James May: “Most cyclists are just people riding bikes. And they’re a bit hopeless.”

A cycling epiphany from the Grand Tour presenter

James May

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This article was originally published on DRIVETRIBE.com, a new motoring website and content platform from Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.

The bicycle is living in troubled times. Cycling, once merely a means of transport for the poor and those too small to operate cars safely, is now an instrument of urban revolution, a statement, a badge of allegiance. Once, people were described as ‘A card-carrying [insert political or social persuasion]’ but now they ride bicycles.

But, actually, this is all twaddle. There is an outspoken bicycle lobby, just as there’s one for cars, trains, line-dancing and Belgium, but to most of us a bike is just a useful ingredient of the personal transport minestrone, and quite good fun. Riding a bicycle feels good.

I like a bicycle, and I differ from my colleagues on this one. I haven’t been without a bicycle since I was three years old, and have done many thousands of miles on them. So when some berk with polystyrene bananas on his head starts lecturing me about the importance of cycling – as if the thing has only just been invented and only he’s heard of it – I want to tell him how I was prised from mine outside the Dalwhinnie distillery in Scotland, frozen in the attitude of a cyclist, by a kindly old Scottish lady who filled me with whisky and hot chocolate and then booted me back out into the rain to complete the remaining 30 miles to Aviemore.

Still; the bicycle is one of the most important inventions in history. It’s reckoned to be 20 times as efficient as walking, but is really still a form of pedestrianism. It’s leg-powered, and essentially free. It’s also unregulated, slightly anarchic, and possibly plays an important role in the model for utopia.

Meanwhile, we should probably learn to ride them properly. I’ve been doing a fair bit of recreational cycling lately, simply because I’m feeling old and I’ve got a bad back. It’s knackering but, after all this time, not difficult.

Some time around the age of three-and-a-bit, my dad whipped the stabilisers off my Raleigh Mayflower*, gave me a short shove, and off I went. I could ride a bike, and I’ve been able to do it ever since, because it’s a bit like riding a bike.

But then, 50 years later, during a sleepless night and when all the usual internet distractions had been exhausted, I started reading learned articles about cycling. And it turns out I’ve been doing it wrong. Here’s one I especially liked.Please look it up. Don’t get bogged down in the stuff about heart rates. Just look at the diagram on how to work the pedals. That bit about the power stroke part of the… cycle.

 I see some riders pulling away from rest in 24th and barely able to balance, and others whose legs are going round so fast their kneecaps are going to boil away. Change gear.

I tried this, on one of my regular evening rides by the riverside. Bugger me if the bike didn’t suddenly set off like I’d lit a RATO unit strapped to my seat stem. I was gasping slightly less than usual but the bike was going a good 20 percent faster. Houses, ducks and other cyclists flashed past in reverse and I was at the pub before I knew what had happened.

Then I started watching other people on bikes. The lycra brigade do it right, of course, but most cyclists are just people riding bikes. And they’re a bit hopeless. Half of them ride with their feet and knees all over the place like a cartoon midwife. They look ridiculous.

And, while I’m at it, use the gears properly as well. I see some riders pulling away from rest in 24th and barely able to balance, and others whose legs are going round so fast their kneecaps are going to boil away. Change gear. The power band of a bicycle (ie the rider) is very narrow, so, as with a big truck, you need lots of gears and you need to change between them constantly.

And that means whatever gearchange system your bike has must work properly, but few of them do, because no-one ever does any bicycle maintenance. How have we arrived at this? How has the technical literacy of our society evolved to the point where this global and interactive digital edifice can exist but no-one can make the few simple adjustments necessary to make a bicycle derailleur shift correctly? With a handful of pressed-steel spanners, a couple of screwdrivers and a tube of grease, you can make any bicycle work beautifully.

Your bicycle is a great liberator, first base in a lust for mobility that leads all the way to the Lamborghini Aventador. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. You’re wasting your breath.

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*Imagine how pleased I was to own a bike with my name in it.