Steve Worland wonders what ‘normal looking’ is these days anyway.
I’m sitting in Costa Coffee in a motorway services, bemoaning the fact that a not-especially-good flat white costs over three quid and they’ve run out of almond croissants at 9am. At a table nearby a 40-something woman is wearing a fluffy animalistic onesie, with a hood and floppy ears resting on her shoulders. Her tortoiseshell framed letterbox specs seem out of context.
She’s dunking a giant Bourbon biscuit into something that seems to be made with chocolate froth, whipped cream and marshmallows. She’s not wearing a number and doesn’t have a collection bucket. In fact she seems to be talking business, asking stuff like “so how can we realistically take this forward?” into one of those tiny mouthpieces attached to a wrap-around-the-side-of-the-face tube hanging from an earpiece. I’m thinking Dom Joly and Trigger Happy TV.
I try hard to keep an open mind about almost everything, but I’m confused. To me, a middle-aged man in a hoody sitting astride a BMX smoking a spliff is a perfectly acceptable stab at kidulthood. But reverting to toddlerhood is surely a step too far. Is a woman in a cutesy onesie, consuming toothless-compatible comfort food really that different to a middle-aged bloke lying in a cot making ga-ga noises while he has his nappy changed by a willing participant?
I spend the rest of my journey thinking about the way the vast majority of life’s activities, and the imagery that goes with them, are attached to age groups. I am especially thinking about the undeniable fact that my favourite activity, off-road bike riding, has become predominantly a dad sport. That’s dad as in ‘dad generation’. You don’t need to have produced offspring, or to be a bloke, but it makes me sad when I hear my daughter saying that being seen riding a bike is like ‘social suicide’. She’ll grow out of it. It’s a peer group thing. Fortunately her particular peer group has just discovered running. I’m quietly hoping they won’t feel the need to wear their animalistic onesies for their first 10k event…
Actually, I don’t have an issue with the fact that not many teenage daughters or sons are taking up mountain biking. I certainly didn’t want to do the things that my dad did, and I know imagery is what counts at that age… well, at any age really. It also makes me feel strangely uneasy seeing guys in their fifties getting their imagery all mixed up… wearing new generation piss-pot helmets with skintight Lycra trade-logo road shirts, rugby shorts, long socks, knee pads and cross country racer shoes. And don’t get me going on builder’s bum, VPLs in Lycra, and the apparent need to carry the kitchen sink in your backpack even on an hour’s cruise around the local woods.
OK, I’m coming to realise that the boundaries of social normalities are much more blurred than they once were. Almost anything goes, within reason. But if you’re going to wear a uniform, please study its form and function before you don it. It’s an extension of your personality. Do you really want to be seen as a sartorial disaster zone? At least the onesie woman was vaguely aware… I’m hoping… that she was reliving her lost toddlerhood. But perhaps not.
It’s odd how most of us find it easier to conform to the accepted norms. We’re a conservative bunch really. Because dealing with mountain bike stuff is mainly my day job, I tend to go out at weekends with the roadies – who are mostly mountain bikers looking for a change. I have no competitive aspirations left, but I’m still happy to revert to type when it appears to be called for: roadie-specific togs for road riding, mountain bike-specific togs for mountain biking, rarely-worn-elsewhere headwear at music festivals.
If I’m riding my road bike I still feel a slight – undoubtedly misguided – pressure of wanting to look vaguely like a pro roadie… which of course I never will. For a start, I’m unwilling to smother myself with billboard advertising for a Belgian flooring company. But I do have a Bell helmet with a removable peak, which I remove. But then I’ll sometimes wear one of those strange little cotton roadie caps under it, thereby putting another sort of peak back on again. I generally wear clean white socks – proper cycling socks – when I ride on the road… it’s a throwback to my misspent youth, time trialling in a generation still celebrating the fact that it was no longer mandatory to wear all-black garments. And apart from when my back is playing up I have my stem slammed right down. I think that’s to make me feel and look like a proper roadie rather than looking like a mountain biker on a road bike. Like the helmet peak.
I’m aware that this is all basically totally pointless stuff. In a good year, after a load of bare-legged sunny springtime miles in Majorca, I’m often very tempted to depilate my legs. I’m not going to try to pretend that it’s to make life easier for the masseur or to prevent infection after road rash. It’s simply the ultimate self-conscious act of superficially attempting to feel or look like a real roadie. Leg shaving successfully plays with a dash of deviance to an outsider, mixed up with compliance to those in the know, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In an act of misguided spontaneity I once rubbed ‘Mediterranean Instant Tan’ onto my shaved legs, simply because they looked as though they belonged to a fresh-plucked turkey and it was the first big race of the year the next day. I gave it a couple of hours and nothing had changed so I rubbed another lot on. When I got out of bed the next morning my legs, and palms, were the hue of blast-furnaced copper. The rest of me was still northern-white. I wore gloves and tights for that race and have steered well clear of artificial tanning lotions ever since, although I’ve been told it looks far more realistic these days. This was 30 years ago after all…
Obviously, our vain attempts to dress up as whatever cyclist we think we want to look like are actually very little different to whatever it was the woman in the giant toddler onesie was attempting to live out, or identify with. She was just getting on with her life, as we all do in whatever way seems right at the time. I’m still feeling a bit disturbed by the trend for giant biscuits though.