BMX bandits: The joy of Grand Theft Auto 5's bikes
One of the simplest rewards in GTA 5 is the clicking of a free-wheeling BMX as you glide down a giant hill. It may have (once upon a time) cost me actual health to get to the top of it, but mounting the summit and beginning that leisurely cruise to the bottom is a blissful thing.
Away from police sirens, gunshots and NPC screams, a simple bike ride in the country feels like a holiday away from GTA's nasty downtown chaos. The sound of whirring gears and thin tyres on tarmac are soft and unobtrusive, the countryside's ambience coming to the fore as it's set free from the in-game radio and engine exhaust notes. Cycling to the ridge of a mountain at sunset is probably GTA 5 at its most beautiful and serene; a virtual being in a virtual world, happy to be soaking it in rather than having to do all those awful crimes.
I did a fair amount of leisure cycling in GTA 5's story mode, partly as relief from the sheer psychological impact of the characters' downright awfulness. That, and the simple fact that the great outdoors is a fabulous place to explore by bike. There's a multitude of downhill runs to find, marked or otherwise. In these cartoonish descents, the pace is always exhilarating and the leniency GTA 5 gives you is often brilliantly comedic.
Cycling actually turned out to be the most fun way to max out stamina stats for all three of the leads. But even when Trev, Mike and Frank were fit as fiddles, cycling was still my choice for leisure. Who wants to spend money on an embarrassing lapdance when you can ride carefree through a forest, hopping off boulders and outcrops? For the thrill-seeker, there's bunny-hopping over oncoming traffic on the freeway, a grand GTA tradition from San Andreas, and who can really resist the temptation to fly off the nose of a sand-sculpted shark?
"Who wants to spend money on an embarrassing lapdance when you can ride carefree through a forest, hopping off boulders and outcrops?"
In GTA Online, the simplest changes make everything brilliant. Bikes count as personal vehicles, so become truly immortal. As with San Andreas, the bikes suffer no damage, even if a tank rolls over them. However in story mode, having easy access to a bike was a case of riding it home every time or buying endless replacements. For Online, bikes dutifully return to your garage when discarded.
The BMX is the best. Only the mountain bike and the BMX can bunny-hop, but the BMX is a touch more nimble with it and gets more air. You can do a surprising amount of tricks, and string them together with equally surprising fluidity. It's hard to describe the joy of cycling out into the country to go exploring with a pal, but it's easy to describe what it's like to pull off a dual-bike store robbery as BMX bandits: you can even pedal right up to the counter. On my first attempt, I smashed the door on the way in, making quite the entrance. I then rode up to the store clerk, let off a single shot and he was filling the till in no time. You have to hop off the bike to collect the loot and a smashed door can make some horrific BMX flypaper, but when you've got the routine sorted, it's pro as hell. Especially if you ride off while flipping the bird.
Escape, provided you're not outrunning a cop car in a straight line, is remarkably easy. The BMX is perfect for hopping into skips or darting into narrow passages too tight for cars. You'd be surprised how many sneaky escape routes there are, and how many are made possible with a few bunny-hops and some serious bravado. In the country, you can always head for the hills when the police turn up. This takes a bit more effort on a BMX than a motorbike, but you don't have to worry about pranging your steed on the way. And, of course, the effort in manually pumping the pedals always adds some extra sense of relief and achievement when the stars finally blink out.
Then there are the skate parks and their abundant photo opportunities. There are YouTube tutorials on GTA 5's repertoire of BMX tricks, but my goal is always to nail a clean 360 somersault. It's a peach to land it plausibly, and prompts a microscopic tear in my eye every time. Mostly because there are no Tony Hawk trick titles flashing up in the left corner. We can only hope a bit of recognition and a combo counter will wind its way into a GTA Online update (along with allowing bikes to change colour and be insured).
We can all become digital Danny MacAskills in GTA Online, and I dream of the day when our entire crew can turn Los Santos into our personal bike stunt arena, rolling 16 deep along the beach. I also dream of being able to have bike racks on cars and driving four of us up to Mount Chiliad to hammer the trails while photographing wildlife. I'll stop short of collecting plants - I've done enough of that in Skyrim to last me a lifetime. However, as the greatest marriage of man and machine in an open-world videogame, GTA 5's bikes will keep me happy forever.