I’ve spent more than half my life telling people what bikes to buy. Whether I’ve been working in bike shops or writing up tests for the bike media I’ve always tried to match people to what I think will give them their most enjoyable riding experience. There’s something that’s nearly always more important to buyers than geometry, componentry, price and any sort of frame building alchemy or artistry and that’s brand and image. So what is it that makes certain riders gravitate to one make of bike or another? Why would some people rather be seen on a bike built by an amateur in a shed while others roll out on a replica of their favorite pro riders machine with a full team kit to match? And is biking any different to the novice to niche journeys of most sports and hobbies? Let’s take a trip through my own weird bike history and style misadventures to see if there are any clues amongst the chaos.
Ignorance is bliss
I’m pretty sure I know what picture you formed when I talked about the ironically iconic ‘full pro kit w*nker’. If you’re in the UK it was definitely someone squeezed into SKY livery on a Pinarello if they had deep pockets or maybe a Boardman because he used to be dead fast and he was on the telly, too. Back around the turn of the century, it was full UPS team kit on a Trek, complete with Lance’s Livestrong bracelet.
For me it was Team Raleigh, starting with a 5-speed Ace in ‘sort of replica’ colors with a Reynolds 531 sticker I carefully cut out of a catalog and taped over its crude tensile steel badge of shame. In case that didn’t convince people that I was a bona fide Dutch superstar in the making, my sister hand embroidered some homemade skin shorts for my birthday. Unfortunately, she decided that she should put GUY down the leg not Creda as requested. My mum would have killed me if I’d have ungratefully complained though and the only records I had access to were begged from my sister, too, so Team Guy it was. By the time I could afford a team jersey and matching headband Panasonic were the sponsors and my red and black Ace was undersized and out of date.
However, the key thing from this story was that I had been fully sucked in by the aspirational marketing power of the most successful team of the time. It was my homage to my heroes and, as ridiculous as it sounds, now I maybe hoped it would help me get some kind of reflected respect. But is it ridiculous? Isn’t it a very human desire to be accepted? To be part of the tribe? The winning team? After all, why would brands spend a fortune sponsoring athletes and ambassadors if aspiration wasn’t a powerful sales driver? Plus it’s no different to folk turning up to a Saturday kick about in their favorite soccer strip or wearing a band T-shirt to define yourself through your choice of decibel delivery.
But anyway back to my own personal journey we’re now entering the second phase where I’ve learned a bit. Not least that looking like a velocipede version of the ‘Pretty Fly For a White Guy’ video would get me zero respect from any ‘real’ cyclists. As much as I was reading and re-reading the Bicycle Buyers Guide until it disintegrated and dreaming of the carbon-fiber tubed Peugeots or smooth-welded Cinelli Lasers that graced Winning magazine, I was too busy riding to get a paper round and earn money. That meant it was a classic cost-effective ‘first proper’ bike that I bought from Russells in York. A Dawes Super Lightning with one genuine Reynolds tube that had to do the job whether that was pretend pelotoning with my mates or pre mountain bike ‘rough stuffing’ over the moors. On parental advice it was also sized to grow into (based on my 6 foot 7 brother) just like that Raleigh Panasonic shirt so between the two I looked more derelict than domestique. It was a fair reflection of the rest of my teenage life though as awkward individualism was my general aesthetic vibe and dogged persistence not devastating performance my general athletic outcome.
Thankfully the first mountain bikes had started appearing in catalogs and magazines and I could see the future very clearly even if I couldn’t touch it until my first student grant arrived to top up my bike shop earnings and I became the proud owner of a gaudy Giant Escaper. Bike shops are dreadful places to work if you want to be satisfied with your current bike though and as much as I carefully dyed my growing mohican to color-match the bike and my striped Trollster climbing leggings I was secretly glad when repeated crashes finally wrote off the trusty Giant and in doing so I left the complete branded bike ownership phase forever. That’s primarily because as much as I lusted after an Alpinestars Ti Mega E-stay or a first-generation S-Works M2 Metal Matrix race weapon my part-time shop wages only stretched to a far eastern import copy E-Stay frame. I still cut out a surprisingly authentic S for the head tube though and emboldened by the fact our shop team had Specialized sponsorship for kit I tried pretending it was a secret prototype that I’d been chosen to skunk test. Yup, I really was that tragic.
