What do Gandhi, George W. Bush, and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? All were devoted cyclists. With election season upon us, a scholar of cycling looks at political leaders on their bikes.
Mahatma Gandhi and Donald Trump are not usually mentioned in the same breath. Yet both share a connection to a common object, that vehicle of personal transportation and transformation – the bicycle.
Of course, the Indian leader in the fight for independence and human rights was a life-long cyclist. The New York City businessman and politician, on the other hand, was a founder of a cycling race. “This is an event that can be tremendous in the future, and it can really, very much rival the Tour de France,” boasted Trump in 1989 at the launch of the race bearing his name, the Tour de Trump.
A bicycle race is not an event that immediately leaps to mind in connection with a politician whose energy plan calls for increased drilling for oil and fewer environmental regulations, someone who denies the existence of global warming and once mocked Secretary of State John Kerry, an avid cyclist, for falling from his bike. Admittedly, Trump did say in 1989 that he himself “will never be in a bicycle race.” Still, he saw cycling races as an investment for the future and put $750,000 into the Tour de Trump.
The event never threatened the popularity of the venerable Tour de France, but the race was an interesting chapter in the career of Trump and in the history of politicians and cycling. The Tour de Trump took place, in ten stages, between Albany, New York, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Among the elite riders of the era who competed for the $250,000 first prize were two Tour de France winners, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, as well as other well-known racers from the US, Western Europe, and the USSR. After a year Trump withdrew his financial backing and the event was taken over by the DuPont chemical corporation. It was renamed the Tour DuPont.
With the US presidential elections just around the corner, I thought it is a good time to examine the connections between bicycles and political leaders, in the United States and abroad. What are their attitudes to this amazing invention? Do they ride bicycles? Where in their platforms do bicycles feature, and is there a connection between a politician who rides a bicycle and his or her views?
My attempts to get answers from the media representatives of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Republican Donald Trump, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein about their candidates’ cycling histories and policy plans did not receive any response – except for Clinton’s campaign asking me repeatedly for a financial contribution. The information I did gather indicates that among the candidates who set their sights on the prize in this election year, Stein and Sanders are the only ones who have mentioned bicycles as a viable tool in the battle to stop rising temperatures and seawaters. Stein’s presidential platform contains no reference to bicycles, but when she ran for the Massachusetts Governorship her platform did. As far as riding, Hillary Clinton has hopped on a bicycle, mostly during vacations.
Among Republican candidates in the primaries, Rick Santorum stated his opposition to federal government funding of bicycle paths. Rand Paul shares Santorum’s hostility to cycling, claiming that bicycle infrastructure is as frivolous as turtle tunnels and squirrel sanctuaries. Such sentiments are common among many of his party’s leaders. For example, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee in the Washington State House, Ed Orcutt, called for a tax on cyclists because, in his opinion, they cause wear and tear to the roads and produce CO2, a greenhouse gas, when they exhale.
These views contrast with those of Democrat Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who sought his party’s nomination. In addition to lobbying for an increase in his state’s gasoline tax, O’Malley – an avid rider – has spoken in favor of “this more environmentally beneficial way of commuting.”
Among US presidents, many have hopped on a bicycle, often joined by their wives. Perhaps not all have subscribed to John F. Kennedy’s exaltation: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” The Nixons, Reagans, and Obamas occasionally rode, usually while vacationing. Until a recent decline in his health, the elderly Jimmy Carter could be seen regularly riding a bicycle in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. (In 2009 bicycles belonging to Carter and his wife Rosalynn were stolen from the Carter Center in Atlanta.)
Cycling enthusiasts aren’t limited to one party. George W. Bush loved riding his mountain bike, both on his Texas ranch and during official trips abroad. His reputation as a cyclist gained him several gifts of bicycles from world leaders. After leaving office Bush continued to pursue his passion. He launched and participated in an annual 100-kilometer, three-day ride called the Warrior 100K, held in honor of military veterans injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. He even took part in the event several months after a stent was inserted into his heart to clear a blocked artery. Bush joked that he might no longer be the fearless daredevil on two wheels that he once was, and he asked the veterans not to leave him in the dust. Other members of the Bush family also ride bicycles, include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the matriarch of the clan, Barbara.
On the congressional level, there have been many bicycle-friendly politicians. Some argue for bicycle-related projects while limiting their own rides to official parades or events. Others, however, are dedicated cyclists. The late Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, promoted rails-to-trails programs while serving on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, founder and chair of the bi-partisan Congressional Bike Caucus, has been behind many bicycle-friendly measures and uses the bicycle as his main way of transportation. “Over the course of 15 years in Congress, I have burned hundreds of thousands of calories as I run my errands around Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I’ve never been stuck in traffic, I’ve never had to look for a parking space and I’ve saved thousands of dollars. It’s kind of a win-win, burning calories instead of fossil fuels.”
We also find leaders in other lands for whom the bicycle is a means of transportation, exercise and pleasure. As noted above, Mahatma Gandhi was a life-long cyclist. As a young lawyer in South Africa he rode his bicycle to work, covering eight kilometers daily. He also rode during his early political organizing and humanitarian efforts, such as when rushing to the poorer areas of Johannesburg to aid doctors treating people afflicted by cholera. Gandhi wrote and agitated to repeal a bicycle law enacted by the Johannesburg Town Council that required every non-white cyclist to obtain a permit and wear a numbered badge on the left arm.
