Joe Biel is something of an unlikely bicycle advocate. He doesn’t have a fancy bike. He doesn’t ride a million miles. He doesn’t attend many of the cycling events in town. “I ride my bike to work every day, and it’s become mainstream in my life to the point where I don’t ever think about it,” he said.
But over the course of his 38 years bicycles have become central to his life and that of his business. The company he co-founded has published dozens of books about cycling and he directed a documentary called “Aftermass,” about how his adopted home of Portland, Oregon, became synonymous with urban cycling. His tattoo of a heart within a chainring even became the company’s logo.
Microcosm Publishing is a small company that embraces the DIY ethos of Biel’s youth and largely works outside the traditional industry structures. Biel said he never set out to become a publisher. As a teen he was drawn to music and handmade zines. He collected dozens, then hundreds, of zines and carried them across the country to punk rock shows, speaking engagements and book stores. At different points in its gestation, Microcosm was also a record label and a zine distribution catalog. Two decades later, Microcosm has published about 350 books, Biel said, and has 11 employees.
“I did not see anything [in the mainstream press] that represented my interests or values I was interested in, purely as a person who needed to get to work and was not afraid of having politics front and center. It’s not to say it didn’t exist, but I couldn’t find it. And that was probably the principal motivator. I was young enough and stubborn enough to say ‘I’m going to make the thing that I would want.’”
With a diverse catalog, Microcosm often bumps up against the publishing industry’s classification of cycling as a sport, and its books gets lumped in with tennis and rock climbing on bookstore shelves. While many publishers of its size focus on a single subject, Microcosm “puts one book on every shelf,” Biel said. Its titles often cover such a breadth of topics that they can be difficult to classify.
“Our audience is primarily female. Primarily people of color. Primarily 20 to 30 [years old]. Primarily low income,” Biel said. “That wasn’t intentional, that’s just the people that responded to what we were doing because it’s a group of people that nobody talks to, and nobody engages as an equal.”
The road hasn’t always been smooth. As he outlines in his new memoir, “Good Trouble,” Biel struggled with interpersonal communication until he was diagnosed with Asberger’s Syndrome. Unsuccessful business ventures and personality conflicts almost sank Microcosm several times. But one of the “superpowers” of “Aspies,” Biel describes in his book, is an incredible stubbornness and fixation on a goal, something that has helped him rolling through the difficult periods.
Cycling and DIY culture have a lot in common. The shared values of thrift and self-reliance make bicycles an excellent transportation choice—at least when Biel wasn’t carting around boxes and boxes of zines to events. Today Microcosm’s catalog includes dozens of books about cycling, and the company is proudly pro-bike.
With partner Elly Blue, Biel founded a film company called Groundswell that creates short films that demonstrate how cycling has improved communities. The pair also organized the annual Dinner and Bikes Tour, a bicycle tour that stops in cities and towns, prepares gourmet vegan and gluten-free food, then discusses advocacy issues with the community.
While Biel proudly describes himself as a cyclist, he says he sometimes feels a disconnect with the cycling community. While he celebrates the growth of cycling as a basic transportation commodity, the change has had an adverse affect on the sense of community cyclists once felt, he said. “This is not challenging anything,” he said, referring to his lack of car ownership. “This is something I do for me at this point…I don’t see it as a selfless act, to spread the word, because the word is spread.”
But Biel continues to spread the word anyway. His company’s books are selling be er than ever and his side projects reach an even wider audience. He has learned to define his success by his own terms. “I know who I am and I know what I believe in.”
Four Microcosm Titles to Read to Your Bike
THE CULINARY CYCLIST: A COOKBOOK AND COMPANION FOR THE GOOD LIFE
By Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall: More than a cookbook, this is a guide for integrating cycling into your cooking: how to shop by bike, how to throw a bike picnic and more. The recipes are vegetarian and gluten-free, many are vegan, and they are all beginner-friendly.
OUR BODIES, OUR BIKES
By Elly Blue, Katura Reynolds, Emily June Street and April Streeter: This series of essays is a mashup of advice, how-tos, memoirs and resources at the intersection of gender and bicycling. You’ll find stories of pregnancy, fashion, health and well-being, sexuality and more—anything is fair game.
Edited by Elly Blue: In the future, the only way to escape the zombie infestation is on two wheels. Then again, for the folks infected with the zombie virus, the only way to feel alive again is on a bicycle. Either way, these 13 science fiction stories prove the zombie apocalypse will be pedal-powered.
URBAN REVOLUTIONS: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO TWO-WHEELED TRANSPORTATION
By Emilie Bahr: With a background as a cyclist and transportation planner in New Orleans, this collection of essays and tips is a great fi eld guide for both new and experienced cyclists of any gender.
More information on each of these books and more can be found from Microcosm Publishing. This feature originally appeared in Bicycle Times #39.