book review
It's All About The Bike,
the pursuit of happiness on two wheels

It's All About The Bike, the pursuit of happiness on two wheels, text by Robert Penn, Penguin Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-141-04379-1, list price 8.99 GBP, paperback: 199 pages, including appendix of useful information, index, 27 illustrations. Available online from:

Let me say straight away that any book which quotes both Albert Einstein and Mark Twain on cycling can't be half bad. And the other half ain't half bad either.

I do however have one tiny, pedantic, criticism to make -- about the title. I understand full well why the author/agent/publisher chose that title: it makes perfectly good sense, it makes perfectly good marketing sense, it's catchy, and it cleverly plays on the title of another book by Lance Armstrong (anyone who followed the Tour de Lance will immediately make the association with Penn's title, though, given Armstrong's fall from grace, the association may no longer be a desirable one). Nonetheless, it's not only about the bike. I shall explain.

The joy of owning a bespoke bike begins long before one takes possession of it. That is because a bespoke bike, unlike a bike you order from the Internet or buy off the peg in a High Street shop, is a process, not a fait accompli. One of the joys of reading Penn's book is that he makes the process come alive; he shares the joy of the process with us. One does not actually go shopping for a bespoke bike, for the obvious reason that it doesn't exist yet. What one goes shopping for is a bespoke frame builder. Penn is absolutely right that the key to getting your dream bike turned into reality is finding a frame builder who will first listen to what you want, and then correct what you want into what you need based on the frame builder's experience and judgment. Think of finding the right frame builder as being a little like finding the right psychotherapist: it is not simply a question of the builder's technique and material qualifications; you have to build a relationship of trust and respect. The similarity to a psychotherapist is not actually far-fetched, since you are confiding your innermost dreams to both, and you expect both to make you healthy and happy. Penn devotes a whole chapter to the search for, and his relationship with, his frame builder of choice. I fully concur; Penn and I are peas in a pod. He couldn't have found a more appreciative reader. Ok, so I'm biased.

The joy of a bespoke bike consists also in planning all the minute details, not only of the frame, but of the components as well. These details should be discussed with the frame builder, as the choice of equipment will often determine important features of the frame. Think, for example, about whether you want a fixed-gear bike or a multi-gear bike; if you want a multi-gear bike, think whether you want derailleur gears or a hub gear (Rohloff etc.). These decisions materially determine what the dropouts are going to be, what braze-ons you will need, and so on. Think what kind of brakes you want: side pulls, center pulls, cantilevers, hydraulic, hub brakes, disc brakes (with or without hub dynamo) -- each one has its own special mounting system and may require appropriate braze-ons. Think whether you want internally routed cables; if so, think whether you want them to enter the top tube on the left side and exit the top tube on the right side. The possible combinations are not infinite, but they can be staggeringly complicated, and it is important to discuss these features with the frame builder in advance because some component combinations may not work well together for reasons which have nothing to do with any of components taken separately.

I know from experience what things can go wrong with a bespoke bike. One correspondent to this website ruefully reported that, "I got what I asked for, but not what I wanted." Another correspondent to this website got what he asked for and what he wanted, but unfortunately had not informed the frame builder how much chroming he intended to have done. Some parts of a bicycle frame are difficult to chrome, especially fiddly bits around the bottom bracket shell. The frame in question had a lot of fiddly bits around the bottom bracket shell (cable guides etc.), and when the owner saw the finished frame, he was mightily disappointed. The chromer agreed to strip off the chrome and attempt to do a better job of it; the stripping process destroyed the frame.

If you want the head lugs chromed, then the frame builder should ream the head tube before chroming. A chromed head tube cannot be reamed, and if the head tube was not reamed prior to chroming, then the headset bearing races may not seat properly. If you want the head lugs painted, then ream the head tube after painting. Reynolds 531 chromes well; other Reynolds tube types do not take chrome (it won't stick). These are all matters pertaining to the process-phase to be discussed with your frame builder.

