The Chainlink

Book Review - Robert Penn, It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

By Brett Ratner

For a lot of us, January is a tough time to be a cyclist. This morning, for example, it was -3° Fahrenheit when I rode to work. And since they don't salt the roads around Chainlink's new Cheeselandia HQ, the commute also served as a practice session on keeping a bike upright over snow and ice.

Sure, I chose to ride. But the decision was really based more on perseverance (and proving something to my coworkers) than it was a matter of enjoyment.

To put it another way, while you certainly can ride and arguably should ride this time of year, you don't quite get that same feeling of euphoria as you do on a perfect summer day.

So, how does one get their bike fix in mid January? Well, reading about cycling certainly helps...and Robert Penn's 2010 book It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels is a great choice.

Penn is a British Journalist who has written for a wide variety of cycling publications as well as Financial Times, Observer, and Condé Nast Traveler. Perhaps more importantly, he's been a bicycle commuter and avid cyclist for decades, and has circumnavigated the globe - solo and unsupported - on two person-propelled wheels.

Despite owning many, many bikes and riding countless miles, Penn had never owned what he considered his "dream bike." Specifically, he'd never possessed a bike that was designed and built solely for him, or a bike that served as a true representation of his personality and identity as a cyclist.

So, he set out to do what most of us only wish we could do; actually turn his dream bike into reality. The frame would be custom welded to his measurements by a world-renown frame builder, and every single component would be thoughtfully selected by him. From every bolt, to every spoke, to the bar tape, to the saddle, there would be absolutely no compromise to be found.

And if you're not jealous enough yet, instead of simply ordering the bits and pieces from his local bike shop, he would physically travel to the factories where each component was manufactured, and interview the people actually making the parts. This included trips to Chris King, Cinelli, Campagnolo, Continental, and Brooks. Then he wrote a book about the experience.

Sure, a book solely about putting a bicycle together would get a little tiresome (even for a bike nerd such as myself). So, thankfully, Penn filled in the pages with a ton of interesting historical context, outlining not only the origins of the bike as a whole, but an evolution of every part of the bike we now take for granted. Mix in Penn's obvious passion for all things two wheels and you have a fun, fascinating read.

My personal favorite bit was when he visited Marin County and rode "Repack" (arguably the birthplace of mountain biking) with Joe Breeze and Charlie Kelly (arguably some of the inventors of mountain biking) while a guy named "Gravy" was busy building him a set of handmade wheels.

At the end of the book, Penn expressed a sense of melancholy when the bike (a custom TIG-welded Brian Rourke) was completed. It meant that his year-long adventure was coming to a close. I have to admit, I felt a similar sad feeling in that a paperback I was quite enjoying was down to its final pages.

So, if you're kinda geeky about bikes, read this book. You'll come away with a wealth of factoids with which to amaze and delight your fellow bike enthusiasts (such as how a volcanic eruption in the early 1800s spawned the invention of the bicycle). You'll also find yourself with a rejuvenated passion for bikes, and an uncontrollable urge to get outside and start pedaling...which, at this time of year, is a very good thing.

Check it out here.



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Comment by Alan Lloyd on January 14, 2016 at 2:41pm

Here is a YouTube of the hour-long BBC documentary Robert Penn made, based upon his book ...

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