Drawing parallels to my other passions, this same time saw me discover the joys of independent record stores. Again - apart from my sister’s influence - my early music preferences had been alarmingly random and embarrassing (“Broken Wings” by Mr Mister will never be cool, even if you buy the 12in) but now I was free to experiment. I fitted 150mm stems and cut down handlebars even narrower to a soundtrack of Dead Kennedys, New Model Army and whatever hardcore punk and thrash with I could find with promisingly revolting covers in the 1p sale rack at Catapilla Records. And as those covers got painted onto shirts and jackets with pride (I’ve got to say my ‘Time Flies But Aeroplanes Crash’ Subhumanz EP copy art was pretty damn good) so I explored my expression of self through my bike.
While the flash kids went for white Onza Porcupines, I went skinny black Panaracer Smoke. Local legend Darren Tapp made custom graphics for his Tioga disk-drive-equipped GT RTS and looked like a god on the Newham Pipeline descent. I cut the middle out of my Vetta helmet so I could stick my mohican through the middle and looked like god knows what racing that same descent in drag on the back of a tandem. Practicality and performance still had a steer on my bike style though. So when the E-stay frame broke I swerved the temptation of a slender tubed Clockwork Orange in favor of a Dave Yates custom steel frame with an extra-long reach and the toughest Columbus pipework he could use. When I snapped the X-Ray Gripshifters yet again, I had Dave fit single speed dropouts and give it a coat of matt khaki paint at the same time. That was the bike I rode for my first magazine feature in MBR magazine too, the perfect rolling expression of a caricature Northerner to partner up with a southern toff who arrived with a full suspension GT LTS for a suitably silly moorland adventure.
Celebrate the spectrum of cycling
And what was the moral of that story and the moral of this one? It was that whatever preconceptions you might pull from the clothing and equipment choice of somebody else being on any sort of bike in any sort of kit gives us at least a slight connection that should be celebrated. So let’s rejoice in the individuals however daft they might look to us, give the matching club kit herds a cheery grin from inside our full-face helmets (or vice versa) and welcome that wobbling kid on the ‘race replica’ because that was me forty years ago and it was maybe you when the first lockdown started.
Be doubly pleased that while the hype might say different there’s a vast range of materials, designs and brands - huge or homegrown - that let you express yourself while delivering remarkably similar and equally enjoyable baseline rides. You might go weak-kneed over a slim steel gravel bike with a tuft of artisan beard deliberately brazed into the custom dangle mug hook fixture. Your shorts pad might get a damp patch at the sight of a carbon team replica optimized for twice the speed you’ll ever cruise at. You might buy every matching brand and team accessory in the shop and wear them with faux peloton pride despite having a surface area triple that of a real pro. You might send your frame straight to Fat Creations for a dream paint finish and commission Hasie And The Robots to work custom magic on your shoes and helmet to guarantee nobody at the trailhead or coffee shop will look like you. You might have escaped the curse of caring about cosmetics entirely and just rock up on whatever bike you like riding in whatever kit is comfortable or closest to the top of the laundry basket. It’s all good and we’ll all hopefully come back healthier and happier as a result whether we’re doing it on dirt, road or in a giant wooden washing up bowl with no gears or brakes.
Enjoy the fact that guessing personalities from the bike is a hugely fun game to play too. I mean I’m no expert but I can’t imagine you can learn as much about a tennis player from their racket as you can from a cyclist and their bike. Complete psychoanalytical assessment of someone from a pair of Speedos, or running shoes? Probably not. From what they pedal or put on before doing it? I’d certainly give it a go.
But whatever your Velo vibe don’t be judgy as a result, just be happy that we’ve got a sport/hobby/obsession where we can all find our niche or wander through nomadically as our tastes and priorities change. So whether you’re flicking through the riding version of a record store looking for the bike equivalent of Spice Girls or Shaarghot let’s always give each other a wave when we’re out as we’re all basically dancing to the same awesome tune and the more of us doing it, the better it is for everyone.