Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book: It's All About the Bike

"The pursuit of happiness on two wheels"

The title grabbed me; I grabbed the book.

Journalist and cyclist Robert Penn set out to acquire the ultimate bicycle, piece by piece. He started at Brian Rourke Cycles in Stoke-on-Trent, England. (Coincidentally, my great-great grandfather emigrated from Stoke-on-Trent to the USA, 150-odd years ago.) Mr. Rourke builds custom frames, and he built one just for Mr. Penn. From there he traveled the world... to Oregon for the ultimate hubs, to Italy to pick up his gruppo, to Germany for his tires, to the Bay Area to have his wheels handbuilt, back to England for his Brooks saddle.

Wherever he is allowed, he watches his stuff being manufactured. (Campagnolo wouldn't let him in... they have a strict policy against journalist tours. They're apparently afraid of competitors stealing their innovations that are still on the drawing board.)

The story of the bike-being-built is interspersed with observations about bicycling, history, etc. (On not-so-custom bikes, Penn has ridden pretty much around the world.)

A snippet from the book:

"The one dramatic blow-out I had that still gives me flashbacks was in the Fergana Mountains in Kyrgyzstan. I was coming down from a pass on a gravel road, on a loaded touring bike. When the hairpins finished, and the road opened out before me, I let the brakes go. At full tilt, the front tyre - a cheap Chinese-made tyre I'd bought in the market in Kashgar - blew. The bike slid briefly, then the handlebar jack-knifed and I was off. Somehow, the bike was propelled into the air. As it came down on top of me, the teeth of the chainrings scalped the side of my head.

"A few hours later, I reached a farm on the road - the first settlement I'd seen all day. Blood congealed with dust covered the side of my face. My shirt was shredded. Looking like a cross between a cage-fighter and a Sadhu, I leant my bike against the gate and walked up the path. Children and women scattered, shrieking. The farmer, a barrel-chested Kyrgyz man with taut, mongoloid features, appeared from the shadows with a pistol at the end of his stiff arm. I tried a few words of Russian. No reply. Then his eyes flicked past me to the gate, and my bicycle. The pistol arm fell limp. The leathery brown skin on his face was re-set to a broad grin. Ten minutes later I was eating kebabs and yoghurt as his wife sponged blood from my head. I had the bicycle to thank for my salvation: it was the last time I would ever grace it with a cheap tyre."

Penn's final thought, as he takes his first ride: "At Gospel Pass, we [he and his bicycle?] slipped through the notch in the rock and the landscape fell away. We began freewheeling slowly downhill. The views into mid-Wales were magnificent. The world lay beyond the handlebars. I was in the best seat in the house: a seat that had cost over $5,000. That's a lot of money for a bicycle, I thought. Then again, it's not a lot of money for the loveliest thing I've ever owned."

(The title of the book is a light-hearted response to a book by Lance Armstrong: It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.) It's a quick read, at less than 200 pages. I'd recommend it to anybody who regularly feels "happiness on two wheels."


Clancy said...

I watched the movie when it was shown down at the BBP one night. The book is probably better, but I enjoyed the story.

I doubt I will ever own a $5000 bike but I do enjoy nicer parts including my Brooks saddles.

Interesting bike blog that I ran across. She has great cartoons and writes about everyday cycling.

Marcus said...

Rediscovered books had Penn do a meet and greet on 8th street last spring and I was able to take him on a bike tour through Boise. He couldn't stop talking about my xtracycle during the visit (in Europe they are twice as much because of import taxes). He allowed me to ride his bike as well... it was smooth.