Change of gear: Confessions of a cycling snob
Simon Usborne used to be happy in an old pair of jeans on a clapped-out racer. Now, only the best (and priciest) kit will do...
There is an increasingly good chance that if the man described below isn't you, you know someone like him (perhaps you're his eye-rolling partner or contemptuous colleague). He is romantic, vain, masochistic, nerdy, snobbish, spendthrift. He squeezes his skinny legs, possibly hairless, into skintight garments that cost him way more than his regular clothes but, depending on the richness of his chamois gusset, may also reveal as much about his, er, person as his peculiar pastime.
I know this man because I see him in the mirror on Sunday mornings, and reflected in shop windows as I ride towards the Kent hills with like-minded souls. He is me, and our number is growing, fuelling a revolution in a sport long ridiculed but now celebrated by a burgeoning industry of clothing, books and cafés. We are the image-conscious men in Lycra for whom the costume of the workaday rider is anathema. Tracksuit bottoms? Please. Trainers? No, no, no. Flappy hi-vis tabard? I can barely type the words.
We think we look good and, whatever you think of us, our ascent is approaching a new pass as we reach a summer of British cycling like no other. Fresh from their Olympic and Tour de France heroics last year, Britain's pro riders hope to consolidate a new status that, just a decade ago, would have been as unthinkable as boutique bike shops.
But way behind their slipstream, how did I turn from scruffy student commuter into a 30-year-old who buys bidons (or water bottles, if you must) to match his bike and wears gloves hand-stitched in African hair-sheep leather? Why will I pay more attention to Bradley Wiggins' socks as he tries to add a Giro d'Italia victory to his historic yellow jersey, or the pedalling styles of Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish as they hope to make headlines at Le Tour in July? And how are there now so many men like me? Of the 1.7m Britons who now cycle at least once a week, one demographic is growing so quickly that marketing types have christened us Mamils: middle-aged men in Lycra. (I'm a junior at 30, I should add).
It may have started for me with the toe clips. I was a student in Leicester and bought a battered red Raleigh for £50. It happened to be a racer. I didn't care how I looked, wearing cargo shorts rather than jeans if it got hot. But then, on a morning when I imagine the sun shone, a gear shifted in my mind. I sped up and pushed hard, riding into a new zone of pleasure. I saw beauty in the efficiency of my bike, in the speed it offered, and in the hurt the effort was causing my legs. I wanted more and, I figured, some toe clips to attach the foot to the pedal might help.
I was hooked, but those early miles were paved with embarrassment. I later bought a budget yellow Orbea roadbike, some clippy-cloppy bike shoes, and nasty Lycra shorts. My first ride started with a slip on to my arse before I'd even set off. At least one teenager in a passing car offered me a sign that I was a "wanker". Later still, while riding in Richmond Park, a cyclist quietly told me that the low winter sun was shining through my worn-out shorts, illuminating my arse and more.
By then I was riding a second-hand carbon Trek Madone (I'd only gone into the shop for socks). I sold that to a friend and now have a black Guru Evolo worth £4,000, the loveliest thing I've ever owned. I have two more bikes and drawers of jerseys, jackets, gilets, leg-warmers and caps. I've completed sportives (timed rides – keep up) in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France. In 2010, I cycled 1,000 miles from John O'Groats to Land's End in nine days. I've never been skinnier but, unless I'm kidding myself, this movement is about more than man's preoccupation with gear, sport or fitness. I'm not into gadgets, cars or football. I hate running.
Simon Mottram is to blame for much of this. Nine years ago this summer, he set out to make cycling Britain's most popular sport. Until then, it had been as popular as it was cool. "People took the piss out of us because they assumed we were sad nerds who didn't have jobs," he recalls. "I hated it. I wanted people to be proud to cycle." Mottram, now 47, quit his job as a branding consultant to launch the bike-clothing brand Rapha and trigger a style revolution.
I meet him at the company's HQ, an old piano factory in north London. A rail supports items from the latest range, including the brand's classic jersey with signature white "armband" – a retro nod to historic pro strips that exemplifies the Rapha look. The armbands now also come in blue, the colour of Wiggins' Team Sky, after Rapha replaced Adidas as kit supplier to the world's best cycling squad. (It was with Team Sky that Wiggins won the Tour de France last year.) It is a measure of Rapha's dominance in a growing market that it was Team Sky that knocked at its door. When Mottram, who now employs 65 people and sold £18m worth of gear last year, first saw his black-and-blue strip in a race, he says he had "a huge lump in my throat thinking, 'God, I'm part of this now.'"
