Singletrack Magazine Issue 124 : Grayson Perry, Bloke On A Bike

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The artist and TV personality Grayson Perry is famously a keen mountain biker. Hannah travelled to his north London studio to discover that the legend might be overshadowing the reality. 

Words & Photography hannah

I’d seen a few articles about Grayson Perry in which his love of mountain biking had been mentioned. One notable example appeared with the click-bait headline ‘Cycling is the perfect sport for transvestites’. I wasn’t especially interested in his choice of attire (or even tyre…), but I did think it would be interesting to see what this Turner Prize-winning artist might have to say about mountain biking. After all, he’s perhaps as well known for his TV shows examining themes of community, personality, self and masculinity as he is for his pots, tapestries and other artworks. Such themes are surely relevant to mountain biking?

Do come in.

He answers the door to his London studio and I’m ushered past a green Dutch bike and collection of cycling apparel. A couple of helmets, gloves on a radiator. Clipless shoes and overshoes suggest these are the belongings of more than just a casual urban cyclist. A water bottle, wet lube, talcum powder (I’m not sure what that’s for), all sit on a plan chest, next to a huge gourd-shaped pot half shrouded in plastic. I can’t help but suspect that the plastic is covering a huge phallus. Beyond the pot is a giant pink bike with a dropper post – an art project, built to his design by Dear Susan bicycles.

Grayson locates his hearing aids, unpeels a banana and sits on the edge of a sofa draped in a huge throw – another one of his artworks. Despite only just starting on his morning coffee, he’s quite the fidget, and wriggles and pantomimes as he talks, in a way that makes me really wish this was a video interview and makes me worry for my hope of taking a decent photograph later.

I’ve not even asked a question and he’s off, telling me he has a rule that he now only rides from his door: “When I used to do racing, what stopped me in the end was the driving not the racing. The driving to the places. I just got so fed up of it.” 

He doesn’t race any more. Or, he doesn’t think he does. Last year he did a race at Hadleigh Park, and found himself getting so cold that “I thought I might literally die if I did another lap”. I suggest that maybe he should try another race, something on a warmer day, but he doesn’t seem keen. “There are some quite nice little races just north of here, but it’s the driving to them. Driving to them – I can’t bear it. They’re always about 6.30, 7pm in the evening, which means you have to drive out of London in the rush hour, which is like a nightmare.” While I can appreciate the reluctance to drive, I can’t help but feel that being done with racing on the basis of one cold experience is like giving up coffee after a trip to Starbucks. 

National express.

It wasn’t always thus – he was a keen racer, and even rode in the National Championships. So it’s apparent that at some level he must be what might be considered ‘a mountain biker’. He first bought a mountain bike in 1989 – a dayglo yellow Marin Muirwoods. Having just stopped smoking, he worked out this bike would cost him the same as ‘a year’s worth of fags’. Ragging about in Epping Forest, he met someone who suggested he try a race, and he recalls his first experience, in Thetford Forest, with some fondness.

“I remember the joy… I started right at the back of the grid because I thought ‘I don’t know how good I’ll be so I’m not going to get in everybody else’s way’. Within half a lap I thought ‘actually I’m alright!’ and I was passing people all the time, all the way round the race. I thought ‘Yeah, eat my dirt! I can be aggressive here!”’

There’s no lack of competitive spirit, and he clearly takes a great deal of pleasure in catching the rider ahead, whether that’s out on the trail, or around town. Especially if that person is half his age, or dressed in Rapha. 

His age, black clothing and hipster culture will be repeated themes of our discussion.

“There’s nothing better than embarrassing a MAMIL [Middle Aged Man In Lycra] on a Dutch bike. The other day, 58 years old right, I’m cycling over for an errand over at Chelsea and I hadn’t had much exercise that week so I was bombing along the South Bank, along the cycle path, and there was ‘the’ guy: Rapha, carbon, absolute cliché of a MAMIL. I shot past him, and he drafts me – and I’m on a Dutch bike!” At this point he laughs – it’s a gleeful cackle.

“I thought, right I’m going to really fucking go for it. So I really hammered it… I kept the guy off all the way down for about, I don’t know, a mile and a half along the South Bank. We got to, like, Westminster and he’s going ‘Oh you’re going for it, you got a motor in there?’ and I was like [sighs], ‘No mate, but you show me a Rapha kit it’s like a magnet’. I have to pass people in Rapha kit.”

Fashioning a look.

I can admit I’m not the biggest fan of the Rapha look, but then I’m hardly its target market. But it’s not just Rapha that Perry takes issue with, it’s also black. While he doesn’t think it’s a great choice for visibility on the road, he also doesn’t like black clothing full stop. “The tyranny of black is one of my obsessions. I call it coward’s black. It’s very hard not to get it. I mean to buy a pair of [mountain bike] shoes that aren’t black now is almost impossible. In the end I relented and bought a pair, but they’ve got gold on them. My first new pair of mountain bike shoes in 20 years.” 

