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It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels
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It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

4.1 8
by Robert Penn

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Robert Penn has saddled up nearly every day of his adult life. He rides to get to work, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel, to go shopping, and to stay sane. He's no Sunday pedal pusher. So when the time came for a new bike, he decided to pull out all the stops and build his dream machine.

It's All About the Bike follows Penn's journey, but this book


Robert Penn has saddled up nearly every day of his adult life. He rides to get to work, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel, to go shopping, and to stay sane. He's no Sunday pedal pusher. So when the time came for a new bike, he decided to pull out all the stops and build his dream machine.

It's All About the Bike follows Penn's journey, but this book is more than the story of his hunt for two-wheeled perfection. En route, Penn brilliantly explores the culture, science, and history of the bicycle. From the United Kingdom to California, via Portland, Milan, and points in between, his trek follows the serpentine path of our love affair with cycling. On the way to building the perfect bike, Robert Penn brilliantly explains why we ride.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

It's All About the Bike puts [Penn's] vast and endearingly shaggy bicycle boffinry on a brisk round-the-world tour. Penn's energy never flags, and he knows when to change gears. The book is as a wheel-builder named Gravy described Penn's just completed, perfectly tuned, 28-spoked rear wheel: ‘Well, my friend. It's true.'” —New York Times Book Review

“A fantastic new chronicle of the bike's story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it. [Penn] approaches his subject with equal parts humor, humility, and authoritative intelligence as he sets out to find himself a new bike. Entertaining, illuminating and beautifully illustrated, It's All About the Bike is a rare and precious portal to the heart and soul of bike culture and its surprising footprint--tireprint?--on all of culture.” —Atlantic

“The social history is snappy and his almost religious quest for ultimate craftsmanship is full of wit.” —Financial Times

It's All About the Bike is more than just a gearhead's hejira, a globetrotter's catalog of componentry for the cycling crowd. … With humor and insight, Penn examines the historical, social, and cultural significance of the bike.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“… if you've ever felt the wind rolling over your back as you tuck into a downhill or cleaned a log with a bunny hop, give it a shot. It's a quick read and even serious cyclists will learn something.” —Associated Press

“The author's ability to describe the joys of bicycling--the space for thought that the rhythm creates, the freedom of swooping down a hill, the satisfaction of having pedaled to the top--is one of the book's strengths, along with anecdotes of his experiences cycling around the world years earlier. If you don't long for your own bike at the end of this book, you will at least never look at one the same way again.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[Penn's] expertise is evident… These pages are a delight, packed with facts, informative illustrations and two-wheeled tales, they map a path into the heart of cycling culture.” —Publishers Weekly

“Gem of a book” —Economist

“The bike is the heart of our cycling lives, but it's a starting point for all sorts of journeys, literal and metaphoric. So Penn's title merits a tiny edit: it's not actually all about the bike, it's all about the stories behind the bike. But it's all the better for it.” —William Fotheringham, Road.cc

“Investigating the bicycle's long history while he's at it, Penn makes building one's own bicycle seem like the most natural, obvious and enjoyable thing to do.” —The National (UAE)

“Robert Penn relates his quixotic quest to procure the perfect bicycle with authority and humor, infusing his fluent narrative with thoughtful and provocative digressions that invoke technology, ergonomics, history, and social ideals. He richly deserves his $5,000 ‘dream machine.'” —David V. Herlihy, author of Bicycle: A History and The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance

“Robert Penn has assembled a splendid patchwork quilt of bicycle history, arcane workshops, and fascinating people into a passionate journey in search of his dream machine. After reading him, you'll never look at a bicycle the same way again and will enjoy riding yours even more. And you'll probably start your own velocopedal quest for perfection into the bargain. A simply lovely excursion not into bicyclists, but into BICYCLES. You must read this before you watch the Tour de France!” —Brian Fagan, Author of Elixir and The Great Warming, and an avid recreational cyclist with a Penn-like steel framed bike.

