Exploring the many fascinating facets of cycling and bike culture, Jack Thurston’s The Bike Show is a weekly radio broadcast on London station Resonance 104.4fm. But just as the content isn’t confined to its London setting, the show reaches a global audience thanks to its popular podcasts with several years of shows, and hours of entertaining listening, available to download. If you’re discovering the show for the first time then you’re in for a real treat as you wander through the archives – Jack’s enthusiasm for all things cycling is infectious and makes for both charming and insightful radio. Just as the latest season hits the airwaves, we chat about his passion for touring, love of Moultons, and his thoughts on Boris Bikes…
Give us a brief account of your cycling background. My earliest cycling memory is riding behind my mum as a young boy, across Midsummer Common in Cambridge, where we lived; to me she looked huge on this giant upright Raleigh, while I zipped along on my little red bike. Then in the sixth form at school in north London my friend Daniel Start was granted permission to start a cycling club as a way of getting out of doing normal games which by that point, we hated. An understanding and rather eccentric chemistry teacher supervised a small group of us on touring rides in Hertforshire, and the school even provided us with pack lunches. I didn’t regard cycling as sport but as a way of getting around independently. As a fifteen year old I remember riding down to the West End to the Virgin Megastore and Ray’s Jazz Shop, and as I was getting there for free without having to pay for a bus or tube fare it meant I could buy more records. I was quite taken by that idea. I also remember being about twelve and my parents allowing me to do the London to Cambridge ride (a mass participation event much like London to Brighton) on my own – they seemed to think nothing of it. They took the train to Cambridge to meet me at the finish.
How did you first getting in cycle touring? My first touring trip was with a group of friends to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns after doing our mock GCSEs. We made all the basic mistakes and were totally unprepared, not bringing warm enough kit or any waterproofs and allowing our tents and sleeping bags to become drenched on the back of our bikes. It was February and at night it was snowing and got so cold we couldn’t even light our stove, and all we could eat was some raw tinned ravioli. I imagine some of us were very close to hyperthermia. Strangely that experience didn’t seem to put me off.
What bikes do you ride? Luckily I have a bit of storage space near where I live so at the moment I have eight bikes. I think I’ve just bought a tandem too – a friend is bringing it down from Manchester. The collection also includes three Moultons which I have a particular interest in. They make for fantastic touring bikes, incredibly comfortable and well designed to carry a touring load. Their smaller wheels actually make them faster than normal bikes, particularly on the downhills. Tom Simpson even raced one on the track until the UCI banned them.
How did The Bike Show come about? Originally it was meant to just be a one off show. Resonance FM, which broadcasts The Bike Show, has a regular slot in the schedules called the Clear Spot which is reserved for one-off shows by people who don’t broadcast a regular show on the station. I pitched the idea of an alternative take on the Tour de France – so looking at bicycle culture, history and various other aspects of cycling, and a little bit on the actual Tour too. I’d just done an evening course on radio production at Morley College so I thought it was a good way to do some radio for real. After that they asked me to do a regular show and it’s now been going since December 2004.
Why do you think cycling is so well suited to the radio? One of the most popular aspects of the show is the ‘rolling interviews’ I do – so basically chatting to someone as we ride along. The equipment needed isn’t very large or complicated so it doesn’t get in the way or take any time to set up – I just ride along one-handed and hold out a microphone. It’s a practised technique! Radio is also very evocative – in an early show I did a Christmas day ride with the filmmaker Nicky Hamlyn around the South Downs and up Ditchling Beacon in the freezing cold. I ended the show with me getting into a nice hot bath – those sounds, of the running water and the reverb of the bathroom, are so distinctive that the listener can picture the scene and evoke that feeling of getting home after a cold ride and easing yourself into a beautiful hot bath. When the episode was broadcast it preceded the station’s Creature Curious show which had Bill Odie on as a guest – as he was listening to the end of that episode he started to be concerned about what sort of station he was about to appear on!
