A decade ago, being a cyclist in London felt like being a member of an oppressed minority. Mocked for our funny clothes, harried by motorists, we stuck together with the solidarity of the unfashionable.
But today the prime minister is a cyclist. So is the mayor of London, the chief executive of Deloitte, and numerous other business leaders. New “cycle superhighways” let us whizz smugly past the traffic; “Boris bikes” are ready to rent on every corner; employers have installed bike sheds, changing rooms and showers. We have never had it so good.
As recently as a year ago, when I chained my bike outside the Hotel Verta in Battersea, the management were so appalled they threatened to smash off the lock to remove it; a few weeks back, I arrived by bicycle at the Dorchester on Park Lane to be greeted by a top-hatted doorman who took my bike with a smile and valet-parked it.
Only one problem remains: the clothes. Shorts, courier bags, cagoules and helmets – the basics of the cyclist’s wardrobe – are just not acceptable in a business context, and that goes double for Lycra. This isn’t an issue if you simply show up at work, shower and change into your suit, but what if you have a breakfast meeting on the way in, a lunch, or a drinks reception on the way home? Either you abandon your bike on any day you have appointments out of the office, or you resign yourself to a life of undignified costume changes in the toilets of restaurants, hotels and conference centres. (Worse still is when the only place to get changed is on the far side of the function room, entailing a walk of shame in sweaty shorts.)
Thankfully, there are signs that help is at hand. Next month, bicycle-maker Brompton launches its first item of clothing, not just a jacket but an “apparel solution” aimed squarely at this very problem.
Brompton says its £250 Oratory jacket is designed to be worn “from bike to boardroom to bar”, and, like the company’s fold-up bicycles, it features a host of clever, concealed, features. There are “pit zips” offering extra under-arm ventilation, and a yellow high-visibility flap which pulls from a rear pocket and is held in place by magnets. You can fold down the cuffs and fold up the collar to reveal reflective strips; there are zipped pockets for valuables; cable-loops for an iPod or hands-free phone; and a pleated “action back” like those used in traditional shooting jackets to give greater ease of movement. The lining is made of a bamboo-based fabric with good “moisture-wicking” properties, the jacket itself from beige corduroy made of a special type of water-repellant cotton called Epic.
Laudable innovations all, and, when I tested the jacket on my morning commute last week, they worked as advertised. Unfortunately, the garment fared less well when I actually arrived at the office. Colleagues were quick to point out the obvious, and fairly fundamental, problem: a slightly crumpled beige cord jacket isn’t really smart enough for any formal business or social situation. To be frank, it’s less company boardroom, more school staffroom (circa 1973). All that’s missing are the leatherette elbow patches.
I suspect that, in its obsession with ingenious detail, Brompton has slightly lost track of the big picture. The lining, for example, features a sketch of the Brompton Oratory, a church in west London, on the grounds that company founder Andrew Ritchie looked out on it from his bedroom window while designing the first Brompton bikes in the 1970s. Already this is more brand mythology than strictly necessary, but it gets more convoluted still: the sketch isn’t any old sketch but a “specially commissioned drawing by acclaimed Sheffield graffiti artist Kid Acne”. This is a lot of information – still, if boardroom conversation stalls, you could whip off your jacket and give a 20-minute lecture on the genesis of its lining.
The truth is that cyclists don’t need gimmicks, they just need clothes that are breathable, crease-resistant, smart – and preferably blue, grey or black, rather than beige. Brompton’s jacket is a pedal-spin in the right direction but the “solution” is still a little way off.