by Our Bicycle Lives

Apart from the H word*, is there any other cycling accessory that antagonises non-cyclists and divides opinions as much as Lycra? At the funeral of indefatigable cycle campaigner Barry Mason, mourners were instructed to bring ‘two good locks, no black and no Lycra’. So strong is the dislike for Lycra that it carries on beyond death. But Lycra is commonly used by professional and club cyclists and aspiring Sunday riders, so it must have its uses. I have never had the occasion to don any, but I imagine it is lightweight, breathable, stretchy (hence its North American name, Spandex, an anagram of expands) therefore comfortable, and that being so close-fitting, it offers lower wind resistance and allows for greater speed. It is a technical garment that enhances performance. So why do I react to it on such a personal level?

To start with, its elastic and artificial texture evokes the distinctly unpleasant feeling with which I think of polystyrene for example: it provokes a physical, instinctive reaction, only one step away from goosebumps or a shiver down one’s spine. Almost repellent. It also hugs the contours of the body so well it is like a second skin, but, as my friend Richard remarked, ‘it is worse than being in the nude.’ If cyclists were naked, people would look away tactfully. As it is, this black skin-suit, like leather trousers, focuses the attention: it reveals body shapes, highlights any curves and protuberances and amplifies the extra pounds. Not to mention coloured Lycra (red! pink!).

As a rule, Lycra tops don’t get nearly so much attention as Lycra shorts, which cover the lower body, the taboo zone. We may find a pair of well-formed breasts in a Lycra tee-shirt attractive, but the fabric moulding the curve of a rounded bottom or the shape of male genitals shows too much: it is so revealing that it is embarrassing, for both the wearer and the viewer. Personally, I care too much – or possibly too little – about my own self-esteem and the esteem of others to be seen in Lycra, dead or alive.

My grievance with Lycra is that it is not attractive: there is so little left to the imagination that it can’t perpetuate the myth that cycling is a sweat-free activity. Let’s face it, Lycra is distasteful, as emphasized by the acronym MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra): for the French speaker it conjures up unfortunate images of ‘mamelles’ (udders), of redundant rolling flesh and soft pink tissues. I remember my dismay when, during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, I first saw professional female runners wearing skimpy swimsuits instead of shorts and vests: how could they deface their sport in that way, I wondered? Don’t they mind what they look like? Should aesthetics be subject to performance? Does the end justifies the means? This was not cricket. And Lycra most certainly is not cricket.

Then there is the Lycra brigade, the pelotons of Lycra-clad cyclists on expensive road bikes who are flaunting their toned bodies. I find their group behaviour and professionalism intimidating, and I object to them labelling cycling a sport rather than an everyday activity, a way of life. I imagine them driving to the start of the race or the sportive, their bike in the boot. They are the people who will visit a cycle show and a motor show without a second thought. Their otherness is so apparent that I can’t even bring them to life. To me they are just motorists in disguise, and what is worse, I can’t reach them because they don’t care a fig what anybody thinks of them: they wear Lycra.