Rapha also boasts a growing range of casualwear and a swanky central London Cycle Club full of memorabilia, coffee, craft beer and, of course, stuff for sale. There are outposts in Osaka and San Francisco. All over Britain, new brands and enterprises are trying to close the gap on Mottram. Labels that would not have touched cycling previously are racing to ride the boom. H&M and Levi's have bikewear ranges, and Paul Smith, the amateur-cyclist-turned-fashion-mogul, has designed the pink leader's jerseys for this year's Giro d'Italia. Think of that: Bradley Wiggins wearing a Paul Smith leader's jersey with his Rapha kit in Italy, the home of cycling style.
For Mottram, the new association with pro cycling brings his inspiration full circle. He turns to an almost life-size poster of Fausto Coppi subtly adorned with the Rapha logo. The legendary Italian rider, who dominated the sport in the early 1950s, climbs a high Alpine pass, wearing a sober woollen Bianchi team strip, a cycling cap with a thin vertical stripe, and a facial expression of hollow-eyed pain. To Mottram, that suffering is as important as Coppi's style. The image is a visual mission statement. "Cycling's a tough sport," he says. "It's a very powerful aesthetic because it glorifies what people like us do."
Mottram also seized the social potential in cycling and the spirit of discovery and adventure that comes with a ride in the Alps in Coppi's tyre tracks. But why not suffer, socialise and discover in perfectly adequate, cheaper kit, as many less image-conscious cyclists do? "Precision and beauty is a very powerful draw for men," says Rob Penn, author of It's All About the Bike. "It's a counterpoint to an awful lot of the other tools we have that aren't supposed to last very long – your BlackBerry, your computer. We want lovely stuff that's built to last, and Rapha definitely tapped into that."
The resulting aesthetic, tied closely to the broader rise of cycle chic, is burnished further by beautifully photographed catalogues populated by wiry bearded men with impeccable tans. Many take their pursuit of the look further than I do. Penn admits to matching the rims of his sunglasses to the blue of his bike frame, while Mottram says he uses lotion to make his shaved legs look shinier and more impressive to the rider on his tail.
"It's what the Italians call 'bella in sella', or looking good in the saddle," Penn explains. "It shows you have respect for the beauty and lore of cycling." Mottram recalls that Hugo Koblet, a Swiss contemporary of Coppi's, would sit up on his bike before the finish line to retrieve cologne and a comb from pockets in his jersey. "It's about ritual and committing to the act and saying, this is what I do."
To prove you're doing it right, a dizzying number of unofficial style rules govern road cycling. I obey the basics: bare arms with bare legs, or covered and covered, but never a mix. No gaps between arm-warmers and jersey sleeves. It's mad, really, and all but the most earnest among us will admit we are ripe for parody. To the relief of an equally devoted band of Rapha-sceptics, there are signs of a backlash. Last year, some American riders created a spoof mirror of the Rapha website with slogans such as "We're kind of a big deal" and "Riding bikes. Looking tired."
Andy Waterman, the editor of Privateer, a British cycling magazine, believes the Rapha look has become too pervasive. He and some friends at Dulwich Paragon, a south-east London cycling club, saw an opportunity to push back. They founded Vicious Velo, a club with an eye-assaulting strip in a riot of jagged colour-blocking and jumbled typefaces. Waterman rejects the snobbery and exclusivity that can ride alongside "premium" cycling. "It should be a levelling sport," he says. "On club runs you have plumbers and bankers side by side. It's not about how much your kit's worth, it's about lungs and riding skills."
Eben Weiss, aka NYC Cycle Snob, a satirical blogger and author, travelled from New York to London for his new book, Bike Snob Abroad. He noted the nattiness of many riders but says it was coloured by macho competition. "You see them raring to go at the lights," he says. "They're well kitted out and ready to throw down on the commute." Weiss has previously described road cyclists as the "junkies of the cycling world". Mottram, the dealer in this scenario, is as unruffled as a pair of bibshorts by accusations of pretension. He "loves" the fact Vicious Velo exists and has inserted more colour into his ranges. There's even a nod to high-visibility with Rapha's new wind jacket, except that yellow is rendered "chartreuse", the colour of tennis balls. "That's gloriously pretentious, isn't it?" he adds, laughing. Rapha is also taking seriously a growing market for women's gear, and has launched a global campaign to get women doing 100km rides this July.
In the meantime, we're left with our bikes, our stuff and, in my case, a corresponding hole in my wallet and a spare tyre to shed before my journey takes me into a new summer of cycling. I'll be on my bike today. It will likely be perfectly cleaned, and my kit just so. The sun will, I hope, be warming both my back and the asphalt beneath my wheels as I whirr almost silently on hard rubber between hedgerows. Thanks to my gear, the lessons I've learnt, and the thousands of miles in my still-hairy legs, the pleasure I first sensed on that Raleigh clunker will have been infinitely magnified. Because, beyond the loss of dignity, the vanity, the snobbery, and the fetishisation of suffering, road cycling is about pure joy.
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