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How Cycling Became Britain's Most Fashionable Sport

A decade ago, the clothing options available to cyclists ranged from monstrous Day-Glo cagoules to garish replica team jerseys. Today, the bloke on the bike is not just the coolest man on the road but the the smartest guy in the room. Esquire investigates a revolution in street style

The boardroom

They say there is safety in numbers, in which case riding a bike in London is less risky now than it’s been for a long time. That said, most of the city’s cyclists can probably still give you a list of near misses — even those who aren’t on GPS tracker app Strava. Take Michael Smiley, for instance. He could hold his own with Robert Shaw in Jaws.

“I split my face open,” he says. “Fractured my skull, split my nose, smashed up my teeth, broke my elbow, broke my knee. I hit a lamppost by Marble Arch going at 35mph on a pushbike.

“One time, a car pulled out in front of me; I went over the handlebars, landed on the bonnet. He ran over the bike, drove up the road with me on the bonnet of the car smacking the window trying to get him to stop. He was trying to shake me off. This was years ago, when I was a courier.”

Smiley has never won the Tour de France. He holds no world records, has claimed no Olympic gold medals and is not a knight of the realm. He doesn’t have his own line of Fred Perry cycling jerseys, but it is just possible that he has had a greater impact on the way British cyclists dress today than Sir Bradley Wiggins. Smiley is an actor. You might recognise him from his role in Kill List (2011). Perhaps for his short-lived part in Channel 4’s Utopia. “Maybe Luther the odd time,” he adds. But it’s more likely you know him as Tyres, the fluorescent messenger with the stunted attention span in late-Nineties sitcom Spaced, the series that also introduced the world to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

“We were all living together — Simon, Nick and I,” Smiley says. “Simon and Jessica, was Stevenson now Hynes, had commissioned this character for the series who was based on me.”

Smiley became a cycle courier after first arriving in London 30 years ago. “I was homeless, unemployed and I had a child; I needed a job, but there was no work. Then one day, I saw someone go past with a bag on their shoulder and a radio and I thought: ‘I could do that.’ I managed to scrape together some money, bought a bike, joined a courier company and away I went.

“That self-determination gave me the confidence to try stand-up comedy, then to try acting, which gave me the career that I’ve got today — I can trace it all the way back to throwing my leg over a Dawes Galaxy in 1985.”

In the annals of British subcultures, the early cycle courier can be seen as the proto-hipster. The likes of Tyres set in motion the trend for fixed-wheel bikes and cycling caps that today is familiar to the point of derision. But back in 1999, when Spaced was first screened, the courier look was largely unknown. “It was very much of the underground,” Smiley says. “I didn’t really want someone [on the show] dressing me who didn’t know what was going on. So I said: ‘I’ll do all that, leave it to me.’ And I brought in my own gear.”

***

A Daniel Behrman quote hangs proudly in the toilet of the London café Look Mum No Hands!: “The bicycle is a vehicle for revolution.” The bike lends itself to such rhetoric (its wheels go round, after all).

Swedish statistician Hans Rosling calls the bicycle a “piece of life-transforming technology”; a means of empowerment as well as a mode of transport. He says this in the context of far-flung villagers in Mozambique, but the sentiment is equally true of children across the UK’s vast homogenous suburbs experiencing their first taste of freedom on a second-hand Raleigh.

Britain’s modern-day bike boom isn’t about them, however, it’s about people like you. According to the 2011 census, the proportion of people in the UK making their journey to work on a bicycle held static at 2.8 per cent. But in British cities, cycling has reached critical mass: Brighton, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield all recorded an increase of 80 per cent or more in the number of commuters on bikes during the Noughties; in inner London, the increase was a staggering 144 per cent.

Look Mum No Hands! is testament to the revival of cycling in London; it sits on Old Street, the main artery into the north-east of the capital and the road with the third-biggest volume of bike traffic in the city. It is a biker café, as in bicycle, serving coffee — “the socially acceptable, performance-enhancing drug among cyclists”, according to co-founder Matt Harper — and cake, with an in-house bike repair shop and bike frames mounted in the windows like works of art.