What has been your favourite or most enjoyable episode of The Bike Show to work on so far? In almost 150 episodes it’s hard to pick a favourite but I did really enjoy doing the feature on Ron Cooper, a legendary London framebuilder who’s lived an amazing life through cycling, including as a racer, competing in the Tour of Britain in the 1950s. Doing the radio show opens doors to meet interesting people. I could say the same about interviewing Dr Alex Moulton, or the bicycle historian Tony Hadland, or the artist Jeremy Deller, just after he’d won the Turner Prize. It was funny how Deller turned down the Radio 4 Today Programme but agreed to do a rolling interview for The Bike Show. People have been very generous with their time.
I’ve also really enjoyed using radio to convey the sensation of cycle touring and perhaps the best example of that was the London to Bristol two-part special. The idea was that I would ride each section in a series of relays with listeners to the show, who would show me the best bits of cycling country around where they lived and I’d record what happened. It worked really nicely and shows that you don’t have to cycle around the world or through a tropical jungle to have an adventure. You can start on your doorstep. It’s more about your mental attitude and curiosity about meeting people and travelling to new places. This summer I’m going to do London to York in the same way. So any of your readers who want to show me a bit of the countryside along the route, they should get in touch.
How do you think cycling in London can be improved? Copenhagen, which is now seen as one of the great cycling cities, hasn’t always been that way – like London it had problems with traffic and heavy car use, but the government there took brave steps to change things around. They took space used for on street car parking and gave it over to cycle lanes and put cycling first in the transport infrastructure – the plan was long term and over time it changed people’s behaviour. London needs to do the same, taking road space away from cars and creating proper bike lanes – with full segregation in places where it’s needed. Just painting blue lanes on the roads that disappear at junctions when you need them most and calling them ‘Superhighways’ isn’t enough. The real problem is that Transport for London have a traffic flow computer model they use when making any changes to road infrastructure and anything that causes any reduction in the capacity of roads to accommodate motorised traffic is rejected. So proper measures to reduce road danger and increase provision for cycling don’t seem likely.
What’s your take on London’s cycle hire scheme – have Boris Bikes been a success? The biggest problem ahead seems to be that it’s not making any money. I think the initial thought was that it would have an injection of start up capital but that then the scheme would take care of itself. That doesn’t seem to have happened, and the danger is I think that there’ll be a rethink as to whether spending millions on providing hire bikes is the best use of tax payers money. There’s an awful lot of redistribution of bikes via the use of vans going on, which adds to the costs. This is because the density of the system doesn’t match Velib in Paris and so there’s less ‘natural’ redistribution. I think Boris needs to be more assertive and stand up to Westminster council who are rejecting a lot of planning applications for new docking stations. At the moment all they seem to be doing is expanding existing docking stations rather than building the extra sites that are badly needed to increase density. So currently you have many bikes that are just being used twice a day – from Waterloo station and back again for example. You could also argue whether the hire bikes are changing people’s behaviour – most users already own a bike, or so I understand. And only 1 per cent of Boris Bike journeys were previously made by car, around 40 per cent of journeys were previously undertaken by walking. Is shifting people from walking on the pavements to riding a hire bike going to revolutionise London transport? I don’t think so. But despite all this I still think it’s great that cycling is being positively promoted and sanctioned by government, rather than being this thing that’s simply tolerated or seen as something subversive.
What can we look forward to hearing during the new season of The Bike Show? In the first show, which is now available as a podcast, I chat about cycling jerseys with Rapha co-founder Luke Scheybeler, cycling photographer Camille McMillan and Richard Mitchelson of Milltag. Then coming up we have a rolling interview with Jenny Jones, the Green Party’s candidate for London Mayor in 2012, and a feature on volunteer bicycle workshops. Plus a bit more on British lightweights and hopefully telling the true story of Sturmey Archer hub gears – a thrilling tale of industrial espionage and double dealing. And I want to do something about biking and (bread) baking, though not quite sure what yet…