Much fun has been made of MI5’s fears during the 1930s that Germany sent bicycle reconnaissance operatives to comb the British countryside in the guise of Hitler Youth cycling parties. But there is nothing new, nor unique about the bicycle’s use in armed struggles.
In February, a bicycle was wheeled into the bazaar in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, Afghanistan. A few minutes after it had been leant up outside the government building, a remote-control device triggered the explosives that had been packed into its frame. A massive blast cut the surrounding throng of people down, leaving seven dead and 14 injured. Sadly, the insurgents who detonated the bomb were by no means original in their ghastly use of the bike.
Last August, cycling suicide bombers in Chechnya killed four policemen. The two-wheeled terrorists swooped into Grozny, searching for police cars, and then detonated them when they came to within a yard of their quarry.
Bombs unleashed on civilians are troubling, of course, whatever means are used to convey them to their intended targets. But it is the possibility that bikes can be put to such a use that really disturbs me – not least because I have tangled with this incendiary issue before.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
In a previous life, over a decade ago, I travelled to work daily at the Houses of Parliament. It’s easier said than done, on a bike. Getting within sight of Big Ben was no problem, of course. An early morning charge through London’s traffic meant that I arrived at my desk with my blood up and my shirt sticky. The difficulties arose when I made to lock my bicycle.
As I started to chain up on my first day, a policeman was almost immediately at my side.
“Oh, no you don’t,” he ordered. “Why not?” I demanded. At this, the officer adopted his gravest expression and explained that there’s a cycle-locking exclusion zone around the Palace of Westminster to prevent against ‘bicycle bombs’. At this time, I had never even heard of such things.
After a frustrating morning making phone calls to the Metropolitan Police, I obtained a map of this exclusion zone. At that time it did not reach quite as far as Smith Square, a block away from the seat of democracy – so I took to depositing my mount outside Conservative Central Office. (The exclusion zone still exists, but in these days of even greater fear from terrorism, the Police won’t actually disclose where you can’t chain your bicycle. “We do not disclose specific security arrangements in operation around Westminster,” a Metropolitan Police spokesperson told me.)
My anger back then, was not that this added five minutes to my commute, nor the somewhat arbitrary way that I had learned of this prohibition. It sprang from a deep, unfocused feeling that bicycles were intrinsically a force for good. I suspect that I share this with a great many committed cyclists. We know that our preference for two wheels places us in a minority – but it is a righteous minority. We are efficient, non-polluting and take up little road space. The practicalities of fashioning a bomb from a bicycle struck me as daunting enough – but not nearly so improbable that a cyclist, of all people, would do such a thing. The blasts in Helmand and Grozny are sufficient to dispel such optimistic hokum forever.
Like any other inanimate object, a bicycle is morally neutral. It might be beautiful, practical and ingenious, but it is the cyclist, not the cycle that is the force for good or evil.
I’d still like to think that, on balance, bicycles tend to encourage good behaviour, but there is no room to be blasé. If cyclists want to inhabit the moral high ground, it is the decisions that we make about how we ride our bicycles, day-in, day-out, that matter. Whether or not we jump red lights, whether we are courteous to other road users, and whether we are respectful of pedestrians is what we will be judged upon. Indeed, every time we venture out on our bikes, we are ambassadors for our chosen form of transport.
Nothing that we do today, tomorrow, or the day after, will make any difference to the dead in Chechnya or Afghanistan, of course. The better we behave, however, the more entitled we will be to our conviction that we, at least, are on the side of the angels.
Tim Dawson is a journalist with The Sunday Times –he writes the Cycle Guy column. He is also site editor of cycling-books.com.