“We opened in April 2010 and I was surprised by how immediately popular it was,” Harper says. “Even two years before it might not have worked. It just seems that the uptake of cycling in London went through the roof.”
There’s now a second branch in Hackney — where 14 per cent of commuters ride bikes — and with plans for further outposts across the city.

The same year the café set up shop, a Mintel report revealed that regular cyclists were disproportionately likely to be well educated, earn at least £50,000 a year, read a broadsheet newspaper and shop at Waitrose. In the two years up to 2010, in the midst of the recession, sales of high-end bikes rose by 54 per cent; the Association of Cycle Traders recorded 30 per cent year-on-year growth in the sale of bikes worth an average £1,000 through cycle-to-work schemes.

The new cyclist is affluent, cosmopolitan and, Mintel says, twice as likely to be male as female. And he doesn’t just want the expensive bike, he wants to look the part. That doesn’t necessarily mean an all-in-one gimp outfit traditionally accociated with cycling. The Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra) exists, but the new wonder fabric is old-school wool: merino to be exact.

“When we started selling merino back in 2000, the decision was driven by how the polyester base layers we were using for our sports stunk after sport, and sometimes after washing,” says Ade Gunn, business development director at Welsh sportswear label Howies, one of the first to bring merino to the cycling market. “Serious users buy kit to perform in tough conditions, and they will pay the premium for superfine merino.”

“The price people will pay has increased in recent years, making certain newer fabrics affordable to use that maybe were not in the past,” says Yanto Barker, a former professional cyclist who set up performance brand Le Col.

But the real upsurge has been in crossover clothing fusing the capabilities of all-out cycling gear to urban style aesthetics. Giants like Levi’s, with its bike-orientated Commuter range, and H&M have flexed their muscles, selling stretchy denim jeans with reflective detailing and reinforced seats for more comfort. Even Marks & Spencer now boasts a line of cycling chinos. But the moment belongs to more recent start-ups who have emerged from the cycling scene itself.

Vulpine is among the leading lights. “The Vulpine test is if you can walk into a slightly rough pub and not look like a dick, then it’s right,” founder Nick Hussey says. His company is one with aspirations to sell on Mr Porter rather than in Evans Cycles; it’s still very much technical gear but with the less palatable aspects of outdoor clothing — such as Velcro, “the enemy of good knitwear” — rethought or thrown out.

Hussey says that an inflow of new cyclists has forced the industry to aim higher. “Cyclists are very value-based, whereas in the wider world, 200 quid for a jacket is pretty normal.”

But no matter how nice it looks, the gear has to work. “We’re a performance brand that’s stylish,” he adds. “We are not a style brand. As soon as the gear stops working, we’re stuffed.”

High-end French brand Café du Cycliste comes from a similar place: “We wanted technical products but we preferred to be well dressed rather than dressed up,” the company’s director Rémi Clermont says. “There is no reason to buy costumes that make you look like a pro.”

“Several friends have had their girlfriends say, ‘You’re not going out wearing that, are you?’” says Will Miles, co-founder of Chapeau!, a bike clothing importer turned maker. “We wanted a range that might not elicit that response.”

Look Mum No Hands!, too, has its own line of clothing. Its bestseller happens to be a trio of Tour de France pants, in yellow, green and red polka dot, but it is also working on serious kit; a recent collaboration with venerable English institution Lavenham produced a quilted jacket and gilet.

However, no brand better embodies the aspirational, middle-class cyclist than Rapha, the 10-year-old company that last year ousted Adidas as the kit-maker for Team Sky, the team behind Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. With its statement marketing and steep price points, it polarises opinion among cyclists (although even its most outspoken detractors begrudgingly admit that its clothes are incredibly well made). Here, a jersey could cost you £200 — fork out £300 and you can get a pair of cycling shoes made from yak leather. And business couldn’t be better: last year, Rapha grew by an unprecedented 67 per cent, with an estimated turnover of £26.5m in 2013.

“They have successfully introduced a brand image that’s probably more recognisable to the non-cycling public than traditional brands like Assos or Campagnolo,” says Chris Morris of Swrve, a company known for pioneering jeans for cyclists. “Very few brands escape into the broader non-cycling world — that’s really impressive.”

