As you may be aware, this year’s Tour de France kicks off in Gallic Leeds. But before that there’s the small matter of the cycling calendar’s other big multiple stage bicycle race, Giro d’Italia, which next month gets underway in the balmy, Mediterranean conditions of Belfast.
The fact that this mighty UCI World Tour fixture begins in Northern Ireland has not escaped Holywood-born (“one ‘l’ of a town”), London-based actor Michael Smiley, who you might recognise from a string of parts in Ben Wheatley films (Kill List, A Field in England) and edgy Channel 4 dramas (Utopia, Black Mirror) but you probably know as Tyres, the Day-Glo courier with a short attention span and a penchant for repetitive beats in the seminal Nineties sitcom Spaced.
The Giro’s rare excursion to these isles has inspired Smiley to get on his bike and take a trip down memory lane — a return to his hometown and a jaunt through Northern Ireland to find out what’s been going down in the 30 years since he left. The resulting series of films, Something to Ride Home About for BBC Northern Ireland, proves to be one of iPlayer’s hidden gems.
Here, Smiley brings us up to speed with cycling, the show and his good self.
Before Spaced, Smiley was a courier and was himself the inspiration behind Tyres.
“Tyres sort of came about because we were all living together — Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and I. Simon and Jessica, was Stevenson now Hynes, had commissioned for this character for he series, Tyres, who was kinda based on me.”
He provided all his own clothes for the part.
“Because they [Spaced crew] didn’t know [what couriers wear] – it was a subculture that wasn’t really common. It was very much of the underground. So I didn’t really want someone dressing me who didn’t know what was going on. So I said: I’ll do all that, leave it to me. So I brought in my own gear.”
What his new show is about…
“Last year, I’d been away from Northern Ireland for 30 years so I’m going back to see what people have been up to since I’ve been away and incorporated that with my love for cycling – I rode some of my favourite routes in Northern Ireland and met some people on the way: little businesses, like linen looms; people who set up their own cycle routes and a women’s cycling club in South Omagh. It was everything that had happened despite the Troubles. We set up cameras on my handlebars and on the saddle bars and I did pieces to camera and monologues and talk about the scenery — and comedy bits.”
(Here’s a clip from the programme on how to change a tyre, the easy way.)
The bike is an important part of our history.
“The bicycle freed the peasant. In the late 1800s, there were hoards of people going down to the seaside and causing havoc like ancient mods because all of a sudden they could. They just threw their leg over a bike. It mobilised the village idiot.”
It was a means of self-improvement.
“How could the working class better themselves in this country? Through boxing and through football – sports, you know. In Europe, the big sport was cycling. You know the local heroes would take on the next village.”
The media got in on the act (and gave the Giro d’Italia its a pink jersey).
“Magazines and newspapers set up competitions to promote their publication. Hence the Tour de France — it was a yellow jersey because the newspaper was printed on yellow paper. How could you get punters to buy your newspaper when there was this sea of newspapers? You go for the yellow one. So that’s where the yellow jersey comes from. And the Gazzetta di Sport in Italy is pink. What’s the colour of the Giro? It’s pink.”
Cycling doesn’t just get you fit, it helps you get your brain in gear.
“When you get on a bicycle, the endorphins and serotonin it releases through your body makes things possible. You never get off a bicycle depressed. It’s life affirming, and if you’ve got an idea that you’re working on, you get on your bike and cycle around, it will form. You’ll get off the bike and go: here, there’s the idea.”
Bikes are also good for metaphors.
“For me, life is like a fixed wheel bike – you have to keep pedaling, you have to keep going forwards. You coast in life, the bike stops, you fall off.”
Something to Ride Home About is available on iPlayer