David Hill: Race cycle fashion's tour de force


Lycra-clad riders swoosh by in the latest logo-laden gear on their lightweight, high-geared bikes.

Lycra hugs all contours, even where the landscape has subsided. Photo / Getty Images
Lycra hugs all contours, even where the landscape has subsided. Photo / Getty Images

They pass me when I'm on my upright, eight-speed bike, labouring towards the dairy for a cream doughnut, wearing my gardening shorts plus T-shirt with paint stains.

A hiss of skinny tyres, a whirr of light-weight pedals, a flash of lean limbs, and they're already 15m in front of me, buttocks tight and shiny in Lycra, features invisible behind ergonomically-hinged sunglasses with Light Stabilising Technology, and under helmets strength-tested in the Large Hadron Collider. They're racing cyclists.

I have my reservations about competitive cycling. If God had intended Man (and I do mean the gender-specific term) to be a racing cyclist, s/he'd have designed him with detachable testicles.

Racing cyclists certainly push themselves. Curved over their handlebars like a chorus-line of commas, they put the pedal to their mettle. There they are, mouths gaping, brows dripping, calves knotting, backs bowing, thighs pumping, having a wonderful time.

I sympathise with racing cyclists. They face physical danger and verbal abuse from drivers.

OK, it's not always abuse. I offer the rural myth of the woman competitor passed by an oncoming car with driver honking and yelling "Stupid cow!". The woman cyclist offered a one-finger acknowledgement, then sped around the corner and straight into a foolishly straying Friesian.

Modern racing cycles are so minimalist, they're almost two-dimensional. Drive behind a serious rider, and it can seem that s/he is riding on air, which I'm sure is how it feels to the happy participant.

I anticipate the time when Lycra lads and ladettes will stroll to the start line, produce a small phial labelled Instant Bike, and just add water.

But the wheel deal now is in cycle wear. Sales sites show the serious cyclist won't be seen free-wheeling without arm warmers, knee warmers, other appendage warmers, base layers (what the uninitiated call singlets), tights, vests, baggy shorts, bib shorts, skin shorts, calftights, calftights with stirrups (very kinky), slipstream shoe covers. There's no mention of gardening shorts or T-shirts with paint stains.

Racing cyclists in their Lycra are a coterie of many colours. They're peacocks on pedals. Andre Gide - who did not wear Lycra - once described une velocipediste as "some fantastic creature from a dream world".

That would be a sponsor's dream world, presumably. Racing cyclists carry so many logos, they're like a 36-speed eye chart.

Advertisers prohibited from using roadside hoardings because of the distractions they cause to drivers have found salvation in cyclists' shorts ... to coin a phrase.

Follow a pack of pedallers up the road, and it's like following the Yellow Pages in Technicolor. It's a commendably high-visibility road safety style, though I do wonder how many collisions are caused by cyclist-reading.

Lycra is a remarkable fabric. The elastic polyurethane hugs every contour, including those where the landscape has subsided. Lycra shorts in particular may help solve the planet's over-population problem.

I've seen racing cyclists whose Lycra resembles rainbow-hued sausage skins. The contents bulge from both ends; you can almost hear the casing creaking under the pressure. Stick a pin into it and ... we won't pursue that image.

Competitive cycling is an admirable activity. You can't say it keeps people off the streets. Nor can you say it prevents them from frightening the horses. But it's undoubtedly led to major advances in chiropractic, bladder control and skin grafts.

Racing cyclists are a reproach to me and other unfitness fanatics, of course. Where they're buffed. I'm stuffed. Where they're toned, I'm disowned. Where they have muscle, I seem to be wearing a bustle.

I leave Mark Twain to put his spoke in, succinctly as always. "Learn to ride a bicycle," he urged. "You will not regret it if you live."

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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