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It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness On Two Wheels [Hardcover]

Robert Penn
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)

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Book Description

29 July 2010

As seen on TV

The bicycle is one of mankind's greatest inventions - and the most popular form of transport in history. Robert Penn has ridden one most days of his adult life. In his late 20s, he pedalled 40,000 kilometres around the world. Yet, like cyclists everywhere, the utilitarian bikes he currently owns don't even hint at this devotion. Robert needs a new bike, a bespoke machine that reflects how he feels when he's riding it - like an ordinary man touching the gods.

It's All About the Bike is the story of a journey to design and build a dream bike. En route, Robert explores the culture, science and history of the bicycle. From Stoke-on-Trent, where an artisan hand builds his frame, to California, home of the mountain bike, where Robert tracks down the perfect wheels, via Portland, Milan and Coventry, birthplace of the modern bicycle, this is the narrative of our love affair with cycling. It's a tale of perfect components - parts that set the standard in reliability, craftsmanship and beauty. It tells how the bicycle has changed the course of human history, from the invention of the 'people's nag' to its role in the emancipation of women, and from the engineering marvel of the tangent-spoked wheel to the enduring allure of the Tour de France. It's the story of why we ride, and why this simple machine remains central to life today.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 199 pages
  • Publisher: Particular Books; 1st edition (29 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846142628
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846142628
  • Product Dimensions: 14.4 x 2.3 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 159,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert is currently writing a new book: 'Touch Wood: the story of the ash tree' will be published by Penguin in 2015.

His last book 'It's All About the Bike: the Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels' ('Gem of a book' - Economist) was a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK. It has been translated into 11 languages.

He presented the BBC4/2 documentary 'Ride of My Life: the Story of the Bicycle' ('A journey into the mindset of a bike obsessive... charming to watch' - Independent) and the BBC Four series 'Tales from the Wild Wood' ('an understated gem' - Independent). His most recent TV adventure was cycling the Trans-Amazonian Highway with Freddie Flintoff: 'Flintoff's Road to Nowhere' was broadcast on Sky 1 in April 2014 ('Brilliant telly' - The Times).

As a journalist, Robert writes for The Observer, Sunday Times and Condé Nast Traveller, as well as a host of cycling publications.

Robert Penn rides a bicycle to get to work, sometimes for work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel, to go shopping, to stay sane, to savour the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, for fun, occasionally to impress someone, to scare himself, for a moment of grace and to hear his boy laugh. He's ridden a bicycle most days of his adult life, in over forty countries on five continents. In his late-twenties, he gave up a career and pedalled around the world.

Robert is a director of the cycle holiday company Bikecation:

He lives in the Black Mountains, South Wales with his wife and three children, and commutes to work across a heather moor on a mountain bike.

Product Description


A book as brilliant as the invention it celebrates. A wonderful read (Nick Crane, Author Of 'clear Waters Rising' And 'bicycles Up Kilimanjaro' )

What I'm left with after consuming the book is a sense of poetry. A distinct and lingering feeling of elegance, design history and aesthetics. It made me look at the hundreds of thousands of bicycles I pass every day in Copenhagen in a completely new light. It made me wonder what my perfect bicycle would look like (Mikael Colville-Andersen Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog )

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 Guardian )

[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 )

[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, Cycle Guy Sunday Times )

Gem of a book ... Penn ... describes his quest to build the perfect bicycle, mixing in an entertaining dose of cycling history and culture in the process (Economist )

Fantastic ... It is a really interesting read with some great stories on the science, history and culture of the bicycle. Well worth a read if, like me, you love cycling! (Paul Smith )

I've just spent a week pedalling slowly from Windermere to Aviemore 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 )

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 ... As a depiction of a world you might vote for, Penn's does not sound bad at all (Tim Lewis Observer )

Whizzed through Robert Penn's 'It's All About the Bike'. Must read for cyclists and/or obsessives (Tweeted By Alistair Campbell )

Penn tells us that the bicycle, as we know it, was invented in 1885 and is the most efficient form of transport ever devised... A joyful book (William Leith The Scotsman )

