As the controversy raged, Clarkson was most often pictured on the news sites riding a bicycle. There were at least a couple of different occasions that photographs were taken. One is at night, and he’s wearing a black leather jacket and jeans. The other is in daylight, and he’s wearing some kind of quilted anorak.
I’ve no doubt that these photo opportunities were carefully calculated, and begging for the type of headlines I’ve used in this post. But I didn’t see much comment on his choice of transportation.
First of all, you will note that Clarkson is not wearing a helmet. This is his right, and a choice I have no problem with. In Holland, where more miles are cycled than in just about any other European country, hardly anybody wears a helmet, and the death rate is much lower than elsewhere. Cycling safety is about road and junction design and also about traffic priorities. In Holland, the bike comes first. I observe Clarkson’s lack of helmet merely to comment that I bet he’s the sort of person who will always ask, “Were they wearing a helmet?” when told of yet another London cyclist killed by a truck*.
But that’s not really what I wanted to say. Although I’ve no doubt Clarkson is a bicycle user, I’m fairly certain he engineered these photo opportunities as part of his carefully calculated PR campaign. When his friend David Cameron tried the old bicycle photo opportunity, it’s said that he was being followed by a car containing his shoes. In these bicycle pictures, you can imagine Clarkson being followed by cars containing rival broadcasters waving chequebooks.
Clarkson was no doubt intending to make a sly joke about being on his bike in precisely the way meant by my headline. Also, there’s a reference to Tebbit’s famous comment about jobseekers and bicycles. And there’s the thing. Clarkson’s PR move here is meant to cast him as the underdog, on his uppers, discarded by the BBC. And his choice of transport reveals his values precisely: bicycles are for the downtrodden, the unemployed, and the poor. Look at me, he’s saying, poor, poor, pitiful me, reduced to riding a bicycle.
*I was forced off the road by a truck driver yesterday. He was in a juggernaut and it would have cost him nothing to give me some room. It might have involved putting his wheels onto the soft verge. But instead of showing me some courtesy and having some kind of understanding of how awkward and difficult it is to uncleat and put your foot down in the mud (and then try to reseat the muddy cleat), he chose to force me off the single track country lane that he had no business driving down.