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It's All About The Bike, by Robert Penn

It's all about the bike by Robert PennTitle: It's All About The Bike: The Pursuit Of Happiness On Two Wheels
Author: Robert Penn
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2010
Pages: 199
Order: Penguin Books
What it is: One man's quest for the ultimate bicycle wrapped around a potted history of the bike.
Strengths: Entertainingly told.
Weaknesses: Could have done with a picture of the finished beast.

Having considered the pornography of Michael Embacher's Cyclepedia, let's turn this time around to the erotica of Robert Penn's It's All About The Bike as I continue my quest to see if I can't understand what it is that fires the fuse of so many others when it comes to the mechanical aspects of the not so humble bicycle.

Like Bella Bathurst's The Bicycle Book, Penn's It's All About The Bike comes on the back of the resurgent popularity of cycling in the UK. The bicycle seems to go through phases. Penn notes that, by the seventies, in the UK the bike was firmly out of favour. It had fallen out of favour before than in the US. I happen to be a fan of Marshall McLuhan but, in his series of essays about the extensions of man, the cunning Canuck hardly even mentioned the bike. He could waffle on for ages in that entertaining style of his about the role played by the stirrup but, when he came to the bike, our two-wheeled friend was just a stepping stone to the aeroplane of the Wright Brothers:

"It was the tandem alignment of wheels that created the vélocipede and then the bicycle, for with the acceleration of wheel by linkage to the visual principle of mobile lineality, the wheel acquired a new degree of intensity. The bicycle lifted the wheel onto the plane of aerodynamic balance, and not too indirectly created the aeroplane. It was no accident that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early airplanes seemed in some ways like bicycles. The transformations of technology gave the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical beings."

Bombarded as I am by claims from within the cycling community that the bike is he greatest thing since sliced bread, seeing someone like McLuhan dance blithely over it does leave me wondering if we don't talk this thing up too much sometimes. The only other time McLuhan mentions the bicycle is to suggest it is ridden by clowns:

"Those familiar with the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett need not be reminded of the rich clowning he engenders by means of the bicycle. It is for him the prime symbol of the Cartesian mind in its acrobatic relation of mind and body in precarious imbalance. For Beckett, the integral being is not the acrobat but the clown. The acrobat acts as a specialist, using only a limited segment of his faculties. The clown is the integral man who mimes the acrobat in an elaborate drama of incompetence. Beckett sees the bicycle as the sign and symbol of specialist futility in the present electric age, when we must all interact and react, using all our facilities at once."

Today of course we live in a different world and the bicycle - in the West at least - seems to be going through a golden age. Recession is driving more and more people to save petrol money by riding to work. Depression is pushing more and more people to ride at the weekends. In the boom and bust economic cycle (it hasn't gone away you know, despite the claims of Gordon Brown) the bike seems to work best at the bottom of the cycle.

* * * * *

Penn's It's All About The Bike is a pretty straightforward affair, being the story of one man and his quest to build the ultimate bicycle:

"Like tens of thousand of everyday cyclists with utilitarian machines, I recognise there is a glaring hole in my bike shed, a cavernous space for something else, something special. I'm in the middle of a lifelong affair with the bicycle: none of my bikes even hints at this. [...] Like many people, I'm frustrated at the round of buying stuff that is designed to be replaced quickly. I want to break the loop with this bike. I'm going to ride it for thirty years or more and I want to savour the process of acquiring it. [...] The bike will look like a racing bikes, but it will be finely turned to meet my cycling needs. If you like, it will be a 'riding' bike. [...] The components [...] will be chosen to match the frame. They won't be the lightest or the sexiest components on the market. They'll simply be the best made."

Around this simple framing device, Penn adorns the book with a brief history of the bicycle, from the role a volcano played in the invention by Von Drais of his hobby-horse through all the competing claims about who turned that into the bike we know today.

