It’s All About The Bike, Robert Penn (2010)

An enjoyable spin through cycling history on the trail of the perfect bike

Particular Books 9781846142628 Octo 199pp £16.99

This is the story of the author’s quest to create a custom bicycle perfectly suited to his needs. There is no intrinsic challenge to this – he has a frame built for him in Stoke on Trent, buys tyres in Germany, a headset in California and a groupset in Italy. But his journey is a vehicle by which to tell the story of the bicycle and its various components.

It is an engrossing read, in which Penn retells some of the familiar stories of the cycle’s evolution, and manages to tease out sufficient new crumbs to satisfy even those to whom this tale is fairly familiar.

I was surprised, for example, to learn that Karl Von Drais’ embryonic bicycle of 1817 was, in part, a reaction to the terrible effects of 1816’s ‘year without summer’ – itself a by product of the eruption of Mount Tambora. Nor did I know that the jock strap was first created as a ‘bike jockey’s strap’, at the behest of a Boston cycling club’s members.

The book cuts from retold history, to encounters with framebuilders, component manufacturers and a couple of the legends of early mountain biking. To these he adds occasional detours into his own cycling history – he commuted around London while working as a lawyer, before giving it all up to cycle around the world.

His style is not dissimilar to Bill Bryson’s – it is an easy, entertaining read that packs in a surprising amount of information and research. Indeed, the book’s best quality is of enriching your appreciation of the bicycle. A chain is just a chain, until you know how Hans Renold, in a workshop in Manchester, developed ‘bush rollers’ that transformed this staple of industrialisation. The thought of the rubber porridge from which Continental fashion tyres does much to increase your appreciation of these pneumatic marvels too.

The book would also make a practical guide for anyone considering setting out to fashion their own dream machine. The rationalist in me suspects that objectively you might obtain a ride of equal, or even greater quality from the best off-the-peg machines. But, like Penn, I can’t resist the sense that the mental and physical energy that you invest in creating a bike, will be repaid with interest by the emotional quality of your subsequent journey’s together.

TD July 10

On 5 September 2010 The Sunday Times reported that this book was the 9th best selling hardback in the UK – it was the third week that the book had appeared in the top ten. The chart, compiled by The Bookseller, suggested that the title had sold 2,975 copies that week, and 3,140 copies in total. A week later it was out of the top ten.

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