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Pedal power

Press follow David Cameron as he cycles in London

A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James

David Cameron may be fond of his bike but what will be its impact on his political credibility?

I'm glad I've had a whole week to consider the questions raised by an inspired tabloid sting that caught Conservative Leader David Cameron, on his way to work, cycling the wrong way up a one way street as well as ignoring at least one red light.

There is so much involved in this case that an instantaneous response would have been useless.

Personal morality versus official responsibility, credibility versus hypocrisy, physical fulfilment versus the duty to reduce carbon emissions: all these things were in play from the moment that the redtop reporter got on his bike and started trailing Mr Cameron in the direction of Westminster, with the impending-chase music from Bullitt playing ominously on the soundtrack.

For the reporter, it was no easy job. He had a video camera, so he had to ride one-handed. He had to follow Mr Cameron through a red light and along a one way street, going the wrong way.

Clive James
I don't even jaywalk, for fear of being knocked down by some politician cycling the wrong way

At any moment Mr Cameron might have stood on the pedals, calves globular, and streaked out of sight like a sprinter in the last hundred metres of the Tour de France.

The reporter also had to be careful not to get run over by the car that might be following Mr Cameron on these cycling expeditions because there is no provision on the leader of the opposition's bicycle for his briefcase, official boxes, sandwiches and, apparently, shoes.

Tory Central Office insists that no such car has followed the cycling Mr Cameron for some time now, but you never know when it might appear again.

I recognised the bit about the shoes. Though I myself am no longer a cyclist, at least once a week I walk all the way to my office from the railway station, cushioning my feet with an old pair of trainers.

Behind me, at a respectful distance, comes a vintage straight-8 Daimler shovelling the white smoke of burning oil as my driver, a retired Ghurka who was mistakenly allowed into the country by immigration officials under the impression that he was a terrorist, struggles with the slipping clutch. Beside him, on the front passenger seat, are my shoes.

I always suspected that there was something wrong with this picture and now that I've read all the documents pertaining to the Cameron cycling case I can finally see what it is.

From the viewpoint of credibility, one is vulnerable if one pretends to be a self-sufficient cyclist when there are actually two of one, the other being the driver at the wheel of the car carrying one's stuff.

But I can't think of any other rules I break as I walk to work. I don't even jaywalk, for fear of being knocked down by some high-echelon politician cycling the wrong way down the street after ignoring a red light.

It's the flagrant flouting of the rules of the road that has got Mr Cameron into trouble. His apologies have been touching, if not entirely convincing.

David Cameron
Cameron apologised for breaking the rules of the road on his bike

"I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry." Notice how he leaves the way open for the inference that there might have been countless other occasions on which he has not made mistakes.

Obviously he realises he has bared his flank to suggestions that his present behaviour on the road when in charge of a bicycle might throw doubts on his future behaviour in 10 Downing Street when in charge of the country.

Here, I think he and his advisors might take courage from historical precedent.

One of the things that made Queen Elizabeth I so great a ruler was that she regularly cycled to work. Her skill at riding a bicycle was kept a secret from her adoring public by the fact that her voluminous crinoline concealed the bicycle.

To the common people, she seemed to be skimming along the ground at remarkable speed with her hands in her pockets and almost no expenditure of effort, thereby enhancing her reputation for unearthly powers.

Cycling success

Another great bike rider was Louis XIV, who regularly cycled between romantic assignations with Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon.

At the peak of his cycling career he was able to get the time down to under ten minutes, so that either woman was able to convince herself that he had not been unduly detained by the other. His collection of bicycles was so extensive that he eventually built the Palace of Versailles to house them.

When Cardinal Mazarin borrowed one of the king's bicycles without permission, he would have incurred the monarch's wrath even if he had not crashed making a tight turn into the Tuileries, his cassock riddled with broken spokes.

Mr Cameron's advisors should also draw his attention to the evidence provided by the comparative failure of heads of state and prominent politicians who did not cycle to work.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Could a bike have brought Napoleon victory at Waterloo?

When it was suggested to Napoleon that he should ride a bicycle to the battle of Waterloo, he proudly refused, with disastrous results.

He travelled by heavy coach, turning up hot and bothered a crucial few minutes late to be faced with the spectacle of the Duke of Wellington already in position and fighting fit, the Duke having arrived at forty miles an hour on a Raleigh lightweight aluminium racing bicycle with a fully aerodynamic wheel-set and low spoke count.

In America, General Custer was proud of his seat on a horse but not at all pleased with his seat on a bicycle. He found it impossible to make a cross-cut swing of the sabre without slicing through the bicycle's front tyre.

So at the battle of the Little Big Horn he galloped rather than cycled into action, to be hopelessly outmanoeuvred by chief Sitting Bull and half the Sioux nation all mounted on imported Suzuki trail bikes.

But back to reality, in which, we presume, Mr Cameron might want to go on riding his bike despite the dangers.

There were no lycra shorts in those days, civilization not yet having come to an end

I know I did. Among the many dedicated bike riders at Sydney Technical High School none had a bike to match mine. It had all the kit.

