I finally, reluctantly watched ‘War on Britain’s Roads’, which is a documentary recently aired on BBC 1. I had heard about the documentary some months ago, having been contacted by a researcher acting for the makers. He told me that they were making a film about the conflict on Britain’s roads, and the role that video footage was playing in it, and were interviewing protaganists in some of the more notorious incidents.
I realised before he went on what was coming next. No, I wasn’t willing to help the film-makers identify the riders in ‘London Calling’, Lucas Brunelle’s now notorious film. Not in a million years. The researcher tried to persuade me that the footage and interviews would be a valuable contribution to a balanced view of the problems on Britain’s roads. I snorted.
When he told me that Cynthia Barlow was participating, my heart sunk, and I told him that I would die of shame if ‘London Calling’ was shown as part of a programme featuring Cynthia. Well, despite my best efforts, the footage was shown, and although I haven’t died, I do feel absolutely mortified.
I have been proud of the messenger community for its part in helping, in some small way, to repopularise cycling, by showing that it is a practical, economical alternative to motor transport. I also like to think that bicycle messengers have had some impact in other, less tangible ways on cycle culture. I was also proud of having helped to highlight the danger of lorries, when I was chair of the London Bicycle Messenger Association.
Now I feel sick that our actions in ‘London Calling’ have been used to undermine the cycling community, and the work of good people like Cynthia Barlow on national television.
And the worst part is that I knew this day was coming. I feared it, and did as much as I could to prevent it. I made it pretty clear in this post ‘The Revolutions Will Not Be Televised’ why I thought it was a really bad idea to allow any film-maker near an alleycat.
But once Lucas posted ‘London Calling’ on You Tube, it was only a matter of time before it was picked up by someone, somewhere.
There’s been a lot of talk about the footage, which features some pretty stupid riding by some people I know really well. The race that features in it was called ‘Lost In The Crowd’, and Walshy, who organised, wrote a report of how the race came to be on Moving Target. If you read the report, you will notice two things: first, Lucas put up £300 cash prizes; second, he had a very clear idea of what footage he wanted from the race.
In his report, Walshy says:
Brendt Barbur called me a few days later and explained that his friend Lucas Brunelle had a few guidelines for the race. A basic set of criteria was established in the hope of maximising the transfer of excitement, and dare I say danger, from real life onto the big screen.
further on he also says:
We selected lots of short checkpoints so that there would only be one ideal route between them and maybe 1 or 2 alternatives. We were hoping that the riders would bunch up for most of the race so that Lucas could tailgate large numbers kinda like the ‘Running of the Bulls’ where Lucas represents the bull and everyone else represents the heartless and inhumane crowd. Ideally, by the end of the race, every rider would have ridden exactly the same route and Lucas would have sat behind, and among, the main pack catching all the action.
In other words, the idea was to create a race with maximum chaos on the road, and that this was what Lucas was looking for. To encourage the riders to go as fast as possible, and take as many risks as possible, Lucas also had put up £300 in cash prizes. At the time, the first prize of £125 would be equivalent to nearly half a week’s wages for most couriers (average earnings have shrunk considerably, and this would now be more than half a week’s wages for most London cycle couriers).
Previously, I have deliberately avoided criticising Lucas Brunelle directly, because there seemed little point in starting a fight over something I couldn’t change. It was pretty clear to me early on in his career as ‘film-maker’ that he seemed intent on building a reputation as a ‘bad-ass’ who could hang with the ‘craziest bike racers in the world’, and was unlikely to listen to anything I had to say, or read anything I might write.
I was confirmed in this view when I saw ‘Line of Sight’ (it’s on You Tube, and you can find it yourselves – I’m not going to link it) at the cinema. After an interminable opening 10 minutes of ‘race footage’, the film cuts to a panaromic view of New York’s skyline, and then Lucas appears in the fore-ground (hence my ironic titling of him as the ‘the King of New York’), and then he gives an entirely fatuous monologue on alleycat racing, intercut with more race footage. It’s notable that Lucas’ choice of sound-track for his movies is similar to the choice of Leopard Films for ‘War On Britain Roads’ – wailing guitars, thrashing drums and portentous, thumping bass.
