What happens when a comedian hops on a bike?

By Suzanne McFadden

They’re a passionate bunch, cyclists. None more so than producer and comedian Jon Bridges, who’s even written a book about cycling. Suzanne McFadden meets him to get the wheel story.

'If I could, all my work would be around cycling,' says the TV presenter and comedian Bridges. Photo / Richard Robinson
'If I could, all my work would be around cycling,' says the TV presenter and comedian Bridges. Photo / Richard Robinson

Meet Fred. I've seen him before, riding the streets of Auckland; you've probably spotted him too. But Jon Bridges introduces me anyway.

He's the guy with the $8000 carbon fibre bike with the latest gleaming derailleurs and cranksets, kitted out in a Tour de France pro team jersey with matching Lycra shorts above a pair of hairless, oiled legs. Trains like he thinks he's Lance Armstrong - before the drugs bust - and is deadly serious about finishing fifth in the Counties Manukau C grade winter series.

Bridges knows Fred well; in fact "I am a Fred, definitely. I am Uber Fred," he confesses.

Say it isn't so, Jon. You've got furry legs, for one thing. And you finished in the top 10 at this year's club national championships, on a flash road bike that you didn't even pay for. Avanti sponsors you with a new bike every couple of years because you are Jon Bridges, television presenter and producer - covering the Tour of Southland and the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge - not because you're a Fred.

But then, you do have all the gears, don't you? You like wearing your vintage French woollen cycling jerseys when you're not on two wheels. And you have four bikes hanging from the ceiling in the "bike room" of your Edwardian villa - including the $5000 replica of the Italian machine that won the 1982 world road cycling championships. It has never been ridden, and probably never will be.

Okay, Uber Fred it is, then.

Americans coined the moniker Fred for the try-hard cyclist who "dresses like Armstrong but rides like your brother". They are, however, not to be confused with the other "Freds" Bridges knows well - fellow comedians like Dai Henwood, Ben Hurley, Jesse Griffin and Rhys Darby, who've won the annual Fred Award, celebrating outstanding achievements in Kiwi comedy. Those guys are rewarded with a golden gumboot, not a yellow jersey.

The cycling Freds aren't bad blokes, Bridges assures me. "They spend all the money and keep the cycling world going. I love the Freds of the world," he says.

And Bridges is definitely a good, and funny, bloke with his cycling heart in the right place. Between riding 300km a week, building a house, telling fibs on Would I Lie To You? and producing thriving satire show 7 Days, he wrote a book to save future bike riders from becoming the butt of everyone's Fred jokes. Well, actually, it's a book aimed at getting more bums on bike saddles, and ultimately build up a stronger cycling culture on our roads so bike riders and motorists get along better.

"More people would like to ride bikes than are actually riding," Bridges says. "But they perceive it as being difficult. That comes from a whole lot of reasons, but there shouldn't be any. That's why the first word of the book is 'Easy'," as in Easy Rider - A Kiwi's Guide To Cycling.

The book is peppered with anecdotes and advice from cyclists - from Tour de France riders to biking newbies and comedians - some who wouldn't know a fork from a bottom bracket - after Bridges asked his friends on Facebook to contribute.

"I treat each driver as if they are the worst driver on the road."

- New Zealand representative cyclist Karl Murray.

Traffic seems to be the main sticking point with hesitant pedallers and, on Auckland's inflamed roads, who can blame them? But Bridges, a rider of bikes for nearly four decades, reckons it's all about the three V's - being visible, vigilant and verbal.

Sage words from a man who's never been knocked off his bike. "And I'm not afraid to say that, I'm not tempting fate. I look after myself." Riding to and from work in Eden Terrace, he wears a dazzling white helmet and reflectors to be seen. He often rides in the middle of the road lane, "not skulking in the gutter", so drivers accept him as a unit of traffic. And he always lets drivers know when they've done right, or wrong.

Has he ever felt scared on the roads? "Yeah, a couple of times. When someone has been behaving erratically in the car, you have that fear that they might stop and beat you up. But you could meet that arsehole at the movies and feel threatened too," he says.

Sharing the road, there's got to be good communication: "It's nice to smile and wave to each other. But I'm also a big advocate of letting people know when they have done something wrong. I'll wave out to say 'I'm here' or yell out 'helloooo' when someone parks in the bike lane or pulls out in front of me.

"I try not to get too angry. But I am human and I do give people the fingers." These days he's thinking twice about gesticulating, aware he has to be a role model, specially now he's on the cover of a book.

"If you run red lights, it's your funeral. One day you will get caught out."

- Chris O'Connor, BikeNZ head mechanic.

Bridges has stopped running red lights. "It used to be my favourite thing when I was a uni student [he has a Masters of English Literature from Massey University]. If it was safe, I'd go through. I don't do that anymore; for a start it's illegal, and it also stirs up a lot of resentment and disappointment from drivers."

His philosophy on the cyclist versus motorist face-off is that the more bikes there are on our roads, the better drivers will become in accepting them.

"Maybe some of the old idiots in cars will have to die of old age before things really change; the ones who generally feel like there's no place for cyclists on the roads," Bridges says.

"The attitude of riders has to change too - from riding like kids to taking ownership of their space on the road; taking some responsibility for themselves. This is not some kind of war."

No, the real skirmish - at least for cyclists who want to extend themselves beyond a daily commute - is often at home. Bridges has even dedicated a section to it in the book, calling it "how to manage your time and not get divorced".

As a former cycling widow, I tell Bridges that I feel for Gemma, his wife of two years. The weekend rides that swallow up entire mornings and the month's-worth of wages spent on a set of carbon tubular wheels have been cited as grounds for separation in the past.

