know what you think in the comments to this post.

1) I have read the teaser material on the book that Amazon makes available, but I have not yet read Grant's book, so will (mostly) refrain commenting on it until I have done so. That said, the teaser material, plus what Grant discusses on these topics in his previous book, "Just Ride", was enough to increase my interest in Ken's take on nutrition and exercise.

2) Firstly, this is the title of Grant's new book, and at great peril, I infer the contents from this title. If, when I read the book, I find that inference to be incorrect, I will correct myself on this blog. Secondly, I make an obvious generalization; that this book is not about bacon and jogging only, but a high fat diet and aerobic exercise more generally. For me, the title might be "Eat Steak, Don't Bicycle."

1 comment:

  1. I found Kens pages about 7 years ago and they inspired me to start riding again. Love his stories and adventures.