All about the bike

3 July 2011

The first weekend of the Tour de France is a good moment to review It’s All About The Bike, and from what I’d heard about it before I read it I’d expected it to be more about components. This isn’t a complaint. Robert Penn’s book is about his journey to build his perfect bike – frame, wheels, groupset, handlebars, even to the saddle – and along the way he meets a lot of people who are among the best at making such things.

But as he goes he tells us a lot about the history of the bicycle, its explosion as a social phenomenon in the late 19th century, and the way it has developed since. And it’s also – intriguingly – a history of innovation, as Penn traces the way in which the problems of the early designs are overcome to produce the modern bicycle, which remains the most efficient way we have discovered to turn energy into movement.

One of the biggest early problems was the design – before gears were invented, the pedals were attached directly to the front wheel, so the only way to get more distance for each turn of the pedals was to increase the size of the wheel. Hence the ‘ordinary’ or the ‘penny-farthing’, described by Penn as “a technological cul-de-sac”. He quotes Mark Twain’s account of his cycling lesson on the ordinary (“you don’t get down as you would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire”). Accidents were so common on dreadful roads that it gave us a hatful of new expressions, including “to come a cropper”. One of the unsung heroes of cycling’s history, James Starley (of whom more shortly) nonetheless managed to ride the hundred miles from London to Coventry on an ordinary in a single day.

Once the ordinary gave way to the ‘safety bicycle’, with its familiar diamond shaped frame, records began to tumble. By the 1890s, a good racing bike weighed in at 10kg, even if decent gears took another thirty years to arrive. Some of the feats of the riders were breathtaking:  in 1899 Charles Murphy, paced by a train, rode a mile in under a minute on planks laid between the tracks.

As for Starley, he was a self-taught mechanic who had a gift for invention. He was the son of an agricultural labourer who left home for London at 15, then moved to Coventry where he set up a sewing machine company before turning his attention to bicycles in the late 1860s. He invented both the tensile spoked wheel and the differential gear as he wrestled with the limitations of early bicycle design.

His nephew John Kemp Starley continued the family tradition. His Rover Safety bicycle, first manufactured in 1885, is now recognised as the first modern bicycle. Starley had set out “to design the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be”. In doing so, he transformed the bicycle market. He floated the business and built the largest cycle works in Coventry, then the centre of the world’s cycle industry. It later became the Rover car company, though he didn’t live to see it. He died suddenly at the age of 46; 20,000 people attended his funeral and every cycle firm in the city closed for the day as a mark of respect.

The sections of the book about assembling the dream bicycle have some fine moments as well, whether it’s listening to the frame-builder Brian Rourke talking about setting up the frame, or being given some industrial gloves at Continental in Germany to take his set of tyres out of the oven. The passage in which Penn describes the California wheel builder ‘Gravy’ Gravenites build his wheels has a quiet poetry to it.

All of this is given credibility by Penn’s own history as a round-the-world cyclist. He knows what he’s writing about, and has had the scares, some mentioned here, to prove it. And like all good cycling books, the minute I finished it I wanted to go out on my bike. So I did.

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