British author Robert Penn has ridden a bicycle almost every day for the past 36 years. He owns six bikes — for summer riding, winter riding, everyday commuting and everything in between. But not one was exactly right. Penn needed the perfect bike.
He writes about his quest to build that bike in a new book, It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels. "I should qualify that," Penn tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It's my perfect bike. I wouldn't presume to imagine that it's anyone else's, and in fact I rather hope it isn't."
Penn's perfect bike was handmade, tailored to his body and his riding habits. "I was looking for a, very broadly, a talismanic bike, a special bike, a bike that I'm going to ride for the rest of my life," he says. "I wanted a bike that somehow reflected my devotion to the machine."
Penn's quest took him all over Europe and the United Kingdom, across the Atlantic to northern California, and through several centuries of cycling history.
Though the bicycle seems commonplace today, Penn says it's almost impossible to imagine the excitement it caused at the turn of the last century. "It was an extraordinary explosion. There were a million new cyclists every year by 1895," he says. "It was absolutely rocket-fueled."
The arrival of the bicycle had all sorts of dramatic implications, Penn says. "The geography of cities changed, because people could now commute, and so suburbs began to be created. It had a huge role to play in the issue of practical clothing for women."
Cycling was the first acceptable sport for women, he says, and when the suffragette movement took hold a decade or two later, "people looked back and recognized that the bicycle had been fundamental in the emancipation of women."
Penn did eventually succeed on his quest for his own personal perfect bike. It took more than a year, and it cost thousands of dollars, but Penn says it's worth the effort and expense.
"It is the loveliest thing I've ever owned," he says. "For a bike that I'm going to ride for 30 years, I think that's a pretty good deal."