Confessions of a Reluctant Lycra Lout

This is a guest post from Tom Gatehouse, who lives and works in London. You can contact him at

I have always cycled. I grew up in the countryside, in an area where public transport was largely non-existent, and I used my bike to get around. I didn’t use a helmet, or any other special kit, because there was no need. I cut my teeth riding on country lanes, with little traffic; in a worst-case scenario I could always have thrown myself in the hedgerow, risking stings and prickles but at least avoiding a fatal blow to the head. Even after leaving home, I was always a casual cyclist: helmetless, usually wearing the same clothes I would use to go about my day. Anything more than that was unnecessary, as in my early 20s I lived in two small university cities, with, by British standards, decent cycling infrastructure and little element of danger.

Bikes parked at Cambridge station (Photo by Cambridge Cycling Campaign -

Aside from practical concerns though, I always had aesthetic objections to cycling gear. The bicycle is a machine beautiful in its simplicity and there is an inherent kind of beauty – a romance – in the spectacle of someone riding a bicycle. As the American author Christopher Morley wrote, “The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.” Picture a cyclist gliding along a seafront, silhouetted against an autumn sunset, a long scarf trailing behind him in the breeze. Or a girl cycling to lectures through the narrow passages of some old university town, her books stacked in a wicker basket at the front, her hair blowing in the wind. Or a couple, cycling side by side down a country lane on a light, balmy summer evening, close enough almost to hold hands, no car in sight. In his memoir Boy Roald Dahl recalls one of the senior boys at his school “whizzing down the hill pedalling backwards with no hands on the handlebars”. “I stopped dead and stared after him,” he wrote. “How wonderful he was! How swift and brave and graceful in his long trousers with bicycle-clips around them and his scarlet school cap at a jaunty angle on his head!” For this reason above all, I was always quietly snide about the people who opted to cycle in helmets, Lycra, day-glo colours and reflective strips. Why ruin the spectacle of something which is so elegant, and yet so easy to achieve, with clothing that would make even a Premier League goalkeeper blush?

But I have recently moved to London, where, after less than three months of cycling, I am now the owner of a helmet, a pair of Lycra leggings, and a red (I drew the line at the day-glo colours) cycling jacket with reflective strips. I have become, in the language of the British press, a “Lycra lout.”

Why? Survival.

Despite 47% of the city supposedly being green space, despite the Congestion Charge, and despite having a decent system of public transport, London remains a car-centric city and a hostile environment for cyclists. While most drivers are considerate, a significant minority clearly has it in for us: I have been heckled from cars and vans, and once, nearly run down by a speeding taxi driver who passed just inches from me (clearly a case of deliberate intimidation; there was no other traffic around and plenty of room to overtake). Infrastructure is poor; aside from the parks and the paths along the city’s waterways, there are few separate cycle paths and cyclists generally find themselves in amongst the traffic. At best, there are cycle lanes, but they are not well-marked and are rarely connected to each other. Apparently, the number of people cycling to work in London has more than doubled in the last ten years; given the conditions for cyclists, this is an amazing statistic.

Cycling in London (Image courtesy @aseasyasriding)

But instead of putting pressure on government to make roads safer and improve infrastructure, commentators across the press persist instead in laying into cyclists. “Now what is wrong with cycling at a moderate, decorous Boris-pace, in normal clothes?” wailed The Telegraph’s Libby Purves, in a recent tirade against the dreaded “Lycra lout” cyclists. “What is wrong with getting to work in a healthy and responsible way while not dressing and behaving as if training for the Tokyo Olympics?” Curiously, Purves answers her own question at the start of her article: people cycling slowly have far more accidents than people cycling at 12mph and above. “People cycling fast get overtaken less, noticed more and survive better,” she admits. In other words, faster cycling is a natural consequence of London’s poor cycling infrastructure and aggressive road culture. For a cyclist to trundle along at 8mph on any road busier than a backstreet is dangerous, the equivalent of a driver on a busy motorway refusing to exceed 30 or 40mph.

In this environment, bright clothes serve a purpose: they make the cyclist more visible on busy roads they have to share with cars, lorries and buses. Likewise, Lycra, which seems to have become a tabloid buzzword for people cycling selfishly and aggressively, is simply a practical choice. London is a big place and commuted distances are relatively long. Let’s suppose you have to cycle five miles to work. If, as Purves herself concedes, you need to maintain a speed of around 12mph, you are likely to sweat. It does not make sense to wear cotton as it absorbs the moisture and becomes heavy. Lycra, in contrast, is far more breathable and dries more quickly. It may not be pretty, but in London it is the right kit for the job: it keeps you cool, dry and safe.

Of course there are bad cyclists, just as there are bad drivers and even bad pedestrians, though the three are not equivalent: the potential for harm increases in relation to the size and speed of your vehicle. Even the worst cyclists are unlikely to cause serious harm to others; by far the person they put most at risk is themselves. But poor behaviour by anyone is not an excuse for not providing proper facilities – perhaps campaigners need to find a better way to make this point, because too often it is lost in the interviews, discussions and newspaper articles now covering cycling. 

And the ongoing poverty of our cycling infrastructure is a great shame, because in some ways London is the perfect city for cycling: it is mostly flat, and while the British climate can be cold and wet, we rarely have the extreme temperatures that would make cycling impossible. Moreover, while the relatively long distances involved might put some people off, if you can work cycling into your daily commute it means you get fit without having to do anything outside your normal routine: no getting up at the crack of dawn to go running before work, no paying for expensive gym memberships.

Above all, cycling is the best way to see London. Over these last three months, it has been fascinating getting to know the city better, seeing how it changes and flows and fits together. Away from the main roads, it is a world of winding backstreets, alleyways and passages; elegant parks, squares and gardens; quiet terraced streets, wide, tree-lined avenues and stately old townhouses. It’s a glorious hodgepodge of different ideas and architectural styles that has developed over 2,000 years, and cycling down certain streets in London feels like moving back in time –  a world away from the monotonous grid-pattern format of more modern cities, block after block of apartment buildings yawning away towards a smoggy horizon.

Indeed, London with the cycling culture of Amsterdam or Copenhagen would be idyllic. At the end of her article, Purves exhorts her readers to “go Dutch”; in other words, to cycle more slowly, in normal clothes, admiring the world around them. She has clearly never cycled in London. We are decades behind the Dutch: in Holland, cycling has been seen as a vital and serious part of transport policy since the 1970s. As a result, they have a near-perfect cycling infrastructure, allowing for a relaxed and sedate cycling culture. In contrast, though British attitudes to cycling have started to improve over the last decade or so, in terms of public policy cycling has often been little more than an afterthought. As a result, we have an incomplete and haphazard cycling infrastructure which forces riders to compete for space on busy roads. Our cycling culture is therefore faster and more aggressive.

I would love to “go Dutch”, and would happily trade in my helmet and Lycra in return for Dutch cycling infrastructure. But until that day comes …