There's a dream I keep having that I like very much. I’m riding an upright turquoise bicycle with a basket on the front. There is wind in my hair (dreams are unregulated) and freedom in my soul. Clearly, after a childhood spent riding a Raleigh Twenty round the neighborhood and early-adulthood navigating a mountain-bike on lakeside tracks, some part of me has a hankering to get back on a bicycle.
Just not the part of me that would have to wear Lycra.
Lycra and I have a complicated relationship. Back in the 80s when leggings were one of that decade's fashion crimes (see also "bubble skirt") I had a purple pair with a glossy finish. Lycra and I met at Jazzercize but could soon be seen together dancing at parties. Lycra made me believe I was long and limber – to the touch, these were life-size doll's legs, smooth and faultless. I was Madonna in a music video. Or Cyndi, or Olivia.
I loved those leggings so much, I knitted them a pair of matching leg-warmers in purple and green. With the benefit of hindsight and rare surviving photographic evidence, I actually looked like a dancing grape.
So I loved Lycra once. And attempted a reunion recently for yoga. Pulled a striking pair off the rack, all black-and-white Chanel-inspired chic, and hauled them on. The old flame of affection was rekindled. There it was – that firm embrace, the soothing smoothness, gravity being defied. But in the mirror, the overall effect reminded me of something – not a bad thing, just something I didn't necessarily want to be. And then it hit me. An orca.
Because Lycra is not actually magic. It is science – chemistry, specifically – a fabric invented in 1958 by American chemist, Joseph Shivers. Six decades later, Joseph possibly would shiver at how far his polyester-polyurethane copolymer had travelled from his lab out into the world.
Like to the beach, and the (surely) unintended consequence of his invention, the Speedo. No-one could have meant to invent that. Largely replaced in my neck of the woods now by the board-short, I noticed while visiting Italy a few months ago that the Speedo is still very much a thing there. It even comes in white. Perhaps in a country where the sartorial baseline is Michelangelo's David, a tiny scrap of translucent Lycra is comparatively demure.
Don't get me wrong – bless Shivers and his cotton-elastane-mix socks for gifting us the flexible, seamless, stretchy, quick-dry, no-bite comfort of the bicycle pant. When I see a flying wedge of road cyclists heading up a highway, no bunching visible except in their collective formation, I think, "Cheers to you, Joe, for enabling these gentlemen to embrace fresh air and exercise without risking a rash".
But it's a slightly different thing ten minutes later when I'm halfway through my latte and those very same MAMILs (middle-aged-men-in-lycra) pour into the cafe and stand about sweatily and you realize that, while Lycra may hide a multitude of sins, it doesn't hide the mortal ones. And you're trying not to look but you're sitting and they're standing and you're trying to think what it all reminds you of and then one of them orders a meatball wrap and you think, "Ah, yes, that's it exactly."
"Context" is all I'm saying. And a touch of self-awareness. Bike shorts might make you feel like Bradley Wiggins but look decidedly Spongebob Squarepants. Or Foghorn Leghorn. No-one has ever mistaken some dude in trackpants stocking up on beer and nachos at the supermarket for Usain Bolt pre-race, right? Same rule applies here.
Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try. I'm not saying "no Lycra", just suggesting "Lycra-plus" – a long t-shirt, strategic bum-bag, an over-short perhaps. And stay on the bike.*
Meanwhile, if you spot an orca on a turquoise bicycle – wind in her hair, freedom in her soul – it could be me. Lycra and I are giving it another shot.
* Alternatively, you can combine the liberating feel of lycra with the endorphin-inducing effects of cycling in a truly ‘safe’ setting – the cycle studio. Step into a cycle studio and not only will you be at home with a pack of lycra lovers, you’ll get a damn good workout too. RPM is a great place to start…
Michele A’Court is an award-winning New Zealand-based comedian, columnist and author. http://micheleacourt.com
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