Caught by the River

Ride Of My Life – The Story Of The Bicycle

5th February 2011

by Steve Phillips

It’s not often I find myself nodding along in agreement with that ‘Bullingdon Buffoon’ mayor of ours (especially during those moments when my very nice Mavic rims crumple AGAIN courtesy of a ‘London Pothole’ of Dr Foster proportions – the bill’s in the post Boris), but towards the end of Rob Penn’s recent hugely enjoyable BBC4 documentary ‘Ride of My Life – The Story of the Bicycle’ our inglorious leader makes an appearance and talks of the bicycle being up there with the printing press or internet as one of the great ‘liberating forces of humanity’. Gulp, hear hear.

Like Rob Penn, I too have probably not gone a week since I first learnt to ride a bike over 30 years ago without getting into the saddle and during those many hours purposefully pumping my ‘Ernie Wise legs’ up and down have often pondered the place of the humble bike in both my own and the wider world.

As this documentary explains, the invention of the cycle was a truly ‘democratic moment’ providing affordable transport for the masses, yet this 60 minutes of great TV also goes someway in capturing the essence of what, to many people, makes cycling and the cycle something more than just a way of getting from A to B.

The programme weaves between a social history of the bike and Penn’s own personal quest to build the ‘ultimate bike’ which will see him out until his knees can peddle no more.

Along the way we learn early Regency bikes got the nickname of the ‘dandy horse’ (I want one) and that mountain biking’s beginnings came courtesy of a gaggle of fried San Fran hippies who flung themselves down the sides of hills at breakneck speeds on modified cruising bikes.

But for me, his bike building mission was most revealing – an insightful look into the obsessive world of the cycle nut where aesthetics, mechanics, passion, stupidity and physical endeavour whiz by in a blur of multi-coloured lycra.

It was a joy to watch traditional manufacturers such as Brooks saddles and Rourke frame builders doggedly and passionately put their faith in an ethos of hand-made craftsmanship and Italian ‘romantics’ from the hallowed factory floors of Campagnolo and Cinelli talk of group sets and components with an intensity and language more appropriate to the Uffizi.

And therein lies the thing about cycling I suppose, the elevation of something, which, on the surface, is remarkably mundane into a near ‘art-form’. As Penn explains, the Italians have a phrase for the aesthetic preoccupation of many cyclists – ‘bella in sella’, roughly translated as ‘looking good in the saddle’. To watch a great climber – Van Impe, Herrera, Pantani – effortlessly ‘dancing on their pedals’ to a great stage victory in the mountains, marvel in the clean architectural lines of a well built bicycle or be amazed by the attention to fine detail when it comes to cycle-wear design you’d be hard pushed to deny that cycling, in its purest form, often does blur that boundary between sport and ‘art’.

Some may just shrug, look at the rusting piece of metal in their shed which occasionally gets them to the corner shop and back and fail to get ‘it’, yet ‘Ride of My Life – The Story of the Bicycle’, and in particular the look of joy on Penn’s face as he rides off on his new creation at the end of the programme, eloquently and lovingly explains an addiction that’s sometimes very hard to put into words.