Reviewed by William Rees

cover of book showing view from a bicycle seat.
Road ahead. Between 2000 and 2009 cycling in London more than doubled.

In some parts of London cycling has overtaken motor vehicle traffic for the first time in five decades and the creation of public bicycle pumps at the roadside in the City illustrates that transport planners are taking cycling seriously … sometimes. But elsewhere, like on London’s bridges, cycling provision is haphazard or just hazard.

If you can’t control the construction of cycling¬†infrastructure, you can at least build a better bicycle.

In this short and entertaining book Robert Penn delves into the design and components that make up the modern cycling machine while recalling the history of how the bicycle evolved from middle-class play thing, to the competitive racing steed that carries men and women across countries in one day and stage races.

The story of the bicycle is one of rise and fall and rise again. Rover, the company that mass produced the first recognisable “Safety Bicycle” later abandoned it in favour of motor vehicle production. A great number of bicycle factories turned to producing cars as the factory workers’ skills were transferred to car production, and the decline of the bicycle gathered apace.

From a low point in Britain and Europe in the mid-1970s, it was the United States and a group of hippies from Marin County, California, who were to halt the bicycle’s decline. Big, heavy cruiser bikes were hacked and adopted again and again into downhill, off-road cycling machines. From these “rat bikes” the modern mountain bike emerged. A hundred years on from the Rover Safety the bicycle was undergoing a renaissance.

While use of the bicycle for road racing and commuting continued to decline the ranks of mountain bikers swelled with ever more advanced machines with suspension and exotic components. Then city streets began to be filled with a new urban guerilla with a fashion for suspension and big tyres.

With ever increasing road traffic levels in London during the 1990s it was cycle couriers who managed to squeeze through the congested streets. The cycle messengers began to strip down their bikes to the bare essentials and on the streets of central London sleek, single-speed and often fixed-gear road bikes were seen more and more. Riding fixed held the advantage for the rider of being able to control the speed of the bike without having to use the brakes. Rear brakes were eschewed for many and no-brakes were favoured by the hardcore.

During the early naughties cyclists in London continued to increase in numbers and green strips of tarmac and some often poorly designed cycling lanes emerged.

Then in the summer of 2004 when bombs exploded on tube trains and a bus, commuters took in droves to cycling. London traffic it seems was not as frightening as public transport. Between 2000 and 2009 cycling in London more than doubled.

In this book Robert Penn sources parts from around the world to put together his ideal cycling machine. On his journey he sees first hand how Jason Rourke constructs a steel frame in an English workshop, he visits the Campagnolo factory in Italy, and meets the men and women who manufacture the essential components which make up the modern bicycle.

Robert Penn discovers there’s nothing quite like a bike that fits perfectly and is built to last.

It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels is published by Penguin.

One reply on “It’s All About the Bike, by Robert Penn”

  1. Good advice Darren! I have just intesved in 2 Ortlieb water sacks, and have 1.5l in two bottles on the frame (third position taken up by a fuel bottle under the down tube).The Ortliebs are flattish when filled and sit inside the back hold-all on top of the frame with the tent, sleeping bag and therm-a-rest (each in its own dry bag). The two litre size is easy to fit into a relatively small space. They are made of very rugged material and I will probably get two more as they roll up small and are light when not in use. Glad you enjoyed the last tour!

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