It had the gear trigger positioned just under one of the brake handles so that I could change down in a flash when pounding my way up the hill on the far side of Kogarah Bay. It had the cheese-cutter saddle positioned high on its post so that I could steadily castrate myself while showing the maximum length of leg.

There were no lycra shorts in those days, civilization not yet having come to an end, but I rolled my ordinary shorts right up to give that bulging thigh effect that all true cyclists are convinced is so attractive, just as men whose heads rise from a purple lake of tattoos are convinced that their perfectly ordinary features have somehow been rendered more interesting.

Thus equipped and adorned, I cycled everywhere at blinding speed, my legs a blur as I wove in and out of traffic, diving dramatically past the driver's cabin of the school bus as all aboard put their hands over their eyes.

A crash under a truck almost killed me and the sight of me in the casualty ward almost killed my mother, but nothing could stop me cycling for years on end, until the day I realised what was missing.

Cyclist in London
Reading while you ride isn't advisable

I couldn't read while I rode. I tried it, but when the Kogarah police caught me reading a novel by Erle Stanley Gardner as I rode no-hands down Railway Parade I realised that the game was up, and ever since, for about half a century now, I have used public transport when I'm in the big city.

For someone who does what I do for a living, public transport is even better than a car.

You can't legally read in a car unless somebody else is driving, and my Ghurka isn't always available to drive the Daimler, because he's down at the immigration office being told why having risked his life for Britain a few dozen times isn't enough to earn him permanent residence or even a full pension.

Nix the car

So when I'm in London I ride the tube and the bus, and I imagine that Mr Cameron, too, is under pressure to forget about the bike.

He could answer that if he permanently nixed the car carrying his shoes and just rode the bike with his shoes on, he would be doing even less to damage the environment than if he rode on a bus, and far less than if he rode in a car. But he might find it hard to convince the Chinese of that.

When and if Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister, he will be faced, as he travels by kayak across the globe from conference to conference, with platoons of Chinese gerontocrat Party bigwigs who all grew up riding bicycles but now wouldn't be seen dead on a bicycle even though most of them, by our standards, should be dead already.

Man cycling in China
Cycling is falling out of fashion in modernised China

Of the more than a thousand million people in China, a high proportion rode bicycles until recently, but now they'd rather not. They would rather go by metro or by bus, or, better than that, by taxi, or even better than that, by car, preferably a car they own.

Nobody in the West is going to persuade China to find a way of developing its economy without consuming energy.

Even if we reduced our own emissions to zero, the saving wouldn't amount to much beside whatever a few hundred million Chinese do next instead of riding bicycles.

The reason for Mr Cameron to ditch the bike is that he has things to do.

He's been given a car so that he can work in it. Riding his bicycle to work, all he can do is think, and he's already made it evident that in such circumstances he can't think fast enough to figure out what a red light might mean if he goes through it with somebody taking pictures of him.

Tony would have made Cherie sit backwards on the pillion, looking out for spies.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Excellent satire. I'm all for saving the planet but politicians insistence (as justification for rising taxes) that the car driving cheap flight loving British Public are the sole cause of global climate change doesn't tally with the figures - Or the transport policies!
Ron Heywood, Bolton, United Kingdom

I ride a bike on a regular basis, although I do not condone braking traffic laws to be fair to Mr Cameron many cyclist out there if they care to admit it do break the traffic laws from time to time in the same way as he as done. A cyclist see his self as a pedestrian moving a bit faster and he is not much bigger, so let the media give him a break this is a first class showing of making a mountain out of a mole
Douglas L Thomas, Udon Thani Thailand

The MP apologised. People need to get over it. The fact remains, the MP was using one of the most greenest forms of transport available, and this put to shame those who are in large CO2 emitting cars and who are doing similar journeys.
John Carver, Tamworth, UK

Go Dave! I do the same because Red Ken's red lights are red both ways for longer than they need to be. You'd have to be crazy to wait while nothing is coming. Jumping the lights cuts my journey time by half.
Alex Birkett, London

Amusing story but David C., like all other cyclists, should start obeying the law. I cycled for many years and I'm sick of seeing cyclings thinking the law doesn't apply to them. I applaud anyone who cycles around London but the real cyclists must be as irritated as I am to see "fellow" cyclists running red lights, riding on pavements and frankly acting like the prats they are. I'm sorry but the roads are for safe, considerate, transport. If anyone can't follow the rules (be they cyclists or drivers) let's get them off the roads and let the rest of us enjoy cycling or driving without idiots all around us. Paul DS.
Paul D Smith, Enfield

Cameron is a fool if he thinks we are fooled into thinking he is a bit 'right on' because he sometimes travels by bike (and makes sure the press photograph him) I'm totally underwhelmed by all this pretending to be green nonsense politicians try to con us with. Grow up guys - the world economy is running on oil for a good while yet. We know it, you know it, stop treating us like we are dumb sheep. Baaaaa.
B Sighcall, not London

Clive may not think much of someone who is possibly going to be the future prime minister being given time to think. Personally, I think it's a good thing if he has time to think. Surely this is what we want our leaders to be able to do. I'm not alone in valuing thinking while cycling. Albert Einstein said of his theory of relativity "I thought of it while riding my bike".
David, Assen, Netherlands




CLIVE JAMES ARCHIVE
 



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