as easy as riding a bike

While people who used bicycles for travel were a vanishing tribe – stubbornly refusing to vanish – practical cycling was an unusual subject for mainstream media. On the rare occasions that it featured on a TV magazine show, a common convention was to give a naive reporter a bike and ask them to use it for commuting. When they ran into threshold problems the conclusion drawn was not, that the poor neophyte was in need of help, but rather that travelling by bike is impossibly difficult.

funny bike on BBC 1 - as unremarkable part of traffic - shock.

While people who used bicycles for travel were a vanishing tribe – stubbornly refusing to vanish – practical cycling was an unusual subject for mainstream media. On the rare occasions that it featured on a TV magazine show, a common convention was to give a naive reporter a bike and ask them to use it for commuting. When they ran into threshold problems the conclusion drawn was not, that the poor neophyte was in need of help, but rather that travelling by bike is impossibly difficult.

The exercise was analogous to putting a person who’s never skied on a lift up a mountainside, giving them a pair of Herman Munster boots clipped to a pair of two metre laminated planks, asking them to slide back to the valley and concluding from the embarrassing results that alpine skiing is not a bracing recreation but really, really difficult and somewhat perilous.

My own contribution to this clich├ęd sub-genre was in 1995 when hired to appear in an item about urban cycling by the production company of ‘Ride-On’ – a motoring show for Channel 4. The film crew had me riding round the Elephant and Castle, a busy double roundabout that forms the hub of South London’s road network. They shot me from various locations on the kerb, from the roof of a shopping centre, they clamped a clockwork camera the size of a brick – miniature for those times – on the handlebars and framed my face from below, they clamped it on the forks and shot forward into the moving traffic.

Keen to set a good example to the viewers and taking professional care of my temporary employer’s equipment I rode purposefully but with deliberate care, using the lane markings on the roadway, the patterns made by the files of motor-traffic and a bike rider’s ability to demand the attention of others, to hold an empty zone around my machine.

After each run the director and senior colleagues retired to their mobile home to view the latest sequence and confer in hushed voices. They did their best to seem optimistic – making moving pictures is a bit like going to war, morale is very important – but clearly weren’t happy with what had been recorded.

They were running out of options. It began to seem that darkness might fall without them capturing the pictures they wanted. Finally the director took me aside and in a conspiratorial tone asked:- “Can’t you make it look more difficult?”

In the end the segment – which mostly showed cycling to be a sensible way to get around London – went out with a staged coda in which the show’s presenter – an aristocratic ex-race driver – decided to try cycling; rode away and was knocked to the floor by a carelessly swung car door. It was meant to be funny.

In those days the seemingly contradictory notions…

  • Cycling is an infantile accomplishment unworthy of study.
  • Cycling is so difficult, dangerous and demanding that no sane person can contemplate it.

…reinforced each other by taking cycle-travel out of the realm of possible adult behaviour. Cycling was for children or for super-heroes, not for normal folk.

If you haven’t seen this it’s quite interesting…

…a segment from the latest ‘Sunday Politics’ a show on BBC 1, on the feasibility of London ‘Going Dutch’. There’s a discussion between the urbane and articulate Mustafa Arif – a Director of the London Cycling Campaign – a couple of politicians and – bizarrely – Sir Stirling Moss – the Lewis Hamilton of the 1950’s – who retired while I was still in the infants*.

Sir Stirling doesn’t have much to contribute beyond his legendary presence and a lame plea for helmet compulsion, which Mustafa flicks to the boundary with a finely judged mix of deference and contempt.

The interesting part for me is the film which introduces the discussion , and contrasts traffic conditions in Groningen, in the Netherlands, with those in London. It doesn’t dwell on the problems of cycling in our motor-centric capital. Now that most young and thrusting media-types travel by bike this line is no longer really tenable.

Here the metaphorical non-skier up the mountain is boy reporter Andrew Cryan trying to drive a car around central Groningen and finding it more than somewhat problematic.

The message is still that cycling can’t happen but the sensational premise is no longer…

‘Cycling to work? Are you mad?’

…but rather…

‘Where streets are cycle-friendly motoring is close to impossible.’

The young fellow does his best to make it look dangerous, talking to camera, with both hands off the wheel, while the vehicle is moving, but his flustered attempts tell us nothing about the practicality of moving a car in and out of the filtered permeability of Groningen’s centre, just that little Andrew was only there for six hours.

Even then his hyperbolic…

“Unless you were making a delivery or you’re a taxi[sic] you’d be absolutely mad to try and drive here.”

…has to be balanced with the observation that…

“In the suburbs [motor-]traffic flows incredibly well.”

Making car journeys more awkward also makes travelling by car easier. Who’d have thought it eh?

look mum no hands

As we get into the discussion it’s hard to imagine that Sir Stirlingwho once jousted with Juan Manuel Fangio and Mike Hawthorn – was first choice as token apologist for motor-dependence?

They might have preferred Jeremy Clarkson who recently opined that…

“…in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along.”

This simile can’t really bear much analysis.

Q: What kind of dog wakes up in the morning and wonders: – ‘Shall I be a dog or a cat today?’

Q; If a dog and a cat have sexual congress will they produce…

Of course Jeremy Clarkson is a semi-fictional comic character – more Alan Partridge than Alain Prost – and the last thing he would want is to engage in reasoned debate about the baffling, reflexive fluidity of real-life.

Come to think of it the slightly bemused Stirling Moss is strangely reminiscent of eminent character actor Trevor Peacock, albeit in a bald wig.

Trevor Peacock meets Theo Walcott
Sir Stirling Moss

*

  • Q: Who comes out of the skirting board at 220 miles per hour?
  • A: Stirling Mouse.

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