Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cycling: the latest zombie pursuit?

You might know that I'm a keen cyclist. You can catch me out on the roads at any time (as long as it's dry and the temperature is between 10-23C) wearing Specialized cleat shoes, Craft Lycra shorts, Lycra top, gel gloves, DHB cycling glasses and a helmet, inelegantly atop one of my two bikes, either my carbon-forked Forme Longcliffe 4.0 or my customised 1967 Moulton Classic.

I am, in short, a MAMIL: a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra. There are lots of us about. Whenever I go out, I give a cheery nod to lots of men and some women dressed just like me, often riding bikes that wouldn't shame a professional cyclist with a ticket-price to match. They're all faster than me.

Aside from the mid-life crisis crew, cycling's everywhere. The Tour de France is coming to the UK this year. Bradley Wiggins, Varnish, the Trott sisters, Cavendish, Froome, Pendleton, Armitstead and several others are all over the media.

So lots of people are cycling and professional cycling is hugely popular. Why, for the love of God, do I think it might be dying? Well – I'm worried that it's becoming ghettoised as a hobby for rich elitists, professionals and gear-fetishists. Look at my description of my cycling life: branded to the last comma. Ten years ago I had a knackered 1970s racer bought for £10. I don't even recall whether it still had a maker's name. I didn't agonise over the extra weight incurred by using cheap inner tubes, nor care what other cyclists thought. I just went places. Nor did I concern myself with consuming gels: I had a bottle of water. Now, we acknowledge each other while casting a discerning eye over each other's frames and wheel sets, all trying to look like we're on the Sky reserve list.

In short, I worry that cycling is next in line for the golf treatment. I loathe golf, but I know it has a rich history outside the Home Counties of being a poor man's pleasure (let's discuss golf's inherent misogyny another time). Out in the wilds of Aberdeen or Kerry, normal people could go out and smash a few balls round a course with a basic set of golf bats then go home happy. Then courses started getting professionals. And expensive redesigns. Equipment manufacturers realised that they could whack up the prices by holding out the promise that buying their stuff would improve players' games and make them look like their heroes. Bingo: a sport becomes a business.

Cycling used to be more than a lucrative 'lifestyle' occupation. It used to be mass transport, and it used to be a means of liberation. For a low price, the workers could reach places previously out of bounds. The price of admission to the countryside or the seaside was a very few pounds and strong legs. Entire sub-cultures grew from the invention of the bicycle, such as the Clarion Clubs (still in existence), which linked exercise, travel and socialism.

I could just about imagine Bradley Wiggins endorsing this slogan, but not Chris Froome, currently residing in Monaco for tax purposes. There were a whole load of other people's cycling clubs too: for vegetarians, communists, Tories, workers, Masons, Daily Mail readers, servant girls, actors, soldiers, Christians… There was even a rebel British League of Cyclists formed to run illegal road races after the National Cyclists' Union caved in to government hostility and banned the sport.

The bicycle didn't just bring about political liberation either: for women it assisted their move into the public sphere, allied to Rational Dress and closely entwined with the Suffragists.

Cycling was good for the genes too: though I've never been able to track down the source, there's a claim that the French peasantry grew an inch taller once a generation of them had the chance to ride bikes to court people living further away than a decent walk, most of whom were their relatives!

So cycling's a special activity: it's a product of industrial capitalist modernity which democratised movement, speed and physical exercise at a fairly minimal cost. But now – and I'm certainly part of the problem – the sport has been to some extent taken over by cults of consumerism and physical perfection. You don't see people like the young me around so much, riding ramshackle contraptions for fun, though many of the country's cycling clubs are doing fantastic work. Instead, there's a competitive element both with regards to kit and performance which I think moves cycling into the same category as golf and similar bourgeois sports in which the consumerist aspirational element has become too prominent. I can see how it happens: I know very well the seduction of desiring more, supposedly better kit (in my other hobbies of fencing and photography too) when I know in my heart that just trying harder will make more of a difference. At least when I go swimming there's almost no equipment to worry about! Or at least none that can be improved without serious surgery.

I love cycling (in the right conditions). I like the speed, the surroundings, the pleasure of squeezing that little bit more out of what's frankly an unlovely and low-quality body, and simply of getting to interesting places under my own steam. I think cycling is special because it's so open and democratic, and don't want it to become hierarchical, competitive and the preserve of the MAMILs. Few phrases are more snobbish than 'Bike-shaped Object', used by 'serious' cyclists –and me, sometimes – to describe the (often-dangerous) budget bikes on the roads. Cars and bad urban design have pushed bikes off the roads for work as well as pleasure except in a few British cities - I'd hate to see the cult of consumerist perfection and professionalisation discourage the leisure cyclists and those without loads of cash by setting examples that can't be followed. Fatties of Britain: Unite and Get On Your Bikes!

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