AS Britain pins its Tour de France hopes on Bradley Wiggins, Graeme Virtue explores the revolution that has seen cycling become a national obsession in recent years
Last Sunday, when it became apparent that poor Andy Murray wasn’t going to go the distance at Wimbledon, British hopes melted and leaked out of SW19. In the days that followed Murray’s tearful runner-up speech, you could almost hear the sound – perhaps not too dissimilar from the satisfying click made by a Shimano Derailleur guiding a bike chain on to a smaller gearwheel – of UK sporting dreams switching to another potential national hero. The Union flag of expectation is now firmly draped around the shoulders of Bradley Wiggins.
Bradley Wiggins. If you didn’t know the name before the 99th Tour de France, you may be aware of it now. With just a week left in the competition, he and fellow British rider Chris Froome have already done a breathtaking amount of legwork, dictating the pace of the race and, vitally, muffling opposition with an impressive display of peloton wrangling. Last week, L’Equipe ran a front-page picture of Wiggins in imposing profile, slurping tea from a Union Jack mag. “Attaquez-Le!” ran the headline: “Attack him!” It sent a clear message, even to non-fans: if the French are that worried, it must be serious.
Plenty of us take an idle swing with a tennis racquet during Wimbledon fortnight before stuffing it back in the wardrobe. But cycling is different. If Wiggins were to actually win the Tour next Sunday – becoming the first Briton to triumph in the event’s 109-year history – it would be the crowing glory for a social and sporting revolution. Cycling is already a national obsession – especially in a certain demographic past the first flush of youth.
On two wheels, Scotland already pedals above its weight. As well as Sir Chris Hoy and his three gold medals from Beijing 2008, we also have Mark Beaumont, the indefatigable record-breaker who cycled around the world, and fearless stunt rider Danny MacAskill, who has bunny-hopped his way up to millions of YouTube views. Edinburgh is bidding to host the Grand Depart, the prestigious Tour de France warm-up event, in 2017, but it feels like the two-wheeled revolution is already here. Wiggins’ achievements (he’s already held the yellow jersey for more consecutive days than any other Briton) come at a time when cycling is in the ascendant. Broader than a sport and more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle, one that is increasingly attractive to everyone; from hip youngsters with ethical concerns and a lust for designer gear, to the MAMILs: Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, the salt-and-pepper-haired enthusiasts who dominate competitive cycling in Scotland.
What makes it all the more remarkable is that cycling has managed to become cool even when faced with the Kryptonite of being politically promoted. Citizens don’t seem to listen when it comes to binge-drinking or overeating, but something about the two-wheeled message is successfully getting through. For Andrew Pankhurst, editor of Spin magazine, it’s a case of everyone pulling in the same direction. Along with other pro-bike organisations, Spin publisher Cycling Scotland is part of the Cross-Party Group on Cycling at the Scottish Parliament. “The consensus was that while there were all these different groups, be it road racers or leisure riders, they all feed in to making travel more sustainable,” he says. “If you already enjoy your mountain biking, it’s a much easier sell to try to get you to ride to work.” He has witnessed skyrocketing interest first-hand with Pedal For Scotland, the annual mass participation bike ride from Glasgow to Edinburgh. “When I started six years ago, there were 1,500 people. Last September, we had 14,000.” Membership of British Cycling, the organisation that promotes the sport, has just topped 50,000.
In a public consultation published in 2010, Cycling Scotland researched why people were getting on their bikes. “The number one motivator for people was getting fit,” says Pankhurst. “Cycling is low-impact but high intensity, so it doesn’t put too much strain on your bones and joints but it does give your heart a good workout.” Does he have any idea why so many 30-something and 40-something men are taking it up, beyond the fact that it’s forgiving on the joints? “It seems to be a bit like triathlons – there’s something about testing yourself that’s appealing.”
There are, of course, already well-established cycling cliques with their own codes, clothes and hangouts. In Glasgow, sinewy cycle couriers in cargo shorts discuss fixed-gear bikes over super-sized bagels at basement café Where The Monkey Sleeps. In Edinburgh, there’s even a cycling-themed pub, the Tourmalet, off Leith Walk. In these places, you might overhear grumblings about the new breed of “Lycra louts” or moneyed newbies who have “all the gear, but no idea”. But is that fair on MAMILs?
