Monday, January 9, 2012

Robert Penn "Its all about the bike" Documentary Review

Its all about the bike, or is it really?
Review by yours truly, a.k.a Johnny

I recently saw Robert Penn's documentary "Its all about the bike" named after his book of the same title he released. While I admire this man's cause and find his documentary both educational and well thought out, there are some in discrepancies I could not help overlooking. I agree with the overall purpose of the documentary which is to promote a healthier and happier society by getting more people to ride their bicycles versus driving. His quest to build his dream bike was a educational journey that spanned three countries and gives the viewer a history lesson of the cultural impact the bicycle has had in the United States as well as Europe over different time periods. Mr. Penn even gives the notion of a modern day renaissance to obtain a bicycle of high craftsmanship with durable and reliable components. While I am not in disagreement with any of these things, there are a few critique points I would give Mr. Penn if I ever so had the chance to meet him.

First of all, I would like to talk about the author's message to the viewer and reader of his book. Building his dream bike to him signifies a representation of his life's journey as a cyclist, a sort of trophy that he congratulates himself with. Being a world distance cyclist several times over since his late twenties, he states that this dream bike will mark the end of his cycling journey because it will last as long as he does. What the author fails to mention is how his journey and his purchase of a custom tailored bike relate to the goals and ambitions of the average person. People need to realize that cycling is something achievable within their own means. I mean, not too many people can quit their day job one day and decide they want to ride their bicycle around the world. It takes someone with independent wealth or very generous friends and family to support that type of venture. I am not saying these would be the circumstances of the author, but it would be nice to know how he was able to accomplish this. Instead he describes a glorified version of his cycling life, a chivalrous description of cycling, how he uses a bicycle for just about everything, and even implies how the audience too might even follow along his footsteps. It a general sense, his message has the opposite effect of what he intended it to have. Rather than serving as a motivation to get others into cycling, his message may inspire a few well funded individuals but alienate out the rest. In an economy that has down trended because of the recession it's important to look for smart ways to spend money. Therefore those who are hurting from the economy and want to lighten their financial load by commuting by bicycle shouldn't be pushed to spend the money they don't have to spend on modifications they don't need, especially if all they need is a bicycle.

While I do agree that there is nor shouldn't be a flat price range on every bicycle, I have to disagree with the recommendations of components and parts that the author is thus suggesting as he builds his ride. It is understood that a person may need to spend extra to get a bicycle to do what that person wants it to do, especially if world travel, distances, and rugged terrains are involved. But this is a documentary that encourages everyday bicycle commuting; not racing, or off road adventuring. So while the author's recommendations are good because they are quality products, they fall short in the sense that most people will not pay $100 for a Brooks saddle, or $1300 for a Campagnolo groupset. Most people who decide to take cycling more seriously will opt for buying a bicycle their size and making modifications when something breaks or fails to perform under duress. They even speak of hiding manufacturing secrets on some of their components due to the "large Japanese company that makes all ranges of componentry" (hmm, I wonder who that is...cough-Shimano). This Japanese company has made groupset technology that has surpassed the technologies that Campagnolo has come of with, even though Campy components are considered the pioneer of derailleurs and shifters all around the world. They are by no means sub-par against the traditional giants. 

Don't get me wrong, as a dedicated cyclist I almost covet Brooks, Campagnolo, Chris King and Cinelli components. There is a reason, however, that you will not find  any of these parts on my bicycle. I still need to work for a living and keep my head up in this downtrodden economy and I have more than just myself to look after. I still ride, and the bikes that I ride on are reliable for what I use them for. My favorite bike I own is a $400 road bike with absolutely no modifications. So, Mr. Penn, I think with that I just saved about $3,600 against your bike, no to include the round the world trips you made. Will I ever get my dream bike? You never know what the future holds. I will be sure to appreciate the bicycles I have at the moment because they fit me well and do what I need them to do, this even includes riding over 70 miles at a time. But in the event that I do become the proud owner of a Cannondale Super Six Hi-mod Team Liquidgas edition, I will not hold it against anyone who doesn't have a bicycle like mine. In the meantime, I will carry on riding my "entry level" and craigslist vintage finds.

The author's coverage of bicycle friendly cities in the United States were limited to those cities which are already renowned for cycling and have an established bicycle infrastructure. Everybody in the cycling world knows that Portland Oregon and Marin County California are some of the USA's cycling Meccas. It would have been more inspirational to mention up and coming cycling cities such as Austin, New York City, Phoenix and even Dallas. This is where progress is currently being made to get more people into cycling. The Northwest states are a bad example because the cost of living is off the roof for people living in other parts of the country. Of course Portland can afford a 100 million dollar bicycle initiative! The cheapest house in Portland goes for $700,000!

I will conclude with the words of seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong by saying "It's not about the bike". There is alot to say for the rider in that equation. Robert Penn is a great rider regardless of whether he rode around the world on a Trek or on a Huffy. In my personal opinion there is too much credit given to the bicycle he rides rather than to his own willpower. In addition, his point of view comes from someone who is privileged with a slight undertone of entitlement thrown in. He seems like the kind of guy I would call up on the weekend for a  Sunday ride around the countryside. Nice guy, but I would probably leave him alone if I wanted to ride into downtown. Real commuters on their Wal-Mart bikes with grocery baskets might scare the poor fellow.

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