Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

What a cheek! Stark naked on a bike
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Saturday before last, I happened to be on Charing Cross Road, in central London, when there was a great tinkling of bells and the London segment of the World Naked Bike Ride passed by. For 10 minutes, the road was blocked while several hundred people, naked as God intended, and on bicycles, surely also what God intended, protested about oil dependency, or something.

Speaking as a prude, I found the whole thing surprisingly inoffensive, even jolly, and the event started me thinking about the bicycle's association with harmony, anarchy and respect for Gaia. However, later on, I came across a couple of Swedish army bikes, and was reminded that the bicycle is not just a fluffy bunny: in its time, it has been a dog of war.

Bikes have some obvious military advantages - cycling troops can move far more swiftly than on foot, they don't make much noise, and, unlike motorised troops, they aren't dependent on fuel supplies. Also, bikes are cheap to manufacture and easy to maintain.

On the debit side, they have a limited cargo capacity; before the mountain bike and the sealed bearing they couldn't move over tough terrain; and riders are vulnerable. They have limited offensive capability, too. I've seen pictures of bikes with machine-guns mounted on the handlebars (and, at times (when a motorist has turned left across my path, for example), have wished I had one. Realistically, I don't suppose you could fire on the move. A flame-thrower, mind you, I could use one of those.

The first bicycle war was the Boer War - the British army (huzzah!) used them for scouting and courier duties, as well as general transport. By the outbreak of the First World War, most of the participating countries had some kind of cycling regiment. But the war-bike came into its own in the Second World War, when Nazi cycling troops took part in the invasions of Poland and Norway, and thousands of Japanese soldiers conquered Singapore on bikes.

By comparison, Allied cyclists were less aggressive: US forces used millions of bikes, but mainly for getting around base. On D-Day, British paratroopers landed with ingenious folding bikes - the drops were mostly made from gliders, making this an eco-friendly invasion. In Vietnam in the Fifties, Communist insurgents tried bicycle bombs (see Graham Greene's The Quiet American), and in the Sixties, thousands of bikes carried supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

However, the military bicycle fell out of fashion. The Swiss army was the only one to keep up a proper cycling regiment, but even they gave up a couple of years ago. But on civvy street today, the military bike is still a desirable piece of retro kit.

By the way, I haven't forgotten that this is Bike Week, I just couldn't think of anything to say beyond, "Let's make every week Bike Week". Seeing that on the page, it isn't any more interesting than it sounded in my head.

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