James May lifts the lid on his lifetime of cycling

Captain Slow on cycling: his personal bike collection, drivers vs cyclists and arousing brake calipers

Television presenter and journalist James May is best known for his work with cars, yet fans of his will attest to May’s appreciation for all things mechanical, with the bicycle in particular playing a big part in his life.

Following May’s recent blog post on cycling, which teased his fans on the subject, BikeRadar got the chance to dig a little deeper about his time on two wheels. Touching on everything from his personal bike collection to sectarianism on British roads and his stimulation over dual-pivot caliper brakes, it’s a typically amusing read from Captain Slow.

BikeRadar: We understand that you’ve been riding bicycles since a very young age; can you give us a brief insight into your cycling history?

James May: It’s very sketchy. I’ve never been without at least one bike since the age of three, and between the ages of around 14 and 30 I rode constantly, including some long trips through Britain and France. More recently I’ve turned into an old fart who owns a bike, but I’m doing my best. Honest.

What bicycles do you currently own and what sort of riding do you enjoy?

I have a Brompton (which I’ve owned for almost 20 years, i.e. since before they were trendy), a Dawes Chilliwack from about 15 years ago and a new Raleigh Revenio. I ride to work sometimes, ride along the river (to pubs), that sort of thing. Pretty tame. I’m also building a special from an old Raleigh Record Ace frame, which I’ve painted, and Shimano 9-speed hub, etc, etc. It’ll be quite heavy.

James May has been riding a Brompton since before it was trendy to do so
James May has been riding a Brompton since before it was trendy to do so

As both a petrolhead and a keen cyclist, what’s your take on the often-challenging relationship between drivers and cyclists in the UK?

I’ve always loathed road sectarianism. We have enough common enemies — potholes, for example — and the roads are a model for a successful, tolerant and liberal society. So I think we should all make an effort to accommodate one another. A lot of ‘motorists' own bikes and a lot of 'cyclists’ also have a car.

I must admit, I find a good dual-pivot brake caliper strangely erotic

We’re curious to know whether or not you’ve ridden an electric bicycle yet and whether or not you consider them a step in the right direction?

I tried one and quite liked it. But I felt like a bit of a fraud. I’d like to try one of these electric assist bikes. They make you pedal.

Does the ‘Captain Slow’ nickname still apply for you when you’re cycling?

Well, compared with the lycra brigade, yes. But it strikes me that cycling is largely about technique, so in terms of personal efficiency, I’m probably not bad. 

Fans of yours will know that mechanical appreciation is at the top of your order. With this in mind, are there any components on a modern day bicycle that really get you excited?

I must admit, I find a good dual-pivot brake caliper strangely erotic. I made some cable adjusters for an old Peugeot on my lathe and that nearly finished me off.

What was the idea behind the new DRIVETRIBE platform and what — if anything — can cycling fans expect?

DRIVETRIBE is a publishing platform for user-generated content, sort of car social media. But there’s no reason why bikes shouldn’t be on there as well. In fact, we can’t stop it. 

May's latest venture, DRIVETRIBE, is a new online car community from himself, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson
May's latest venture, DRIVETRIBE, is a new online car community from himself, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson

How do you nurture your DRIVETRIBE community (known as Carbolics) and are there plans for a Bikebolics page?

I’ve continued talking about the sort of rubbish I’ve always talked about and hope that people still find it engaging. DRIVETRIBE is not really about us, though. It’s a democratised utopian forum for all persuasions, or something like that.

What is your favourite bike-related ‘Tribe’ and why?

There’s a tribe called Bicycle Race, which is quite good. I’m going to post a picture of my special on there when it’s finished. Don’t hold your breath.

Lastly, can you describe your perfect bike ride to us using only ten words?

 A lift to the top of a very long hill.

Find your Tribe at DRIVETRIBE.com or download the app (available for iOS and Android).

Oli Woodman

Section Editor, UK
With more than 10 years of experience riding mountain bikes, Oli knows the good from the bad when it comes to gear. He's a total bike nerd and loves few things more than fettling with spangly riding bits. Also, he seems to have a talent for crashing hard but emerging unscathed.
  • Discipline: Mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Loamy singletrack
  • Current Bikes: Marin Pine Mountain, Pinnacle Dolomite
  • Dream Bike: Honda RN01
  • Beer of Choice: Corona
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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