By Charlie Teasdale
If you’re running a marathon, start training six months in advance. Swimming the Channel? Smear yourself in goose fat a year before you do it. And if you’re climbing Everest, you should have wielded your first icepick aged five. Essentially, if you’re going big, you need to prepare accordingly. At 27, Rob Penn was enjoying a career as a City solicitor and about to buy a house and settle down to start a family. But somehow it didn’t feel right, so he decided to give it all up and cycle 40,000km around the world.
Today, even in the face of scandal and tumbling icons, cycling is having something of a renaissance. However, in Penn’s day, it was still considered a novel way to commute. ‘There were so few of us, I knew the Christian names of every cyclist that went through Hyde Park’.
Born on the Isle of Man, he had always wanted to explore the world and was drawn to the idea of undertaking some epic odyssey. ‘People who grow up on small islands have a feeling of wanderlust built into them. And I’d cycled all my life, so I knew I wanted to go on some kind of great adventure on a bike.’ He felt the opportunity to take a trip like this was fast fading: at 27, his body might just about take it, but if he left it much longer it could be too late. He had had a taste of adventure on a trip to Asia during his last year of law school and it was that which gave him the belief to go all the way. ‘I’d ridden a mountain bike in rough terrain in western China and northern Pakistan, so I’d proved to myself not only that I could do it, but that the possibilities were endless’.
‘When you’re alone, you become more sensitised to the chance encounters and it’s that which makes up the true fabric of travelling.’
The original plan had been for Penn’s girlfriend to accompany him on the trip. However, the first leg was across the US and, by the time they hit LA, she’d had enough. ‘She decided she didn’t really like bicycles and wanted to go home. But that in itself was a message: this type of journey is meant to be done on one’s own. When you’re alone, you become more sensitised to the chance encounters and it’s that which makes up the true fabric of travelling.’
Penn’s epic two-wheeled expedition took him through North America, Australia, South East and Central Asia, the Middle East and then Europe, and, of course, a trip like that will never be without its obstacles. ‘I remember being held at gunpoint by police in Uzbekistan – I was amazed it was them who were trying to rob me. Because of the rhythm and routine of each day, I felt immune to problems, but it was at points like that when I realised the great adventure could rear up at any time, and I may have bitten off more than I could chew.’
The danger of thieves, the treacherous terrain and the impenetrable bureaucracy aside, the fact Penn was alone meant every little detail of day-to-day riding had to be considered. ‘If one small thing goes wrong, it can lead to other little problems and then suddenly snowball.’ Riding solo throughout vast wildernesses means you’re relying on your own grit and determination – if you don’t make it to the next planned stopover on time, you can find yourself exposed to the elements. ‘During my journey across Australia, I went along the north coast and through the Daintree Rainforest via the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was all dirt roads with huge distances between habitations. I was completely self-reliant and it was then I realised I had to get the details right.’
Without hardship, however, trips such as Penn’s wouldn’t be worth doing. The longest stretch through one country took him from Kanyakumari on India’s southern peninsula to Amritsar on the Pakistani border. ‘It was the one bit where I thought, “Sod it, I’m going to jack this in.” I was there just before monsoon season, so the temperatures were unbearable and I was very, very weak. I’d got heat stroke and cycled myself into a complete mess, but I laid in bed for a couple of days, puked into a bucket and just got back on the bike.’
After three years on the road, Penn returned home and came to the conclusion he was ‘unemployable’. After a journey like that, there was no way he could leave the bicycle behind – it was part of him. So he began writing and, over the years, carved out a career as a columnist, author and public speaker, documenting his trips, commenting on the world of cycling and generally championing the machine that was at the heart of his existence.
In 2010, his book It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, a revisionist interpretation of the history and importance of the bicycle, was published. ‘I was in the middle of a lifelong love afair with the bike and I’d always been slightly aggrieved that it had been under-written or even omitted from transport histories – it needed the gloss putting back on it.’ If you ask Penn why the bicycle is such an icon of the modern world, it’s hard to get him to stop talking. ‘It’s the most efcient form of human-powered transportation we’ve invented and it syncs well with the human DNA. People say “rhythm is happiness” and riding a bike is certainly conducive to joy.’
Half the book (and an accompanying 2011 documentary for BBC4) is dedicated to the realisation of a dream had by many a cyclist around the world. Of all the bikes Penn has ever owned, none of them has ever truly expressed his interest in ‘the law and beauty of bicycles’, so he decided to travel the world (again) collating the best and longest-lasting parts he could find in order to build his perfect bike. ‘We live in a dystopian age where everything we own seems to deteriorate the moment it comes out the box. Some parts of it I’ll change, but I’m going to ride this bike for the rest of my life.’
Needless to say, the final product is visually stunning and technically awesome. Penn visited Campagnolo and Cinelli in Italy for the groupset and bars, California for the Gravy wheels and came back to the UK for the Brooks saddle and bespoke frame, handmade by Rourke in Stoke-on-Trent. It won’t win the Tour de France, but it’s a thing of beauty, and he will ride it every day until his legs give out. Along the way, he met the pioneers of ‘downhilling’ on the west coast of the US, aesthetically conscious peloton men in Italy and artisan blacksmiths in the north of England. His first round-the-world trip may have been one of self-discovery and endurance, but his second was a pilgrimage, honouring one of the design icons of the modern world.
He now lives with his family in the Black Mountains of Wales, where much of his time is taken up with the stewardship of Strawberry Cottage Wood – an area of abandoned woodland at the entrance to the Llanthony Valley. Riding from his home to the village pub may not generate the same exhilaration as traversing a clifside road in Iran, but he still rides every day to keep fit and stay sane. J F Kennedy claimed ‘nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride’. Thanks to Penn’s zeal, others might just be persuaded to prove that for themselves.