I was rather sceptical when a friend lent me her copy of It's All About the Bike by Robert Penn, and insisted I'd enjoy it.
The premise seemed to encapsulate the worst type of obsessive-compulsive gear-freakery. The author decides he wants to create his "perfect bike". This doesn't entail picking one from his local bike shop, or even getting a frame builder to create and equip a bespoke model - too easy. Penn instead sets off on a mission to buy the best bits and pieces from around the world.
... a lifelong enthusiast with a nice sideline in epic cycling anecdotes - expounds upon the history of the bicycle and the many intriguing developments that got two-wheelers to where they are today.
It soon becomes apparent that the book is all about a lot more than the bike, or at least, his bike. As he collects the makings of his dream machine, Penn - a lifelong enthusiast with a nice sideline in epic cycling anecdotes - expounds upon the history of the bicycle and the many intriguing developments that got two-wheelers to where they are today.
It's a fascinating read, one that I can't wait to finish - a task currently on hiatus as I am cycle touring in the French Alps and didn't want my friend's book to get bashed up by ham-fisted pannier packing.
Of course, It's All About the Bike should not in any way be confused with Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, which is more true to its title.
I read it back in the early noughties, a more innocent time when the Tour de France champion's personal life was straightforward and he wasn't being besieged by allegations of systematic doping. It was an inspiring read, one that opened my eyes to the fascinating world of multi-day (or "stage") cycle races. Armstrong has a lot of detractors at present, but even if he is shown to have taken performance-enhancing drugs like so many others, his achievements after surviving cancer will always be astonishing.
My first introduction to the Tour was a vaguely remembered book I read as a youth - The Big Loop by Clare Huchet Bishop. Written in the 50s, it's a suitably boy's own tale of a French lad with championship dreams being raised by his financially struggling mother.
I shudder to think how it would read now, but one scene in particular stayed with me (as I recall it). After the boy's mother spends her savings to buy him a defective bike that breaks, the men at the factory where his late father worked collect money to get him a replacement. He enters a race but does badly, and is scolded by the workers. They didn't spend their hard-earned to watch him bring up the rear!
A spectacularly elitist approach from the days before politically correct child raising. Other advice includes keeping one's toenails nicely clipped.
No wonder he goes on to win the Tour de France AND the final stage.
My cycling reading has tended to be magazines, blogs and news features, a few workmanlike biographies of Australian cyclists and some histories of famous races. It's a deficiency that really should be addressed.
One book I've heard a bit about is The Rider by Tim Krabbe - a mind's eye view of a single event. I'm also on the hunt for books about epic journeys, or just the general love of cycling. Time to turn over some new leaves.
Do you have a favourite book on cycling you'd recommend?