'There's nothing quite as green, or innocent, or rural, or people-friendly as a bicycle . . . It's the best form of exercise there is . . . It'll never pollute the atmosphere . . .' This was the sort of thing that was said about the bike.
Recently, though, the image of the bike has taken several other knocks. Bicycle couriers in London have adopted jungle tactics to get to their prey, crashing through red lights and crowded pavements - just to get a package to NW11, when, for the same effort, they could be stealing pounds 10,000 from a bank. Bicyclists have been terrorising old ladies on canal tow-paths. French bicyclists have been coming across the Channel in great mobs and closing roads in Sussex for minutes on end, leaving empty Perrier bottles and used drug capsules behind. And now, to make matters worse, the IRA has adopted the bicycle as a means of bombing. If what I read is true, the last mainland bombing was effected by a bomb being left in a saddle bag on a mountain bike chained to a railing. In Bognor Regis, as I recall.
This hasn't done a lot for the saintliness of the bicycle - once you become a possible terrorist booby trap, people look at you askance. But it hasn't done a lot for the image of Bognor Regis either. Why Bognor? What has the IRA got against Bognor? Why did they pick on poor old Bognor?
I think I can tell them why.
A bicycle is not like a car. There are no hiding places on a bike. You can put a bomb in the boot of the car, or under a seat, or anywhere, but on a bike there is nowhere to hide. You could theoretically stuff explosive down the frame of a bike, in the tube under the saddle, for instance, but the frame of the bicycle is normally the strongest, best-built bit. If you set off a charge inside a bicycle frame, there is a good chance it might contain the blast. At most, you would blast the saddle hundreds of feet into the air, because you would have converted the tube into a bazooka. If the RUC ever finds a piece of waste ground in Northern Ireland littered with fragments of shattered bicycle, they'll know they've found the bike bomb research base.
So you have to attach the bombs to the bike, and the only way of doing this discreetly is by putting them in a saddle bag or pannier. Plenty of room in modern pannier bags. Only one problem with modern pannier bags. They get nicked. If you leave a bag on your bike, the bike may be locked up, but the bag isn't. The last time I took my bike to London and parked it outside the shop where my daughter was working, she went wild when I didn't bring the bags in.
'Dad] You don't leave anything on a bike in London] It'll vanish] Lights, pump, everything . . . don't leave anything]'
The silly thing was, I knew this already. I once hired a bike in New York. The guy in the bike shop said he would lend me two locks. Why two? Because, he said, you have to lock both wheels to something immobile, otherwise they would vanish. I did exactly as he said that night, locking either wheel to a lampstand. When I came down in the morning, someone had taken my saddle . . .
That's why I think the IRA ended up in Bognor. They probably started in London, but every time they left their bomb bike bags out, they got nicked. (I hate to think what happened to the bomb bike bags that got nicked. Perhaps bicycle thieves know how to dismantle bombs these days. Perhaps they don't, and the police have an increasing amount of unsolved explosions on their hands . . .)
So the IRA moved out to, say, Basingstoke, but their bike bags still got nicked. So they moved on to, I don't know, Newbury, and were still too slow for the thieves . . . until finally they found, in Bognor Regis, a place where people respected other people's bicycle bags. Bognor is the nearest honest place to London.
Well, that's my theory and the police are welcome.