Writing Portfolio


Top Gear, top book

The new series of Top Gear starts this Sunday, and by coincidence I have recently read The Man in the White Suit by Ben Collins. He, you may recall, was the Stig for several years until he outed himself when it became obvious that the papers were going to do it for him, and this is his story. Now I don’t doubt that Ben Collins is a pretty good racing driver (one of many who never made it to the top), but he is in a rather unusual position here in that he is most famous for being an anonymous TV character. The rather obvious parallel, given the status that the Stig assumed on the back of Top Gear’s popularity, is with a dual-identity superhero like Batman – something Collins himself picks up on and does a good job of trying to explain from an insider’s point of view; as the Stig, he became a semi-legendary figure in petrol-head circles but could not use this to further his own career as a racing driver. So what we have is a story about a modern celebrity who remained anonymous.

As you’d expect, much of this book consists of behind-the-scenes views of various memorable Top Gear stunts (car football, bus racing, training celebs to drive the reasonably-priced car, etc) which give the reader a glimpse of the professionalism of those involved in the making of the show – rather like Richard Hammond’s book As You Do. However, the best parts are when Collins leaves the white suit behind and goes back to his day job and various extra-curricular activities. Thus, for me the stand-out chapters are the one about competing at the Le Mans 24 Hours (which bears comparison with the Le Mans chapter in Martin Brundle’s excellent Working the Wheel), the GT crash in Romania and training in the Brecon Beacons with the Territorial Army – who, rather innovatively, sponsored him in the ASCAR series. Blokey stuff, of course, but I liked it. A lot. 



At eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, I was cycling to Alexandra Palace. So, it seemed, were a lot of other people. I, and several thousand others, had signed up to take part in London Nightrider 2013, a nocturnal 100-kilometre (or, if you prefer, just over 62 mile) bike ride through London.

Allison’s main concern had been the prospect of my getting hit by a bus. After registering and spending over five minutes pinning my number to my free high-vis tabard, I got chatting with one of my fellow-participants, a girl whose bike was equipped with a soft-toy sheep and more lights than a Christmas tree. She also had a digital speedometer attached to the one part of her handlebars that didn’t have a light fitted to it; for measuring speed and distance travelled, I preferred to rely on a recently-downloaded app on my BlackBerry which worked out where I was using GPS. Classy.

We discussed how we’d prepared for Nightrider, and how we felt now we were at the start.
“When I got off the train at Euston, I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this,” she said.
“I’ve come down from Kidderminster for this.”
I decided not to mention the fact that one of the reasons I’d chosen this particular bike ride was because the start-and-finish point was an easy fifteen-minute ride from where I live.

I’d signed up for Nightrider because I wanted to do a long-distance cycling event and did not want to do the London-Brighton ride (my reasons were twofold; firstly, I didn’t fancy my chances on Ditchling Beacon, and secondly, I didn’t want to have to deal with the logistical problem of getting my bike back to London on the train at the same time as thousands of other people). I’d be doing this for charity – specifically, the Marie Curie Cancer Trust.

Rudimentary bike maintenance aside, my preparation had consisted of a series of rides of gradually increasing distance in the evenings after work, cumulating in an 11-mile route the day before. Now, I’d have to do a little bit more than that just to get to the first rest-stop, and then repeat the procedure four times in order to finish.

At 11:25, we and a couple of hundred other cyclists made our way to the start line. Hitting a bus? I was more worried about hitting another cyclist. The road down from Ally Pally was full of people apologising as they inadvertently cut each other up and came within inches of ensuring that at least three bikes hit the deck. Amazingly, we all emerged unscathed.

Straightaway, our peloton hit a hill. Specifically, it was a narrow residential street leading to Highgate Station, from which we took another hill up to Highgate Village. This, as those of us who’d read the blurb about the route could say, was the steepest climb of the ride. Not that that was any consolation to us at the time. But at least it broke up the peloton and meant that I didn’t have to worry about knocking anyone over.

From thereon, we rode up to Whitestone Pond above Hampstead (the highest point in Greater London), and then down into Central London. Landmarks came thick and fast – Lord’s, the American Embassy, the Ritz, Piccadilly Circus, Canada House, the Embankment – as we rode through Westminster to the River, and then across to our first break-stop at the Imperial War Museum.

A coffee and a Mars bar later, I was back across the River, riding as fast as I could down Whitehall and then though a maze of Pimlico back-streets before heading south again, past the MI6 building and the Oval and in the general direction of Crystal Palace. On this section a group of us were harassed by a lairy idiot in a bright-orange Lamborghini who shouted abuse, revved his engine, sped off and then drove around the block so he could have another go. Discussing him at a later break-stop, one fellow-cyclist said he wished he’d brought his warrant card with him! Pedestrians, passengers in taxis and other drivers shouted nothing but encouragement, I am pleased to report.

The second stop was Crystal Palace Park, located just below the giant TV mast; you can see it from Ally Pally on a clear day, on the horizon. Lambo Man aside, the second leg of the ride was OK until the steep climb at the end. Some people got off and walked this part, but I soldiered on at a snail’s pace. A natural hill-climber I am not.

At the break-stop, people collapsed from their bikes and dragged themselves to the very long queue for tea, coffee and a free snack. It was 2:45am. I’d been cycling for about 40km, and had another 60 to go. The app that was measuring my speed told me that I had in fact travelled 43km in 175 minutes. However, it had almost killed the battery on my phone so I had to switch the thing off to save what little electricity I had left.

It was a steep downhill from Crystal Palace, but this was followed by a series of up-and-down stretches. The down parts were OK but the up parts almost killed me. I don’t go south of the River much and I had no idea there were so many hills!

Dawn came on the stretch between Blackheath and Greenwich. The route, now mercifully flat, passed through Bermondsey and came to a temporary halt by City Hall, the site of the third break-stop. In the grey dawn, people downed Tunnock’s Caramel bars (which were given away free at this point) before saddling up and riding across Tower Bridge.

There followed a section though the City before a detour through the Docklands which took us onto the only cobbled part of the route. I was running on autopilot by now, and didn’t really care who whizzed past me, and on a cold Sunday morning I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the scenery – I just got my head down and cycled.

At 6:40am, Mile End was the last stop. The barrista van ran out of paper cups. Someone said that it was just 10 miles to the end, which didn’t make sense to my sleep-deprived mind (by my reckoning, it was longer than that) but I was happy to go along with that.

On the last leg, the big landmark for me was passing from the E postcode area to N. Almost home.

A quick downhill petered out to a steady climb through a series of back streets. I passed a sign to Alexandra Palace and knew I couldn’t be too far away. But surely I’d be able to see it? It is, after all, located on the top of a hill. In my mind I pictured it being clearly visible, and several hundred feet up. But then, to my left through the trees, I spotted the TV tower that stands on top of it. End in sight! But there was one last hill to manage. It – the road from Alexandra Palace Station to Ally Pally itself – was a tough one, at least for people who’d been cycling all night. Someone ahead of me got off and started to walk up with his bike. Sod that, I thought – I’d come this far and hadn’t walked once, and I wasn’t going to start on the last half-mile.

I finished at just after 8am. Factoring in rest stops, I reckoned I had rode 100km in just over 7 hours – which translates into an average speed of just over 8½ mph. Feeling knackered but nevertheless pleased with myself for having completed the ride and thus raised over £200 for a good cause, I collected my medal and joined the queue for the bacon rolls.