“The pages overflow with pioneers, mavericks and geniuses – certainly, it is hard to imagine anyone who reads this book being able to buy a bike ‘off the peg' again.” —Tim Lewis, Observer (UK)

“No matter how shiny and costly the item of bike bling, there is a back story, usually a good one. Artfully, Penn turns his quest for hardware ... into a worldwide spin around cycling and its culture.” —William Fotheringham, Observer (UK)

“[Penn] writes with authority, humour and refreshing candour ... A celebration of craftsmanship over technology and of a bygone era when things were built to last ... If Penn is to be believed, we are entering a golden age of cycling, when it really will be all about the bike once more.” —Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“[Penn] writes with a Bill-Brysonesque facility for concentrating a lot of information and research into an easy-to-read and surprisingly compelling tale. Best of all ... his account enriches your enjoyment of a ride.” —Tim Dawson, Sunday Times (UK)

“I've just spent a week pedalling slowly … with a copy of Penn's zealous eulogy in my pannier. His infectious admiration for the exhilarating sociability of cycling, coupled with reverence for quality craftsmanship, made highly engaging company ... appreciate the wit and enthusiasm of this unusual odyssey.” —James Urquhart, Independent (UK)

“A hell of a fun ride tracing the symbiotic relationship of bike and rider, this will have you thinking about how and why you ride.” —Library Journal (starred)

“Warning: do not even casually flick through this book if you have promised your significant other that you will not be cluttering up the garage/shed/landing/bedroom with any more bloody bike … Penn uses his own personal mission as a peg on which to hang a fascinating history of two-wheeled travel.” —Helen Pidd, Guardian Bike Blog (UK)

Tom Vanderbilt
…Penn's energy never flags, and he knows when to change gears. Thankfully, there's not much Zen to his bicycle maintenance. Rather, the book is as a wheel-builder named Gravy described Penn's just completed, perfectly tuned, 28-spoked rear wheel: "Well, my friend. It's true."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Wales resident Penn, a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler and various bicycle publications, has traveled 25,000 miles on a bicycle, and his expertise is evident. Seeking "craftsmanship, not technology," he met with top bike mechanics in order to customize an ergonomically efficient dream machine: "I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles." Coasting past the large manufacturers who service the cycling masses, he visited the U.K.'s few remaining artisan frame builders, where he analyzed the angles of frame geometry: "Along with the immaculate fit and the right tubing material, geometry is an intrinsic part of buying a bespoke bicycle." As he writes about handlebars, gears, wheels, and saddles, each component gets a chapter, and the reader feels Penn's enthusiasm at seeing his steed assembled. Along the way, he looks back at bike history, beginning with the 1817 Draisine, propelled by paddling one's feet along the ground. Saddles were a concern to the conservative elements of Victorian society: "That bike riding might be sexually stimulating to women was a real worry." These pages are a delight, packed with facts, informative illustrations and two-wheeled tales, they map a path into the heart of cycling culture. (May)
Kirkus Reviews

An enamored history of the bicycle alongside a lifelong cyclist's personal story of journeying to workshops throughout Europe and the United States to acquire his custom-built dream bike, part by part.

Debut author Penn finds an almost spiritual solace in cycling, riding for "a broad church of practical, physical and emotional reasons." The author's ability to describe the joys of bicycling—the space for thought that the rhythm creates, the freedom of swooping down a hill, the satisfaction of having pedaled to the top—is one of the book's strengths, along with anecdotes of his experiences cycling around the world years earlier. After biking for decades on dozens of models, Penn decided it was time to choosethe one: a bicycle perfectly fitted for him and made to last 30 years. He spared no expense or effort, visiting the shops where the components were handmade by craftsmen who still consider building a bike an art. Each chapter is about a different part of the bike: the frame/wheels/saddle, etc., the philosophies and personalities of their makers and the parts' roles in the history of the machine. The prototype of a bicycle was surprisingly not invented until 1817 during a horse shortage. Pedals, ball bearings, "high-wheelers" and chains followed, and the world's first modern bicycle, the Rover Safety, was born in 1885. The working class became mobile, the Tour de France was inaugurated in 1903, the arrival of the automobile almost eclipsed the bike and some California hippies saved the industry with the mountain bike. Penn believes the bicycle is now entering another golden age, when health and environmental concerns increase its relevancy. This chronology often folds over on itself with chapters organized around specific bike parts, but the author manages to avoid the stagnancy of linear history or the more common error of making it all about himself.

