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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of receiving a review copy of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010). The book is the retelling of the author’s quest in obtaining a custom, handmade bicycle, and I hate to gush so early on in a review, but I LOVED the tale.

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Many of us, myself included, have long dreamed of a bicycle handmade to our exact specifications…with just the perfect geometry and handling, the hand-chosen parts, and the overall aesthetic hammered out over months and years of fantasizing. Even for a longtime bicycle collector like myself, the following passage resonated with me…Penn has just described his current fleet but:

With this small troop of hard-working bicycles, my bases are covered. Yet something fundamental is missing. Like tens of thousands of everyday cyclists with utilitarian machines, I recognize there is a glaring hole in my bike shed, a cavernous space for something else, something special. I’m in the middle of a lifelong affair with the bicycle: none of my bikes even hints at this…I need a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and carries my cycling aspirations. I want craftsmanship, not technology; I want the bike to be man-made; I want a bike that has character, a bike that will never be last year’s model. I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles. The French nickname for the bicycle is La Petite Reine — I want my own ‘little queen’.”

And with that, Penn sets off on a whirlwind journey to get his “little queen” made: alighting on the doorstep of renowned bespoke builder Brian Rourke Cycles, traveling halfway around the world to procure a set of wheels from Steve “Gravy” Gravenites (and getting to ride down Repack with Gravy and MTB legends Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze!), getting rare factory tours at Chris King Precision Components in Portland, Continental in Germany and both Cinelli and Campagnolo in Italy, among other stops. At each stop, Penn delves into the history of bicycles and the development of various components and technologies that we now take for granted. Penn’s coverage of the history and lore of the bicycle never bogs down the story; in fact, these tidbits enhance the tale and show that Penn truly respects everything having to do with these two-wheeled wonders.

It’s All About the Bike is a quick read…”engrossing” is a word that comes to mind. Perhaps the idea of a custom bike can be seen as an extravagance, and I can understand that. Penn’s tale is more authentic than that, however. Never once did I feel that Penn was simply a wealthy man looking for something expensive to incite jealousy among his peers; rather, here is a man who put in the miles on many other bikes and earned the privilege of being able to fulfill his dreams of a handmade, perfectly-fitting machine that he would then ride with abandon all over the globe. Penn’s storytelling skill is refreshing and honest and his love for the bike carries throughout the book. I’ve recommended a lot of books over the years; in fact, sometimes it is hard for me to remember a book I really disliked. Nevertheless, It’s All About the Bike stands out as a passionate, fact-rich and thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone who loves the artistry, history and craftsmanship of a good bicycle. Pick up a copy for your favorite cyclist for Christmas…they’ll thank you for it!