Penn's journey takes him from his home in Wales' Breacon Beacons to the artisan frame-builder Brian Rourke in Stoke-on-Trent, across the Atlantic to Portland, Oregon, and Fairfax, Marin County in quest of a headset and wheels, to Milan in search of Cinelli handlebars and a Campagnolo groupset, to Korbach, Germany for tyres  and then back to UK and a visit to Birmingham for a saddle (you do get to thinking that Penn was just off on a world-wide jolly here). Few people blowing £3,500 on a bike - right at the moment when the global economy was going into meltdown - would be willing to add all those extra air miles to their credit card, but Penn's a man on a mission here.

It's All About The Bike is impressively accessible, even to a technologically-challenged moron like me (let's see them use that on the back-of-book blurb). To say that my metallurgy is rusty would be a joke. It was never very polished to begin with. Understanding the different properties of steel, titanium, aluminium, carbon - they're as beyond my ken as Dutch is. And this is where I usually get scared when I try to read about frame-building and the like. It just bamboozles me with the appliance of science. Do I really need to know about Young's modulus or that as a tube's diameter increases, its stiffness increases to the third power of that number? About as much as I need to know air resistance increases as a square of velocity and that past about twenty-five kilometres an hour overcoming air resistance accounts for ninety percent of power output. (In short: no.)

Penn casually cuts through a lot of the bullshit that comes with this territory by admitting that much of it actually is bullshit. Take this passage for example:

"There is much nonsense passing as wisdom about materials for bike frames. The reality is that a good bike builder can make a good frame out of any of the materials mentioned [these include aluminium, carbon, steel, plastic, beryllium, hemp, wood and bamboo], with any desired ride qualities: if the diameter of the tubes, the thickness of the tube walls and the geometry of the frame are right, the bike will be right."

Penn even goes so far as to suggest that the bicycle industry is built on a conspiracy theory and a lot of the time we're being sold pups:

"Yes, even the bicycle industry has a conspiracy theory. It goes like this: the manufacturers of mass-produced bicycles spend a fortune on R&D to ensure that the top professionals they sponsor ride the lightest, fastest bicycles, and win races. The manufacturers need to recoup this expenditure while reducing the costs of production, so they throw everything at marketing to the public the same, or similar, elite bikes as the pros ride."

Maybe McLuhan was right about the link between bikes and clowns.

The upside of Penn's accessibility is that I found myself getting interested when he started talking about how much cycling is a sport that needs lots of balls. Little ones "between the fixed and rotating parts of the hubs, the bottom bracket, the pedals, the freewheel and the headset." Ordinarily, this would be enough to make me yawn. But Penn has a refreshing way of getting across such apparently tedious information (tedious to dopes like me, anyway). He explains it in an historical context, which (for me at least) increases the entertainment factor.

For instance, did you know that James Moore, winner of what is acknowledged to have been the first point-to-point road race, Paris-Rouen in 1869, was the only rider that day who took the line on a bike that had ball bearings helping the pedals go around? Well I didn't it. Maybe it's a sign that this stuff is infecting me, that I even care. But then, in Michael Embacher's Cyclepedia, that Gaston Rivière won Bordeaux-Paris three times on the trot riding a shaft-driven bicycle has also lodged in my brain. Is this the first sign of incipient gear fetishism setting in?

An important thing to realise about It's All About The Bike is that it tells an incomplete story. While Penn goes into loving detail on his choice of frame (Rourke), handlebars (Cinelli), headset (Chris King), wheels (built by Steve Gravenites) and saddle (Brooks), he takes a short cut through most of the rest by going for a Campy groupset. Length of cranks, choice of pedal, brake preferences, manual versus electronic gears - all are skipped over in another loving paean to Tullio Campagnolo and his descendents.

That deficiency aside, It's All About The Bike offers an enjoyable ride through the history of the hobby-horse. And if it can get someone as technologically illiterate as me talking balls, it's got to be doing something right, right?