If you don't long for your own bike at the end of this book, you will at least never look at one the same way again.

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Bloomsbury USA
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5.56(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.55(d)

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It's All About the Bike

The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels


Copyright © 2010 Robert Penn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60819-538-1

Chapter One

Diamond Soul

The Frame

Handing over a bank note is enough to make a bicycle belong to me, but my entire life is needed to realize this possession.

(Jean-Paul Sartre)

'Well, you don't look like a complete bag o' rags,' Brian Rourke said, in his soft Potteries burr. He was standing back, with one hand clamped on his chin and the other upturned on his hip, looking at me astride my bike. Lithe, energetic and refusing to acknowledge his seventy years, he was a good advert for a life spent cycling. 'Jump off the bike now while I fetch a few things.'

Brian Rourke Cycles occupies a converted squash centre in Stoke-on-Trent. Downstairs is a smart retail bike shop. Upstairs, the old bar has been transformed into Brian's office, where he carries out all the bike fittings. It is a shrine to the sport of road cycle racing. There is a wall of framed bike magazine covers, with riders on Rourke frames leading races; there are photos of Merckx, Gimondi, Kelly and other giants of the sport; iconic Tour de France images; Mario Cipollini's actual 1998 Tour de France bike; a row of silver cups and other pieces of arcane memorabilia. To the right of the door is a merino wool World Champion's jersey worn by Tommy Simpson, the lionhearted anti-hero of British cycling who collapsed and died with drugs It's All About the Bike and alcohol in his blood during the Tour de France in raging 113°F heat on 13 July 1967.

On the opposite wall is a photo of Brian beside Nicole Cooke, the outstanding British road cyclist and Olympic champion: 'She's been coming into the shop since she was 12,' Brian said. 'Won four world junior championships on Rourke frames. Wonderful girl.' Less prominent is a photo of Brian as a younger man, tilting into a corner, gripping the handlebars, staring ahead, looking hungry, racing hard.

'Yes, yes, I raced a bit,' he said, bustling back into the room. Actually, he raced a lot. In his prime, he rode for the Great Britain team in three Milk Races and was National Champion. Carlton and Falcon both offered him a professional contract but there was no money in it then. 'I packed it in, in 1967. Pity, really, but I can't complain.' Racing's loss was the frame-building industry's gain: Brian has been designing and fitting customers to hand-built bicycles almost ever since. In that time, he has never run out of orders for his bespoke bikes. I estimated he must have been through the fitting process some 5,000 times.

Frame-builders from the golden age of British bespoke bicycles in the mid-twentieth century, men like Harry Quinn of Liverpool and Jack Taylor from Stockton-on-Tees, could, I'd been told, size you up as you walked through the door of the workshop. Their experience was such that they needed just one look at you to know the dimensions of the frame you required.

A more reliable fitting or sizing method dating from that time and still popular now is to take body measurements and interpret them into a frame size. Inside leg (crotch to floor), torso, arm, femur, forearm, shoulder width, shoe-size, height and weight all go into the analysis. In this way, the experience of the person doing the fitting and designing of the frame is, again, crucial.

Today, for both professional athletes and amateur riders with deep pockets, there are various high-tech fitting methods that entail a scientific approach to the biomechanics of cycling. They involve motion capture systems that process data taken from anatomical points on a rider, providing a real-time view of the riding position and pedal action at different workloads. The rider being fitted usually sits on an adjustable jig or 'size-cycle', a simple frame mounted on a machine that provides traction when you pedal.