"There are some complex negotiations for riders and their partners," Bridges admits. "It's under continuous negotiation in our marriage. There have been tears.

"But it's a matter of talking, listening carefully, not being too selfish; thinking what the other person does on their own for three hours on a Saturday morning ... okay, four hours. Cycling can't come first. If we have something else on, I don't argue about it, I just ride the next day."

On weekdays he gets up at 6am to train while Gemma, a furniture designer and obviously very understanding woman, is asleep. The contract may need to be reviewed. "Hopefully we will have kids soon. Then I'll probably start getting fat," Bridges concedes, without a hint of comedy.

"Training is like fighting a gorilla. You don't stop when you get tired, you stop when the gorilla gets tired."

- Tour de France rider Greg Henderson.

After an eight-year hiatus - just 60km a week turning the pedals to work and back - Bridges lunged back into serious cycling training this year. Motivated by writing the book, he also wanted to be part of the cycling community again. "It's also my mid-life crisis." He's 46.

Bridges got his first bike the day he turned seven - a shiny maroon Raleigh with white mudguards and grey plastic handlebar grips. He had been in New Zealand for three years then; his family left Indiana in the United States to be closer to his Kiwi mum's family.

"My dad is American - he met my mum at Canterbury University in 1964. He was on a Rotary scholarship there because he ticked Canterbury on the form, thinking it was in England," he says.

Bridges rode to school, and varsity - where he honed his comedic skills with Jeremy Corbett and Paul Horan (who produced the TV show Rove). In 2003, after six years co-presenting Ice TV, Bridges spent a northern summer riding 5500km on his touring bike through Europe's hottest summer on record.

Today he's wearing the vintage royal blue woollen cycling jersey he found in a second-hand market under a railway bridge in Paris. It's emblazoned with "Cycles Guiller" - a bike shop run by brothers in the French town of Fontenay-le-Comte in the 1920s.

"There were two walls covered in old cycling jerseys. I almost cried - my bike panniers [saddle bags] were already full, and I decided I could buy two. I bought three."

If it wasn't for Gemma, you'd imagine, he could have turned their Balmoral villa into a cycling shrine. As it is, the spare room has become "the bike room", where, with a clever piece of engineering involving pulleys and ropes, Bridges has bikes suspended from the ceiling. The piece de resistance is the Colnago Mexico - a metallic red frame identical to that ridden to world championship glory in 1982 by Italian Giuseppi Saronni, out-gunning Tour de France legend Greg LeMond. The bike became as famous as Saronni, although the Italian is making headlines again - in a doping investigation as manager of the Lampre professional team. But for Bridges, it's not about the man, it's about the bike.

Having worked for Pedal Pushers, a Palmerston North bike shop, as a kid, he could never afford the elite machines. Feeling nostalgic, he found the frame of his dreams in Holland on the internet, then purposely put it together without brakes, so that he couldn't ride it.

A special display space is being created in the house the Bridges are building on a hillside in Three Kings, with the help of Gemma's father, Wellington architect Roy Wilson.

Even his return to semi-serious racing this year hasn't budged the glorious bike from the ceiling. He rode his trusty Avanti Quantum Team racer at the national club championships in Napier in May, crossing the finish-line eighth in a bunch sprint for the men's 45-49 year grade.

"Being a cyclist is like being a puppet - at the end of the day you've got quite a sore arse."

- Paul Ego

"If I could, all my work would be around cycling," Bridges says. "But I'd probably try harder to make that happen if I wasn't working on the best show on television."

It's a couple of episodes after 7 Days' 100th show, and Bridges, who's been there since the birth, is confident it can survive another 100, easy. It was modelled on the British "granddaddy" of panel shows,

Have I Got News For You, that's still going strong after 375 episodes.

"If we do it right, we should have longevity like that," Bridges says. "There's new news every week, and there's new comedians coming through. The more comedians we get on the show, it gives them more reason to be comedians, which gives us more comedians to choose from. Rather than a vicious circle, it's a benevolent circle," he says.

The trouble is, the more decent wits he gets turning up on 7 Days, the fewer chances Bridges has to be one of them. "I get on 7 Days very occasionally now; only when someone pulls out and we're stuck. It's really got harder to put myself on there. I love it though."

He relished being back on screen as team captain in another panel comedy Would I Lie To You? this year, but hasn't heard whether it will return for another season.

Late on a Friday afternoon, we're in a cafe down the street from TV3's Flower St studios. Bridges has dashed out of the editing suite where the final touches are being made to the 7 Days show, recorded the night before.

"We try to finish editing by 8.30pm on Friday, but sometimes it's not even finished when the show goes to air at 9.30. We'll be finishing the second half of the show while the first half is on air. It's happened two or three times ... computer crashes."

Technology glitches can't cripple the 7 Days - Live roadshow. The 10 dates in 10 towns tour throughout the country next month features seven of the regular 7 Days crew, uncut and unpredictable.

Audience participation is encouraged: "Last year, one brilliant woman in Wellington got up on the stage and wanted to be part of it so badly. The comedians didn't know what had hit them; whether to be frightened or offer her a job," Bridges says.

"There's a lot of driving between cities. Comedians in a van..." he slowly shakes his head. "I don't think people realise what a competitive sport comedy is. If you're in a van for two hours, they will all be trying to see who's the funniest. That's extremely tiring for everyone.

Bridges isn't sure what lies ahead of him in 2013, other than a new house and another 7 Days season. "That's the trouble with being busy. In TV, it's always smart to think when the next bus is coming, for when you have to get off this one. But I'm on a nice bus now, and I don't want to get off."

A bus? Hey, I thought you were the guy on a bike?

Easy Rider: A Kiwi's Guide To Cycling (Penguin $40) is in stores now.

- NZ Herald

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