Lost Leader

Photo: Charlotte Oestervang

It’s 7:15 in the morning, and the sun is only considering rising over Central Park when a small caravan screeches into a traffic loop at the southeast entrance: a limousine, a distended limo bus, and finally a police escort. Lars Løkke Rasmussen—the new prime minister of Denmark, in town for the climate-change summit—has decided to cap his stay in New York with a bicycle ride, a sound political notion given that 55 percent of Copenhagen residents pedal to work.

It was a week when the idiosyncrasies of heads of state—Qaddafi’s love of camping, Sarkozy’s fitness obsession—were as on show as any New Yorker’s.

The prime minister’s security detail tumbles out of the limo bus and locks into security-sweep positions. The entourage consists of Rasmussen’s own two Nordic-looking bodyguards, two Secret Service agents from Washington, and two NYPD cops, these last somewhat poorly disguised as regular bikers. Earpiece wires curl from under helmets.

Seconds later, Rasmussen emerges, a barrel-chested balding man wearing a pair of short black bicycle shorts and a T-shirt. “Feels nice to feel the breeze after three days of talks in air-conditioned rooms,” he says.

Rasmussen can use some unwinding. He’s only occupied the post since April, and this is his first big international trip. Not helping is the fact that he is the third Danish prime minister named Rasmussen in a row, and that the other two are actually bigger players on the international stage (secretary-general of nato and head of the European Socialists). Back home, he’s being judged on his every move.

Today is no exception. “The big question is whether he’ll wear a helmet,” says Minna Skau, one of the reporters. The helmet is an incredibly charged issue. The first Rasmussen once wore a too-small helmet that sat on top of his head like a UFO. The resulting photo became as infamous as Michael Dukakis’s tank shot. “But if he doesn’t wear one,” explains Skau, “then all Denmark will be talking about that.”

The bikes, meanwhile, are being unloaded from the limo bus. The bodyguards don black helmets. The prime minister doesn’t. A round of handshakes, and off we go. All three vehicles roll behind, lights swirling, spooking the occasional jogger.

“This isn’t a bike lane!” yells a jogger into Rasmussen’s face.

“We’re the police!” barks one of the NYPD escorts. Rasmussen, pedaling on, mutters something to his Danish bodyguards. Skau translates: He’s surprised that the American agents seem to enjoy stopping traffic and shouting. Danish security details, he says, do their best to blend in.

The party keeps getting lost, and the ride turns into a search for the right exit. Rasmussen tries getting out at West 72nd, then at Sixth Avenue and 59th. Here, Prime Minister Rasmussen decides to ride on the sidewalk.

Finally, the needed corner is located. “I don’t see why New York can’t have [as many bike lanes as Copenhagen],” Rasmussen says later. “The city is almost perfectly flat.” The bikes disappear back into the limo bus. What about the helmet? I ask.

“I swear,” says Rasmussen, and his face assumes the solemnly pinched look we see, from time to time, on every politician in the world. “This is the first time I ever—ever!—rode without one. I just … I just didn’t know if it would fit.”

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Lost Leader