Grand Tour co-host James May has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “bomb us with bicycles,” pointing out that the current £80 billion budget for the HS2 railway line would be enough to buy “every adult in Britain a carbon-frame bike.” He also said that he had changed his mind on cycle helmets, which he insists “are now so universal that not wearing one makes you look like someone making a tiresome point.”
Writing in yesterday’s Sunday Times – a week after the newspaper published a column by Rod Liddle who wrote that he found it “tempting” to string piano wire across roads used by cyclists – May also spoke of his experience of cycling in London during lockdown.
The motoring broadcaster and writer was filling in this weekend for colleague Jeremy Clarkson, who has regularly used his column, and other platforms, for anti-cyclist comments, even though he often rides a bike himself.
May, by contrast, has a long-standing love of cycling, and last year urged motorists not to subscribe to what he termed “road sectarianism” which seeks view drivers and cyclists as polar opposites.
In yesterday’s column, he wrote: “I maintain the bicycle is one of humankind’s greatest inventions, because all it really does is empower the pedestrian,” and recounted the freedom they provide from childhood onwards.
“As a younger man, I could easily ride 70 or 100 miles in a day, and did, all over Britain and France. These days, it’s more like riverside jaunts to rewarding pub suppers, and probably not enough of them — the bike rides, I mean — if we’re honest.
“Then something interesting happened,” he continued. “The lockdown came with a qualifier: you could go out walking, running or cycling, once a day. So I immediately bought a new bike, which was a bit self-indulgent, as I already had one.”
The new bike was a Giant TCR Advanced 2, which May has ridden almost every day since lockdown began on local loops of 6-10 miles.
He said that a month after buying it, “I experienced the greatest bike ride of my life,” on a day when he had to go to a recording studio in Soho for voiceover work.
“I made the six-mile journey on my bike, and that was an even odder experience; the capital at the quietest I’ve known it, and by a long, long way. By the time I left, the sun hung in view, and I decided on a wantonly circuitous route home, taking in much of the West End, Park Lane, various monuments, the park, Buckingham Palace and a couple of famous bridges.
“It was utterly idyllic, the whole fabulous cityscape sluiced in sunlight, uncorrupted air and almost complete silence, seemingly there for the pleasure of the hundreds of cyclists exploiting an unprecedented and unrepeatable opportunity.”
Turning to the government’s commitment to provide £2 billion for cycling and walking over the next five years, May said he was still “cynical about convoluted attempts to build bicycle lanes, because they often end up confusing and ignored,” and also highlighted what he saw as the “limitations” of bicycles for people with long commutes, seemingly ignoring the fact that you can use more than one type of transport on the same journey.
“But,” he said, “it’s a lovely vision, and it should start — like most things — with a mindset. That means it should start with bikes. All this talk of bicycle repair vouchers is encouraging; bliss it is in this extraordinary dawn to own a bicycle repair shop (I know a man who does, and he’s looking very happy), but how about a new bike?
“This got me thinking: £2bn is a lot of money. To that, we can add the £80bn projected to be spent on the HS2 high-speed rail link, which is going to be even more unpopular now only four people will be allowed in a carriage. All that cash could buy every adult in Britain a carbon-frame bike.”
Alluding to the use of heart-and-minds campaigns rather than aerial bombings, he added: “People are restless. They want change. So come on, Boris Johnson — you’ve long been known as the bike man. Bomb us with bicycles.”
May also gave his tips on cycling, including what type of bike to buy, the importance of maintenance, correct tyre pressure and gear selection and, finally, wearing a helmet.
Talking to road.cc in 2014, champion cyclist turned cycling campaigner Chris Boardman said: “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring. It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives.”
However, May revealed his personal view on wearing a helmet had changed.
“I resisted this for years, thinking it was the first step towards the back-door regulation of cycling, which I oppose vehemently. But helmets are now so universal that not wearing one makes you look like someone making a tiresome point.”
It’s a curious observation to make right now; certainly, it seems that in the part of West London that May lives in and will have been doing the bulk of his recent riding, many who have taken to cycling for transport during lockdown have chosen to do without one.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.