A recent issue of Cycling Weekly magazine celebrated our 125th year of publication, and it left me in a sentimental mood. It did the same for my friend Bernard, who complained he’d much preferred the magazine published to celebrate the 100-year anniversary.
“You people used to do nostalgia so much better,” he said.
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It also left me contemplating how cycling has changed. Not just the way that we used to have so few gears that you could tell which one you were in without having to look, or the soggy, clammy world before breathable fabrics, but the whole spirit of the thing. Cycling used to be a sport for the cheap.
Clammy in Cambridge
I don’t mean ‘mean’ — mean is when you avoid spending money. It’s relative. Cheap is absolute, it’s where everyone avoids spending money. Once upon a time, we all collectively made sure that we left all the kit in our local bike shop on the shelves and rails and let it mature for a few years, before it ripened into the ‘final discount’ baskets, and was ready for picking.
That’s not to say we got a bargain. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s good value. Kit, especially clothing, used to be dreadful beyond modern imagining. Nylon was your luxury fabric. If you took some Rapha kit back to 1995 and showed it to a few riders, they wouldn’t have known what sport it was for.
“I’ve rubbed this jersey and these tights together for ages, but I still don’t have enough static to make my hair stand on end. Are they for cross-country skiing?”
I once picked a nylon-fronted fleece from the final reduction bin in a shop in Cambridge. It was a little too big, but to hell with that, it was £3. The idea was that the nylon blocked the wind, which it did. It also completely prevented the escape of moisture, so that I used to finish rides with a chest so clammy and wrinkled and pruned that when I got undressed I looked as if I’d spent a night lying face down in a puddle.
The other problem with it was that it had huge pockets at the back, into which I merrily stuffed all that was necessary for a long winter ride — tubes, pumps, jelly babies (cheap, remember), tools, spare hats… The pockets were so heavy that they stretched the back of the fleece until they drooped down behind the saddle. From the rear I looked like an amazing three-buttocked cyclist.
The same bin yielded a summer jersey. It had an abstract design on it so violent that it would have been invisible to anyone suffering a severe migraine. It was as if the cat from The Simpsons had thrown up on a jersey. But it was so cheap that my friend Bernard bought one as well. If we wore them one at a time we looked stupid. If we wore them together we looked insane.
There were leg-warmers that had been designed for a giraffe — there was a huge roll of spare fabric at top and bottom, so your leg looked like a dumbbell. There was a variety of bar tape that stretched in a non-elastic manner, so that by the time it had been on the bike for a fortnight it looked like you’d wrapped the bars loosely in spaghetti. We put up with all of it. It was cheap, we were cheap, the sport was cheap.
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The world has moved on. Last week when I saw Bernard, he was wearing a brand-new Assos winter jersey. He looked snug and warm and dry and about nine kinds of wrong.
“It was a birthday present,” he said, dolefully.
But all is not lost. I know that last January he went to a cycle jumble sale. He told me that he’d bought five jerseys for £10. “Really colourful ones,” he said.
I can’t wait.