Steel Frames, Hot Rubber

A haggis-loving glutton and petrolhead by day, our writer has become a leg shaving signatory of that weirdest of subcultures: hardcore cyclists

By Ben Oliver

July 25 2019

Maybe I’m making lazy assumptions, but I’m guessing that few Boisdale regulars are also cycling enthusiasts. I suspect that you’re more likely to spend your Sundays cursing a slow moving peloton from behind the wheel of your Land Rover than to wear Lycra yourself – although it is appealingly stretchy and doesn’t mind if you ordered Boisdale’s chateaubriand-for-two just for you.

I am a Boisdale regular, and a glutton. The waiting staff know to bring me a plunger as well as the regular cutlery, the better to foie-gras myself on Ranald’s haggis.

But this columnist is a fifth columnist. I am also a cyclist, and the gluttony and the cycling permit and encourage each other. It irritates me when my fellow members of the press refer to “motorists” as if they were some put-upon minority rather than the vast majority of the country.

“Motorists hit with new tax!” scream the headlines, but with more than 30 million cars on Britain’s roads, aren’t motorists just most of us? Non-cyclists and newspapers tend to see “cyclists” in the same way – as one tribe.

In fact, the explosion in the sport’s popularity in this country, encouraged by our domination of Olympic cycling and the Tour de France and, quite noticeably, by the 7/7 terror attacks – which forced many London commuters onto two wheels, who then stayed there – means that cycling is now a mass activity, and its participants simply reflective of society as a whole.

This is both good and bad. I welcome the growth and popularity of a sport I have loved for thirty years. But we “real” cyclists are as tribal and as judgemental as anyone else. A group of cyclists called The Velominati (I’m not kidding) have created a list known as “The Rules” that defines with obsessive precision how “real” cyclists should dress and behave, including always shaving your legs, and maintaining sharp “tan lines” between your exposed, nut-brown limbs and your pallid everything else.

Those of us who follow The Rules are cyclists. Everyone else is just a person on a bicycle.

Those of us who follow The Rules are cyclists. Everyone else is just a person on a bicycle.
Those of us who follow The Rules are cyclists. Everyone else is just a person on a bicycle.

You are far more likely to be irritated by a person on a bicycle than a proper cyclist. A chav in a hoody riding down a pavement while texting is not a cyclist; he just happens to be on a bicycle, possibly stolen from an actual cyclist. I particularly rue the influx of alpha males of late-middle age who, if they hadn’t taken up cycling, would otherwise have been boring people at a golf club bar. They might look like cyclists to you, but with their ten-grand bikes and ten-kilo paunches, we know they’re not. You see them in Richmond Park in the evenings and on the Surrey Hills at the weekends: Well-to-do lawyers, solicitors and accountants dressed entirely by upmarket cycling clothier Rapha, their heads down, failing to acknowledge other riders as real cyclists would, and going rather more slowly than the Lance-face they put on would suggest.

If you get stuck behind a long, strung-out chain of cyclists that is impossible to pass, they’ll be such recent converts. Proper cyclists ride fast and in close formation when in groups, two abreast and inches off each other’s wheels, thus halving the distance required to overtake them. But your irritation at any delay should be tempered by the knowledge that you are less likely to be paying for the coronary care in later years of those whose lumpen, Lycra-clad arses you are stuck behind. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 involving a quarter of a million people found that cycling to work cuts the risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease by 45 per cent compared to commuting by car or public transport.

Countless other studies confirm the benefits. With obesity expected to cost the NHS £10bn and the wider economy £50bn by 2050, cycling’s savings outweigh its irritations. I am one of those statistics.

Although I have always been both cyclist and glutton, at one time the gluttony dominated and I ballooned to 18 stone. After rebalancing the two and with cycling as my only exercise, I’m now 13 stone with a 31-inch waist at age 44.

The sport that I have loved since I was a kid will serve me well in old age too. I once got chatting with three cyclists who had stopped on the lane outside my house. The youngest was 77 and the oldest 81.

They were lean and fit and happy. Their legs were smooth, as real cyclists’ should be, but I was too polite to ask them whether they still had to shave them or had just gone bald there. They’d only stopped to allow “the kid” to catch up. He soon appeared, puffing slightly and a mere 65. This, I reflected, was the kind of old man I’d like to be: Still alive, still cycling, and still eating as much of Ranald’s haggis as I like.