Class and Lycra: Style, Wealth, and Cycling Apparel
This week cycling insiders are heralding a new line of bike apparel from fabled Italian cycling manufacturer Castelli. After decades of cycle clothing innovations, Castelli has partnered with recently retired pro rider David Millar to produce an “ultra high-end” clothing line for “discerning cyclists” seeking “sartorial elegance.” The brand hopes to appeal to a “new breed” of cyclists attracted to “the cutting edge of fashion,” and the first jersey in the line retails for £190; assessing the line’s prices, Bike Radar dryly concluded that “it’s a fair bet that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
Cycling producers are by no means alone in their branding appeal to consumers seeking exceptionally high-end sports garments and gear, and cultish brand appeal has complicated implications on how we view sport in general and cycling in particular. A massive industry has made cycling an increasingly lucrative industry, and it is attempting to remain profitable and accessible to the masses even as brands like the new Castelli line cultivate social and class exclusivity.
For cycling critics, the material culture of riders is often a simplistic target for caricatures of riders: anti-cycling rants routinely lampoon cycling garb, and riders are often stereotyped as bourgeois snobs. In 2012, for instance, The Daily Mail’s Petronella Wyatt invoked one of the most common anti-cycling symbols when she deplored “lycra louts,” fixing on fabric as a symbol of the dilemmas of cycling. Wyatt complained that “male cyclophiles are becoming a blot on our highways. They are weirdly obsessive about their mode of transport and fuss endlessly about their appearance. Bent over handlebars in their garish Lycra armour and insect-shaped-helmets, cyclists see themselves as Lancelots” (Wyatt has an especially rich record lobbying against cycling).
An amazing number of British politicians have capitalized on the emotional symbolism of lycra. In 2003 Member of Parliament Kate Hoey attacked “infuriatingly smug” cyclists and fabric when she argued that “Lycra Louts don’t just break the law; they often do so in an aggressive and threatening manner.” In 2014 British cycling minister Robert Goodwill lamented public apprehension of lycra-clad riders when he told The Guardian that “I can see that the basket-on-the-handlebars type cyclist is possibly as intimidated by the Lycra mob as they are by the cars and trucks.” In 2006 Member of Parliament David Curry provided an especially creative characterization of cycle garb when he mused in a House of Commons hearing “Why are cyclists such irresponsible and arrogant road-users? The only time I have been knocked down in my life was by a cyclist going like a bat out of hell outside the House of Commons, dressed like Darth Vader, as they all do!”
Outside England the “lycra lout” aspersion is replaced with similar critiques of cycling garb and material culture. In March, 2015, for instance, a California blogger complained that cyclists “are usually astride a $10,000 graphite-framed bike that is lighter than a can of beer. Their $500 spandex onesie has more advertisements than a NASCAR driver” (he hastily removed the blog post and apologized on facebook within a day). In December, 2014 Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Times Free Press asked readers to provide their sentiments on cycling, and fabric again became symbolic of class: “Animosity quickly morphed into a cultural clash with bike riders upbraided as `tree huggers’ and `hippies’ while Spandex and Lycra biking shorts seemed code for `rich slackers.’”
Some cycling advocates argue that technical clothing alienates potential everyday riders. In 2010 an Australian study concluded that “the lycra-clad image of cyclists put some people off because they didn’t identify with it or thought it a turn-off. … Encouraging more people to ride bicycles for short trips wearing regular clothes, without the need for specialised clothing or equipment, will improve and normalise the image of cycling.” The most persistent critic of technical clothing may be Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who suggests that “Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle ‘gear,’” such as lycra, technical jerseys, and helmets (he is a particularly strenuous critic of bike helmets). His pretentious manifesto includes the directive that “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear,’” and followers pledge that “I will endeavour to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle.” In 2014 Colville-Andersen disparaged exclusive cycling garb like Miller’s Castelli line, indicating that “Nobody in mainstream bicycle cultures in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany [or] France is buying into this shit. Why would they? They already own trousers. Once urban cycling becomes more normal, people will reject the cycling clothes trend.”
The high-end cycling apparel market was most clearly pioneered by Rapha, the ultra-exclusive English cycling clothier who currently dresses Team Sky. Rapha’s brand identity tends to play on the history of the sport and the notion of the mentally hard rider, “laying bare the heroics, suffering and drama of cycling.” Rapha founder Simon Mottram has argued that “the reason why I love road cycling and why I’m passionate about it is suffering. It’s a very true, honest sport. It’s based on the idea of the more you put in, the more you get out. Suffering is absolutely at the heart of everything we do.”