After his return to India, Gandhi continued cycling, often riding from Gujarat Vidyapith, the university he founded in Ahmedabad, to Sabarmati Ashram, where he lived. Gandhi emphasized the importance of walking and cycling, and he once remarked to a friend about the need to keep his bicycle in good order. “A carpenter will always keep his tools ready for use. A typist will keep his typewriter in good repair and a rider will keep his horse in good stead. Similarly a bicycle should always be kept clean, oiled and ready for use. Otherwise don’t have a bicycle at all.”
Today, several Indian lawmakers follow in Gandhi’s bicycle threads. Arjun Ram Meghwal and Mansukh Mandavia, the ministers of Finance and Agriculture, have continued riding to work even after their appointments to cabinet positions. Meghwa has spoken of his wish that “more MPs would become eco-friendly.”
In Great Britain there are several prominent politicians who are ardent cyclists. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a life-long rider. He was recently accused by Conservative critics of riding a “Mao-styled bicycle,” a reference to his supposedly heavy-style bike and political rigidity. Corbyn responded by pointing out that Chinese bikes were heavy and had few gears while his Raleigh was light and easy to ride. He added that “whoever wrote it was a Chairman Mao bicycle should be sent away for re-education.”
Former London mayor and current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is also among the ranks of cyclists. He often praises bicycles’ contribution to making cities greener, cleaner and more community-based. During his mayoral tenure he oversaw the introduction of over 8,000 public bicycles to London (a project begun by his predecessor, Democratic Socialist Ken Livingstone) resulting in millions of rides, and counting. While some cycling groups have claimed that Johnson’s allegiance is primarily to the automobile, the Tory politician noted, “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”
Johnson’s fellow Conservative Party members David Cameron (Prime Minister between 2010-2016) and George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer during those years) also rode. Cameron did so when he was a Member of Parliament, explaining that cycling “gets me going.” Cameron, however, was accused of hypocrisy when it was reveled that a car carrying his briefcase and shoes followed his bicycle.
Cycling has also led to a British politician’s downfall. In September 2012 former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell was riding his bicycle when a police officer refused to let him leave Downing Street via the main gate. The MP lost his temper and swore at policeman Toby Rowland: “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.” Mitchell resigned in the ensuing furor, which resulted in multiple law suits. Ultimately, the Tory politician was forced to pay £80,000 to the officer, £300,000 to the Police Federation, and legal expenses of £3 million to The Sun newspaper, which he had unsuccessfully sued for libel.
Many world leaders have been photographed riding bicycles, usually when taking part in an official event, aware that to many of their countrymen and women cycling connotes a positive activity. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rode at the launch of a campaign to encourage Egyptians to ride bicycles and thus help the cash-poor country cut its gasoline consumption. Bolivian President Evo Morales joined the Day of the Pedestrian and Cyclist march in September 2015. Sometimes the officials look uncomfortable when astride a bicycle. This might be due to the fact that they have not maintained the habit of riding since their younger days, or in the case of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who recently took some of his first tentative first rides, a result of his family having been too poor to buy him a bike when he was a child.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is an avid cyclist who in 1998 was one of the founders of the Pollie Pedal, a charity ride from Brisbane to Sydney, a distance of 1,010 kilometers. Abbott rode in the race every year, extolling cycling’s health and fitness benefits as well as the sense of camaraderie fostered. On the morning after he was elected, Abbott rode his bike to work, explaining that “it was great to start the day with a ride with the people I’ve been riding with for years.”
In China after the 1949 Communist seizure of power several leaders rode regularly. While there are no reports of Chairman Mao breaking world cycling records (as claimed about his swim in the Yangtze River), the bicycle was promoted during his years in power as one of the essentials of life, being a means of reliable transportation, and as a symbol of equality. A vibrant bicycle industry developed, with the durable Flying Pigeon brand the pride of the line. Bicycles were also often given to visiting dignitaries, including Fidel Castro and George Bush. These days, however, the market-oriented leaders travel in big limousines or SUVs and no attempt is even made at photo-shoots of leaders astride a bicycle.
Does love of bicycles translate into environmental action? Does being a cyclist lead to progressive views and actions? The answer, sadly, is no. Several leaders who are dedicated cyclists have pursued disastrous environmental policies. These include the Australian Abbott, who has dismissed the science of Global Warming as “crap” and has opposed measures that (in his words) “would impose certain and substantial costs on the economy.” Bolivian leader Morales, a socialist, praises the bicycle’s role in fighting capitalist and industrial civilization, yet his government has supported fossil fuel exploration, mining, and road building in environmentally sensitive areas. And if there was a medal for the most passionate cyclist to ever occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, George W. Bush would easily win. Still, Bush denied that global warming is caused by human activity and opposed the Kyoto Protocol.
On the other hand, there are many leaders for whom daily cycling is way to live their ideals in the present and a means of moving towards a sustainable and just future – a future where bicycles have an essential place. As the passionate cyclist H.G. Wells proclaimed, over one hundred years ago, “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”
Alon Raab teaches religious studies at UC Davis. He is editor of the books The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and Soccer in the Middle East, and he has written several articles and essays on soccer, cycling, religion, and politics in the Middle East.