Of course, for the majority of people, buying a bicycle involves a 'fitting process' that is over in under fifteen minutes: the man in the local bike shop sits you on three different bikes, one after the other, takes your credit card while you pedal once round the block; you return and pay. Job done. Brian's fitting method is different; it's what first drew me to him. There are no more than a handful of frame-builders left in

Britain: perhaps a dozen businesses and another dozen hobbyists. On a wet weekend in March, I'd set off to visit as many of them as I could. I criss-crossed the country from Bristol to Bradford via Derby, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. In the garage of a suburban semi, I watched Lee Cooper fabricating elegant steel frames for the London fixed-wheel market. Neil Orrell showed me one of his distinctively designed track frames, and photos of a bike he'd once built for a 7-foot man. At Pennine Cycles, Paul Corcoran told me how the shop's founder, Johnny Mapplebeck, had fallen in love with Italian racing bikes when with the Eighth Army during the Allied campaign in Italy. When he was discharged, he began making frames with names like Scelta dei Campioni ('Choice of Champions') and Re della corsa ('King of the Race'), names that must have sounded exotic in post-war Yorkshire. At Bob Jackson Cycles in Leeds, frames were being boxed to ship to America. I met the ebullient owner, Donald Thomas. He liked his Bob Jackson bicycle so much that he bought the company.

At Mercian Cycles, where three frame-builders work full-time in a workshop that can't have changed in half a century, Grant Mosley told me how the clientele had changed: 'They were all club lads when I started. Following the decline in the 1970s, it was just the diehards – you know, the socks, sandals and beards brigade. Today, it's young professional people.'

It was a delightful journey, fuelled by innumerable mugs of tea. Everywhere I saw pride in workmanship, and a connection to the tradition of British craftsmanship that has set standards worldwide for a century. I would have been happy to have a bike from all of them, but as I was after only one bike, I picked Brian Rourke Cycles.

It was easy to justify. Brian was a racer, not only as a young man but also as a 'veteran'. In fact, he'd won the National Vets Championship aged 40 and again at 50. Racing bikes are in his blood. I wanted a racing bike. Jason, Brian's son and the man who would weld my frame, had a knowledge and passion that was clear. I liked the lads who worked in the shop. I thought not only will I get the most exquisitely built frame, but the process of being fitted, watching it being made and painted, and then having the bike assembled at Rourke Cycles, would be good fun. Above all, Brian's experience fitting people to bicycles and designing frames is unequalled.

Brian likes his customers to bring their current bike into the shop. He then adjusts or 'sets up' this bike so they are 'bang on' the right position. Often, customers are sent away to ride the new set-up, to ensure it's comfortable. When everyone is happy, measurements are taken from the bike, as the guide, and Brian designs the new frame. It's simple and practical. It relies heavily on his experience. 'Some customers, they just want to give me the dimensions of their existing bike down the phone and have us build a bike. I won't do that. Who's to say they haven't been riding the wrong bike for years? I like to have a good look at everyone first,' he said.

In the two hours I'd been in the shop, Brian had raised the saddle of my Wilier racing bike by tiny increments, three or four times, and shifted it back a centimetre on its rails; he'd replaced the handlebar stem for one 20 mm longer; finally, he exchanged my handlebar for a new one – a classic shaped bar with small 'D' loops, 'so your hands can reach the brake levers more easily,' he said. In that time, my position on the bike had changed significantly. I could feel it. My back was straighter. My weight was more evenly distributed. The new position felt more aerodynamic, more aggressive and, perhaps surprisingly, more comfortable. The bike looked better too: the longer stem and the new handlebar somehow made the machine look better proportioned. It was like placing a painting in the right frame, I thought.

The methodology behind the fitting process was simple enough: 'Bum, hands, feet – three contact points with the bike,' Brian said. First he got my saddle height exactly right. Then he adjusted the saddle backwards, to get me in a position to obtain the maximum leverage from the pedals. Finally, he worked on my hands.

