GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Author Robert Penn actually can't remember the first time he ever rode a bike. He can't even remember his first bike. But he remembers pretty much every bike in the 36 years since then, from the purple Raleigh Tomahawk with tricked-out white tires to the mountain bike he rode through the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Mr. ROBERT PENN (Author, "It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels"): Today, I ride to get to work, sometimes for work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to go shopping, to savor the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, to travel, to stay sane, to skip bath time with my kids.
Sometimes I ride my bicycle just to ride my bicycle. It's a broad church of practical, physical and emotional reasons with one unifying thing: the bicycle.
RAZ: Robert Penn owns six bikes, bikes for summer riding, winter riding, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, but not the perfect bike. And so he decided he wanted to build that bike. And he writes about that quest in his book, "It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels."
And Robert Penn joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. PENN: Thank you very much, indeed. It's a pleasure to be with you.
RAZ: You are in our studios in Southern California. Did you ride your bike to the studios today?
Mr. PENN: Actually, no. I didn't. I did try and ride a bike across Los Angeles once, and I think once only.
RAZ: Not an easy feat.
Mr. PENN: No.
RAZ: You are visiting the U.S. now. You live in Wales. And you live in a small village. You write about how you bike everywhere, and people assume that you did something bad because you're biking. They don't actually understand it.
Mr. PENN: Yeah, very much so. When I moved to that part of Britain, the local farmers regarded me with, well, suspicion, really. I mean, in the rural countryside, if you rode a bike as regularly as I did, which is everyday, then something was clearly wrong.
And after I'd been there about six months, I was up in my local pub, on a hillside on the moor, and one of the very old farmers cupped me by the elbow and led me to the corner of the pub. And he fixed me with a stern gaze. And he said: I see you own a bike, boy. So how long have you lost your license for?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENN: And the assumption was, of course, I had no driving license, and that's why I rode a bike. And I tried to explain that actually, really, I rode it because...
RAZ: Because you like it.
Mr. PENN: Yeah, because I like it.
RAZ: You were looking to make the perfect bike. So what makes a perfect bike? What were you looking for?
Mr. PENN: I should qualify that. It's my perfect bike.
RAZ: You're right.
Mr. PENN: I wouldn't presume to imagine that it's anyone else's. And in fact, I rather hope it isn't anyone else's, you know? But 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, manmade in as much as that's possible now. I wanted a bike that somehow reflected my devotion to the machine, a bike that showed my appreciation of the tradition, law and beauty of bicycles. And I wanted to get the bike that I'm going to grow old with.
RAZ: This quest that you sort of, you know, went after, it took you back and forth across the Atlantic. You were in Northern California. And when you were there, you talk about meeting some of the guys who basically invented the mountain bike and mountain biking. Who are these guys?
Mr. PENN: There was a small group who were fundamental to the invention of the mountain bike, and I met two of them: Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze. And they're really wonderful, wonderful men.
And they - the mountain bike, you would say, was invented on a footpath called (unintelligible), which is above a small town called Fairfax in Marin County. And if that's the birthplace of the mountain bike, Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze were the midwives.
In the early 1970s, they were part of a gang of young men who began modifying old, single-speed cruiser bikes. Most of them were manufactured by Schwinn...
RAZ: Right. Like the kinds you'd ride along the beach.
Mr. PENN: Exactly. So they began to ride these bikes downhill at full tilt on footpaths for fun. The clunkers were - they really weren't built for the task, but they were cheap, and they were dispensable. And Charlie and Joe, amongst others, started modifying them.
And what emerged from this synergy was the mountain bike, which completely revolutionized the industry. You know, someone famously said that the mountain bike saved the bicycle industry's butt. And I suspect that's probably true.
RAZ: It saved the industry's butt because up until that point, what, there were racing bikes or these cruisers, and that was it. There was nothing in between.
Mr. PENN: Yeah. There was nothing in between. And the bicycle in both of those forms you just mentioned had drifted a long way from the original incarnation of the bicycle, a people's nag, a utilitarian, affordable, democratic mode of transportation.
And then suddenly, the mountain bike brought that back to the public again. It's like, here is a bike which is easy to ride, good fun and cheap.
RAZ: So part of this book is your quest to find the perfect bike. Part of it, actually, is a history of bikes, bicycling. And you've obviously done a lot of research on the history of bikes. And what I love about this book - and what I love about actually all the books on the program is I always learn something.
And for example, you say that in 1890, there were 150,000 cyclist in the U.S., and a bike cost basically half of the annual salary of a factory worker. Within five years, the price drops to just a few weeks' wages, and there are a million cyclists. So it's just this explosion.
Mr. PENN: It was an extraordinary explosion. There were a million new cyclists every year by 1895. It was absolutely rocket-fueled. You know, Victor Hugo said, an invasion of armies can be resisted but not an idea whose time has come.
You know, the bicycle was that idea in the 1890s. And, you know, it had all sorts of very dramatic implications. 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. It was the first and popular athletic pursuit for women. And by the time the suffragette movement was at its height in the 1910s, people looked back and recognized that the bicycle had been fundamental in the emancipation of women.
It had a huge role to play in the Good Roads Movement. A huge number of engineering discoveries or engineering innovations that the bicycle welcomed were borrowed directly by the automotive industry, which meant that an affordable car was realizable in a very short period of time.
RAZ: I was amazed to read that a third of all patents registered at the U.S. Patent Office in the 1890s were bicycle-related.
Mr. PENN: I know. Isn't that extraordinary?
RAZ: That's crazy. Yeah.
Mr. PENN: It is extraordinary. The bicycle had its own patent office in Washington.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: They can barely get the patents sorted out today. I can't imagine how they did it back then.
Mr. PENN: I know.
RAZ: I want to get back to the perfect bike, the one that you built. The last thing you did was to have your bike painted because you did finally get this built. You had it painted blue and orange. And then you write about agonizing over those color choices.
When it was finally ready, you had it painted. You put all this time into it and expense. How did you feel? Did you actually achieve creating the perfect bike?
Mr. PENN: My perfect bike.
RAZ: I got you.
Mr. PENN: I did. I mean, I take immense pleasure out of riding it.
RAZ: Do you ride it a lot?
Mr. PENN: Yeah. I ride it all the time. It was very much designed to be a riding bike. It's not my uber-expensive super-light race bike. It's a riding bike. So I've designed it be roadworthy and to take a good hammering. So I ride it all the time.
RAZ: So in your quest to build a perfect bike, right, you go to Northern California. You meet the guys who invented mountain biking. You find the person who's going to build the frame. You get all the component parts. How much did that cost you?
Mr. PENN: So it cost in total about $5,000.
RAZ: Ah, that's not cheap.
Mr. PENN: It's not cheap, no. But I think if you - I mean, I conclude in the book that it is the loveliest thing I've ever owned. And I think for $5,000, that's a pretty good deal. For a bike that I'm going to ride for 30 years, I think that's a pretty good deal. For something which is bespoke, handmade and made to fit me, I think it's a pretty good deal.
RAZ: That's the author Robert Penn. His new book is called "It's All About the Bike," and it is about his love for cycling.
Robert Penn, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. PENN: Thank you very much.
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