Now there are some pairings in life that just make plain sense. Some will immediately point their dining cutlery at peas and carrots (which is curiously wrong to my mind – anyhooo), others will surely pipe up with cheese and apples, top hats and tails, Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery (The Rock – utter utter genius), and perhaps those cyclists among us with a penchant for the classic will suggest tweed (at a pinch flannel, or for the lady a ridiculous dress) and penny farthings.
Clearly the Knutsford Great Race (KGR) thinks this. One only has to look at the top of their website to see fellows wearing deer stalkers, flat caps and other headwear while clad in costumes which can be dated as somewhere between Queen Victoria and Brideshead. Their ride is an event that happens but once a decade and is the very epitome of eccentricity that makes us British so well loved (ahem) – contestants are required to pedal their way as many times as possible around a 1km course in 3hrs. Simple I hear you say – but these champions must do so, as I am sure any reader will have realised, on Penny Farthings and other such wheels hailing from the beginnings of two wheels.
Naturally you would expect appropriate attire to be donned, by which I mean period clothing for period cycles (though according to entry rules a modern helmet must be worn and the deerstalker discarded – which is fair enough I suppose with our obsession with health and safety). You see such stipulations for that wonderful event L’Eroica – an epic race around the Tuscan countryside on a bicycle that must predate the 1980s and which requires clothing to match the wheels – and how grand and appropriate it looks! Indeed, it is very much my intention to enter this heroic event the following year where I will seek to obtain the promised vino rosso. Anyway, the whole dressing aspect is part of the fun, and more importantly if you are drawn to a classic style of bicycle presumably you are attracted to the appropriate dress. There is something altogether hideous and wrong about combining antiquated machinery with modern fabrics – to ride a penny farthing in lycra would be a perversion surely only the most depraved and Josef Fritzl would ever consider…
Or so I thought, for as you find when scrolling down the opening page of the KGR, there proudly on display is a lycra clad fellow (I would write loon, but I am sure or at least hope that apart from this colossal error of judgement they are perfectly sane and well rounded) mounted upon a penny farthing. Further investigation on the Guardian website revealed that he was not alone in his perversion! What is the world coming too when the Italians have to teach us grace, good manners and appropriate clothing in our bicycling dress? And this from a nation that first introduced the socks with sandals look to the nation – oh the horror!
Any who have read my earlier thoughts on tweed vs lycra will be aware that I am hugely in favour of this great fabric over lycra. Though I may use tweed to cover a multitude of fabrics (linen, flannel, more tweed, cotton, even denim…), I essentially believe that really there is no need to gear one self up in stretchy plastic and hideously revealing cloth for what is usually a swift jaunt about town or some country lane. To all those that race competitively etc then by all means dress as you like and in the most appropriate attire – but for God’s sake just because it is a race please don’t ride penny farthings, boneshakers and hobby horses clad in the stuff! It’s a vintage ride and anything but dress for the era looks wrong – plus think of all that padding that comes with the natural fabric, it’s bound to cushion your fall better than a thin veil of cloth. It comes as no surprise that the Guardian reporter covering the event labelled them “the tongue-in-cheek villains of the piece”. As it is, it is the lycra clad hordes that, to my mind at least, present the greatest danger for preventing your normal chap or chap-ess from mounting two wheels and returning to the world of joy which opens once more before them.
Not everyone is blessed with the physique of a Heracles or an Atalanta, and figure hugging gear as such can be a little bit daunting. Many a time while extolling the virtues of cycling over a soothing ale to a less than enraptured audience have I encountered the argument “But I have to dress up in that lycra – no way!” I try to persuade them otherwise, indicating the state of my current dress (which usually causes further scoffing – but that is another matter altogether), but the stream of brethren huffing and puffing their way on their racing bikes, Bromptons and even sit-up-and-beg style bicycles while wearing lycra put paid to my comment. Many will extol our continental cousins’ fantastic infrastructure which actively encourages the masses to continue the use of two wheels from cradle to grave, but for me it is the fact that this is predominantly done in casual everyday garb – and as a consequence a politer more mild mannered cyclist emerges.
Now perhaps to all those that took part in lycra at the KGR they will argue it is a race, and as such racing requires lycra however wrong it may look. To which I will respond that the Clegg and Cameron pairing may perhaps work – but really it should not and is ultimately an utter travesty and betrayal to all we should rightly hold dear.