A Classic Show

Do you have 23 minutes you are looking to waste, but you’re not quite sure how to do it?  Let me help.

A few days ago, I was watching a repeat of one of my favorite shows, BBC’s Top Gear.  For those who haven’t seen the show, it features light-hearted segments concerning sports cars and other bits of automotive interest.  The show also often puts its three cohosts through a “challenge,” where they are required to perform some odd stunt involving automobiles, such as converting a car into a boat that can cross the English Channel, or designing their own camper.  It’s all great fun and yes, I realize one of my favorite shows is an automobile show;  I’m a complex person.

Anyway, this Top Gear report featured one my favorite challenges ever conducted by the irreverent cast – a race across London during the morning rush hour to determine the fastest means of transport.

The competing vehicles are:

A Mercedes Bens GL, driven by James May, who is known by the nickname, “Captain Slow.”  He also has terrible navigation skills, so the autombile does not have its best representative driver in this contest.

A Specialized Sirrus Limited carbon framed hybrid bicycle, ridden by Richard Hammond.  A lover of muscle cars, Hammond is the youngest and most physically fit of the three co-hosts.  He is therefore the only one even capable of making the journey by bike.  He does so in fine form and this is clearly not his first trip in city traffic, as his constant barrage of insults indicates.

Public Transport (Bus, Tube, and Dockside Light Rail), taken by “The Stig,” an anonymous race car driver who normally is employed by the show in testing super cars.  Since The Stig is supposedly born and bred solely to drive fast cars, forcing him to take public transport is quite comical to Top Gear’s regular viewers.

A speed boat, driven on the Thames River by Jeremy Clarkson.  You wouldn’t normally consider The Thames as a transportation route, but it interestingly has no speed limit for much of its length.  Watching Clarkson fly along the river at 70 mph is impressive.

The race starts at Kew Bridge on London’s west side and concludes at City Airport on the east side of the city.  I won’t divulge who wins, but I will say the race does a fantastic job showing what it is like to cycle in traffic.  Hammond’s cursing at buses, comments on traffic lights, and battles to keep his speed up while contending with disappearing bike lanes certainly resonates with me.

Longtime readers will remember that I contemplated riding the streets of Westminster during my visit there in 2011.  You can see what that would have been like at 3:08 in Segment 2, as Hammond pedals through Trafalgar Square and moves toward Charing Cross and The Embankment.  When Hammond reports, “I’m on the river. I just got onto The Embankment,” he is passing by my hotel and the very bike kiosk I attempted to use.  Sadly, both the hotel and kiosk are out of frame.

A final note, you will hear May make a phone call in order to pay something called a “congestion charge,” which is a tax all automobile drivers must pay for riding in central London during business hours.  You can pay the tax via the internet or over the phone as May attempts to do with comic results.  You may wonder how the city of London enforces this tax.  The answer is simple – they have cameras covering absolutely every road in central London.  The system automatically looks up your license number and compares it to cars which have paid the tax.  Fines are then mailed out as appropriate.  The civil libertarian in me shudders at the thought of this government system, automatically capturing the movements of thousands of citizens every single day.  Big Brother is truly watching the vehicle drivers of central London.

In any event, the race is very entertaining, with interesting insights on how it is to travel across a busy city.  I found the cycling portion to be especially on the mark.  The three segments take about 23 minutes to watch.  Enjoy!

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16 thoughts on “A Classic Show

  1. Love Top Gear Steve. I watch it sporadically and as luck would have it I have not seen this one yet, so I will be tuning in this evening. I have not ridden in London (partly due to the fact that I have not lived in the UK for 20 years) but I ride through downtown Montreal regularly. Something tells me that London is a whole different kettle of fish.

    I have a good friend who lives in south London and she commutes regularly through the city, and based on her feedback, it is no picnic!

    • When I was there, I walked slowly along Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, then off to The Embankment and wondered, “can I do this?” I eventually worked up the courage only to find the kiosks wouldn’t accept my American credit card. I guess somebody was looking out for me!

  2. It always fascinates me how people from other countries percieve us in Dear Old Blighty, the camera thing never got a single mention here when the congestion charge started, just the fact our Government was levvying yet another tax on us!

    • It is my observation that the British people are far more comfortable with the notion that it is permissable for the government to spy on them than Americans are. Although there are numerous exceptions to the contrary, we Americans tell ourselves that privacy is a very big deal. If a citizen willingly gives up his privacy to a corporation in order to conduct commerce, that is one thing, but if the government takes a citizen’s privacy “for the greater good,” that is something entirely different. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

  3. Hi Steve glad to hear you like Top Gear. Its raises a lot of response over hear as the presenters are often critisised for acting irrisponsible and for having fairly extreme views, (most of which I think is tounge in cheek). Its got very little to do with motoring really, its more boys and their toys. The program when they went caravanning is particularly funny. I’ve only cycled in London once, and I wont be rushing back. Two of us cycled from Kings Cross station to Greenwich for the start of the London to Paris cycle ride the next day. It was tea time on a Thursday, the traffic was mental and we were the only cyclists to take any notice of the traffic lights. I reckon riding in London, its only a matter of time before something unpleasant happens to you.I think i’ll stick to the quiet roads of North Yorkshire whenever possible from now on.

    • I have followed the Top Gear controversies with interest. The latest kerfuffle seems to involve an episode filmed in India, during which the show manages to insult the Indian people. Personally, I think the show is hilarious. Happy pedalling in North Yorkshire. I only visited there once but it certainly seemed to be a much quieter place than Westminster!

  4. I think the programme is lame drivel but Mrs Tootlepedal enjoys it a lot so I must be wrong. As a limp wristed, tree hugging, wingeing left winger I am quite prepared to laugh at myself but I don’t want to pay a lout like Clarkson to laugh at me. When we cyclists ask for well designed cycle tracks that pay more attention to the needs of cyclists than those of motorists, it is voices like Clarkson’s that pour ridicule on any such necessity. As my daughter was nearly killed between a bus and lorry on a badly designed cycle route at a junction in London, I am less inclined to find him funny than many others. But of course I have no sense of humour.

    • There are portions of the video (which I suspect you have opted to not watch) that make your point. After Hammond describes the features of his carbon bicycle, May makes the point that it costs 1,700 pounds. Hammond concedes that’s a lot of money – this from a show which routinely features automobiles costing well in excess of 100,000 pounds. Later in the episode, Clarkson passes a row boat and remarks that rowers dislike power boats “simply because they have engines in them.” He calls them the “cyclists of the waterway.”

      The danger with satire and irreverent humor is that it pokes fun at the idiosyncracies of life. As such, it can offend those who do not see the humor in those idiosyncracies. Having recently been broadsided by a car (admittedly, due to my fault) I can appreciate how harrowing an experience your daughter must have had.

      I believe this particular episode well documents the plight of city cyclists (as well as their scofflaw tendencies) and does more to advance the cause of proper cycling infrascture than to impede it. That it does so in a humorous way is all the better, in my view.

  5. Thank you for your considered response but on this one I think we’ll have to disagree. In my youth, like these overgrown schoolboys, I was pretty horrible and thought it was funny to be rude to people weaker than myself but I don’t any more and I don’t believe that you do either. When they have programmes on the BBC where cyclists are given vast sums of money to be sarcastic about motorists, I’ll believe that these three are satirists and not just amusing buffoons.

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