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It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels Hardcover – April 26, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 116 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Wales resident Penn, a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler and various bicycle publications, has traveled 25,000 miles on a bicycle, and his expertise is evident. Seeking "craftsmanship, not technology," he met with top bike mechanics in order to customize an ergonomically efficient dream machine: "I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles." Coasting past the large manufacturers who service the cycling masses, he visited the U.K.'s few remaining artisan frame builders, where he analyzed the angles of frame geometry: "Along with the immaculate fit and the right tubing material, geometry is an intrinsic part of buying a bespoke bicycle." As he writes about handlebars, gears, wheels, and saddles, each component gets a chapter, and the reader feels Penn's enthusiasm at seeing his steed assembled. Along the way, he looks back at bike history, beginning with the 1817 Draisine, propelled by paddling one's feet along the ground. Saddles were a concern to the conservative elements of Victorian society: "That bike riding might be sexually stimulating to women was a real worry." These pages are a delight, packed with facts, informative illustrations and two-wheeled tales, they map a path into the heart of cycling culture. (May)
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Review

It's All About the Bike puts [Penn's] vast and endearingly shaggy bicycle boffinry on a brisk round-the-world tour. Penn's energy never flags, and he knows when to change gears. The book is as a wheel-builder named Gravy described Penn's just completed, perfectly tuned, 28-spoked rear wheel: ‘Well, my friend. It's true.'” ―New York Times Book Review

“A fantastic new chronicle of the bike's story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it. [Penn] approaches his subject with equal parts humor, humility, and authoritative intelligence as he sets out to find himself a new bike. Entertaining, illuminating and beautifully illustrated, It's All About the Bike is a rare and precious portal to the heart and soul of bike culture and its surprising footprint--tireprint?--on all of culture.” ―Atlantic

“The social history is snappy and his almost religious quest for ultimate craftsmanship is full of wit.” ―Financial Times

It's All About the Bike is more than just a gearhead's hejira, a globetrotter's catalog of componentry for the cycling crowd. … With humor and insight, Penn examines the historical, social, and cultural significance of the bike.” ―Philadelphia Inquirer

“… if you've ever felt the wind rolling over your back as you tuck into a downhill or cleaned a log with a bunny hop, give it a shot. It's a quick read and even serious cyclists will learn something.” ―Associated Press

“The author's ability to describe the joys of bicycling--the space for thought that the rhythm creates, the freedom of swooping down a hill, the satisfaction of having pedaled to the top--is one of the book's strengths, along with anecdotes of his experiences cycling around the world years earlier. If you don't long for your own bike at the end of this book, you will at least never look at one the same way again.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“[Penn's] expertise is evident… These pages are a delight, packed with facts, informative illustrations and two-wheeled tales, they map a path into the heart of cycling culture.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Gem of a book” ―Economist

“The bike is the heart of our cycling lives, but it's a starting point for all sorts of journeys, literal and metaphoric. So Penn's title merits a tiny edit: it's not actually all about the bike, it's all about the stories behind the bike. But it's all the better for it.” ―William Fotheringham, Road.cc

“Investigating the bicycle's long history while he's at it, Penn makes building one's own bicycle seem like the most natural, obvious and enjoyable thing to do.” ―The National (UAE)

“Robert Penn relates his quixotic quest to procure the perfect bicycle with authority and humor, infusing his fluent narrative with thoughtful and provocative digressions that invoke technology, ergonomics, history, and social ideals. He richly deserves his $5,000 ‘dream machine.'” ―David V. Herlihy, author of Bicycle: A History and The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance

“Robert Penn has assembled a splendid patchwork quilt of bicycle history, arcane workshops, and fascinating people into a passionate journey in search of his dream machine. After reading him, you'll never look at a bicycle the same way again and will enjoy riding yours even more. And you'll probably start your own velocopedal quest for perfection into the bargain. A simply lovely excursion not into bicyclists, but into BICYCLES. You must read this before you watch the Tour de France!” ―Brian Fagan, Author of Elixir and The Great Warming, and an avid recreational cyclist with a Penn-like steel framed bike.

“The pages overflow with pioneers, mavericks and geniuses – certainly, it is hard to imagine anyone who reads this book being able to buy a bike ‘off the peg' again.” ―Tim Lewis, Observer (UK)

“No matter how shiny and costly the item of bike bling, there is a back story, usually a good one. Artfully, Penn turns his quest for hardware ... into a worldwide spin around cycling and its culture.” ―William Fotheringham, Observer (UK)

“[Penn] writes with authority, humour and refreshing candour ... A celebration of craftsmanship over technology and of a bygone era when things were built to last ... If Penn is to be believed, we are entering a golden age of cycling, when it really will be all about the bike once more.” ―Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“[Penn] writes with a Bill-Brysonesque facility for concentrating a lot of information and research into an easy-to-read and surprisingly compelling tale. Best of all ... his account enriches your enjoyment of a ride.” ―Tim Dawson, Sunday Times (UK)

“I've just spent a week pedalling slowly … with a copy of Penn's zealous eulogy in my pannier. His infectious admiration for the exhilarating sociability of cycling, coupled with reverence for quality craftsmanship, made highly engaging company ... appreciate the wit and enthusiasm of this unusual odyssey.” ―James Urquhart, Independent (UK)