Rapha was unveiled in 2004 at “The Kings of Pain,” an exhibit about six iconic riders (Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi, Raymond Poulidor and Bernard Hinault) who “remain, we believe, a distillation of road racing’s most celebrated qualities. They embody the glory, suffering and drama of the sport, and their unmistakable styles defined their respective eras.” Peter Cox argues that this picture of the cyclist as a “hard man” emerged in the postwar period, when cycling discourses in Europe and the UK focused on the toughness of cyclists, most of whom were working class men (in contrast to Europe, Robert Turpin’s 2013 dissertation paints a picture of the bike as a popular youth consumer good in the US after World War II).
Rapha’s spare, ambiguously retro aesthetic and exceptional materials craft a distinctive look and a zealously committed following. In 2014 The Telegraph gushed that Rapha was “spiritually significant” and sets “the standard for self-important, wonderfully over-tailored kit,” but it is difficult to separate the brand’s symbolism from its premium cost (for instance, a jersey celebrating Chris Froome’s Tour de France victory retails for €140). Before it was discontinued this year, Rapha’s “Imperial Works” line was available on an invitation-only basis to the brand’s most committed consumers. It was replaced by The Rapha Cycling Club, which members pay £200 to join, and they complete an application that includes 100 words on the “perfect ride.” For those embracing the “Rapha lifestyle,” Rapha also offers luxury vacation packages (as do competitors such as Trek).
Rapha shares Castelli’s commitment to finely tailored design, which included a partnership with designer Paul Smith for a 2010 line (Smith also has designed apparel for Castelli). Smith’s own 531 line launched in 2014 with a £550 jacket, and Smith included David Millar in his own promotional video for that line. American firm Brandt-Sorenson, Australian clothier Volero, Ornot Bike, Bernard, Kirschner, Attaquer, and French company Café du Cycliste all share a foothold in the boutique cycling apparel market offering up exclusive, stylish, and oft-expensive cycling threads.
Like Rapha, Castelli has invoked the heritage and retro styling of postwar cycling generations. In 2011 GQ interviewed David Millar, and he pointed to the confluence of aesthetics and postwar riders’ “cool” when he suggested that “I think cycling has always had a tradition of being a bit dapper, especially back in the day. Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and that older generation were renowned for being suave and sophisticated gentlemen off the bike – that’s something I was enchanted by. They always looked so cool. Cycling is based so much on form, on aesthetics, on class.” Much like Rapha’s mantra of “glory through suffering,” Miller invokes cycling’s most fabled postwar riders and paints an alluring if romanticized style that is both a literal aesthetic look and a personality.
On the one hand, high-end cycle branding revolves around class and social exclusivity as much as quality, materials, or especially unique aesthetics. Across much of cycling’s history riding has been an activity of the masses, so much of the exclusivity of 21st-century cycling style and class exclusivity runs counter to the bike’s potentially egalitarian dimensions. Perhaps the expense of such gear does alienate people who are not inclined to scale the Alpe d’Huez, but people all over the world bike everyday without donning the sublimated jerseys that can be found on nearly any club ride. Not surprisingly, Rapha’s pretentious branding has secured it fevered detractors, and the parody web page Jahvahaah Internationale goofs on how Rapha and comparable marketers link the pleasure of cycling to a brand or expensive gear.
On the other hand, though, attacks on lycra and bike materiality are typically shallow rationalizations for a variety of anti-cycling prejudices. Many of the observers who are contemptuous of cyclists simply cannot fathom sharing the roads with two-wheelers, and wealthy lycra-clad cyclists seem to secure heightened contempt. In 2013, for instance, The Spectator’s Rod Liddle suggested that a cyclist is “one of those people with an expensive bicycle, a lot of Lycra, a pompous little pointy plastic hat, hilarious goggles, a fatuous water bottle and the fervent conviction that you are a Victim as a consequence of your Vulnerability.” A year ago, the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy launched one of the nastiest possible anti-bike screeds (arguing that “some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine” for hitting a cyclist). Milloy indulged his own imagination of cyclists as symbols of gentrification when he suggested that “I recall in the not-so-distant past when the city’s bikers weren’t newly arrived, mostly white millennials” (Vox’s Matthew Yglesias soundly refuted Milloy’s analysis).
Few critics seem inclined to critique cycling itself, but cyclists in distinctive bike clothing and gear make for easily stereotyped targets and impressionistic dismissal. In The Guardian, for instance, Kevin McKenna complained about the class exclusivity of Scottish cycling when he argued that “Cycling and jogging in urban areas are mainly the preserves of the middle classes. It is less about them being fit and active and more about them participating in a daily fashion parade for designer sportswear . . . Running and cycling are merely the frou-frou accoutrements to their goat’s cheese lifestyles.” Maybe Scottish cycling is universally bourgeois, but American census data between 2008 and 2012 demonstrates that cycling is most common among Americans with annual incomes below $25,000. It seems unlikely that even the most persuasive sales pitches for merino wool base layers is likely to significantly change everyday cycling.
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Robert J. Turpin
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Biggin Hill sign image from @trivers1985 twitter account
David Millar Chpt III images from Castelli