I have had four bespoke frames made, three for myself and one for my wife. However, I must admit that Rob Penn has one-upped me: although I have fondled raw lugs and tubes and sampled tube colors, I have never actually watched my frames being brazed together. Kudos for total process involvement!

Penn's book gives the reader a good feel not only for the joys of having a dream bike, but also for the joy in the process of acquiring one. For those who have already realized their dream bikes, the book will provide a very pleasant déjà vu experience; for those who are contemplating building up a dream bike, the book will provide a very pleasant and encouraging anticipatory experience. Who knows, the book might even inspire a number of people to reach for their dreams; as the author points out, dream bikes are not exorbitant.

To anyone who doubts whether riding a bespoke bike is really that much different to riding any other professional quality off-the-peg bike (Colnago, Giant, whatever), I shall let Penn speak for himself: "The bicycle saves my life every day. 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 peddling 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." [ibid., page 16] I have on several occasions experienced the following on a bespoke bike: there is no bike, there is no rider, there is only motion. In those rare moments, it really isn't about the bike, because the bike mysteriously disappears from under you--it's about something else which can only be described as near-mystical; the bike is the vehicle which transports you there, and so we venerate it. Judging by the enthusiasm his book radiates, I think Penn must know that experience, too; he's been there.

Now, as for the components of a bespoke bike... well, there be three sorts of people in the world. 1) Those who buy a group-set, a complete outfit from one manufacturer (and several are so well known in this league that I hardly need mention them). 2) Those who pick and choose, mix and match, only the best of class in each class will suffice. For a dream bike, I can well understand the second sort; it takes a bit more effort, to be sure: you have to do a lot of research, not only to find out which component is the best of its class, but to find a supplier as well. And then there's the third sort of person, Rob Penn. He's the sort who actually goes to the factory or workshop where the components are made--be it Milan, Korbach, Portland, or Fairfax--pokes around the lathes and milling machines on the shop floor, has lunch in the cantine with the president of the firm, and then writes about it in the book. Hurrah! He describes visits to Chris King (headset), Cinelli (bar & stem), Columbus (fork), Campagnolo (drive-train), Conti (tires), Royce (hubs), Gravy (Fairfax California, wheel builder), Brooks (posterior) etc. etc. and along the way tells the stories of how many of these components (ball bearings, bush roller chains, seamless steel tubing, spoked wheels, pneumatic tires, etc. etc.), without which modern technology as we know it would not exist--were actually invented for and first tested on, you guessed it, bicycles. Fascinating reading.

I might just mention in passing that the author has equally fascinating stories to tell about a blow-out coming down the Fergana Pass in Kyrgystan, meeting a paraplegic Scott cranking with her arms up the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway (highway is no understatement here), as well as another about hurtling down Repack with the original mountain bikers, Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze.

The book is chock full of interesting historical and technical asides. You will learn, for example, if you did not know it already, how the bicycle contributed to universal suffrage in Britain, and what molecular layer interneurons have to do with cycling. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on wheel building.

In the autumn of 2009 I received an email, out of the blue, from the author, in which he declared his intention of building up his dream bike and of documenting it both in writing and a BBC tv show. I received the finished book this date, 16 May 2010. I was very pleased, but at the same time faced with a difficult choice. I know a thing or two about dream bikes; I own about a dozen of them, most made-to-measure for other people's dreams--I'm merely passing them on to future generations, like Patek Philippe watches. The weather has suddenly turned springy this very week, and I had really been looking forward to unwrapping one of those dream machines from under their dustcovers in the cellar and taking it for a spin round the Bernese countryside where I live. Today. But this book arrived today. So what was I to do with this beautiful day?? Ride one of my dream machines, or read about someone else's? I decided to just dip into the book this morning and see how it went; there'd still be the afternoon to ride, right? Well, here I am writing this review, it's past midnight, and I haven't been on one of my bikes all day--and you know what? I don't regret it at all.

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