Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 11:01 UK

Cycling to the left or to right?

Travelling by bike has never been a more popular method of transport for UK politicians. But does it break down along party lines? Norman Smith investigated for BBC Radio 4's Today.

London Mayor Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson is well known for his cycling credentials
David Cameron and Boris Johnson are just two of the growing band of high profile Tories who use pedal-power to get them to work.

Their numbers have been swelled by shadow chancellor George Osborne and fellow Conservative MPs Oliver Letwin, David Willetts and Ed Vaizey.

So what is causing this shift away from the chauffeur-driven car and on to the old fashioned bike - once considered by some to be the mode of transport of the left?


Wantage MP Ed Vaizey rejects any suggestion of a political shift. "Some people like to pretend its a left-wing pastime because they conjure up these images of miners cycling to work.

"But actually it's both a Conservative and a right-wing pastime, if I can draw that distinction.

"Remember John Major's famous speech about 'old maids cycling to church'? And I think that brings up the point about the heritage of cycling - it's very much woven into the British character.

"It's a Conservative issue in terms of nostalgia, but it's also a right-wing issue because its about the freedom of the individual. It's about taking ones own action against an over-bearing stage."

Conservative leader David Cameron
Cycling the wrong way up a one-way street got David Cameron into trouble

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the political writer and author of Le Tour - a history of the Tour de France - says he believes cycling is now more right leaning.

"On the whole it was a sport of the left - it was taken up by the Fabians: people like HG Wells and the Webbs and Bernard Shaw, though he was an extremely clumsy cyclist," he said.

"And it was the sport of young left-wing clerks - the kind of people who don't really exist anymore."

However, Labour MP Gwyn Prosser, chairman of the Commons all-party cycling group, is dismissive of the idea that cycling has become right-wing.

I have to say it is not an ideological crusade as far as I'm concerned - it is just a convenient way of getting about
Oliver Letwin
Conservative MP

"I think it is more of a left-wing tradition - it's more egalitarian. A bike is a bike," he said.

"Bikes have two wheels and they spell out equality and inclusiveness and egalitarianism."

So are the Tory MPs who have taken up the sport, just trying to get into their leader's good books?

Mr Letwin rejects this assertion. "I have been cycling for 10, 15 years and I use one of those sort of wonderful Brompton bikes - a splendid British invention.

"But I have to say it is not an ideological crusade as far as I'm concerned. It is just a convenient way of getting about."

However, if the Tories win the next election, then their cycling enthusiasts should beware.

Like many one-time Labour cyclists, they have to abandon their bikes for the tyranny of a ministerial car.

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