“The thing about Lycra is, it’s really practical,” says Rob Bruce, a 45-year-old based in Edinburgh who recently took part in the Etape Caledonia, a breathtaking 80-mile run on closed Perthshire roads, including the road up Shiehallion. “Lycra keeps you warm and it dries out quickly. But sometimes my wife sees me in all the gear and says, ‘You’re not going out like that, are you?’ ”
Bruce heads out once or twice a week, usually as part of a group drawn from a pool of about 15 friends and neighbours, to tackle runs of up to 50 miles. While they may not completely self-identify as MAMILs, he admits “they are all male, and they do all wear Lycra”, although they don’t sport much in the way of fancy brands. “Cycling is an opportunity to lavish on yourself beautiful pieces of hi-tech equipment, but it’s not mainly about that,” he says. “Most of my pals aren’t as nerdy about their bikes as my photography mates are about their cameras.”
A long-time hillwalker and climber, Bruce originally started mountain biking, before switching to the less jarring road cycling. “What I see around me is a lot of people who have been outdoorsy all their lives who are now really homing in on cycling,” he says. “Once you get to a certain age, you’re not cut out for squash or five-a-side anymore. I know four or five people who have had hip replacements, and you can be back on your bike soon after.”
And what do they get out of it? “Exercise, fresh air and it’s sociable,” he says. “What would you rather do: go to the pub and get sloshed while talking about the stuff you might do? Or take a few hours out on the bike on a Wednesday night and come back feeling great?”
A new wave of customers means a new wave of bike retail. In Edinburgh’s prosperous Stockbridge, Ronde – named for a long-standing Belgian cycling tradition – is the epitome of a modern bike shop, displaying beautiful Colnago frames on plinths, and incorporating an exhibition space and cafe. Run by brothers-in-law Neil Dryden and Neil Millsop, the shop is celebrating its first birthday this weekend, and has been screening Tour stages on big TVs for the past fortnight. “We had a very specific idea about how a bike shop should work,” says Millsop, “and it was largely influenced by what’s happening in the US and London. The idea is to be inclusive and non-cliquey.” The open-plan space is very 21st-century retail, but while it may not be as intimidating as old-fashioned bike shops where the light was dim and the walls were forested with Raleigh frames, some of the price tags might give a non-expert pause. “A lot of our customers are over 30, they’re reasonably affluent and also very enthusiastic about cycling,” says Millsop. “It’s all about the passion and suffering so it’s very romantic, but it’s also about kit and gear, bits and bobs.”
Ronde is the sole Scottish stockist of Rapha, a clothing brand named after a 1960s racing team that, since 2004, has become emblematic of a new fashion confidence in cycle wear. Their advertising features a romanticised look at the sport’s past, but the company is determined to push things forward, partnering with Paul Smith to produce limited-edition clothing and accessories. “We’re all more design-aware and design-savvy, and people’s expectation of what they should get out of a shopping experience is different now,” says Millsop. “And perhaps some of the bike industry has missed that.”
Is there not a danger of this new aestheticism – almost fetishisation – of cycling becoming passé in a few years? Millsop points out that cycling retail has always had to evolve: two decades ago, mountain bikes were the only game in town but now that sector has flatlined. If the industry takes an unexpected turn away from immaculate designer gear, Millsop wants Ronde to be nimble enough to keep up. “We designed the shop so that it’s a flexible space, and we hope we’re savvy enough to keep moving.”
Richard Moore, Scotland on Sunday’s cycling correspondent, currently embedded in the travelling circus of the Tour, can remember the old days of intimidating bike shops. “It was quite elitist in Britain,” he says. “It was such a cult niche activity, and those involved guarded it, and you could be made to feel stupid when you went into those shops. But now it has opened up and become more accessible.”
The author of several cycling histories – most recently an account of the turbulent formation of Team Sky, that includes Wiggins and Froome – Moore has come face to face with MAMILs and the new breed of Rapha-clad cyclist at book festivals. “I’m always staggered by the range of people who are there, and the level of knowledge in the audience, and how curious they are. It would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.” The prospect of a profile-boosting Wiggins win is tantalising; “uncharted territory”, as Moore puts it. “It would be the greatest achievement by any British cyclist,” he says.
Even Hollywood has detected the smell of WD-40 in the zeitgeist, casting in-demand Dark Knight Rises star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, in which a zippy bike messenger evades cops and mobsters in gridlocked New York. When movie executives – who probably have a few MAMILs among their number – consider an activity suitable material for a hacky Hollywood thriller, it means it’s truly gone mainstream. «
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Monday 20 May 2013
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