And today’s morning story is “The Selfishness of the Long Distance Cyclist”. You know the plot. Innocent weekend motorist fancies a pootle through central London to feel the wind through his hair, pick up a pizza, show his kids Buckingham Palace, visit a sick relative – there is no end to the pleasant tasks a motorist might set himself on a blowy, autumnal Saturday – in pursuance of any or all of which he puts on his motoring gloves and goggles, adjusts his satnav, and sets off. Only to discover that there is nowhere he can go, that no street is open to him, that diverted buses are causing havoc in every direction, including the shortest way home again, and all because the Tour of Britain, the country’s largest professional cycle race – not to be confused with all the lesser, amateur cycle races that close the city every other weekend of the year – is finishing in London with a “dramatic dash along Whitehall”, though how its organisers know that in advance is anybody’s guess, unless they have learnt of my intention to run out from Horse Guards Parade this afternoon and throw myself, Emily Davison-like, under the wheels of the leaders.
I don’t say that unhindered access to the amenities of one’s city at the weekends – not just London but any city where runners and cyclists maraud – is of the same historic order of importance as women getting the vote. But now that they have got the vote, now that slavery has been abolished and no child can be bound apprentice before the age of eight or sent up a chimney before the age of 21, now that a man may marry a man and a Jew may join a golf club, we are free to turn our attention to less dramatic but no less far-reaching infringements of our freedoms. And I don’t just mean the freedom of city motorists to motor, I mean the freedom of city amblers to amble without being warned off, shooed away, made to wait, held back and hectored by race officials keeping roads and parks and even lakes clear, as they did for days on end last week for no better reason than that a triathlon was in progress. A triathlon, reader! The thrice-cursed triathlon, than which there is no sillier sight in sport, not even counting beach volleyball, synchronised swimming and trampolining, from which you can at least shrink away with your head lowered when you have lost, instead of having to leap from the indecorousness of one into the indignity of the next, in a single unbroken sequentiality of shame.
In Australia they call it The Iron Man. I happen to know this only because I was once strolling along a beach in Broome, thinking my thoughts, when 30 orange men in tiny pea-green bikini bottoms and Esther Williams bathing hats came charging out of the water in my direction, shouting “Out of the way, dickhead!”, which prompted me to ask who they thought they were to be calling me a dickhead, the dickheads, whereupon a race official screamed “They’re the Iron Men, you galah! Move.” And the next thing I knew they were riding bikes over me on the sand. But one thing I will say for them: at least they didn’t close the beach.
Thanks to last week’s triathletes, however, I was forced to sit steaming for two hours in a taxi on the way to the London Art Fair, my intention to look at paintings, encourage painters and maybe even add to their meagre earnings, thwarted by the psycho-cycle swimmers’ desire to wear hideous clothes and chase after one another to no intelligible end. Don’t get me wrong. I am no opponent of sport. Football, cricket, tennis, darts – all these are aired affectionately in these columns. But then no darts tournament has ever necessitated the closure of the city in which I try to live in peace. Darts players know their place. At the oche, in Alexandra Palace or Blackpool Tower. As cricketers know their place is Lord’s. If we want to see them that is where we go, if we don’t we don’t. I don’t insist on a poetry reading at Old Trafford while Manchester United are playing, and they don’t close Regent’s Park to kick a ball around. Thus do we accommodate one another.
But first the marathon runner and now the cyclist have commandeered our space. In this they have support at the highest level. “The tour of Britain,” says London’s Transport Commissioner, “is a superb event, further showcasing” (never trust a man who turns showcase into a verb) “London’s reputation as a city for cycling” – an assertion as fatuously self-proving as “The knifing of young men in deprived areas further showcases London’s reputation as a city for knifing.”
Behind the Commissioner for Transport’s transports we can of course detect the will of Boris, London’s Mayor for Bikes. Because he cycles he has decreed that we must cycle; because he believes that cycling is good for him, he has decreed that it shall be good for us, not only to do ourselves but to tolerate at any cost in others – a piece of nannying we would not expect from one who in all other matters opposes the Nanny State.
Beyond bikes, Boris is famous for his classical education. Would he therefore consider my proposal to close London every weekend for a year so that actors dressed as Trojan triathletes might wander at liberty through our roads and parks reading aloud and without a pause The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid? To show respect for which all cyclists must dismount and all runners stand still.