For the past few years, we have been told that cycling is becoming fashionable, in the sense that more people are doing it. But next month, it will become truly fashionable – as in the “Milan, darling” sense – when Chanel launches a limited-edition, eight-gear bicycle complete with leather saddle and quilted panniers, adorned with the trademark interlinked Cs, of course. But at £6,200, it’s probably not a good idea to leave it chained to the railings outside the local pub.
Fashion and sport have always had a symbiotic relationship. The permanent fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum illustrates this clearly with its three mannequins: one wearing English hunting dress from the 19th century; the second, a shooting jacket from the 1990s; and the last a lurid pink velour tracksuit from Juicy Couture, circa 2002.
Hunting, shooting and aerobics have all crossed into the mainstream and influenced the way we have dressed. But cycling? In this country the sport has never had the glamour it enjoys on the Continent.
While across the Channel the roads are always being blocked off to allow jewel-bright pelotons of amateur cyclists to thrash through the towns and villages, over here we frown on anything that might hinder the progress of the almighty automobile. So to avoid the traffic, keen sports cyclists have always set off at dawn, racing from one deserted village hall to another without the fanfare of an accompanying motorcade.
Recently, however, concern for the environment, worsening traffic conditions, high oil prices and an awareness of its health benefits have combined to attract thousands of new cyclists.
This summer, the Tour de France was given its best-ever send-off from Greenwich, of all places, and in September London mayor Ken Livingstone had great stretches of the capital closed for a day for the exclusive use of cyclists. Organised rides, such as those from London to Brighton or Cambridge, are becoming oversubscribed as more of us start using our bikes not just to commute to work but as something we actively enjoy as a hobby.
What this means – human nature being what it is – is that we want faster, sleeker, lighter equipment. Fashion designers have not been slow to catch on. Last year, the Italian house of Armani teamed up with bicycle-makers Bianchi to produce a line of chic city bikes (with in-built iPod carriers) and Sir Paul Smith, who hoped to become a professional cyclist until, at 17, an accident forced an abrupt career change, promotes the handmade frames produced by Derby-based firm Mercian.
We have also become more demanding about the clothes we wear while riding our bikes: after all, there is little point in having the very latest stripped-down fixed-wheeler if you are hoofing along in an old anorak and Day-Glo cycle clips. But skintight Lycra flatters very few, so an exotic fashion hybrid has emerged, most clearly shown by the London firm Rapha. For some years it has strived to harmonise the cruel demands of all-weather cycling with the diktats of style in its collections for men.
To this end, it has collaborated with Paul Smith to produce limited-edition designs. It also uses technologies such as the windproof, breathable Hytrel membrane in its softshell jackets, as well as leather from African hair sheep in its eye-wateringly expensive mitts. But it is the cut that sets it apart. Its jacket is “slim-fit, with off-set, fully lined zip. Four different pockets offer flexible storage. Lightweight friction toggles, cable-holes and ear-phone cable loops. Black lining. Embroidered logo on chest and back of collar.” No wonder it looks more at home on the pages of GQ than Cycling Monthly.
The company catalogue is a kind of cyclists’ pornography: grainy pictures of figures on willowy bicycle frames, battling against the elements. It attracts men in their thirties and forties with disposable incomes and big dreams – but who also have a meeting at 8.15am, so make do with the “¾ length lined zip with lockdown puller”.
The products are beautifully made and the design is convincingly coherent. Once you know what to look for, you can see the jerseys and jackets, hats and gloves cropping up at almost every traffic-light gathering in central London.
Which is more than you can say about the Chanel bike.