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The Cycling Life

The two-wheeled approach to happiness.

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By DAVID SKINNER
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It’s All About the Bike
The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels
by Robert Penn
Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $20

Bicycles

The Meet of the League of American Wheelmen, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

In this age, when an Olympic gymnast is unable to make it through a floor routine without a television announcer bringing up their father, who is dead, their aunt, who is crippled, and their brother, who has bad breath, it is refreshing to find an engaging writer who sees in physical exercise not a triumph of the human spirit but simply athletes and their chosen sport. Such a writer is Robert Penn, and such a measured though still enthusiastic view of cycling pervades this lovely book.

Penn even pedals one mile further, leaving aside the whole subject of athletic performance, to discover human achievement in the bicycle itself. It is a tale of low technology, of an invention so well-developed that its latest trends—take, for example, the recent swell of interest in fixed-gear cycling—tend to look backward to earlier, more primitive models. Penn’s approach is similarly antiquarian, though he doesn’t always play the gentle docent. There is even a fighting note in the book’s title, a seemingly banal statement which contradicts the title of another, better known book, one “bullish” and “ghost-written account of recovering from cancer to win the Tour de France.” That is how Penn describes It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong. Amazon shoppers will not miss this point-counterpoint, as when they search on Penn’s title, Armstrong’s comes up as the very next result.

It’s All About the Bike is not without its own shtick. Penn, who lives in Wales, sets out to build his dream bicycle, perfect part by perfect part. And he has never heard of FedEx. So he travels to Vicenza, Italy, for his drive train components. For his frame, he flies to Portland, Oregon. For his tires, he goes to Korbach, Germany. And so on.

This dream-bike conceit fades, however, as the author tours factories and shops, meeting some of the bicycle world’s most storied builders. Penn is not a little taken by the technological breakthroughs that have led to today’s bicycle, from two in-line wheels and a seat​—​the Draisine, invented in 1817 by a German aristocrat, a vehicle good for little but coasting, though used today to teach little ones the art of balance​—​to the overloaded 21-gear, knobby-wheeled, hand-braking, shock-absorbing mess that can be purchased for a couple of C notes at Target.

Fortunately, there are wonders to behold in this historic march. After much trial and error, and that funny big-front-wheeled Victorian bike called a penny farthing, a company called Rover in England introduced the safety bike. It combined soft air-filled tires, a rear drive train, and wheels of equal size, giving the rider a low center of gravity. Between 1890 and 1895 the cost of a safety bicycle plummeted from half an average worker’s annual salary to a month’s wages or so.

“Birth records in Britain from the 1890s,” Penn reports, “show how surnames began to appear far away from the rural locality with which they had been strongly associated for centuries.”

It is a good time for a book about bicycling, and Penn’s book has been well-received in Britain, where it was first published. London, the New York Times recently announced, is positively in love with the bicycle these days. It’s also a good time in the United States, even on the East Coast, where the mayors of New York and Washington have plunked down millions to establish cute little bike lanes in the metal swarm of urban traffic​—​and are paying another price. 

In New York, news stories of angry cab drivers and other automobile users recall the feuding of Jean Merrill’s pushcart wars. In Washington, the young, green-minded, triathletic mayor who drew special bike lanes down the very middle of Pennsylvania Avenue was shortly voted out of office, replaced by a much more traditional party hack, a man who does not seem to have ever shopped for polyurethane booties to keep his pedaling toes warm in winter.

Still, there does seem to be a bicycle—well, renaissance seems a bit rich, how about a rebound?—underway. In bike-mad Portland the number of cyclists is said to have grown by a factor of 10 in the last decade. All the high-end companies Penn visits in Europe and the United States report a new hum in sales. Brooks, the makers of classic, high-end, hard leather saddles that soften only with great use, has seen its sales triple since 2002. If there is a company that embodies Penn’s view of what shopping for a bike should be like, it is Brooks.

We live in a dystopian age when almost everything we buy begins to deteriorate the moment it comes out of the box. Obsolescence is ubiquitous. We’ve come to accept it as the norm. Buy it, use it, bury it in the ground. A Brooks saddle, with its legendary lifespan, could be one of the first products of a utopian economy: the sort of economy dissident intellectuals were dreaming up in the 1970s, wherein goods are expensive, built to last, and repairable.

It is easy to sympathize with such a dissident—elitist, actually—view that emphasizes quality over expense. But it is hardly the secret to large-scale economic growth: A Brooks saddle will cost you as much as one of those awful bikes at Target, and while the number of bike snobs is on the increase, their ultimate totals are limited by the fractional size of the population willing to put up with the exertion, sweatiness, and logistical challenges of using a bicycle for routine transportation.

The most disarming chapter is set in Marin County, California, ground zero of the mountain biking craze that, according to a historian quoted here, “saved the bicycle industry’s butt.” In 1985, 5 percent of the bicycles sold in the United States were mountain bikes. Ten years later only 5 percent of bicycles sold in the United States were not mountain bikes. Penn is in town to have his rims built and while he’s at it goes for a ride with Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze, two of the business heroes who turned the industry around by racing klunkerz down Repack Mountain in a manner that today would earn them a reality television show contract. Like a Bill Bryson in reverse, Penn is terrific among the Americans, especially big-hearted California goofballs.

It’s not a little thing to have written an appreciation of the bicycle that is consistently likable and sane. Yet Penn does confess to a certain zealotry, as when he recalls an ex-girlfriend who could not understand his excitement at his having bicycled all the way across town, making it to her house without once setting his foot down. This she did not seem to realize was not only a triumph of skill—a city rider needs to know how to time himself very carefully and do track stands at red lights to pull off such a feat—but a victory of rolling over walking.

Of course, they broke up.

David Skinner is the author of the forthcoming The Story of Ain’t, about the great language controversy that surrounded Webster’s Third Unabridged Dictionary, to be published by HarperCollins.

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