Standing back again, dropping his long metal ruler to the floor and scribbling some notes, Brian said: 'You were a bit stuck on the bike before, plonked there like a brick. That's looking good now. Take the bike away. Come back in a month and we'll go for a ride together. I'll want to know how it feels. If you're going to have a handmade bike, you want it to be yours, don't you? It's got to be exactly the right fit, right for you, not for anyone else.'

This goes to the heart of why anyone would want a hand-built bike: it will fit perfectly, like a bespoke suit from Savile Row. There are several other significant advantages – with the benefit of expert advice, you get to choose the ideal frame tubing diameters, wall thickness and butting lengths, which will fine tune the feel of the bike; importantly, you get a frame designed for the type of cycling you propose to do, where you propose to do it and even your riding style; you get to select the best components you can afford and the colour the frame will be painted; also, you get to savour the process of acquiring the frame; lastly, when the bike is complete and you're out on the road, the machine will turn heads. But really, it's all about having a bike that fits you perfectly, a bike that will provide years of pain-free cycling. Most large bike manufacturers produce between five and eight different sizes in each model of bike. The human race doesn't come in five, or even eight sizes.

To make his point, Brian had wheeled his own racing bike into the room. The frame was built by Jason. It was a beautiful bike, of course, but something significant happened when Brian jumped on to it, catching his weight on the pedals and his shoulder against the wall. The bike changed. It fitted Brian so perfectly that it came alive. It responded to his every move, as he shifted his hands briskly around the handlebars and transferred his weight back and forth.

Perhaps more surprising was that Brian changed too. Jumping on to the bike took thirty years off him. When he thrust his hands into the 'D' of the handlebars and sunk his torso across the top tube, his eyes flamed. He was ready to chase down a breakaway from the peloton in a race or launch a sprint for the finishing line. Just sitting on the bike, just being on his immaculate, bespoke bicycle summoned such powerful emotional memories that three decades of toil and wear were erased from his demeanour in a trice. The bike was a source of youthfulness and it was thrilling to witness.

But that wasn't the point. The point was made when Brian stepped off the bike, swung it round and wheeled it across to me. It was breathtakingly light, well balanced and delightful to hold in my fingers. But when I hopped on to it as Brian had done, there was no transformation. It didn't look special under me. I didn't feel special on top of it. Although Brian and I are the same height and roughly the same weight, we are physically different in many other ways. Our arm, torso, shoulder, leg and thigh measurements are unlikely to be the same. It was Brian's bike: it made me want my own more than ever.

There is a simple grace about an unadorned bicycle frame. Looking at the row of bare, handmade frames hanging on the wall of Brian's shop, something struck me: though they were all made from different types of tubing, painted to individual specifications with different dimensions and angles, and would be built up into different types of bicycle and ridden in very different ways over varied terrain by diverse humans, they were all – in one fundamental way – alike. The frames were all the same shape: diamond.

The first diamond-shaped frame bicycle – the Rover Safety – was manufactured in 1885, in the unloved city of Coventry. It was called the 'safety' because the wheels were the same size and small, the rider's centre of gravity was over the centre of the bike, and he or she could touch the ground with both feet: in short, it was safe to ride. It was the first modern bicycle – something we'd recognize and be able to pedal today.

The 'inventor', John Kemp Starley, later said in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts:

The main principles which guided me in making this machine were to place the rider at the proper distance from the ground ... to place the seat in the right position in relation to the pedals ... to place the handles in such a position in relation to the seat that the rider could exert the greatest force upon the pedals with the least amount of fatigue.

It was almost exactly what Brian had been saying to me all morning. Where a rider's hands, feet and backside are placed on a bicycle for maximum efficiency, control and comfort is a matter of basic ergonomics, which has been essentially unchanged over a century.

These principles led Starley to design the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be. By 1890, 'every maker worthy of the name' in Coventry, Birmingham and Nottingham was producing a safety model. The safety swept away every type of bicycle that preceded it: velocipedes, high-wheelers, dwarf ordinaries, the Facile, the Kangaroo, tricycles, tandem tricycles and quadricycles were obsolete within a few years. The ultimate form of the bicycle had arrived.