Bike-lit is booming, and while 'cross-country hardtail' might not have the same ring to it as 'penny-farthing', there's evidently little to do with cycling about which Robert Penn can't wax lyrical. Whether his subject is spokes or saddle sores, he is relentlessly enthusiastic... Penn's amiability is puncture-proof (Stephanie Cross Daily Mail )

[H]is adrenalin-charged enthusiasm... delivers a good ride... The social history is snappy and his almost religious quest for ultimate craftsmanship full of wit. (James Urquhart Financial Times )

About the Author

Robert Penn rides a bicycle to get to work, sometimes for work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel, to go shopping, to stay sane, to savour the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, for fun, occasionally to impress someone, to scare himself and to hear his boy laugh. He's ridden a bicycle most days of his adult life, in over forty countries on five continents. In his late-twenties, he pedalled around the world. A journalist, Robert writes for the Financial Times, Observer and Condé Nast Traveller, as well as a host of cycling publications. His last book The Wrong Kind of Snow, was praised as 'jam packed with grand themes ... intelligently done' (Daily Mail) and 'endlessly fascinating ... written with flair' (Financial Times). Robert lives in the Black Mountains, South Wales with his wife and three children and commutes to work across a heather moor on a mountain bike.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
82 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No really, it IS all about the bike! 30 July 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I purchased this after having watched the TV documentary of the same name and i was not let down!
I had some initial reservations about watching the programme, city guy moves to wales to rediscover himself and finds cycling in the process, it has british movie industry written all over it! The lifelong passion for the bike that was revealed however left me once again chiding my own preconceptions, and yet another inward promise to be more open minded and less reactionary!
Obviously the book fleshes out the broad strokes painted on the tv, but the passion and almost reverence that comes across is a joy to read. Clever writing prevents the book going the way of a sentimental eulogy to craftsmen passed, and instead reveals a soaring demand for the bespoke bike, albeit for a very different user. As a cyclist myself i was particularly gratified to learn that the principal aim of the author attaining his dream bike was to ride it all the time, celebrating it through use, and not just having it as another expensive accessory, (penn himself compares the skill and artistry of a framebuilder to that of a watchmaker or tailor)thus needing it to be absolutely perfect in every detail. Any jealousy at the author having the time and money to be able to trek globally in order to acquire the components for his dream bike are soon forgotten thanks to the total passion that is revealed for every detail of the bike through very skilled writing. It's always gratifying to connect with a fellow bikie, even if through the pages of book, and i was very pleased to see that i already own most of his selected reading!
If you like cycling, buy this book.
If you like travel, buy this book.
If you want a dollop of inspiration to get you back on your own bike, buy this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic and inspirational! 8 April 2011
I bought this after reading an excerpt in a craft magazine.
Having just started cycling regularly again, and planning some touring, this was perfectly timed to inspire me to look beyond what my LBS offers.
Firstly, this book combines a great potted history of bikes and cycling with Robert's personal quest for his ultimate bike. The historical stuff is all very interesting and well presented, never boring, and overall very informative while remaining fun.
On to the inspiring stuff: I have been planning to invest in a proper touring bike, and had a shortlist of four or five - none hand-built, all from my LBS - when I picked this book up. Whilst I do. It have the time, money nor inclination to travel and research in the same way, I am now far more aware of the components and how they are made, and what the true functions are.
Wile I don't have the money for e Rourke frame - the builder Robert chose for his frame - I searched out one of the other frame builders he mentioned, and am planning a visit to Bob Jackson's workshop and shop in Leeds soon (I am currently selling like mad on eBay to fund the new bike!) and am as yet not certain if I will be able to buy a custom frame or not.
The information Robert presents is both incredibly interesting and useful - this book has been the most useful tome whilst I consider my next push-iron.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning to spend good money on a bike, anyone with an interest in bikes, and anyone who cycles regularly.
Simply brilliant!
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Rob's enthusiasm, not just for bikes, but also for the climate their innovation has created, springs out of this book. I enjoyed the people he met - the kinds of people who for me become legends in their determined application of skill, creativity and other nuttiness. Tripping along with him as he watched a welder, I found myself halfway through a piece of fairly complex engineering, only to find that I still understood and I could feel and in some way touch the simplicity and development of the technology. I'm not an engineer, so I love a book that takes me back to fettling in the garage with my Dad. Magic.

