Bike-Mad Author Finds 'Happiness On Two Wheels'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:13 pm

British author Robert Penn has ridden a bicycle almost every day for the past 36 years. He owns six bikes — for summer riding, winter riding, everyday commuting and everything in between. But not one was exactly right. Penn needed the perfect bike.

He writes about his quest to build that bike in a new book, It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels. "I should qualify that," Penn tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It's my perfect bike. I wouldn't presume to imagine that it's anyone else's, and in fact I rather hope it isn't."

Penn's perfect bike was handmade, tailored to his body and his riding habits. "I was looking for a, very broadly, a talismanic bike, a special bike, a bike that I'm going to ride for the rest of my life," he says. "I wanted a bike that somehow reflected my devotion to the machine."

Penn's quest took him all over Europe and the United Kingdom, across the Atlantic to northern California, and through several centuries of cycling history.

Though the bicycle seems commonplace today, Penn says it's almost impossible to imagine the excitement it caused at the turn of the last century. "It was an extraordinary explosion. There were a million new cyclists every year by 1895," he says. "It was absolutely rocket-fueled."

The arrival of the bicycle had all sorts of dramatic implications, Penn says. "The geography of cities changed, because people could now commute, and so suburbs began to be created. It had a huge role to play in the issue of practical clothing for women."

Cycling was the first acceptable sport for women, he says, and when the suffragette movement took hold a decade or two later, "people looked back and recognized that the bicycle had been fundamental in the emancipation of women."

Penn did eventually succeed on his quest for his own personal perfect bike. It took more than a year, and it cost thousands of dollars, but Penn says it's worth the effort and expense.

"It is the loveliest thing I've ever owned," he says. "For a bike that I'm going to ride for 30 years, I think that's a pretty good deal."

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GUY RAZ, Host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Author Robert Penn actually can't remember the first time he ever rode a bike. He can't even remember his first bike. But he remembers pretty much every bike in the 36 years since then, from the purple Raleigh Tomahawk with tricked-out white tires to the mountain bike he rode through the Hindu Kush Mountains.

ROBERT PENN: Today, I ride to get to work, sometimes for work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to go shopping, to savor the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, to travel, to stay sane, to skip bath time with my kids.

I: the bicycle.

RAZ: And Robert Penn joins me now. Welcome to the program.

PENN: Thank you very much, indeed. It's a pleasure to be with you.

RAZ: You are in our studios in Southern California. Did you ride your bike to the studios today?

PENN: Actually, no. I didn't. I did try and ride a bike across Los Angeles once, and I think once only.

RAZ: Not an easy feat.

PENN: No.

RAZ: You are visiting the U.S. now. You live in Wales. And you live in a small village. You write about how you bike everywhere, and people assume that you did something bad because you're biking. They don't actually understand it.

PENN: Yeah, very much so. When I moved to that part of Britain, the local farmers regarded me with, well, suspicion, really. I mean, in the rural countryside, if you rode a bike as regularly as I did, which is everyday, then something was clearly wrong.

I: I see you own a bike, boy. So how long have you lost your license for?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PENN: And the assumption was, of course, I had no driving license, and that's why I rode a bike. And I tried to explain that actually, really, I rode it because...

RAZ: Because you like it.

PENN: Yeah, because I like it.

RAZ: You were looking to make the perfect bike. So what makes a perfect bike? What were you looking for?

PENN: I should qualify that. It's my perfect bike.

RAZ: You're right.

PENN: I wouldn't presume to imagine that it's anyone else's. And in fact, I rather hope it isn't anyone else's, you know? But I was looking for a, very broadly, a talismanic bike, a special bike, a bike that I'm going to ride for the rest of my life, manmade in as much as that's possible now. I wanted a bike that somehow reflected my devotion to the machine, a bike that showed my appreciation of the tradition, law and beauty of bicycles. And I wanted to get the bike that I'm going to grow old with.

RAZ: This quest that you sort of, you know, went after, it took you back and forth across the Atlantic. You were in Northern California. And when you were there, you talk about meeting some of the guys who basically invented the mountain bike and mountain biking. Who are these guys?

PENN: In the early 1970s, they were part of a gang of young men who began modifying old, single-speed cruiser bikes. Most of them were manufactured by Schwinn...

RAZ: Right. Like the kinds you'd ride along the beach.

PENN: And what emerged from this synergy was the mountain bike, which completely revolutionized the industry. You know, someone famously said that the mountain bike saved the bicycle industry's butt. And I suspect that's probably true.

RAZ: It saved the industry's butt because up until that point, what, there were racing bikes or these cruisers, and that was it. There was nothing in between.

PENN: And then suddenly, the mountain bike brought that back to the public again. It's like, here is a bike which is easy to ride, good fun and cheap.

RAZ: And for example, you say that in 1890, there were 150,000 cyclist in the U.S., and a bike cost basically half of the annual salary of a factory worker. Within five years, the price drops to just a few weeks' wages, and there are a million cyclists. So it's just this explosion.

PENN: It had a huge role to play in the Good Roads Movement. A huge number of engineering discoveries or engineering innovations that the bicycle welcomed were borrowed directly by the automotive industry, which meant that an affordable car was realizable in a very short period of time.

RAZ: I was amazed to read that a third of all patents registered at the U.S. Patent Office in the 1890s were bicycle-related.

PENN: I know. Isn't that extraordinary?

RAZ: That's crazy. Yeah.

PENN: It is extraordinary. The bicycle had its own patent office in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: They can barely get the patents sorted out today. I can't imagine how they did it back then.

PENN: I know.

RAZ: When it was finally ready, you had it painted. You put all this time into it and expense. How did you feel? Did you actually achieve creating the perfect bike?

PENN: My perfect bike.

RAZ: I got you.

PENN: I did. I mean, I take immense pleasure out of riding it.

RAZ: Do you ride it a lot?

PENN: Yeah. I ride it all the time. It was very much designed to be a riding bike. It's not my uber-expensive super-light race bike. It's a riding bike. So I've designed it be roadworthy and to take a good hammering. So I ride it all the time.

RAZ: So in your quest to build a perfect bike, right, you go to Northern California. You meet the guys who invented mountain biking. You find the person who's going to build the frame. You get all the component parts. How much did that cost you?

PENN: So it cost in total about $5,000.

RAZ: Ah, that's not cheap.

PENN: It's not cheap, no. But I think if you - I mean, I conclude in the book that it is the loveliest thing I've ever owned. And I think for $5,000, that's a pretty good deal. For a bike that I'm going to ride for 30 years, I think that's a pretty good deal. For something which is bespoke, handmade and made to fit me, I think it's a pretty good deal.

RAZ: Robert Penn, thanks so much for coming in.

PENN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.