“A hell of a fun ride tracing the symbiotic relationship of bike and rider, this will have you thinking about how and why you ride.” ―Library Journal (starred)

“Warning: do not even casually flick through this book if you have promised your significant other that you will not be cluttering up the garage/shed/landing/bedroom with any more bloody bike … Penn uses his own personal mission as a peg on which to hang a fascinating history of two-wheeled travel.” ―Helen Pidd, Guardian Bike Blog (UK)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608195384
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608195381
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #478,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Chaney on November 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book based on a review in The Economist that made it look interesting. I'm not a bike nut, though I have one and ride it a couple times a week. This book, though, is not written for the bicycle fanatic, but for a layperson for whom bikes are, and have always been, part of the background of life. There's detail on the origins and development of the bike, along with enough -- just enough -- insights from the author's experience to make it not a sterile read. It's also interesting to meet the people involved in various aspects of the bicycle business, from mountain-bikers in Marin County to handlebar manufacturers (who knew there was so much technology in a handlebar?) in Italy. There's also enough here, in terms of content and accuracy, to make it of interest to people who ARE already knowledgeable about road bikes: two of my friends who are competitive road biciclists have read it with enthusiasm. So, all in all, a pleasure to read, and over way too soon.
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Format: Hardcover
The author's love for all aspects of bicycling is quite evident in this book: the history, its culture, the joy of riding, the challenge of long trips, and the bike itself. But most of all, he is intrigued by "old-school" bicycle craftsmen, who know virtually everything about bicycles, tend to use traditional tools and techniques, and are committed to quality above all else. The basis of this book is the author's quest to have the perfect - for him - bike built, utilizing the knowledge of bicycle artisans/experts scattered across Europe and the US, most of whom he spends time with in the book - a process that he calls "bespoke," or one-of-a-kind.

He sees these modern-day craftsmen as following in the footsteps of long forgotten bicycle innovators, who spent nearly a century from the 19th into the 20th centuries reinventing and perfecting the bicycle. He notes the development of the basic diamond bike frame in 1885, followed by the slow perfecting of steel ball bearings, headsets, handlebars, drive trains (chain, bottom bracket, free wheel, and derailleur), saddles, wheels and tires, and light weight, steel-alloy tubing. In his search for quality, he is allowed inside some of the most revered bicycle component manufacturers, such as, Chris King, Cinelli, Campagnola, Brooks, Columbus, and Continental, many being key players in component development over several decades.

Beyond the perfect bike, it is the social implications of bicycling that most interest the author. The production of literally millions of the so-called "safety" bicycle in England in the late 19th century had a significant effect on, not only, expanding distances that could be traveled in a day's time but also on the emancipation of women, now more able than ever to make trips on their own.
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Format: Hardcover
Without a doubt, Robert Penn is a great writer. However, this book failed to catch my attention due to its highly technical nature. This is not a criticism - if you're into learning about what every piece of the bicycle is called, what it does and its history, then this is the right book for you. Personally, I would have been more interested in reading a book with more of an emphasis on the author's travels on his bicycle and less emphasis on the angle of the handlebars, but hey, that's not what this book is about. I really did enjoy the beginning of the book, when the author delves into the history of the bicycle and its impact on human civilization - definitely fascinating and worth a read just to understand that although bicycles are routinely dismissed today by the average person, they were once a huge step forward in transportation and a BIG DEAL.

One thing that is a criticism, though, is the lack of images in the book. The bulk of this book is devoted to talking about parts of the bike, but it's hard to understand what the author is describing without images to accompany the words. There a few images scattered here and there, but it's simply not enough, especially when the author gets nitpicky about the parts he's discussing. I think I would have found the book more interesting had more things been illustrated for me, because after a while I found it tiring to have to imagine all the parts of the bike in my head, and I wasn't even sure if I was getting it right.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
well written, well told, well explained, complete with diagrams and pictures of bike mechanisms, history and design. funny and interesting, a travel journal cum bike celebration.
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Mr. Penn brings to this book great breadth of experience in the saddle, having cycled to some of the most amazing places on the planet. He retains the sense of wonder anyone who has ridden a bicycle has when they first achieve the wonder of moving forward without support on this most amazing two-wheeled vehicle. The bicycle is truly the most wonderful and efficient human powered machine ever developed and we are still learning about the physics of its self-stabilizing qualities. The author takes us on an adventure, grounded in his pragmatic sense of what works and what doesn't for the quotidian rider, as he pursues his dream bike, one that isn't off the shelf and that is based upon insight into the history, tradition and artisanal qualities of bicycle component production. He brings the reader along on an adventure any cyclist with a sense of wonder would enjoy, meeting the current generation of artisanal component producers. Before we meet these amazing people, we are treated to the history of the relevant component, from origins to evolution through both utilitarian and bicycle racing uses. He obtains the component of interest during a visit, frame from Brian Rourke at Stoke on Trent, headset from Chris King in Portland, OR, wheels from Gravy in Fairfax, CA, tires, steaming hot just after vulcanization from Hardy Bolts of Continental in Korbac, Germany, saddle from Brooks in Manchester..., you get the idea. Your sense of appreciation for each component of the bicycle will deepen after you read each of these engaging sections. You begin to see why the bicycle was initially greeted with the same fanfare and production facilities as the automobile later was. You also more deeply appreciate how remarkable and utilitarian this machine is.Read more ›
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