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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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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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