Contrary to what most scientists and entrepreneurs, and all teenage punks, think, there is no such thing as an original idea. Human history might be rectilinear, but intellectual history is not. "Patent" is a euphemism for fraud. You might think you've alighted on some spark of genius no other brain could produce, but almost certainly, someone, somewhere, some time, thought of it before you did.
The most illuminating way to examine the evolution of a compound idea – a bicycle, say – is therefore not to pretend that it came about as a series of masterstrokes separated by vast passages of time, but rather to examine the circumstances that created each incremental development. That might be hard to do, and especially in an hour, but it's worth trying.
This is where and how Ride of My Life: the Story of the Bicycle fell short. It was two programmes forced into one, not so much reinventing the wheel as oversimplifying it. The first purported to be a history of one of the most glorious machines – and ideas – civilisation has yet to produce: that bicycle. First came Baron Karl Drais's Laufmaschine ("running machine"), better known as the velocipede or dandy horse in England, in 1817. This quickly moved on to John Kemp Starley's addition of pedals and cranks in the 1880s, and thence to John Boyd Dunlop's addition of a pneumatic rubber tyre to replace friction-inducing wooden tyres.
The synthesis of Dunlop's tyre with Starley's frame, we were suddenly told, led to the creation of suburban England, the emancipation of women, and cars, which is not bad going. Men could commute further, women could get away from men, and automobiles were a consequence of the mechanical insights of bicycles. The cycling pioneers were thus drivers of social progress way beyond their early imaginings.
The birth of the Tour de France (1903) and the Giro d'Italia (1909) did for street racing what a bunch of drug-swilling hippies in Fairfax, California did for mountain biking in the 1970s. Their never-say-die descents down dusty, vertiginous roads were called "Repack" rides, because the single rear-hub brakes got so hot they needed to be repacked. Throughout all this potted history, there was a lack of detail, as if we couldn't handle a bit more knowledge on the difference between a crank set and a derailer. What was worse, the pseudo-history was a distraction from another very good programme going on at the same time, on the same channel, and that was all about a bloke called Rob Penn, who was presenting it.
Penn took us on a journey deep into the mindset of a bike obsessive, and it was charming to watch. He gave up his day job as a solicitor in his twenties to cycle around the world, indulging an obsession that had conquered his psyche in early childhood, when he began collecting the first of his 18 bikes. What this show was really about was the fulfilment of his fantasy to make the perfect bike – saddle from Smethwick, wheel from California, handlebars from Milan – and the boundless joy he had in doing so, his self-awareness in being so lucky, won us over to his cause.
Obsession with cycling speaks to a certain mindset, a spirit and attitude, that is mostly male, fond of testing endurance, addicted to speed, excitable over cutting-edge mechanics, and, above all, highly intelligent, as if acutely alert to the big consequences small differences can make. What the show lacked in historical punch it more than compensated for in exhibiting a bloke who seemed to know what constitutes the good life, and who wasn't so much middle-aged as a boy who never grew up.
That came as a refreshing antidote to a show about girls who grew up too quickly. About halfway through Baby Beauty Queens, Sally, a single mum whose seven-year-old daughter, Amber, was being readied for a punt at Mini Miss UK, a beauty pageant, said in an aside: "I've always wanted to be famous. I've watched these programmes and thought, what have they got that I haven't got?"
Now, a parent's desire for their child to be happy and successful is probably the most natural and possibly the most wonderful thing in the world. A parent's living vicariously through their child, and hoping the child will succeed in areas where they themselves have failed, is nearly as natural, but not nearly as wonderful.
This beauty pageant was a parade of pushy mums and their spoilt little princesses. "My looks will get me by," said Fathom of the yummy mummy competition. Her six-year-old daughter, Eden, was also a contender in the mini beauty queen competition. She was marginally more pleasant and humble than the nasty and self-absorbed Amber. Neither won, though when the prize went to little Chloe from Portsmouth, the look of horror on Amber's face couldn't have been surpassed if she'd seen a warthog fornicating with a dolphin.
It was hard to know whether to feel solidarity with these ambitious mothers, or whether in submitting their little girls for consideration in an industry that elevates aesthetics over ethics, they were doing a terrible violence to their immature minds. At such a young age, they'd already succumbed not just to the narcissism of small differences, but the neuroticism of them, too. "She can't tell me what to do when it's my birthday and she can't tell me what to wear when it's my costume... so I can wear whatever I like," said Amber, all dressed up. Especially coming from her, there was nothing original about that idea.