Why cars and bikes provide intrinsically similar thrills, by Gavin Green

Published: 07 August 2020

► Cycling and cars: a close liaison
► Gavin Green on his bicycle habit
► Lockdown has brought cycling joy

In normal times, CAR columns are about cars. But these are not normal times. So today I will write about the sole form of on-road entertainment encouraged in these days of lockdowns and lack of loo rolls. I have been a keen road cyclist for 32 years. Many other CAR writers are also passionate about pedal power, including Messrs Miller, Oliver and Whitworth.

So, too, was the late, great CAR columnist Russell Bulgin, who encouraged me to buy my first road bike. (The 6ft 7in Bulgin got his frames handmade by Roberts in south London. He also owned a Moulton, designed by the man who developed the suspension of the original Mini.) LJK Setright was designing a new form of recumbent bicycle before his death. Former editor Doug Blain rode around London on an ancient ’30s Sunbeam. 

Jenson Button and I once discussed the best climbs near Monaco. Mark Webber and I talked bikes just before his first race with Williams. Fernando Alonso tried to set up a pro cycling team. In 1999, Colin McRae and I rode in Corsica, the day before the start of the Tour de Corse. 

Many car makers started as bike manufacturers, and now some sell their own-brand bikes. They’re likely to become increasingly important as car companies morph into ‘mobility providers’. Lotus revolutionised track cycling when Chris Boardman rode its aero-carbon bike to 1992 Olympic gold. McLaren helped develop the successful Specialized Venge road racing bicycle. Jaguar did the aero work on Chris Froome’s Pinarello.

Bulgin once described cycling as the thinking person’s alternative to walking. For me, it’s more about the delicious blend of thrills and tranquillity. There’s something both adrenaline-rush exciting and Zen-like calm about riding a bike. Descending a mountain at 30mph, on a sliver of carbon and on tyres just a few mm thick, is as thrilling as driving a Ferrari at 150. It’s like downhill skiing except it hurts more when you fall. Fast descending involves reading the road as well as riding it.

Yet pedalling gently down a hedgerow-lined country road, the sun kissing your face, the scent of newly mown grass tickling your nostrils, nature unfiltered, is the most serene experience on tarmac: mindfulness on the move. Then there’s the sense of liberation. On a bike you can go as fast as you like, when you like. It’s freedom’s final frontier on the road. Traffic, the millstone of modern motoring, doesn’t matter.

Gavin Green rides the £23k Bf1systems Factor 001 for an earlier feature

Unlike joggers, you also get a great piece of kit to ogle, ride and fettle. Road bicycles are both wonderfully simple and high tech. There is no simpler or purer form of transport. Yet the carbonfibre of a Colnago frame or a Zipp wheel is cutting edge, and there are few mechanical components more beautiful than a Campagnolo groupset. You can also work on a bike yourself. And in your garden, rather than on a garage floor. 

Getting measured for a hand-crafted bike is a wonderful indulgence, like visiting Savile Row but cheaper. There are now numerous artisans who will hand-make you a bicycle, usually in high-grade steel, any spec or colour you want. Many of the best are in Britain, from Shand in Scotland, to Swallow in Shropshire, to Saffron in south-east London. 

And, yes, cycling is good exercise. It’s better for ageing joints than jogging, and there’s more camaraderie than in running. On quiet rural roads, you inevitably get a nod or wave from oncoming riders. Gesticulate to other drivers and they’ll mistake it for road rage. Puncture and other riders will invariably offer assistance. On a bike you can rely on the kindness of strangers. Of course, there are some skinny psychos who jump lights, intimidate motorists and take rebellious pride in road anarchy. Dear fellow driver, we law-abiding cyclists detest them too. 

During the recent lockdown, my cycling miles have gone up significantly. When the good times return and we can enjoy our cars again, I may write about the sun-kissed felicity of open-top driving, the feelsome steering of a Lotus sports car or the muscular and musical pleasure of driving behind a Ferrari V12. Until then, I’ll be riding my bike.

More columns by Gavin Green

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience