Like you, I have several bikes. I have a black one, a blue one and sort of red one on which the worst of the scratches are covered in mud. I try not to wash the mud off for that reason.
I had several bikes when I lived in Belgium, too. That was the end of the 1970s and this little country beside the North Sea still insisted cyclists pay an annual tax. In return for what I remember as 600 francs, the cost of a week of morning papers, the local council gave you a coloured metal plate. It was shaped like the side of a house. There was a hole at the top of the pitched roof intended to take the bolt with which, in a manner not specified, you were intended to fix this thing to your bike.
I mention all this for the benefit of voters in the American states of New York and New Jersey, who may care to point it out to their legislators. For there, you’ll have read, the powers want cyclists to carry numbers so that irritated drivers can report them.
I’m afraid it wasn’t because this licence plate couldn’t fixed to racing bikes that I and thousands of others had just the one, instead of one for each bike. Dishonesty came into it as well. Not to mention subversion of a constitutional monarchy.
We bought just the one plate and stuck it into the spokes of whichever bike we were riding. You can still see them on pictures from the period. Even Eddy Merckx had one on his training bike, although he and other racers were excused when they were in competition.
I lived in a village called Kalmthout, north of Antwerp. It was only a small place and I knew the policemen there. I was riding to work one morning when I spotted a couple and sat up to wave. They shouted for me to put both hands back on the bars. And because they were in a bad mood, they then drove past me to wag a finger. In the process of which they noticed I didn’t have a licence plate. I’d probably changed bike or swapped wheels.
I was to report to the police station, they said. This was a grave crime. Not so grave that I couldn’t go to work first, of course, but serious enough that it had to be done that day. Which gave me time to get home, change the plate from one bike to the other and say that it “must have fallen out when I moved the bike.”
The policeman looked doubtful but couldn’t disprove it and registered this frustrating non-offence in his Big Book.
It is worth considering what all this cost. The licence plate was the price of half a dozen papers. To get it, I had to complete a duplicated form at the town hall and hand one part and my money to a clerk who was being paid to receive it and file it. Someone had to make the plate – a different one every year, remember – and its number had to be logged against my name. If I lost it, someone had to find the form to find its number and check I was telling the truth. Then I’d get another plate, now with a different number which would haveto be recorded all over again.
I don’t suppose I had interrupted the police in investigating a serious crime but they, too, had to be paid. Some of that salary had been spent on their noting that they had stopped me and in filling more forms at the police station to say I was expected. Then again to register that I was innocent. Doubtless in Brussels a statistician counted how many cyclists had been cautioned or prosecuted for not obeying the law. He wrote reports that other people were paid to read.
It’s not surprising that Belgium realised it wasn’t worth it. The plates were abandoned and, so far as I know, not a country in Europe still has them. When they’re suggested, as they often are, it’s not hard to show the pointless expense.
Insisting on a licence plate doesn’t stop the dishonest, no more than it stopped me. Insisting cars have them doesn’t prevent getaway drivers from fitting false ones. If the price is reasonable, something that represents the cost of repairing the roads that cyclists wear out, the sum isn’t worth collecting. Impose a price worth the cost of getting it and people won’t pay. Just as I didn’t.
Of course, irony could also be applied. I recommend that the cyclists of New York and New Jersey engage lobbyists to press for pedestrians to have large numbers sewn to their clothes. Including, of course, the busybodies who now concern themselves with cyclists. The way these people just walk about the place and cross the roads as though they owned them… they ought to be stopped, they really should.