Robert Penn, journalist and round the world cyclist, decides to design and build a bespoke bicycle. He selects the best components that the world has to offer, travelling to workshops from California to Milan. The book is also the story of the bicycle, the history of this remarkable machine from the early days when there were no pedals to the modern day bicycle that we know and love today.
This is a superb book if you want to learn about the development and history of the bicycle. It is a fascinating story told in an engaging and highly readable book. I tend to take my bicycle for granted, that the way it looks and functions is how bicycles always looked and functioned. I had no idea that the bicycle went through many phases of development. It began in 1817 with the "Draisine", a machine that consisted of two wooden wheels with a wooden bench between them. The rider straddled this bench and pushed the contraption with their feet. There were no pedals.
It was not until the 1860s that the pedal was introduced. This version of the bicycle was called the "velocipede", but the pedal was attached to the front wheel, and it was not until 1885 that pedals were attached to the rear wheel when the 'safety' bicycle was launched.
I don't give my tyres a second thought, but velocipedes had iron tyres. These then evolved to solid rubber strips glued to the wheel with the safety bicycle. No wonder the word 'boneshaker' was in common use. Dunlop developed the pneumatic tyre in 1888 and this made the bicycle comfortable to ride and much more popular as a mode of transport. The book has a mixture of illustrations and black and white photographs to show what all these incarnations of the bicycle looked like.
During the process of putting together his dream bike Robert Penn discovers manufacturers with great pride and passion. He watches his bike being constructed and describes the processes in detail. I found this to be too thorough on occasions, but those who are obsessed by every inch of a bicycle will enjoy this. It was sometimes a bit too geeky for me, but on the whole I enjoyed learning about the components and manufacturers. It did make me think that it would be nice to do the same, but you need to find several thousand pounds to build your own bicycle.
The author has a great talent for expressing the sheer pleasure of cycling. There are several great quotes, but I shall leave you with this one, when he rides his new bike for the first time:
"A myriad of concerns- about the bike, about this book- dissipated completely. This is the beauty of cycling- the rhythm puts serious activity in the brain to sleep: it creates a void. Random thoughts enter that void- the chorus from a song, a verse of poetry, a detail in the countryside, a joke, the answer to something that vexed me long ago."