A ‘Riding Bike’ for Robert Penn

June 24, 2011

After riding bicycles for thirty-six years, Robert Penn was ready to buy a new bike even though he already owned six. Frustrated at “the round of buying stuff that is designed to be replaced quickly,” and planning to ride this new bike for thirty years or more, he wanted to “savour the process of acquiring it.” He wanted the best bike he could afford, expecting to be able “to grow old with it.”

The process of acquiring this bicycle included two factors unique to Penn’s situation: the prospect of writing a book about how he did it and an expense budget that allowed him to travel throughout Europe and North America to examine first hand the manufacturers of components that would go into this personal bicycle.

The book includes a compendium of information about the history of bicycle design, with multiple photos and drawings. Penn writes in a pleasant, non-technical style that informs and entertains. People who know bicycles and those who don’t will find the book accessible.

Penn’s personal bicycle, he tells us early in the book, “will look like a racing bike, but it will be finely tuned to meet my cycling needs.” He will not be racing, he tells us, “but I’ll ride this bike regularly and I’ll ride it fast.” He will take it across Britain, over the length of the Pyrenees, and down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Penn uses a term I like. What he wants to acquire is a riding bike.

So what does he choose for this special bicycle of a lifetime?

Frame: steel frame designed and handcrafted by Brian Rourke Cycles in Stoke-on-Trent, one of a small number of well-established British frame builders.

Tubing: one of the latest designs by the Italian company long acclaimed for its bicycle technology, Columbus of Milan.

Fork: instead of steel, a carbon fiber fork also designed and manufactured by Columbus.

Handlebars: drop bars by Cinelli, an old-line Italian company now a subsidiary of Columbus.

Headset: the best that can be bought anywhere, designed and produced by Chris King Components of Portland, Oregon (my town!).

Drive train (cranks, derailleurs, and shifters): Campagnolo of Vicenza, Italy, still the world-acclaimed designer of bicycle componentry.

Wheels: Royce hubs (Hampshire, England), D T Swiss rims and spokes, wheel building by Steve ‘Gravy’ Gravenites of Fairfax, California (one of the people still in the center of mountain bike demigods in Marin County).

Tires: Continentals, handmade in Korbach, Germany.

Saddle: Brooks (the classic B-17) manufactured in Smethwick, Birmingham, England.

Brakes: He doesn’t tell us but my inference is that they too are Campagnolo.

The result is a bicycle that combines classic design, fine craftsmanship, and modern componentry. And the cost? Not counting travel: $5,500.

Not bad! Amortized over thirty years, that’s $3.50 a week, which is only fifteen cents more than the medium caffe latte I drank this morning at Peets on N E Broadway  in Portland while writing this report.

Penn inspires me to design a new bicycle that is exactly right for me—a riding bike that is the finest I can afford with the components that will allow me to continue cycling the way I want to. At best, however, it’s hard for me to anticipate more than a decade of hard, fast cycling, only ten years compared with Penn’s thirty. Per week, it’ll cost me more—two lattes instead of one—but these days I’m double-dipping (Social Security and a church pension). So why not? That’s really not much to spend on “the pursuit of happiness.”