12 December 2006



Clothing or array; apparel.

To the relief of my friends and family, I'm not into Lycra. Lycra is for proper, real cyclists - the ones who train and compete, who time themselves, go out onto country lanes on weekends and take on challenges like the coast to coast. I've nothing against them - ok, a bit of envy as they whizz past me, but on the whole I am well disposed towards them, especially the ones who are polite (eg say 'good morning' at traffic lights), sensible (warn you when overtaking) and considerate (don't automatically jump red lights). One even stopped to assist me, once when I got a flat tyre in heavy rain. I thanked and explained I'd already rang my wife who was going to pick me up and drive me into work - I felt a bit like a Sancho Panza whose old mule has just died - and refuses help from Quixote in favour of the more practical sort.

But if lycra and with it the demenour of a serious cyclist are not for me, nor is the studied, fastidious carelessness of the 'blokes on bikes'. You know who I mean: hoodies and chavs who can't yet afford the spiced-up Ford Escort and have to make do with an expensive mountain bike or a rather impractical - but fashionable - stunt bike. Cycles for them are toys-plus; they prefer the pavement to the road, perhaps because they can't really believe 'cycles are vehicles too'. They may wear a reflective jacket (esp if they must also use one for work) but apart from that, it's hoods up, baseball caps on, dark clothing and strictly no lights. In the summer, of course, it's a lot easier to spot them, what with the white-to-pink bare torsos. Before you mark me down as a hopeless snob, let me stress I do distinguish the many who are simply using the bike, like me, to get to work - they just aren't bothered by health pretensions and seem to be in no rush. Why, I've even seen one or to light up on the move, which is not without skill.
There are, for sure, variations between these two extremes, which I suspect I'll discuss later: mountain bikers, eco-warriors, city centre couriers, frumpy academics, unwittingly suicidal yobs. Let me just state where I personally stand in terms of cycling culture, through its material reflection: clothing.

The basic principles I follow are: comfort, value for money and serendipitous adaptation. The first criteria is straightforward enough - though it took me a while to realise that jogging trainers are not good for cycling - esp. as their soft, foamy top soak all the water from rain and muddy puddles.

Value for money is about prioritising function over form, then making sensible, rational, function-based, fit-for-purpose choices. Why buy an Altura reflective jacket when a builders' vest will do just as nicely, at a tenth of the price? Why, combined with that old kagool it does the job just as well. Last year's casual but sturdy shoes are the ideal cycling shoes for the commuter - they may look the part for work any more, so why not give them a new lease of life?

Serendipitous adaptation (and there are those who call me pompous!). This refers to the process by which things become something they weren't initially intended for (or not entirely, at least). eg. the freebie conference briefcase/rucksack that has become my trusty cycling companion, where I carry valuables and as an overspill to my panier bag. Or the elasticated strap with end-hooks for my old car roofrack, which is now attached on my bike rack, ready to take on any unexpected package that won't fit in the bag.

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