Other safety-style bicycles were designed and patented before the Rover, but making the bicycle user-friendly animated Starley: his design was the best. He was also a good businessman and recognized the potential in the machine early on. In 1889, he adopted limited liability. In 1896, he floated J. K. Starley & Co as the Rover Cycle Company. The capital financed the construction of the largest cycle works in Coventry, then the global centre of bicycle manufacturing, and enabled him to survive the first big downturn in the industry at the end of the 1890s.

In 1904, Rover moved into car manufacturing, which was so profitable, so quickly, that the company dropped the bicycle arm of the business altogether. Starley himself had died suddenly in 1901, aged 46. Every cycle firm in Coventry closed their works on the day of his funeral, which was attended by 20,000 people.

Perhaps the mourners had the prescience to know the Rover Safety was a transport phenomenon, and that the basic shape of the bicycle would remain unchanged for the whole of the twentieth century. Contrast the Wright Flyer, the world's first powered aircraft built by Wilbur and Orville Wright (both bike mechanics, as it happens) in 1903, with, say, Concorde. Or take Karl Benz's four-stroke vehicle powered by a gasoline engine, also invented in 1885, and compare it to a contemporary Formula 1 racing car.

In both modes of transport, aeroplane and motor car, the vehicles have changed almost continuously. With the Rover Safety, however, the modern bicycle arrived virtually perfectly formed. Today in aeroplanes and automobiles and countless other mechanical devices there are numerous design variations and opportunities for improvement. With the bicycle, there is one absolute shape. Sir Isaac Newton said we make advances by standing on the shoulders of giants. No one has been able to climb upon Starley's back.

I've had nineteen bikes. This number includes neither bikes that I've owned for less than a month, nor the bikes I've never bothered to lock up. Out of those nineteen bikes, eighteen were built according to the principles of the Safety. The only exception was my Raleigh Tomahawk. The 'ape-hanger', hi-rise handlebars, different-sized wheels, odd-shaped frame and spongy saddle with backrest may have been as cool as the Lone Ranger, but riding a Tomahawk was like pedalling through molasses, dragging a dead pig. Like its big cousin, the Chopper, the Tomahawk was designed in response to the dirt-track roadster bikes popular in the USA in the late 1960s. For the manufacturer, Raleigh, the Chopper opened up a new market in children's bikes, and it marked a shift in the company's philosophy; the bicycle became a consumer goods product, rather than a valid form of transportation. Though remembered fondly, the Chopper was a toy, not a bicycle. It's the worst example of the collapse in confidence in the real value of the bicycle that happened in the 1970s.

The principal structural function of the bicycle frame is to 'maintain integrity' under loads, to have the strength and rigidity to hold the wheels in place and support the rider, and to absorb the rider's efforts in pedalling, braking and steering, as the machine rolls forward. The triangulated, tubular diamond frame remains the best structure to do this. An architect or engineer would describe it as a 'truss structure': the diamond frame is a variation on the super-strong 'seven-membered' truss, a common element in structural and mechanical engineering. Trusses on the roofs of buildings apply the same principles.


Excerpted from It's All About the Bike by ROBERT PENN Copyright © 2010 by Robert Penn. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Penn has worked as a lawyer, waiter, contractor, DJ, photographer, and journalist-and has biked to every single job. He writes for the Financial Times, the Observer, and Condé Nast Traveller, as well as a host of cycling publications. Penn lives in Wales with his wife and three children.

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It's All about the Bike 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author of this book was extremely well versed in all phases of bicycles. He gave great explanations of the history of bicycles along with the physics of bikes and also the ever changing technologies of the bikes components including the wheels.I learned more about all of the above from this book than I have from all other publications on the same subject. For anyone interested in the bicycle other than being something to ride, this book is the one to read.
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jhmJM More than 1 year ago
The author has been a serious bike rider all his life and sets out to have the perfect custom bike made. He tells the history of the bike and it's components as he travels the world assembling the pieces for his dream bike. It's just the right amount of detail and moves along at just the right pace.