‘I want to ride my bicycle…’

It was never really possible for Malta to retain all that ‘childhood innocence’, was it? Not when we were also transforming the island into a prosperous, cosmopolitan (and densely populated) ‘metropolis-nation’, boasting one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe

Queen’s iconic song “Bicycle Race” was written and recited by Freddie Mercury, who was inspired after perusing the Tour de France outside of a hotel room he was renting
Queen’s iconic song “Bicycle Race” was written and recited by Freddie Mercury, who was inspired after perusing the Tour de France outside of a hotel room he was renting

Freddie Mercury. Just in case there was any misunderstanding: it was Freddie Mercury – not me – who ‘wanted to ride his bicycle’, back in 1978.

And he made damn sure everybody in the entire Universe got to know about it, too. In fact, you couldn’t even turn on a radio, in the late 1970s, without hearing…

Actually, wait: there were plenty of other songs you just ‘couldn’t get away from’, at the time. ‘You Picked A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille’, by Kenny Rogers. ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me’, by the Brotherhood of Man; ‘We Had Joy, We Had Fun, We Had Seasons in the Sun’, by Terry Jacks; and, of course, the most hopelessly unavoidable of the lot: ‘Pretty much anything at all’, by Cliff Richards.

But somewhere in this eclectic mix of (let’s face it: gloriously kitsch) 1970s pop-memorabilia, a rather recognisable male voice would occasionally blare out:

“Bicycle! BICYCLE!!

I Want To Ride My…


And… I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that note of urgency, in Freddie Mercury’s voice, that only seems to grow more frantic with each repetition (until it almost assumes the proportions of a full-scale panic attack…)

Or maybe it’s because – to my own ears, at seven years of age – I just thought it was hilarious that an adult would even be singing about ‘bicycles’ at all (and on the radio, too!)

But whatever it was: I fell in love with Queen’s hit single ‘Bicycle Race’, right on my very first hearing… so much so, that I can even distinctly remember where that took place.

It was at my grandmother’s house on Victoria Avenue, Sliema. She was seated at the kitchen table, peeling broad-beans; I was at the same table (being on official ‘help-Nanna-peel-the-broad-beans’ instructions, from my mother). Obviously, I have no idea where Freddie Mercury himself was, at the time… but the radio we both heard his voice on? That was sitting in its usual corner, by the fridge.

And sure enough, out came the initial blast of…

‘Bicycle! BICYCLE!’…

.. to which we both listened in silence, until around half-way through the first verse: ‘I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike. I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I… LI-I-I-IKE!’

Whereupon Nanna Hilda – without even looking up from the broad-bean she was meticulously dissecting, at the time – suddenly muttered (words to the effect of): “Well, off you go, then! Ride your bicycle! See if I care… and besides: what’s even stopping you, anyway…?”

Tell you the truth: not only do I remember that scene with perfect clarity, 43 years later; but I still occasionally chuckle about it, to this day. For while we were sitting there, in my grandmother’s kitchen, listening to Freddie Mercury in the late 1970s… the rest of the world was listening, too.

And where the rest of the world was instantly captivated by the astonishing range (and tonality, and depth, and versatility, etc.) of his unique, extraordinary voice – to the extent that Freddie Mercury still routinely tops all the ’Greatest Male Vocalists Of All Time’ charts, PERIOD!

Never mind all that: because to my grandmother – bless her soul – he was still nothing but a ‘spoilt, little whiny brat, who needed to be firmly put in his place’. (And no amount of ‘fame, fortune, or glitzy Grammy Awards’ is ever going to change that in the slightest: do you hear?)

Yes, indeed. Rock on, Nanna Hilda! For if I say so myself: her reaction to Queen’s 1978 classic ‘Bicycle Race’, was actually an embodiment of the spirit of rock’n’roll itself (as immortalized by Jack Black, in ‘School of Rock’).

She ‘stuck it to the Man’!

But of course… one childhood memory inevitably recalls another: and I also happen to remember what the streets of Sliema – and the rest of Malta – were actually like, back in 1978. Not only could children ‘ride their bicycles’ in all-but guaranteed safety, pretty much anywhere they… ‘LI-I-I-IKED!’; but we also used to hold entire football tournaments in the streets, as children (using the space between parked cars as the ‘goal’).

And while my Nanna Hilda was not exactly the type to be swayed by any ‘international critical consensus’ on the subject of contemporary pop music… she certainly did care – a very great deal, in fact – about the health and safety of children (yes: even ‘spoilt whiny’ ones, like Freddie).