Above: Team Sky rider Bernhard Eisel models for Rapha) with mandatory caffeine fix)

“Rapha put a bug in people’s heads that things could be different,” Vulpine’s Hussey says. “They were ahead of the curve. We definitely followed in their slipstream.”

Urban crossover clothing makes up about a quarter of Rapha’s sales, but at its core it is a road-racing brand, and to some extent that has shaped the market.

“There’s all kinds of cyclists, it’s just that road racers shout a lot louder,” Hussey says. “That could be for a reason; they are the high achievers.”

“I remember turning up to a club ride in the South West about two years ago wearing a Rapha jersey and getting, ‘Did your mum buy you that?’ or, ‘You can tell he’s from London’,” says Josh Greet, who works at London bike shop Kinoko. “But now it’s the norm.”

“When I moved to London, it was deemed the only people who were riding bikes were those who couldn’t afford a car or some lefty artist-type,” Michael Smiley says. “It’s very much the new golf now, isn’t it? The thirty- or fortysomething bloke who’s got himself a bit of money who can buy himself a £2,000 bike with a full groupset [gears], go off in his Rapha clothing into the countryside legitimately for four hours with his friends, so you can get away from the wife and kids. And it keeps you fit, so the missus can’t complain.”

***

The same year that Spaced first aired, Lance Armstrong began his domination of the Tour de France. By then, professional cyclists had become, according to Rapha boss Simon Mottram, “technical machines” — impossible to relate to even before we knew about the drugs. “Who can feel anything for that?”

Mottram set up Rapha in 2004 having spotted a gaping pothole in the market. “In the Nineties, cycling was just this geeky, super-niche sport,” he says. “Something sad people did. You were either a racer or a commuter and neither really cared about the kit. If you were a racer, it was just about going faster, and if you were a commuter, it was about function and being seen — not being hit.”

It was a time when British men were growing evermore sartorially aware. “Most of us woke up and realised you could actually buy some really nice clothes,” Mottram says. “But if you became a bike rider, you had to sacrifice any sense of style.”
If you wanted a cycling jersey, your only option was a team replica, typically in garish colours, emblazoned with logos. “It’s like playing football in a Man United shirt. You don’t do that unless you play for Man United.”

The sport Armstrong had propelled himself to the top of was one of stats, “measurements and data”. It had forgotten the romance. Mottram pulls out what amounts to Rapha’s earliest business plan: a scrapbook of behind-the-scenes photos of the tours that took place some 30 years before Armstrong, when cycling was “a noble pursuit”. “These guys were putting themselves on the line, and unlike most of the shots of the guys today, they were totally human,” he says. “Their suffering — in a small, pathetic way, that’s what we feel like when we ride bikes. They’re dirty and hollow-eyed and a bit fucked — that’s what it feels like to be a messenger.”

Back in the Nineties, Mottram wasn’t a messenger — he was an accountant — but he wanted to be one. “I just thought they were really cool,” he says. “They wore all black, so I always wore black. I was a fakenger [a fake messenger] before there were any fakengers.”

Messengers offered an edgy alternative to the mainstream view of the cycling. They’d tapped into the cycling heritage that was then alien to Britain — the mass-start racing favoured in mainland Europe was banned in the UK, only adding to its mythical allure. “I used to like going into vintage shops and buying wool-mix jerseys,” Michael Smiley says. “Nice old French and Italian cycling clubs.”

But mostly, the courier’s curious dress code had come out of necessity. Peter Walker, who set up The Guardian’s Bike Blog, worked as a messenger post-university. “I can remember riding around in fraying shorts over a pair of my girlfriend’s winter leggings,” he says. “The bike gear available then was purely intended to race, so couriers worked out their own solutions.”

Smiley recalls wearing cycling shorts with rock-climbing leggings. “When you were riding around on a bike, it looked OK, but then you’d be standing in the pub afterwards and you’d have people pointing and laughing,” he says. “What we developed then were cut-off combats over the top — that’s where that came in.”

Through their line of work, couriers were naturally what Malcolm Gladwell would classify as “connectors”, people who joined the dots between networks. And off the clock, the subculture spilled into the emerging club scene. “Chill-out rooms were the hotbeds of ideas,” Smiley says. “You were fuelled by the exuberance of the dance floor and the beats, and the heavy use of Lucozade — you’d open your mind.”

