Top Gear – and Bicycles

I have a confession to make. I love the British TV show, “Top Gear.”

Yeah, it’s all about cars. Mostly, cars that most of us can only dream about: super fast, super sexy sports cars that can go over 200 mph, or powerful SUVs that gobble up tough off-road terrain like it was smooth asphalt. Fuel economy? Traffic congestion? Road safety? Those things don’t exist for the “Top Gear” crew.

The "Top Gear" crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Top_Gear_team_Richard_Hammond,_James_May_and_Jeremy_Clarkson_31_October_2008.jpg

The “Top Gear” crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons.

So I was pleasantly surprised Monday evening while watching the newest episode of the show, to see that it was going to do something on bikes. Specifically, bike safety. The hook for the episode was that hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May would make a public service announcement about bike safety.

As you can imagine, it didn’t turn out well for cyclists:

A panel of reviewers that included prominent cyclist Chris Boardman, rejected that one. So, Clarkson and May decided to get a first-hand look at the challenges cyclists face. They hopped on bikes — May on a Brompton and Clarkson on a hybrid — and rode in traffic through London’s West End.

Advancing the theme of their failed PSA, Clarkson noted, “The light just went red, so that means go when you’re a cyclist.”

Other observations: Right turns (the equivalent of left turns in the U.S. and Canada) are dangerous — so they picked a route that included only left turns. Buses are the biggest problem, because they do not look out for cyclists. “All bus drivers think they’re Lord God Almighty,” Clarkson complained. If biking could be made more attractive to the public, they’d commute more on bikes, and there wouldn’t be any need for buses, he said. (Public transit is another “Top Gear” no-no.)

They discovered another problem for bikers: sore bottoms. Apparently, chamois cream isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — “Have you ever put toothpaste on your testicles?” Clarkson wailed.

At one point in the ride, Clarkson dropped his chain, and the pedantic May berated him for riding a bike that was obviously not maintained correctly.

And after three hours of riding, they figured they were now fully paid-up members of the cycling community, as they sat outdoors at a coffee shop, drank their lattes, and read the Guardian (probably the last paper Clarkson would be caught reading).

So, they went back for some more tries at bike safety videos.

One of Clarkson’s showed a man returning home after a day on the job. “John works hard,” the announcer said, “which means he can afford to drive a car. That means he gets home to his family safely every night.” The closing shot showed a mangled bike lying in the road.

May had a similar take. His spot featured adults  in a children’s playground. A man rode by on a bike. Voiceover: “You stopped playing with children’s toys when you grew up. So why ride a bicycle? Act your age. Get a car.”

It’s all in fun. But “Top Gear” is a highly-watched program in Great Britain, and is seen in something like 170 countries around the world. Its anti-bike message is not innocuous. It would be nice to see the show recognize that cycling is a legitimate alternative to gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

In fairness, several seasons ago, the crew staged a commuting challenge that pitted a bike against an SUV, a speedboat, and public transportation. The aim was to cross London during morning rush hour. Host Richard Hammond rode the bike. The bike won.

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7 thoughts on “Top Gear – and Bicycles

  1. Sad to see the anti-bike sentiment as it will quickly become something others use to promote their own anti-cycling agendas. I would have hoped they would have put some of the focus on those creating the biggest hazards instead of throwing in the towel.

        • That’s because it’s a new episode in the current season. Try tuning in next Monday night. They usually run the previous week’s episode before the new one, so you might be able to see it then.

  2. Clarkson is not well-received by British progressives, cyclists, environmentalists or just about anyone who identifies with a liberal agenda. He’s a funny Rush Limbaugh with a car show. I think he’s great and I love the show, but you are NOT going to find a well-balanced, nuanced view of cycling on Top Gear! :)

    • Clarkson is part of what is called the “Chipping Norton Set,” after the town northwest of London where many prominent conservative politicians, businesspeople, and media types live. He’s pals with Rebekah Brooks, former editor of News of the World, who was involved in the phone hacking scandal; Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter; and Prime Minister David Cameron. He might be a British Rush Limbaugh, but as you point out, he’s funny about it.

  3. I have recently started to watch the show online and like it. But, have no illusions that Top Gear would have a fair take on cycling or commuting.

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