Peter Walker, of the Guardian, tweeted last night that:
Blog doesn’t even point out the footage is six years old, or that cameraman is not ‘involved in race’ but professionally filming it
Peter, you don’t know the half of it. Lucas is not a professional film-maker. He runs, according to this Bicycle Magazine interview, an IT company. This allows him to fund his hobby of going around the world to participate in, and film, alleycats. I have no idea whether he manipulates all or any of the other races he films in the way that he manipulated ‘Lost In The Crowd’, by determining course routing, and putting up cash prizes to encourage increased participation. By the way, in the Bicycling interview, Lucas is quoted thus: I love cars. Fuck bike advocacy. There’s no way of telling whether Lucas is being serious, but it fits with the whole ‘fuck you, I’m not going to do what you tell me’ attitude.
In no way could his film-making be described as ‘professional’. The double head-cam set-up is well-designed, the images are pretty high quality, but that’s the extent of his craft – that, and his ability to ride a bike as quickly as some of ‘craziest bike racers in the world’. The films that he produces have little artistic merit, in my opinion. Once you get beyond what’s happening on the screen, they are boring, and way, way too long. The novelty of watching people make ill-advised manouevres wears off pretty quickly. I always come away from the films thinking: what a bunch of idiots, and what a waste of my time.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of the wisdom or otherwise of alleycats here; I put down my thoughts in a blog post on Moving Target, after the death of a participant in the Da Tour de Chicago.
However, I will say this: many people (indeed some of the cyclists watching the ‘London Calling’ footage for the BBC programme) say that the riders shown in Lucas’ film are demonstrating ‘skill’. I disagree. There is no skill in cutting through a junction and hoping that the cars crossing your path, who have right of way, will stop for you – it’s just rude, stupid and dangerous. Skilful riding in traffic is cutting through the flow without making waves, not barging to the front of queue, forcing other people to get out of your way. As for the incidents involving pedestrians, really, truly shameful. Criminal, as the police officer says in his comments in the programme.
Charlie Lloyd, on behalf of the London Cycling Campaign, put out a press release in which he described the racers as ‘professionals’. Charlie was being very, very charitable. A lot of the guys in that race were couriers, so their profession was using a bike to deliver parcels – they were not professional racers. If they were that good at racing bikes, they would have gone on to win real races.
The numbers of professional road racers who were couriers is very small. I only know of one of note, and that is the legendary New Yorker, Nelson Vails. Maurice Burton was a London courier, but only after his racing career had ended. Ray Eden, who was a London bicycle courier, and then went on to race, was probably good enough to race with the pros, and if he had been part of the current British Cycling programme, I think he would have done. These guys are the exception, not the rule.
I heard from other people that the film-makers had contacted, people that had been in the race. They had all refused to participate. The film-makers were persistent. I know for a fact that a couple of were contacted multiple times, and one was offered £500 to participate. I spoke to the guy who was offered the money, which was tempting to him, because, like Lucas’ £125 prize, it was a lot of money for someone in a low-paid, dangerous job. I told him that it would only be worth doing if he received enough money to be able to leave the country and not come back.
I am proud that no-one participated. However, I am genuinely ashamed that the London messenger community has, however inadvertently, brought shame on itself in this way. I had nothing to do with the race, did not ride in it, but please accept my apology.
When I spoke to the film-makers, I explained the context, as I have outlined above, in which the film was made. They told me that Lucas had been contacted and had consented to let his footage be used. This made me angry. I suggested to the researcher that the person they should be putting in front of the camera was Lucas, so that he could explain why he organised that race, and what role his camera played.
He created the race, he encouraged the riders to go as fast they could, and he filmed it. Why?
In the original version of this article I stated that the first prize was £300. This was incorrect. The total prize fund was £300, with the first prize being £125.