Connecting me with the heartbeat of our talented forbears (the British contributors to the development of cycling) , their sharing of genius with those across borders, and to their present incarnations, makes me feel hopeful for Britain too - and that's a gift for me. Ta, Rob.

My only problem with the book is that I unwittingly read it without thinking of the obvious result - that the discomfort of my own bike - and the reasons for that - is now achingly clear, and I guess I might just see if I can find a local frame-maker.... and some cash... :-)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book and then get out and ride! 10 Aug 2011
This book was a very, very fun read. In a former life, some 20 years and 50 pounds ago, I rode, raced and worked in a bike shop. Robb's story reminded me of the pure fun, enjoyment and joy that I find in riding my bicycle. I pulled out my old Bianchi, tuned it up and have looged some 500 miles since mid June. I encourage everybody to get back on there bikes to just ride and live!

Oh, and watch the one hour BBC special based on this book. You can find it on YouTube.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended 7 Jan 2011
By Ivan
I gather this book was related to a television series, though - as I prefer life without television - I did not see the programmes.

I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it to bicycling enthusiasts.


'All About The Bike' interweaves masses of information about the history of the bicycle (and of companies associated with that history) with the writer's quest to assemble a bicycle that would be perfect for his own use. From what he tells us, it is clear that the adventurous Robert Penn is one of the most serious and devoted cyclists you can imagine: he has pedalled his way round the world and been on numerous other cycling expeditions. So he knows his subject.

But he can certainly write, too! It is unusual to find a book about cycling that is so literate. The use of vocabulary is sharp and you are frequently struck by the originality and effectiveness of a simile. Yet the writing has the fluency of good journalism.

And the book has been well edited: I did not notice any typographical errors.

Within the book there are, unfortunately, no colour photographs. (I suppose that helps keep down costs.) But the illustrations, though generally small and black-and-white, are always useful and effective. And the photo of the writer's 'dream bicycle' - appearing on the dust sheet in colour - is a useful point of reference.

The hardback feels luxurious in the hand, too, and is printed on good-quality paper.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It's All About The Book
Essential light reading for any cycling enthusiast, you may have seen the tv film following the book, it blends a potted history of cycling, development and racing with travel... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Alan J. Heeley
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent read
It's inspired me to look at getting a proper bike, not a mass market brand but one that's made for me!!
Published 20 days ago by Phil Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely all about the bike.....need to find a money tree
Truly entertaining and enjoyable to read. It inspires one to go bespoke rather than off the shelf. You only do it once and this is as good a guide as it gets.
Published 29 days ago by Mr Andrew Buckingham
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought as present from Amazon Wish List.
Recipient read it from cover to cover straight away. Will now be passed on to another leisure cyclist. A true success.
Published 3 months ago by Mrs. Kml Duffy
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspirational
I saw the BBC documentary that accompanies this book a wee while ago, and made a mental note to pick up the book at some stage. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Twatbadger
5.0 out of 5 stars great Book
Great Book very interesting! great view of the bike,Historic and technical at the same time. a great choice for all riders
Published 4 months ago by Alex Christodoulou
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
A great book, brought as a gift for my cyclist boyfriend. He thought it was brilliant and I do too
Published 5 months ago by Serendipity
4.0 out of 5 stars custom bike
A lot of name dropping on the way to building this machine. But it is all a matter of taste and no one machine has the answers.
An entertaining read.
Published 6 months ago by derek wolfson
5.0 out of 5 stars Staggering
Inspired? I should say so! To do what she did at that time, and produce a good read afterwards. Will you be content to sit still reading it?
Published 6 months ago by Dermot Coc
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
Maybe it is because I was cycling and camping through France when I read this book or maybe it is because the author is so passionate and detailed about the subject or maybe it is... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Polite
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