I have recently become something of a sucker for books about bikes. I will be honest about that – I am not ashamed. I like meaty narrative, with a topic and a writing style I can sink my teeth into. I like being able to smell and taste and hear the world the book is constructing for me.
It is really only in travel narratives that I find all of those requirements fulfilled. Which I guess makes sense – cycling is a form of travel. But there is another quality to it. There is a sense of reverence about the whole thing that I do not find in other places. It is, perhaps, the same mentality required to climb long hills, or spend upwards of 100 miles in a saddle. Slow, patient, unyielding. I never read books about sports, so maybe someone who really, really loves football or something might speak about it in the same way. I have no idea. But the writing about cycling I like most, is not about cycling as a sport. I have read, of course, about TdF and Paris-Roubaix. I’ve read the histories of the sport itself – names of cyclists long past their prime flitting past me. But I have never been one for names and dates. I keep loads of reference material around because I simply cannot read a book full of years and names that go together, and spit anything intelligent back out about that later. I am pretty shit at trivia games. So reading about so-and-so who won whatever stage of the Tour de France in whatever year is interesting in the moment, but gone seconds later. And its not that I don’t care, either.
But if you give me a context, if you give me a reason, I’m great. If you give me a conductor, as it were, of the information, I can hold on to it with little problem. I realized that this context is alive in the rich writing and exceptional storytelling of cycling, when I first picked up Peloton Magazine. I had been avoiding crossing the line into hardcore nerd territory, but once I started reading, I knew I was a lost cause.
Shortly after working my way through those first few articles and oped pieces, I started lusting after longer pieces, mostly about travel by bike. But the things I have tried to read left me disappointed. As a cyclist, all the important pieces were there, but as a reader, there were things missing, or vice versa. So I settled for something that was in the middle, and that came in the form of Robert Penn’s It’s All About the Bike.
IAATB is not a strictly historical or travel narrative. It is instead one man’s journey, undertaken while building the perfect bike. Penn travels (not by bike, unfortunately) all over Europe and parts of the US, to gather components for his perfect bicycle. Chapters are organized by component, and histories of each piece are given, in compendium to the narrative itself. Penn talks, of course, about his experiences with each of the component builders, some of whom are the most famous in the business, mixing the present with the past. At times, Penn gets extremely technical, which at first I struggled with, but towards the end, came to appreciate. While I am not new to putting two tires on the road and pedaling, I am new to the technical specifics of road cycling. I can change a tire, and I know my way around a multi-tool, but I could not, until recently, really understand the geometry of the frame, or the significance of teeth on a chainring. I would like, some day, to be able to maintain my bikes on my own, using shops only for resources or if I got stuck. There is a hell of a lot to learn between right now, and that goal.
Penn talks with deep love for his new bike, and his old bikes. He talks about the sorts of hinky adventures that only the intrepid, solo traveler in a very foreign land seems to have. I am drawn unequivocally to those experiences. It is enough to make me throw a leg over my bike, and head out right now for an airport with a passport in my jersey pocket. I’ll figure the rest out later. But these stories are not the focal point of the book. Now, I want a whole book, endless in size, full of stories just like that.
Penn’s adventure is of a different sort, and is a worthwhile read. It has a little something for everyone, I think. Some cycling history and trivia here, technical and mechanical knowledge there, stories just long enough to entice the imagination, and the promise of a brand new bike throughout. A bike that we the readers, come to love just as much as Penn does.