So even if her reaction to the song itself would not be any different, today… I somehow doubt she would now add that ‘What’s even stopping you?’ part. (Or even, for that matter, that she would have advised Freddie Mercury to ‘ride his bicycle’ at all: under any circumstance whatsoever.)

‘Le, le, ma tarax? Far too dangerous, with all these cars on the roads...’

So like all other sensible Maltese ‘nannas’, I reckon she would have simply invited him to sit at her kitchen table… and assist her in the peeling of broad-beans. (You know: just to keep him out of mischief; and – more importantly – out of harm’s way…)

Now: at this stage I have to admit that there is more than a hint of childhood nostalgia, in all that. And of course, it is altogether too easy to compare today’s Malta, with that of 40 years ago… and conclude that – for all the improvement in our standard of living, in the meantime – we have clearly lost something precious (including our peace of mind) in the transaction.

At the same time, however: it was never really possible for Malta to retain all that ‘childhood innocence’, was it? Not when we were also transforming the island into a prosperous, cosmopolitan (and densely populated) ‘metropolis-nation’, boasting one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.

It wasn’t even all that long ago, in fact, that the ‘number of cars-per-household’ was cited by governments as a ‘statistical indicator of Malta’s economic well-being’. (In other words: we were being encouraged to ‘buy more cars than we actually needed’… just to demonstrate, to the rest of the world, that we had the purchasing power to actually do it).

But still. Even without any fond childhood memories, to heighten the nostalgic effect… I almost struggle to believe that, over the past 43 years, the result of all that national investment in traffic infrastructure – all those studies, and EU-funded projects, and public consultation exercises, etc – has been… THIS.

A country where the motorized vehicle has been prioritised so very much, at the expense of both cyclist AND pedestrian… that we now being encouraged to ‘drive our cars’, simply because it’s become too goddamn DANGEROUS (and/or IMPOSSIBLE) to get around in any other way.

Because that is, effectively, what Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia has just told us, to our faces. There is, he said, “Nothing more than can be done,” to accommodate bicycles on our roads.

“Our roads are not highways, therefore, either we accommodate the bicycle in the small space that we have or we don’t accommodate it,” he told the Malta Independent. “Until today our aim has been to make sure that our roads are safe, to keep our cars moving at pace and then when we can accommodate bicycles, we will also do this.”

Now: leaving aside that – if his intention really was to ‘make sure that our roads are safe’… well, it’s been a bit of a ‘car-crash’ already, hasn’t it? An NSO report, published today, has just revealed that: “The number of traffic accidents has increased by almost a fifth from last year’; and that “Some 455 people were injured in the incidents, with 98 grievously injured, including 67 drivers, 13 passengers and 18 pedestrians and cyclists…” 

To be fair, however: Farrugia has only been ‘in the driver’s seat’ himself since last May. But this only brings me to a much more glaring problem: before that, the same Aaron Farrugia was Environment Minister; and in that capacity, he had given us a somewhat different picture of his government’s overall ‘aim’, with regard to ‘accommodating bicycles’.

In 2021, for instance, he had launched the ‘Bikeability’ programme: a State-sponsored, free course to teach people how to ride bicycles, so that – in his own words – “they can collectively start using cleaner means of transportation. The bicycle is one of the most efficient means of transportation and cycling in itself reduces traveling times, while it decreases the number of cars in the streets. This will benefit our environment, lowering emissions and helping in mitigating the effects of climate change…”

Yet what is he telling us today: now that he himself is the minister responsible for traffic infrastructure in Malta? What is his own answer to Freddie Mercury’s increasingly-frantic plea that… ‘Damn it! I just want to ride my flipping bicycle, that’s all!’

So far, it seems to be: “Sorry, Freddie, but… you can’t. Because we, the people who designed Malta’s traffic system, don’t actually give a toss about cyclists, you know. Nor pedestrians, either. Nor even the rest of the entire population (much of which is developing respiratory conditions such as asthma, as a result of air pollution caused chiefly by… CARS.)

“Get it now, Freddie? CARS; not people. We only care about CARS. Nice, shiny, noisy, polluting, and potentially lethal… CARS. So be a good little boy, now; get into your CAR, and… well, just DRIVE OFF, will you?”

And the more I think about it, the more I realise… so THAT’s where Freddie Mercury got the inspiration, for his next hit single after ‘Bicycle Race’:

‘Another one bites the dust…’