“The bicycle saves my life every day”


 If you have ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken a flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead; if you’ve ever wondered, swooping bird-like down a long hill on a bicycle, if the world was standing still; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary man touching the gods, then we share something fundamental. We know it’s all about the bike. – Robert Penn

Recently, I have been reading more. I read a lot with the work I do, but not enough for pleasure. I am making an effort to change that.

I have just finished Robert Penn’s book entitled “It’s ALL about the BIKE”, published in 2010. Robert Penn is a writer from South Wales, and an enthusiastic cyclist. He cycles to work each day, even cycled around the world on a Roberts frame not unlike mine. This book is the story of his pursuit to build his dream bike, and along the way outline the history of the bicycle in exquisite detail, culminating with the bespoke bicycle of his dreams.

The project took him throughout Europe and the US in search of the best frame builder, handlebars, group set, hubs, rims spokes, saddle, and wheel builder. In the end, the bike cost him $6,500, a lot for a bike some may think. A small price to pay for a perfect dream.

“It’s all about the bike” is one of those books that is difficult to put down. I kept it with me for several days taking every opportunity to revel in it. I was captivated with the book. First, I identified with Penn. We both purchased a Robert’s frame about the same time. We both have a lot of bikes. We both commute to work. And, for each of us, the bike is much more than a means of transport. It is that, but it is much more. And secondly, despite having read widely about the evolution of the bicycle, I learned a lot.

Did you know that Tullio Campagnolo, the founder of the company bearing his name, invented the quickly release. In the 1920’s he was a bike racer. In those days, bicycles had two gears; one for climbing, and one for everything else. And, it was no easy task to change gears. Rear wheels had one small gear on one side of the hub, and a larger gear on the other side. To change gears, riders would dismount. loosen the axle bolts, turn the wheel around, re-tighten the bolts, and hop back on the bike. During a race up the side of an Italian mountain, Tullio was leading. When he reached the crest of the climb, he dismounted to “change gears” but his hands were so cold, he was unable to loosen the bolts, and subsequently lost the race. He went home wondering if there was a better way. The quick release we are familiar with today, was born. In a small shop behind his father’s store, Tuillio began manufacturing quick release axles, and so began the Campagnolo company.

The book is filled with stories like this outlining the evolution of the bike from the invention of pneumatic tires by a dentist wanting to make a smoother ride for his son, differential gearing enabling up to 33 gears today, ball bearings used in headsets, hubs, and bottom brackets today, leather saddles that are made the same way today as they were 50 years ago, and steel spokes that cushion the ride better than wooden ones … Stories about Brooks Saddles, Brian Rourke Cycles, Cinelli, Nick Gravenite (Gravy Wheels), and Chris King.

If you are an enthusiastic cyclist, read this book. You will learn something, and gain a new respect for the bike. If you have a bike collecting dust in the basement, read this book. It will get you back out on the road. And, if you don’t have a bike, read this book. It will inspire you to buy a bike, and give you sound advice on what to look for.

Happy reading 🙂

18 thoughts on ““The bicycle saves my life every day”

      • It’s been a bit of a saga but I should finally pick them up on Tuesday, hopefully install them next weekend if I can borrow the tools! Will let you know 🙂 How’s your lovely compact riding?

      • Lovely 🙂 I find it makes a big difference. I climb more easily, and speed along the flats at an easier, faster cadence. Years ago, I thought turning a large gear was the way to go fast. After suffering from repeated knee injuries, I learned spinning faster in lower gears enabled me to go farther and just as fast with less effort. These days, I am a happier camper 🙂

  1. Your comments about this book are most intriguing so I just placed this book on hold through our local inter-library system. I should be able to pick it up in a week or so.

      • I finished the book yesterday-loved all the rich history and fascinating stories. Those six day race events where the racers would go as many times as they could around a track and sleep as little as possible? That is insane.

        I don’t know much about bike mechanics but this book really makes me want to learn more about the bike as a machine. I desperately want to see a wheel being threaded! And a frame being welded!

        Personally, I found the greatest flaw in this book was the fact that we never got to see a close-up, full-color photo of the bike at the end. I am dying to know exactly what is looks like! Such wonderful, enthusiastic writing…thank you greatly for recommending it 🙂

      • I am pleased you enjoyed it. I too marvelled at how he intertwined the history of the bike so eloquently.

        I used to build my own wheels. In fact, I built one for my son as a Christmas gift a few years ago. It is time consuming, meticulous, and meditative work. There is no better feeling than rolling on a set of wheels you built yourself.

        There was a picture of his complete dream bike on the cover of the book I had. Maybe you can Google it and see it there. Interestingly, it would not be my dream bike but I suppose that is what dreams are. Personal.

  2. I’ll definitely have to look for this book! I can truthfully and without hyperbole say that my bike has saved my life in many ways. When I moved to the big city 20 years ago, I didn’t bring my bike with me and I didn’t purchase a new one because I was nervous about riding in traffic. In recent years I developed some health problems, including problems with balance and dizziness, so even though I had moved to a neighbourhood where biking is common and safe, I still did not purchase a bike. However, nearly two years ago, I finally did. Partly because I was fed up with not being fit like I used to be, and mostly because I had purchased bikes for my two children and wanted to go along with them on their rides! I was quite nervous about getting back on a bike after 20 years but it really was like “riding a bicycle” as the expression goes. For some unknown reason, my balance and dizziness are not a problem when I ride as I feared they would be. I cannot even put into words the sheer JOY I felt spinning along through the forest trails the first time I took my bike out. I don’t drive, so my bicycle is transportation for me, but also so much more. It has given me so much happiness and healing. I’m not a serious biker; I ride a comfortable city bike and I don’t have any fancy biking gear, but I love it!

    • This is a wonderful story 🙂 I often hear it in different forms. The bike is magical and returns us to a time when we played and didn’t work; a time when we had no responsibilities, and no burdens. I get on my bike and often begin to whistle like I did as a kid. I am pleased to hear your story, and if you read this book, let me know what you think.

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