Spring is here and the air is alive with the sound of sweaty manmade materials rubbing together, as middle-aged cyclists fill every road, dressed head to toe in Lycra. They whizz along, jumping red lights, weaving in and out of the path of trucks, screaming at pedestrians and taxi drivers; barely evading death three times a morning. Lycra isn’t just a fabric; it’s a state of mind. At work, these often portly, always angry, red-faced individuals might be mild-mannered middle managers who work in marketing. But in their cycling kit they are superheroes who happen to swear a lot.
The double Olympic champion Laura Trott was once asked to help with a safety campaign which involved riding around the capital to highlight the dangers cyclists face on the roads. She returned absolutely terrified — by cyclists who dressed like her but behaved like maniacs. ‘I see cyclists jumping in and out of the buses and people wonder why they get hit,’ she said. Trott was too polite to say that this is largely a male problem. You rarely see women sporting the full Lycra look unless they’re actually cycling competitively. There’s even an acronym for it, Mamil: middle-aged man in Lycra.
Thanks to Boris Johnson — who, mercifully, does not cycle in a stretchy body sock — and his £47 million cycle superhighways, Londoners can soon expect massed pelotons of Lycra to flow inexhaustibly all the way from Westbourne Grove to Tower Hill via the Victoria Embankment, massively enhancing our collective sum of rage.
Lycra is bad for the soul — and almost nobody looks good in it (the exceptions are 1980s LA gym birds and Jane Fonda). Even professional cyclists look ridiculous. So why do ever-increasing numbers of people dress like this? Joggers — also afflicted by the Lycra bug — will tell you that it’s practical and aerodynamic, but you don’t see Mo Farah running around in a skintight bodysuit.
Well, I have a confession: I am no stranger to the stretchy fabric. For ten years I rode a racing bike in London and would often sport Lycra. I even wore those special shoes that clip into the pedals. Lycra seeps into your brain. You might be pottering around the Chilterns, but in your mind you’re riding Paris–Roubaix. At work, you’ll nod at fellow cyclists when making tea and swap stories in a low murmur of battles fought at the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
I didn’t like people overtaking unless they had more Lycra on than me. I’d arrive at work hot and angry, my body pulsing with adrenaline from fighting the traffic. About five years ago, I had an epiphany. My competitive commute was making me unpleasant. I was turning into one of those self-righteous cyclists people write letters to newspapers about. So I gave up the Lycra.
If you look at countries where cycling is genuinely popular, such as Denmark or Holland, nobody wears it. Danes would think you were mad to cycle to work in a special costume and then change. Couriers — who cycle the most, and the fastest — don’t wear head-to-toe Lycra.
I now cycle in ordinary clothes. I wear a coat in winter. In summer I wear a shirt. If I’m getting too sweaty, I slow down. I’ve even ditched my racing bike, with its thin tyres and no mudguards, as it was completely impractical for Britain’s terrible road surfaces and changeable weather. I now have a Dawes Civic, a sturdy Alan Bennett-esque machine that gets me everywhere I want almost as quick as before but without the hassle. If the ride takes a little longer, I know that I’ll make it up in not having to get showered and changed. I’m much happier and, most importantly, I’ve rediscovered my love of cycling.
Nowadays there is no need to wear Lycra at all. For those who have to wear proper kit, i.e. people going on genuinely very long rides, there are companies that make cycling clothes that look normal. In fact they work better, because they’re often rainproof, let the sweat out and have padding in all the right places. And without Lycra, of course, loutism will diminish. Cyclists will become civilised once more.
And so I appeal to you: joggers, nobody wants to see your genitals, wear a tracksuit; cyclists, buy an Alan Bennett bike, your dignity will thank you. It’s high time to leave Lycra to the professionals. At least they’re paid to look stupid.