Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's All About the Bike

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

While not a guidebook and not related to Kalamazoo, I couldn't resist mentioning this book on bicycles. Nominally, it's about the author's quest for a custom-built bike. He travels from Wales to workshops and factories around Europe and the United States to observe and report on the manufacturing process of the components-- Brooks saddle, Cinelli handlebars, Campagnolo gears, Chris King headset-- that will complete his bike.

"The torch snapped alight again. We flipped our visors down. Jason picked up a fresh filler rod and the flame roared into action on the seat cluster. He worked methodically round the weld, turning the jig, flipping the cable of the torch from beneath his feet, holding the flame steady at the exact distance from the weld. Ten minutes later, the seat stays were on. The torch went out. Jason pulled off his mask and stepped back, inviting me forward with one arm, like a midwife in a maternity ward introducing an overawed father to his child. The frame of my dream bike-- the diamond soul--- was finished."

"He dropped the spokes one by one through the holes in the flanges of the front hub. Periodically, he gathered all the spokes from one side of the hub together and swept them to the side, like someone tying their hair back. When he'd lined up the label on the hub with the label on the rim-- a nice touch-- he placed the first spoke through the hole on the rim next to the valve and secured it with a blue nipple. All the other nipples would be silver: the blue one was a visual aide, and Gravy's signature. Then he went round the rim once, placing a spoke through every third hole. He flipped the wheel over and laced a second set. Within minutes, the pattern of the wheel began to emerge."

If his visits to these builders are the skeleton of the book, its meat is a wide-spanning history of the bicycle. The time span is wide: from the invention of the first wheeled vehicle in ancient Mesopotamia to the development of the mountain bike in Northern California. Along the way, the reader learns of velocipedes, high-wheelers, the origins of bike racing, Reynolds double-butted tubes, and the connection between bike manufacturing and the development of both automobiles and airplanes.

"By the end of the decade, the bicycle had become a utilitarian form of transport for millions-- the people's nag. For the first time in history, the working class became mobile. As they could now commute, crowded tenements emptied, suburbs expanded and the geography of cities changed. In the countryside, the bicycle helped widen the gene pool: birth records in Britain from the 1890s show how local surnames began to appear far away from the rural locality with which they had been strongly associated for centuries. Everywhere, the bicycle was a catalyst for the campaigns to improve roads, literally paving the way for the motor car."

If you like bikes, I highly recommend this book.

Available from Amazon, other booksellers, and libraries.

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