The beauty of having a beast of a bicycle

This column prides itself as a judge of horse-flesh, that is to say bicycles, and I spend a lot of time looking out for exotic or elegant specimens. A few weeks ago, I was chatting on a street corner with a friend, eyeing up the bikes as they flew or ambled past, and sometimes interrupting the conversation to point out particularly nice ones. "I am worried," my friend said after a while. "Three times now an attractive woman has gone past on a bike and you've only been interested in the bike." Maybe I am repressing something.

Beautiful bikes are a pleasure, to ride and to look at. Back in June at a seminar to launch the Reinventing the Bike Shed competition, Andrea Casalotti of Velorution, the best thought-out bike shop in central London, proposed that cyclists have a duty to look good: "Just as we don't think it is appropriate to go to a nice restaurant dressed in dirty clothing, we should feel ashamed to leave an ugly bike locked on a lamp post, because we are spoiling everyone else's experience of walking down the street."

This is an intriguing thought, but it's worth sticking in a word for scruffy bikes, the workhorse and the boneshaker - the ones that don't have carbon forks, dual suspension or aluminium frames, that weigh a couple of hundredweight, are spotted with rust and painted a nasty colour, but that still go.

A large percentage of the nation's bikes fit this description, and they do a disproportionate amount of the hard graft of getting people from A to B; often, it's because they work so hard that they end up looking that way.

Modern bikes are increasingly sophisticated, but sophistication comes at a price - lower tolerances, parts that become obsolete and hard to find, not to mention, well, the price. But it's amazing just how much complexity you can strip out of a bike and still leave a useful machine.

One friend of mine is still, at 40, riding a shopper she has had since childhood - replacement tyres are getting scarce, but for the moment the parts that are supposed to go round still do it, and she insists that it is more comfortable and enjoyable than anything that's come on the market since.

I've been having a rapprochement with my own scruffy bike lately. We picked it up cheap - not cheap enough, I'm sometimes inclined to think - from an advert in a shop window in Norfolk.

According to the decals it's a Claud Butler "Athon", but I've never been able to find any reference to the model in any literature. It is evidently meant to be a mountain bike, though the designers apparently didn't clock that when you're going uphill it's a good idea to be on a frame made out of something a little daintier than solid pig-iron. The wheels, with their vast, knubbled tyres, wouldn't look out of place on a John Deere; the handlebars stick out about two feet either side; and it is an unpleasant shade of mustard.

But, and this is a big but, it is unstoppable. It has now been sitting out in my garden for more than a year, facing rain, snow and sun, and it has little streaks of rust marks all over; but the index gears snap into place, the brakes are tight, the front suspension soaks up potholes and kerbs (whatever it is, it isn't a boneshaker).

In several ways it's an improvement on my usual, somewhat sleeker ride, not least because the luggage rack is sturdy enough to carry a child to school.

Living in London, its undesirability is a positive blessing: I know that nobody is likely to touch it when there are so many more attractive bikes around; and if they did, wotthehell, wotthehell.

If Britain is going to become a cycling nation, we need to strike out against bike snobbery, and speak up for the shabby and the barely rideable. It's a kind of liberation.

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