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James May

James May on: bicycles

In honour of the Tour reaching Blighty, here's Captain Slow on the elegant simplicity that is the bicycle

Published: 14 Dec 2012

What I am about to say is not going to be popular with at least one of my Top Gear colleagues, but here goes anyway. I'd like to stick up for the bicycle.

The bicycle was without doubt one of the greatest inventions ever. Without the bicycle, and the desire for liberty it generated, we would probably not have the car. Many of our great carmakers began by making bicycles - Peugeot as well - and most of us learn the basics of the Highway Code riding a bicycle.

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Many things in life are supposedly ‘like riding a bike', in that we'll never forget how to do them. But actually, it's very easy to forget how to play musical instruments, do quadratic equations, strip and reassemble a rifle while blindfolded and make pastry. Only the ability to ride a bicycle remains with us after decades of inattention, and that's because riding one taps into some innate understanding of basic physics. A bicycle really is an extension of both your body and your psyche.

Who doesn't have, or have access to, a bicycle? It's like having some shoes or a tin opener. In places such as Copenhagen, where cycling is pretty much the opium of the people, bikes are like community chattels. You can't really own a bicycle any more than you can actually own an umbrella or a cat.

I'm perfectly familiar with all the regular objections to bicycles and the cult of cycling, but they're all just cant, really. Cycling has long been hijacked for political ends, but so what? It can be ignored, like the BNP. I get annoyed with people who bought a bicycle three weeks ago and now present it to me as if they've discovered the cure for all society's ills. I know what they're good for, and what they're not good for. Among the latter is carrying a new refrigerator. Unless you're Chinese.

Cyclists jump red lights and ride across the pavement, but so what? Cyclists are pedestrians really, since they are leg-powered. They've just added a few levers and cogs to improve their own efficiency.

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Bicycles should never be regulated, they should never be subject to road tax, they should not require third-party insurance and competence to ride a bicycle should not be tested. It tests itself, because if you can't do it, you have a crash. Bicycles are the first rung on the personal-transport ladder and should be free at the point of use. I'll champion the bicycle until I'm worn through to the canvas.

But I do have a complaint. Cyclists have become miserabilists.

Several times a week, I go for a bike ride alongside the river near where I live. It's good for me. Or at least it is until I meet another cyclist coming the other way. "Morning," I chirp, cheerfully, because I am cheerful, filling my lungs with the airy elixir and freeing up my tired old bones. Nothing.

I was keeping score for a while, but I've long since lost count. It stood at something like - May, 8,000; other cyclists, nil. I supposed I might just be coming across as a weirdo. So I then tried smiling instead. Still nothing.

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People walking their dogs respond. So do people roller-skating, staggering home after a really late one, picking through bins, collecting rubbish, delivering parcels and trimming their bushes. Sometimes the dogs themselves reciprocate with a simple bark. Only cyclists reject these basic conventions of greeting that reaffirm our membership of a universal fraternity, which is being human. Just a nod of the head will do. Nothing.

Maybe these cycling crusaders don't take me seriously, since I ride in my clothes rather than in a Lycra gimp suit with TV packaging crash helmet and a stupid flashing light attached to my face. Just because I'm not dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Bellend doesn't mean I'm not a proper cyclist. I haven't been without one since the age of three. I had to be prised from one of them by a kindly old dear at the top of a Scottish mountain, as my fingers had frozen to the handlebars. Don't come over all superior with me, you saddle-faced gits.

This is what has gone wrong with the supposed bicycle revolution. In all honesty, I think there should be something in it. We could use bikes more, we could feel healthier, we could reduce some journey times and leave the roads more free for the ambulances we will eventually need to call. A bit of cycling could, possibly, improve the fiscal and physical well-being of UK plc.

But it won't happen until the people who presume to represent this ancient and excellent activity learn to do it with a bit of a smile and a wave. Either cheer up, or fall off.

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