Aidan Smith: You and me baby ain't nothing but Mamils
I can still hear the sound. It was sort of “Pshhhhtttt!”, immediately followed by gasps from the pavement. There may have been some yelps of pain after that, although to be honest when the double-deck bus slammed on its hydraulic brakes my mind pretty much went blank.
I’d like to say I came round thinking of the very first time I was allowed to cycle anywhere on my own - a liberating day in an endless summer surrounded by swaying fields of corn as dancing butterflies attracted to my freshly-buffed spokes tried to keep pace. And I’d like to say this memory encouraged me to jump straight back on my bike.
The truth is I’ve hardly ridden the thing on the roads since getting it stuck in Edinburgh’s tram tracks. Thanks are due to the little old lady who came to my aid and of course to the bus driver who crunched to a halt in the nick of time. Lying in the middle of Princes Street after this most public of forced dismounts, I gazed up admiringly at this man who’d demonstrated completely control of his 12-ton charabanc, its wheel stopping just inches from my head. But I was lucky, and don’t feel like tempting fate, so the bike is mainly used off-road now.
Who’d cycle in the cities anyway? You try to be environmentally-conscious and health-conscious but Chris Boardman, an Olympic gold medal-winning and Tour de France yellow jersey-wearing cycling legend who has a new role as champion of two wheels on the streets, admits it’s too dangerous. You try to dress properly for it and another bike hero, another Chris, ridicules you.
Let’s deal with Sir Chris Hoy first. He poked fun of “Mamils” - middle-aged men in Lycra - in a magazine article. The shiny, tight-fitting sportswear “looks awful on pretty much anyone heavier than eight stone,” he wrote. Dressing in, say, full Team Sky racing kit made most appear “as ridiculous an an overweight football fan wearing the shirt of his favourite club for a pub five-a-side game”. Walking into a cafe head-to-toe in the stuff, he added, would be to invite mass sniggering.
But the worst of the sneering was this: “It may be that they [the Mamils] were once twice the size they are now, until cycling transformed them, and they feel great about how they look.” Hang on, Sir Chris, isn’t it great that they feel great? Aren’t middle-aged men who wear football strips declaring loyalty, showing a passion and, most probably, bonding with their kids? And would it be better if, instead of Team Sky, cyclists over eight stone squeezed into your own line of bikewear which I’m being careful not to plug here?
To be fair to Sir Chris he back-pedalled furiously on a lot of this, insisting he hadn’t meant to cause offence. But he must believe that weekend cyclists look silly apeing star riders to have made the remarks in the first place, and that it was worth rather snobbily pointing out.
This has been low-grade hassle for the cycling fraternity, although hassle all the same. They face far worse tussling with cars and vans on the mean streets every day and doubtless motorists will argue that cyclists cause them plenty of irritation back. This is the fractious non-relationship which causes Boardman despair.
He actually stopped cycling last year after his mother was killed riding her bike. Now aiming to encourage at least ten per cent of people to cycle or walk in Greater Manchester rather than drive, he knows the post of bike tsar will be a challenging one.
“The roads are statistically safe but it doesn’t look it and it doesn’t feel it,” Boardman said on taking up the appointment, with remarks which can be read as meaning UK-wide. “I don’t want to see conflict. I don’t want people behaving on a road in an aggressive way because, more than making me angry, it makes me depressed … to see a human being treat someone who is vulnerable as an obstacle and give them no more thought than that.”
On the streets of Edinburgh on Sunday, for a few hours at least, cyclists could forget such aggro and motorists were kept well away from what they view as these occasionally unpredictable characters on two wheels as the capital hosted one of the UK City Rides also aimed at boosting bike usage. It is not known if any Mamils wore fat-suits under their cyclewear as they pedalled past Sir Chris’ Olympic gold postbox, just to make a point.
Edinburgh with its hills, congestion, cobbles and potholes is a tough city for the bike enthusiast who doesn’t boast elite thighs - and that’s before you get to the tram tracks. My front wheel jamming in them like it did was definitely the closest I’ve ever felt to thinking: “No more Hibs or prog-rock and I wish I’d updated that will.”
I was fortunate. On the same Princes Street stretch, medical student Zhi Min Soh was killed in a collision with a minibus after her wheel became caught in the tracks. The city council have promised they’ll be mindful of cyclists’ safety if the contentious, costly and extremely late tramline is eventually extended and are expected to include separate lanes for bikes. Such measures will be welcome but they’ve come too late for those who’ve already been snarled up in the tracks, one fatally.
And Sir Chris? I bow to no one in my admiration of the Olympic titan and am sure he was just trying to be funny or a bit more edgy. Those Mamils are almost certainly hero-worshiping him.
He should be flattered.