The title of Rob Penn's "pursuit of happiness on two wheels" is a cheeky riposte to Lance Armstrong, whose best-selling memoir It's Not About the Bike recorded his recovery from cancer to win the Tour de France seven times. For Penn, it is absolutely all about the bike, and this garrulous journal rattles through his search for the lovingly hand-built, wincingly expensive components that will make up his dream bike. "I need a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and carries my cycling aspirations... I want a bike that has character," Penn enthuses. Or, as a friend drily observes, a classic mid-life crisis purchase.
There's an element of naked self-indulgence to Penn's breezy prose, which is peppered with literary references and affords a chapter to each component, from wheel to saddle to frame. While there are moments of Penn's inner geek cresting the ridge and pedalling at full tilt with technical details spitting from beneath his world-class Continental tyres, there's plenty here for the general reader, too. The search for parts takes Penn from industrial manufacturers in Italy to cottage industries in Birmingham and artisan workshops in California. Each offers the pinnacle of craftsmanship for a component, which Penn strings together into a whistle-stop gazette of the growth of cycling and cycle manufacture in Western Europe and America.
Penn clips on each technological advance with a glance at its social impact. Pedals and chain sets ushered in a competitive era of endurance races in France and America. Pneumatic tyres added sufficient comfort to encourage use for inexpensive mass transportation. In 1970s California, clunky old bikes were customised for adrenalin-charged off-road hurtling, giving birth to the now-ubiquitous mountain bike.
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. "You make a covenant with a bike like this," he gushes; but you don't need to drop three grand on parts and act as midwife to their assembly to appreciate the wit and enthusiasm of this unusual odyssey.