Outsiders were becoming receptive to the courier look, and in the clubs the clothing came into its own. “You’d keep your cycling gear on [when you went out] because it was great for wicking sweat away,” Smiley says.

“The courier look has offered a lot,” Swrve’s Chris Morris says. “It’s a great mix of individual style with the practical needs of spending the working day moving on a bike. Anyone looking to make regular clothes more bike-friendly will look to messengers to some extent because so much of their look is all about function.”

***

 

Above: 'The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles' by Mikael Colville-Andersen

There are rules about what you should wear on a bike. Or rather, there’s The Rules.

“Rule #16: Respect the jersey.”
“One of the great things about being a cyclist is that we’re skinny,” Frank D Strack says. “Clothes look great on skinny people.” Strack is a founding member of the Velominati, a freemason-like fraternity of cyclists, the “keepers of the cog”. The Rules , published in 2013, is their compendium of road racing’s unwritten code, written down. It covers everything you need to know about life inside the sport, from race etiquette (Rule #43: don’t be a jackass) to what to order in the café after your ride (Rule #56: espresso or macchiato only). But foremost, The Rules dictate how you should look.

“Rule #17: Team kit is for members of the team.”
“Cycling has always been a vain sport,” says Alex Metcalfe from high-tech bike gear specialists Gore Bike Wear. “Right back in the late Sixties, riders such as [Belgian cycling icon Eddy] Merckx looked just right and huge attention was paid to team kit.”
“At the starting line, the guys who are the most intimidating are the ones with all the gear,” says Matt Harper from Look Mum No Hands!, who used to compete in road races. “They’ve got the glistening calf muscles, the shaven legs and the smart kit. They’ve already got the upper hand before you’ve started peddling. You look at photos of Merckx or [Italian sprinter Mario] Cipollini and they look slick. They could be models.”

“Many of the greats such as [five-time Tour de France winner Jacques] Anquetil, [Swiss champion Hugo] Koblet and [Louison] Bobet [the first rider to win the Tour de France three years in a row] always raced with a comb in their pocket so they could look fantastic at all times,” Strack says. “And, as [French poet] Paul Fournel wrote, ‘To look good is already to go fast.’”

“Rule #8: Saddle, bars and tyres shall be carefully matched.”
“The crossover ranges are great for getting people to view the bike as an accessible way to get around,” Strack says. “But you won’t catch me dead riding my race bike in any of that stuff.”

“Rule #22: Cycling caps are for cycling.”
“The guys who write The Rules clearly do it in a tongue-in-cheek way,” says Klaus Bellon, who runs the Cycling Inquisition blog, “but it’s also somewhat serious. They say you shouldn’t wear a cap when off your bike, yet several of them were photographed doing just that while watching a race in Belgium last year. People get a kick out of catching them breaking their own rules.”

***

The new aesthetic that Rapha ushered in was subdued, marrying cutting-edge technical fabrics and features with the classic, clean silhouette of late-Sixties Merckx-era road racing. A Fordism, the bulk of the early line was black — as celebrated in the brand’s new 10th anniversary Kings of Pain line — but accentuated with an unlikely signature colour: pink. This was first the tone of the Giro d’Italy — not the yellow of the Tour de France (“Yellow is too obvious,” Mottram admits) — but also a nod to Paul Smith. “I used to buy a lot of Paul Smith and I always liked that contrast of dark grey and pink highlights,” the Rapha chief executive says.

A keen cyclist himself, Smith returned the compliment by collaborating with Rapha, first in 2007, and designers Timothy Everest and Christopher Raeburn have both followed suit. Meanwhile, Oliver Spencer recently worked with Vulpine on a blazer that has become Spencer’s best-selling “one category, one colour” jacket.

“With a trend, things go off on an extreme,” Spencer says of high-end cycling clothing. “If you like, that’s the Rapha side of it. Now it’s finding its ground; Vulpine is stepping into a massive gap that Rapha doesn’t do. More wearable, more normal — more everyday.”

