Friday, August 27, 2010

The Ultimate Bicycle?

Robert Penn’s recent book, “It’s All About the Bike” is an account of the search for his dream bike

It is a delightful blend of eulogies to contemporary component manufacturers, Penn’s own cycling reminisces and the historical background that explains why things are the way they are in the bicycle world. It’s the book that every self-respecting cyclist wishes they had written themselves. Getting paid for buying a custom bike ….. come on.

Inevitably there are some historical errors in the book (for example, aluminum frames originated in the late 19th century, not in the 1930s) and oodles of subjectivity but it is the latter that makes the book so entertaining. Any true bike nerd knows which component is “best” and any half dozen nerds in the same room will have as many opinions.

Penn chooses steel for the frame. I have had bikes in all four major materials and for sure, none is “best”. My current road bikes are titanium (the Spectrum by Tom Kellogg) and carbon (the Crumpton by Nick Crumpton). Thus my next custom frame (sorry Sharon) will logically be steel. However, Penn chooses Reynolds 953 ….. stainless !!! And it can be polished. Curiously, he opts for TIG welding rather than a lugged frame. Why would you give up the opportunity to have such artistry?

He chooses Brian Rourke Cycles as the builder Rourke must surely be one of the last great British frame-builders that is still family-run. Roberts is another obvious example and there may be more. This is another Rourke build:

In the U.S. there are a myriad of first-rate builders. There are those that hail from the “revolution” of the seventies (Richard Sachs, Tom Kellogg, Ben Serotta, Bruce Gordon etc.) and many other younger artisans who continue the tradition. I almost salivate at the thought of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show that comes here to Austin in 2011

You can get a flavor for the delights in store by browsing “Custom Bicycles” One of the book’s openers is a drop-dead gorgeous blue Reynolds 953 frame by Dave Anderson I think it has my name on it.

A Campagnolo Record grouppo was a no brainer and Penn opted for a Cinelli bar/stem which would have been the traditional choice in the days of aluminum. In today’s carbon environment, I would opt for Ritchey that arguably have become the industry standard over the last decade .

He switches out from Campagnolo to the Chris King headset (another no brainer) but interestingly opts for Royce hubs that I had never heard of The wheels, using DT Swiss rims were then built by Gravy in California Undoubtedly superb wheels but, in the U.S., there are other top-class choices, for example Joe Young (, Dave Thomas ( and Wheelbuilder (

A Columbus Carve fork, Continental 4000 tires and a Brooks’s leather saddle complete the picture. Well, almost. No mention is made of pedal selection. I have always used Looks (with a brief flirtation with Dura Ace some years ago) but others swear by the latest Shimano. Lastly, even though shoes are not a bicycle “component”, as long as one is discussing industry superlatives, Sidi must be mentioned. Not cheap but the best made, most comfortable shoes on the planet. Next time you are in a group of dedicated road cyclists, look down at their feet and you will see what I mean.

Robert Penn implies that his “bike to end all bikes” will last a lifetime and well it might. However, keeping older bikes going is getting more and more of an expensive challenge. The highly competitive search for superior components has dramatically accelerated in the last twenty years. They now become incompatible very quickly and spare parts are harder to find. In the last few years, for example, Campagnolo introduced the QS front changer around 2007, moved away from square taper bottom brackets around the same time and made the inevitable jump to 11-speed a year later. I keep a modest stock of pre-2006 “New In Box” 10-speed components but deciding when to make the quantum leap can be very difficult. Unless, of course, money is no object.

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