It’s All About the Bike

Robert Penn’s purchase of the ultimate midlife-crisis toy, a custom bicycle built around a bespoke frame, is the premise for his joy-filled ‘It’s All About the Bike,’ a journey though the history, characters, and innovations that have produced what we know as the modern bicycle. This story is above all an expression of his own joy of cycling, one that will be shared by readers inclined toward two-wheel transportation.

Bicycle frame illustrationPenn’s passion is well-captured in this early passage:

“I found a rhythm in the spinning pedals. Rhythm is happiness. A myriad of concerns – about the bike, about this book – dissipated completely. This is the beauty of cycling – the rhythm puts serious activity in the brain to sleep: it creates a void. Random thoughts enter that void – the chorus from a song, a verse of poetry, a detail on the countryside, a joke, the answer to something that vexed me long ago.”

The joy of cycling is front-and-center, his account is also about the evolution of the modern ‘safety bicycle,’ an ingenious device that has evolved over more than a century to become much more than utilitarian transportation. This a marvel of engineering is itself a tangible reflection of our personal relationship with our bodies and surrounding environs; for many people it’s why we all ride.

Bicycle headset illustration“I’ve been riding bicycles for thirty-six years,” Penn says. “Today, I ride to get to work, to keep fit, to breathe in air and sunshine, to go shopping, to escape when the world is breaking my balls, to savor the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, to travel, to stay sane, to skip bath time my kids, for fun, for a moment of grace, occasionally to impress someone, to scare myself, and to hear my boy laugh. Sometimes I ride my bicycle just to ride my bicycle.”

He owes his passion to a “broad church of practical physical and emotional reasons” for cycling that revolve around one thing – the bicycle itself. Appropriately, Penn uses this single most efficient form of human transportation ever devised as a structuring metaphor for our journey with him.

Victorian-era BikeWith chapters on the frame, the bars, the drivetrain, the wheels and more, Penn takes readers on a leisurely amble though friends’ workshops on several continents (for no quality bicycle is sole-sourced in China!).  He reveals the history (and drama) behind the components while enumerating the incremental design changes that evolved those innovations into the modern components we value today.

Penn uses his pursuit of the perfect machine to take the story back to the birth of the industrial revolution in England. Everyone remembers the big-wheeled bikes of the Victorian era. That model used a direct-drive system where pedals turned the front wheel. As the quest for greater speeds dictated an enlarged front wheel (so that every pedal turn traversed more terrain), the limitations soon became obvious: a larger wheel impeded steering while the length of the rider’s leg determined front-wheel radius, in effect capping the top speed of the bike.

Penn goes into some detail about innovations that made that possible:

  • Roller chain & rear drive eliminated the need for a big front wheel and thus imparted a greater sense of balance to the device (as early as 1879!);
  • Gearing via the essential derailleur more efficiently multiplied human power;
  • Eighteenth-century carriage bearings were reworked by Birmingham toolmakers and by the 1870s wheels used lubricated bearings installed in races to reduce rolling resistance; and,
  • Shock-absorbing wheels made possible by crossed spokes under tension; and of course,
  • Increasingly lightweight frames of butted-steel tubing reduced the effort required to merely move the bike itself.

Bicycle wheel illustrationEgged on by the very competitive sport of professional cycling and supported by global demand for affordable transportation, inventors and producers continually refined the geometry of the frame and efficiency of the drive train and as a result, today we have a perfectly-tuned machine available at price points well below $1,000.

Today we may take for granted the key revolutions and incremental evolutions that provide the world with incredibly affordable wheels, but Penn gives us some background on the individual and corporate competition that’s kept bike-related innovation humming for more than a century (with no end in sight!). His sensitive ear for character and sharp eye for detail keeps the narrative rich, while his continent-hopping pursuit for the ideal bike keeps the story moving.

Penn’s up-close-and-personal story about what’s been variously called the pedestrian accelerator, dandy-horse, dandy-charger, hobby horse, boneshaker, velocipede, ordinary and high-wheeler is a paean to the passion and the hardware that transforms human effort into forward motion to gracefully. It’s a graceful romp through the history of bicycle innovation as he describes in detail how each component from tire to seat contributes uniquely to the comfort and character of the cycling experience.

Perhaps no passage as clearly sums up that experience as well as his closing hymn to the bike:

“If you’ve ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedaling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead; if you’ve ever wondered, swooping bird-like down a long hill on a bicycle, if the world was standing still; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary human touching the gods, then we share something fundamental. We know it’s all about the bike.”

Readers barely familiar with the story of the bicycle will find this an entertaining read, while experienced cyclists will recognize his passion for the alchemy that turns a diamond-shaped frame of aluminum, carbon fiber, or steel into a rolling symphony of muted clicks and close tolerances. Dedicated cyclists of a certain age will resonate with his pursuit of the bespoke bike as a “classic mid-life crisis purchase.” [Illustrations from It’s All About the Bike.]

2 thoughts on “It’s All About the Bike

  • August 3, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks for the great review. I plan to read this book!

    While I definitely share the author’s delight and joy that moments on two wheels can bring, riding in traffic puts that on pause at times. In those situations, I try to substitute joy with the practice of a zen-like awareness and being-in-the-moment for the sake of personal survival!

    And, while I realize the list of innovations cited wasn’t a complete retelling of the points of the book, this item stood out:
    “Shock-absorbing wheels made possible by crossed spokes under tension…”
    I think the development of the pneumatic tire made a far more significant contribution to comfort on a bike than cross-laced spokes.

    BTW, the website is looking great.

  • August 6, 2011 at 5:17 am

    Thanks Kent for the kind words! Re: Zen-like awareness, for me that’s an oxymoron. I find that in traffic situations, especially ‘mixmasters’ like Wilshire/405 here on the Westside, or westbound 3rd or 7th downtown, I’m hyper-aware. Or riding Ohio or SM eastbound at rush hour. It really requires my full faculties and leaves no room for Zen. I do find the zen on open stretches, say on Venice, SM Blvd bet. 405 and Century City, Culver Blvd westbound, and dare I say Olympic. Coming back from BAC I had a great ride west on Fountain. Very zen.
    Re: tires, he does have a segment on that, which was very interesting for I learned how the modern tire (‘tyre’ if you’re from Wales) is manufactured. Gives me some perspective on my $40 Conti gators!

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