Cycling exhibitionists bring memorable moment of light relief
Saturday 18 October 2003
More than half a century ago, a German bomber disgorged its contents over Fitzroy Square, transforming the London Foot Hospital into a pair of bookends and a volume of rubble. The façade of the building, designed in the 18th century by Robert Adam, has been restored to elegant symmetry; but behind it lies a thoroughly modern artefact of concrete and girders.
Freed of planning restraints by the Luftwaffe's largesse, those who now inhabit the central section of the old hospital site are able to remodel their interiors as they see fit.
Which is good news for the myriad cyclists working in the offices of Arup, the consultants who produced the London 2012 Olympic bid's cost analysis report. Given that around 25 per cent of their employees pedal to work, it has been deemed a good use of space to create what appears, on the face of it, to be a large room solely for bikes. And actually is a large room solely for bikes.
It's an odd thing about bicycles in buildings. You rarely see just one. They tend to congregate, like birds in the Hitchcock film. Before I got my first proper job, on a weekly newspaper, I was interviewed in a little room that overlooked one of the oldest streets in an old market town. The walls, for some reason, were painted yellow. Decoration consisted of one item, a particularly poor print of Constable's The Haywain.
Within two years, the editor, who was kind enough to employ me - a man whose idea of exercise consisted of a lunchtime walk down to The Swan restaurant at the other end of town - had moved on. In his place came a far more energetic character whose life involved at least two passions. One was journalism. The other was cycling.
The decor of that little room stayed unchanged, but The Haywain now presided over an entirely new still life. As the editor worked alongside the sub-editors on the main floor, his office was given over to racing bikes and all the garish paraphernalia that accompanies them: protective helmets, sunglasses, gloves, dayglo lycra tops and cunningly padded leggings...
On summer days, as the sun slanted in, the room exuded sweat. On rainy days, the wet gear produced a clammy smell that brought to mind mould.
Suddenly, we seemed to be seeing a lot more of the graphic artist from head office - a keen cyclist, as it happened, whose bike and gear were regularly stacked alongside those of the esteemed editor.
Then I had a new assistant working for me on sport. And guess what? He was a mad-keen cyclist. The upstairs office began to look more cramped than ever.
Our old lunchtime bun-run down to the bakers was replaced by a more lengthy journey to Baxters fish shop. Chips and mayonnaise - that old energy-giving standby of the Belgian cyclist - became our staple fare.
At times, I confess, I was tempted to join the two-wheelers. For a while I wobbled. But although a diet of chips and mayonnaise was fine by me, I just couldn't face the thought of getting into and out of those exhibitionist shorts on a daily basis.
Keen cyclists - and they're all keen, aren't they? When have you ever met a half-hearted cyclist? - as I say, keen cyclists tend towards the evangelical. So dodging the call to wheels gave me the same kind of satisfaction as closing the door on people who want to sell me double glazing or religion (mops I usually buy). But I will be forever grateful to the great sport of cycling for providing me with one of my fondest memories.
Seven years ago, when the Tour de France briefly visited the south-east corner of England, I was invited to experience the occasion with the Motorola team, of whom the home rider Sean Yates was a part, as well as an American called Lance Armstrong, who went on to do quite well in the event.
Speeding through the cleared Kentish roads in the team car and accepting the excited applause of those who had come out to watch was a truly exhilarating experience. At one point we passed an old people's home whose inhabitants, mainly female, had set out tables and chairs in the driveway to get a better view of the passing spectacle.
But the ladies' attention was being distracted by something at the roadside - 20 or so cyclists who had evidently made a group decision to relieve their bladders into a neighbouring hedge. It must have taken them some time to negotiate their way out of all that clinging lycra, but the delay did not seem to have affected the concentration of their elderly spectators.
If I'd only had a camera...
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