Ageing cyclists were offended the other week when Olympian Sir Chris Hoy suggested, in a column for GQ magazine, that middle-aged men over eight stone should eschew the wearing of Lycra. He added that he felt sorry for mamils – middle-aged men in Lycra – because they look absurd.
It wasn’t tactful on the part of one of Britain’s greatest cyclists though, to be fair to him, weighing in at 14 stone he nowadays counts himself a mamil.
Lycra isn’t flattering: I should know. In the 1990s, cycling was my chosen way of failing to keep fit. I purchased Lycra shorts, mainly for the padding on the bottom (this had little effect: my rear and moving parts alike still became unbelievably sore). The shorts (or I) looked horrendous, so I so always wore a baggy T-shirt and/or hi-viz jacket.
Sir Chris was only having a bit of fun, but he forgot one thing about blokes taking up any physical activity: they can’t make a start without first buying all the gear.
Any male taking up cycling is obliged first to invest a significant sum in the latest top-of-the-range lightweight carbon-framed bike. But that’s only the start. Next you’ll need those hugely expensive shoes that clip into the pedals. These are essential to increasing your pain: thanks to the clipping mechanism, your aching muscles are straining on the up-stroke, not just when you’re pressing down.
Next, yes, it’s the Lycra. Not any old plain stretchy nylon-like material, but the branded team-strip of your chosen cycling équipe – at a premium price.
Finally, the helmet. Nowadays these are hi-tech creations. To improve your aerodynamics, you’ll need the one that reaches half-way down your back and makes you look a bit like an Egyptian pharaoh. But real blokes will cater for all the options: one for speed-racing, another for road-work, still another for off-roading (oops: that calls for a different bike, too).
The point is, it’s a serious investment when a bloke decides to take up exercise. And, having spent all that dosh, who cares if the gear isn’t flattering? As long as it’s the right gear.
When I first took up cycling as an adult, I didn’t buy a helmet. Then my mum asked if I wore one. “Of course not,” I scoffed. “Cissy things! We never used them when we were kids.”
Mum put me in my place. “You should set an example, dear. You are a headmaster!”
Meekly, I did what I was told, and later I was grateful for her admonition. My cycling career was brought to a halt when a white van clipped my back wheel on a roundabout. I landed on my head. The helmet shattered, leaving me with only a slight graze on the forehead (while other parts of me were bruised and one bone broken).
Since then, as the picture above shows, my bike has been neglected, languishing in a cupboard with flat tyres and dusty frame.
I may yet cycle again, not least because Oxford, where we now spend much of our lives, is a city of cyclists.
If I do, I shall not do so in Lycra. The world is not ready for the ample Trafford curves to be exaggerated, even caricatured, by that unforgiving, clinging fabric.
Finally, a confession. The accident that interrupted my cycling led me to vent the most pompous utterance of my life. I was in the ambulance, secured to a back-board, when a paramedic asked to check details. “The name’s Bernard Trafford?” I affirmed that it was.
“Doctor?” he continued.
I was astounded. Fancy his being able to spot a PhD simply from the cut of my jib, even in a neck-brace! “Yes,” I replied. “How could you tell?”
The medic looked startled. “No, sir. I meant, what’s the name of your GP?”
I took the only way out of the embarrassment: I simulated concussion. But I know the crew all saw me blushing.