Caught by the River

It's All About the Bike

17th June 2011

A book by Robert Penn.
Reviewed by Billy Campbell.

Starting It’s All About the Bike, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the author and I are around the same age. We both grew up riding the same kid’s bikes and jigged to ‘Dance Craze’, we also both still ride to and from work each and every day. For me, it is easy to fall into his world with a knowing glow and a giddy anticipation of where he is going…memories start flooding back and I am completely hooked three pages into the prologue.

In fact, the prologue deserves a mention in its own right. If you have never had a real interest in the history of the bicycle and think this book might be not for you, think again as Rob Penn’s wonderful first 15 pages gives you a fascinating guide through the surprisingly short lifetime of one of the world’s greatest innovations. As quick as a gear change you will know your ‘Cranksets’ from your ‘Chainstays’, learn how Seventies fashion almost took out a generation of bike builders, and how this timeless but simply designed machine helped change history forever.

Robert Penn has been cycling for a lot of his 43 years and has made the most of his passion, whether cycling across the world for one reason or cycling to the shops for another. He has known for some time what many of us have found out more recently: that getting off the bus, tube or out of the car and onto a bicycle will change your life for the good in so many ways. He feels much more at home when spinning out on the road or bumping down a craggy slope. He needs his wheels to survive, to get out and think, or to get out and not think – it is his release from the world and the pressures that come with it.

After almost twenty various types of bike and with over three decades of experience, Rob has decided that he wants something special – a tailor made bicycle. Nothing off the peg, something unique but practical, crafted by the well worn hands and knowledge of those whose skills have stood the test of time that this quality demands. To make this bicycle Rob needs the best components, each part needs to be considered for its performance and durability, and there is a kind of budget too so he has to be (kind of) sensible. Rob also wants this bike to live as long as him, whether we end up with a ‘Weird Science’ beauty or Frankstein’s Monster is to be seen!

The story has us zig-zagging across England, looking for the millimeter perfect steel frame, deciding on a father/son bespoke service in Staffordshire, then down to Smethwick and the famous Brooks saddle makers for the finest leather you can sit on that will make all the difference when pounding into those headwinds on the Pennines.
We visit California and meet the hippyish pioneers of mountain biking who Rob trusts will make the truest of wheels that will glide him down and around the Pacific Coast Highway, then to Italy and the world famous Cinelli and Campagnolo companies for handle bars and gears and all this explained with such enthusiasm that it is pretty easy to start thinking about bank loans and extra garage space!

There are lovely tales of (hairy) ‘yard sales’ in India and hooligan courier riders in London but the book really lifts when we are calling on the makers and designers of the parts. From gulping mugs of tea and welding steel in a Stoke workshop, to the top secret moisture controlled lab/factory settings in Oregon and Europe – all totally fascinating and written with just the right amount of gusto.
Yes, sometimes a little geeky (‘We make the best bearings in the world’ proclaims one guy) but we are talking about engineering here so we can brush that aside pretty easily.

As much as this book is about the bike, it is probably more about the people behind the bike as the author frequently doffs his cap to the skill and dedication that kept and still keeps this phenomenon alive and kicking hard in the 21st century. Rightly so.
This love affair with the bike, especially the beauty of getting on it and using it to its potential is inspirational and something many more of us could and should do.
Allez Allez!!

Copies of It’s All About the Bike (paperback) are now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £7.00

Rob will be appearing alongside fellow cyclists Nick Hand and Mike Carter at the ‘On Nature’ event in London on July 6th.