Book review: It’s All About the Bike

I’ve remarked before (and probably will again) on some of the underlying similarities between bicycles and shotguns. And yet there’s a huge corpus around firearms (yr humble’s correspondent’s collection here), but nothing comparable in size and scope on the bicycle side. Perhaps the gun’s 500 year head start is responsible, but my gut tells me something else is going on. Be that as it may, It’s All about the Bike is a welcome addition to the not-large-enough-by-half bike as object genre. Robert Penn’s book is the story of his dream bike; he wanted a bike that was just so – not the absolute best of everything, rather the absolute best for his purposes. The book leads us through the choices he made, component by component. Along the way he detours into history – his past and the bicycle’s past – to flesh out the hows and whys of his decisions. Take frame material for example:

Crucially, steel can be repaired anywhere in the world by a man with a blowtorch and a welding rod. I know this, because I bent a steel bike in northern India, when I was riding around the world. I was slipstreaming a tractor on the Grand Trunk Road near Amritsar.We were going downhill a lick when I road into a pothole the size of a hot tub. There was no time to react. I had what American mountain bikers call a ‘yard sale’. The bike, panniers, sunglasses, water bottles, tent, pump, map and I were strewn across the tarmac. […] It took me an afternoon to find the best mechanic, or ‘top foreman’ as the locals called him, in Amritsar. Expertly, he removed the handlebars, the stem, the forks and the stressed headset from the head tube, while attendants handed him tools as a nurse attends a surgeon. Then he shoved a metal spike through the head tube and literally bashed the tubes straight again. It was terrifying to watch.

The frame requires a bit more attention on the remaining 7,500 miles, but gets him home. And:

In the alchemy of designing aircraft tubing, Reynolds stumbled on a manganese-molybdenum alloy that made wonderful bikes. In 1935, the company introduced ‘531’ tubing. It was considered revolutionary. Even now, British [and American] cyclists of a certain age go misty eyed and look towards the horizon just at the mention of ‘531’.

Five Three One


You get a taste in the quotes above both of the range of Mr. Penn’s inquiry and of his writing style. I found the book to be thoroughly enjoyable; style and subject both get an A. It’s a quick read – 198 pages of clear prose – and if you like bikes, highly recommended.

Two additional notes: 1) In spite of my pissing and moaning about the volume of bike lit, I recently bought a fantastic book of visual bike history (aka bike prØn). The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a survey of mostly-French mostly-randonneur bicycles from 1909 – 2003. Inspirational – especially as regards a: 2) Current project – I’m assembling a dream bike as well. I’ll post more in a month or so; I’ve built what I’m calling a voyageur bike on a touring frame – pictures/specifications/rationales to follow once the new ride is fully dialed in.

Partially cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Wordly Wise

Derny (also spelled derney) – “a motorized bicycle for motor-paced track cycling events such as during six-day and Keirin racing) or motor-paced road races. It is driven by a 98cc Zurcher two-stroke engine and by being pedalled through a fixed gear, typically of 70 teeth on the front chainring and 11 on the sprocket on the back wheel [!!]. The combination allows for smooth acceleration and slowing, important when the rider taking pace is centimetres from the pacer’s shielded back wheel. A coupling between the motor and the back wheel ensures the machine will not stop dead if the motor seizes.[…]

The name derny is now applied to all such vehicles, regardless of manufacturer. It is used by the Larousse dictionary as a generic term for a small pacing motorcycle used in cycle races.” *


Via Ride the Machine.


Check out the front wheels/forks! The pizza plate chainwheel! Side note – at some point, it becomes easier to go to 2-stage gearing as seen on John Howard’s 152.2 mph bike.



Via Ride the Machine/Andrew Ritchie.

To those of you who may, justifiably, wonder how this squares with my eschew the hydrocarbons/bike evangelism – I’ll quote Wally Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Seriously – though I love bicycles and am going to try to reduce my fossil fuel consumption, I do not intend to be a scold or to turn my back on gearheadish gnarlyness.

New Hampshire Media Makers Spoke Card 1

Rewards drive behavior.




As regular readers know, I’m trying to re-integrate bicycling into my life as an enjoyable, practical transportation option. Given the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf, I’m feeling pretty evangelical about biking, so I thought I’d see if I could encourage locals (or folks from a distance, if they’re up for a big ride) to come to this Sunday’s NHMM meetup via bicycle. I was inspired when I fell across spoke cards while looking at commuter bikes on Flickr – you can see the results of said inspiration above.

The first 8 people to ride to NHMM get a spoke card on the spot – if there are more riders than that, I’ll have more made up and make good on my offer within a week. If there are less than that, anyone from further away than, say, 20 miles can have one if they tell me that they’ve ridden a bike to and from the grocery store this week (6/6) – knowing my own problems with good intentions, it’s gotta be a completed ride.

A shoutout to the good folks at Infinite Imaging who did a bang-up job on printing and lamination.

Low and Slow


Reduce, re-use, recycle


The title of the post comes from a zine published back in the early 70s (called -anyone? anyone?- Low and Slow) covering the wild world of hang gliding. How wild? Folks were making gliders out of Visqueen and bamboo. I mailed off for a copy – because I wanted to build one – sadly, it’s long gone, though a post here suggests I can reread all the Low and Slows on a DVD. Enough of all that – the point of the post: my bike racing (venue = triathlons) days are done – I’ve found myself wanting a bike I can just jump on and ride (comfortably). My fast but twitchy road bike does not exactly fit the bill. My old mountain bike, however…

So, let the conversion to two-wheeled Vista Cruiser begin! IMHO, there are 2 things that determine 90% of overall bike ‘feel’: frame geometry and tires. You’re not going to do much about frame geometry – about the only thing you can alter is the front fork and that costs $$$. Tires can make a surprising difference and unless you’re racing (in which case, why aren’t you running tubulars?) fatter ones than current fashion dictates are what I suggest. Here’s the bike – after the pic I’ll run through current and planned mods.


‘Fatter tires’ is relative – although they’re much thinner than the knobbies that I took off, these are fat road rubber. They’re Kenda Kwests (the 100psi variety) – a nice balance of volume and low rolling resistance. I also mounted a rear rack and put on new, longer grips – I like riding with my hands close together, as if I’m up on the flats on a drop bar. The shakedown ride today was a success – the bike rode like a dream.

I haven’t decided whether to move pedals over from the road bike to this beastie – I’m leaning towards yes. The road bike’s saddle will probably come over at the same time. After that, the next order of business will be handlebars. I have an On One Midge ready and waiting, but because road handlebars are not the same diameter as mountain bars I need to replace the brake levers (not too $$, and I wanted to do it anyway) and swap the thumb shifters for barcons ($$$, and though I LOVE bar-cons, I would have made do).  The other short-term priority are shopping bag panniers – the grocery store is within easy biking distance – ’nuff said.

Down the road a bit, I’d like to tweak the drive train a bit. I don’t know whether the chain stay will accommodate a significantly larger middle chainring, but if it will I’ve always been partial to half-step setups – with the triple it’d be a half-step plus granny (and contra Mr. Brown, I’ve used a half-step setup successfully).

Way down the road I’m thinking about fenders, lighting, a front rack – part of me says that I should just save my pennies for a Velo-Orange frame (or something similar) and build up a baguette hauler around it. We’ll see. First order of business is to re-integrate ‘just hopping on the bike’ into my life.

Update – the saddle and pedal switch happened this morning, before a second shakedown run (pics from which will be posted later today).

Big brass faux rivets!