According to Spencer, there are parallels between what is happening in the cycling industry and the rise of sport-luxe, in which the fashion houses have embraced technical clothing as a whole. But cycling has taken it up a gear; for a start, brands like Gucci, Hermés and Chanel have launched their own bikes. “Cycling is actually infiltrating fashion now and that’s the big difference,” Spencer says.

“The co-opting of messenger culture by the mainstream had a profound effect on the cycling community and its relationship to fashion,” says Dylan Robbins. “When Kanye flaunts his Cinelli [handmade Italian bike] like it’s a Benz, you know the conversation has changed.”

Robbins is the “spiritual advisor” of Team JVA, a racing team from Portland, Oregon, a city that’s home to a vibrant cycling scene (as lampooned by sketch show Portlandia). 

“The influx of young fashionistas was a bit of a shock,” Robbins says. “Some of those who had been cycling for years reacted like the obscure band they’d loved for years suddenly had a top-10 radio hit.”

Team JVA themselves came to the attention of the wider cycling community a few years ago when they set up a website for a fictitious brand called Jahvahaal Internationale, an obvious spoof of Rapha. It included slogans such as “We’re Kind of a Big Deal”, “Women: Kind of an Afterthought” and “Sans Serif” plastered — in a sans serif typeface — across pictures of “super serious” cyclists, much like Rapha’s own site.

“We saw satire as a way to hold a mirror up to people who we thought we taking themselves way too seriously,” Robbins says. “[As cyclists] we put on costumes, shave our legs and pretend that we’re waging epic battles every time we sprint for a city limit sign. Rapha succeeded in tapping into that penchant for self-delusion.

“Rapha was instrumental in changing the aesthetic of performance clothing for the better,” Robbins admits. “But to non-cyclists, we all probably still look like helmeted figure skaters.”

***

When exactly did cycling become cool? “It can all be traced back to a rather specific date,” Julie Kierkegaard says, “14 November 2006. Before then, there was little on the internet or in the public consciousness regarding urban cycling. On that date Mikael [Colville-Andersen] took what [was] later called ‘The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles’. Cycle Chic was born. Without Cycle Chic, no Rapha, no H&M cycling wear, no Chanel.”

Kierkegaard works for Copenhagenize, a design agency that places the bicycle at the centre of its push to make urban environments more liveable spaces. Every year, it compiles an index of the planet’s most bike-friendly cities; in 2013, Amsterdam came top (no UK cities featured).

Mikael Colville-Andersen set up Copenhagenize, as well as the Cycle Chic blog, described by The Guardian as “The Sartorialist on two wheels”. The Bike Blog’s Peter Walker calls Colville-Andersen “the Richard Dawkins of cycling” — he’s certainly headstrong. In one of his Ted talks, he makes a compelling case for cycling helmets causing more harm than good by perpetuating the notion that riding a bike is inherently dangerous. But one thing Colville-Andersen insists he isn’t is a cyclist.

“‘Cyclist’ has developed into a dirty word,” he says. “I don’t personally wish to be called one. If I’m in a bar in London and mention to someone that I’m a cyclist, they’ll get a picture of me in homoerotic outfits, shitting all over society with my perceived bad behaviour.”

“The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles” couldn’t be further removed from that image. It features a woman, shot from behind, on what you’d call a “utility bike”; she wears her hair down; no helmet; a black, belted jacket; a billowing checked skirt; and calf-length boots; a satchel clamped to a rear carrier. It became Cycle Chic’s first entry. “From that first photo, things snowballed quickly,” Colville-Andersen says.

“Copenhagen is a style capital. People see our impeccably dressed citizens moving about the urban landscape on bicycles and get all excited. But it’s just the most convenient way around the city. We don’t dress for our journey, we dress for our destination. Just like motorists, pedestrians and public transport users.

“Personally, I’m not a cyclist. I’m just a guy who happens to get around the city on [a] bicycle — like 55 per cent [of Copenhagen’s] population.”

Colville-Andersen views specialist cycling clothing with suspicion, calling it “profiteering”: “Nobody in mainstream bicycle cultures in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany [or] France is buying into this shit. Why would they? They already own trousers. Once urban cycling becomes more normal, people will reject the cycling clothes trend.”

