Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's All About the Bike - Robert Penn

Clear warning - this is a book review.  Yeah, it's normally something you would look to the New York Times for, but until Punch calls me for a regular column you will just have to handle the intrusion into my normal stream of consciousnesses babble about bikes.

Oh damn.  Now I raised the expectation about what will be in this particular blog, which happens to be a book review.  You are now expecting some work of literary art that is a thoughtful dissertation on another work of literary effort.  I'm sorry that you will be disappointed.  Here, however, is what I thought.

I recently read "It's All About the Bike" by Robert Penn.  Bob Penn is a lifelong cyclist and author and this book is his love letter to bicycling and, more particularly, bicycles.  Penn decides that he is ready for an ultimate bike; that one bike to end all bikes that will be a culmination of his many years of riding bike after bike after bike that in some way represents a compromise.  And, he is not only going to buy and build this dream-cicle (okay, dream-cycle), he is going to take us along on the journey.  Penn is different than you and me, however, in that building his dream bike involves getting on a plane and flying to the manufacturer of each piece of his dream bike.

The book is divided into chapters about each major item on the bike and each chapter includes a bit of historical information.  As a result, it is a wonderful journey through each element of what is really a very simple and amazing machine.  The journey starts and ends with a British frame builder, Brian Rourke.  He decides on a steel frame and through each successive chapter adorns his bike with a Cinelli bars and stem, Campagnolo parts, a Chris King headset, Gravy Wheels from California, Continental Tires from Germany and a Brookes saddle.  The history that Penn recounts, whether it is the original creation of the bike, the cycling boom across the world or the first mountain bikes, he makes the history thoroughly readable and fun.  Along the way, he is a convincing advocate for the notion that the bike is a crowning achievement of mankind.  After picking up the parts and teaching us a bit of background, he finally returns to Rourke to obsess about the painting and assembly of his ultimate bike and then to proverbially ride off into the sunset.

I personally suspect that this is not his ultimate bike, or even, if you will excuse the phrase, his Penn-ultimate bike (hah!), but like all cyclists, we delude ourselves into thinking that this one time we will splurge a bit on a piece or part or frame or bike, and then we will really stop.  But, the problem with addiction is that this is how we cope with the problem.  We tell ourselves it is really just this last time and then we will stop, but who is kidding whom.  The cycle (hah!, I did it again) just continues.

For Robert Penn, he may hold off on buying or building another bike for a spell of years, but I'm quite glad that he took the time to document this particular bike.  When I heard about this book, I was mildly interested in it, but might not have purchased it unless I ran across it at Aunties or Powells on a rainy day when my checkbook wasn't full of zeroes.  I was, however, lucky to have received it as a gift as I enjoyed it much more than I thought I might.  Penn's title is an obvious reference to Lance Armstrong's eponymous book and it points out that while it may not be all about the bike for the world's most famous bike rider, for a lot of us who are cycling crazed, it is about the bike.  And getting to build up your own bike piece by piece, without regard for price and without compromise, would be a dream process for most of us.

Until you can take that journey yourself, I would suggest you enjoy Robert Penn's.


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