Antonia Maybury runs Water Off a Duck’s Back, a company geared towards making clothes that look “normal” but boast features tailored towards cycling. She notes that the bicycle is something that British people rediscover, whereas in mainland Europe, they never stop riding. “In the UK, most people learn to cycle when they are at school, but as soon as cars are introduced into their lives, the cycling option fades out,” she says. “This has a knock-on effect to the clothes that people wear. Imagine that you simply continued riding every day for the rest of your life — you wouldn’t venture into suddenly wearing Gore-Tex and neon jackets, you would simply continue wearing your normal clothes.”

“I suspect that in Berlin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen they don’t have as far to cycle,” is Look Mum No Hands!’s Matt Harper’s take on things. “And the cycling is at a slower pace, with more cyclists. London is quite busy and frenetic. And if you’re a guy working for a bank in the City wearing an £800 suit, you don’t want to cycle to work in the rain.”

***

One Friday morning, I’m invited to join a bunch of cyclists — friends and associates of Rapha founder Simon Mottram — for a few laps of London’s Regent’s Park before work. A casual affair, it isn’t an official Rapha run, but it might as well be. If not head-to-toe in the brand, most riders wear at least a flash of pink. (One makes a statement by wearing no Rapha at all.)

The ride kicks off at 8.30am, with cyclists joining in spurts before a true peloton is powering around the park. Later on, I’ll hear it described as an organic entity, or like a swarm of locusts that suddenly bursts into a sprint for no good reason. On the surface, it’s all smiles — old boys (and girls) catching up; nothing like the suffering endured by the riders in those vintage photos Mottram showed me of the Tour de France. But no matter how relaxed this is supposed to be, pride is clearly at sake; one rider confides afterwards that everyone was hurting at some point during the ride, even if they claim otherwise.

I manage little more than 30 minutes at the back before I’m dropped by the peloton without a hope of catching up and peel off to the café in the park’s Inner Circle, where the riders will end up.

Other cycling brands like to sell the idea of inclusivity, anyone is invited; Rapha knows that its most loyal customers like to feel that they are part of an elite club. There’s a secret range called Imperial Works that is made available on an invite-only basis to, as Mottram puts it, “the people who really care… or spend the most money, crudely”. Super-fans also get first dibs in sample sales — “the most middle-class jumble sale you will ever see,” I’m told — and the first riders in the café are wearing the spoils of one such event that took place the day before.

One sports a £200 Team Sky jacket with cut-off sleeves — that he has indeed cut off. (Pro riders remove them when they get too hot, but then they get given a replacement jacket the next day.) “I wouldn’t have done it if I’d bought it at full price,” he tells me. “No one likes to admit it but everyone was up at 6am working out if their socks coordinate with their outfit.”

The remaining riders pull up and soon the cafe is buzzing — if I’ve learnt anything it is that cycling is good news for the coffee business. In fact, it’s good news for business, full stop.

“I had two meetings last week, both of which were done on a bicycle,” another rider says. “Twenty years ago, that would’ve been during a round of golf; now it’s on a lap of Richmond Park.”

***

Michael Smiley recently gave his Tyres cap away, to a friend of a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy. “What are you going to do: keep it as a museum piece?” he asks. “Or give it to someone who will appreciate it. It’s nice to pass stuff on — to think that a silly sitcom helped someone get through something quite frightening.” The actor ponders on what would have become of his alter ego. “I’d like to think that Tyres is a masseur for the Bermudian Ladies’ Cycling Club. Or maybe he’s developing clothes; I’d love for him to be sitting around with the boys from Vulpine and Swrve.

“Swrve have got a lovely Belstaffy waxed jacket, cut long at the back, short at the front, a zip pocket on the sleeve for your keys — innovation that obviously comes from the saddle.” Smiley describes his own look these days as “countryside alliance meets agent provocateur”: “I like to mix and match: a nice pair of moleskin shooting breeks with a pair of really pingy New & Lingwood socks, so the legs are going up and down and they’re getting flashed — you can’t say you didn’t see me. I want people to think, ‘He must be a gentleman, look at the way he’s dressed.’ It’s all subterfuge. You can very much do that with cycle clothing.”

Then again, being well dressed isn’t everything. “You can look as good as you want on a pushbike, you’ve still got to ride the fucking thing,” he grins. “That’s the best bit.”

 

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