They are a rather swanky looking pair of carbon-soled Lakes with pearlescent gold trim, so not entirely black. But I get sent shoes in such wild colours it’s hard to find testers who want to wear them, so I think Perry is out of touch with the mountain bike world if he thinks colours are hard to come by.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’s fallen behind the latest mountain bike developments. “I stopped racing in 2004 and mountain biking in that intervening – what would it be… 13, 14 years – had changed radically. So I was riding in Epping Forest one day and I noticed [my frame] was cracked. And I thought ‘Oh, I’d better get a new bike’. I went into the shop and it was like ‘Oh these aren’t like mountain bikes that I remember’. I mean I’d seen them in the street, but wide bars, very different geometry and single chainrings and things like that – oh my god. And I was like ‘Oh I don’t need all that’, ’cos at the time I was still riding the bike that I raced on, which had really narrow tyres, 1.25in tyres pumped up to 50psi, and people used to say ‘What are you riding that for?’, and I’d say, ‘Well I’m not falling off’. And then I got my first sort of modern mountain bike and I was like ‘Christ, now I get it’. The first downhill you go down on a modern mountain bike, it’s like ‘Oh, I understand now’.”

Bigger hoops to jump through.

He’s now a convert to the way of the 29in wheel, although he still owns an early Stumpjumper as well as a couple of modern ones. However, he confesses that he barely uses his dropper post so I’m not sure he’s really finding the limits of what his bikes are capable of. And since he won’t travel anywhere to experience new trails – “I do dream of riding other places, but if it becomes a hassle then it stops becoming fun. I have a complete allergy to driving unnecessarily.” – he’s hardly likely to. I can understand the reluctance to drive. Indeed it’s commendable. But a reluctance to travel altogether? That’s something I really struggle to comprehend. Even more mind-boggling to me is his reluctance to experience new trails.

“I’m a very lazy mountain biker in that I’ve got set routes, some of which I’ve been doing for decades and I don’t bother to find new places. I just sort of think, within the territory I know out of my front door, I know that I’ve probably found the best route, and any other route I do will just be not quite so good.”

I’m not sure I believe him though. In fact, he almost immediately contradicts himself: “I found a new mile section of singletrack in Epping Forest the other day, just because I had to avoid a load of mud. I was quite surprised. ‘I didn’t know this was fucking here’.” 

And again, later in our conversation he admits that when he borrowed an e-bike he broke another of his rules – never go down an unknown descent (because you might end up having to ride back up it) – and found a bunch of new trails, and, guess what? He enjoyed it.

I’m 58, you know…

He says: “I cycle for exercise now. I’m 58; I cycle to keep myself vaguely alive. I don’t cycle for adventure necessarily.” I’m fine with that, and the just-a-person-on-a-bike claims that he makes: “Mountain biking is something that I enjoy. I’m quite good at it; I’ve got a bit of pride invested in it, but it’s not a defining characteristic in me.” 

Mountain biking – and cycling in general – is a broad church. I don’t care what kind of bike someone is on – people on bikes is a good thing, in my view. And Grayson Perry almost agrees – he thinks that bikes are a great replacement for cars and as well as being greener, they’re more convenient – faster even – in an urban environment. But he doesn’t like people in Rapha, or wearing black, or riding fixies, or doing trackstands at traffic lights, or pushing their mountain bikes uphill… it’s quite a long list. 

This ‘I’ve got rules, I only do this, I don’t like that’ approach seems very odd to me. Principles are one thing – I’m all for principles. But Perry’s rules seem to me to be restrictive. Maybe they’re not really rules, maybe he’s just less adventurous and freethinking than he’d have us believe. Maybe if he got into the scene a bit more, went to a race, kept up with things, he’d see that there’s still plenty to like about mountain biking. Maybe he just can’t really be bothered. And I’d be fine with that too, except despite saying he doesn’t really define himself as a mountain biker he’s a bit dismissive of others’ efforts. 

When I suggest that he too is just a bloke out for a ride on a mountain bike he says: “No it’s different, it’s in their kit and their seriousness and how fast they’re going. I always look at the kit, it tells me about how serious a mountain biker is. You don’t get many people on a Halfords special bombing through a difficult trail in the forest.”

Certainly a bike-shaped object might indicate a lack of experience or investment in mountain biking, but I wonder if attitude is more important. The person on the Halfords special exploring the trails, admiring the countryside, getting out there and just doing it… are they any less a mountain biker than Perry with his not-black shoes, speedy ascents and racing heritage? Surely mountain biking is about looking ahead, seeing what’s round that bend, finding out what you can do next, discovering what you’re capable of? Without that, I can’t help but feel that you’re one step away from a static bike at the gym. Or slippers and Emmerdale.

Two-wheeled harumphing. 

Perry is clearly a fitness rider, preferring it to progressing and learning. “I’ve mountain biked for 30 years; I’m pretty good technically on the whole. I’m not good on extreme downhill, but in terms of whipping through the forest I’m pretty good. If I know the trail I’d say I’m fast.” While he understandably doesn’t want to break any bones – who does? – there are so many mentions of his age that I get the distinct impression he thinks he’s quite old. He’s 58.

It might be a cliché to say that age is a state of mind, but I think it’s true. Once you start saying ‘I don’t want to do that’ or ‘I won’t like that’, it’s the top of the bell curve. From there is only gradual decline. I don’t think we have to keep hurtling ever faster down even steeper trails to keep having fun, but I do think there’s a level of curiosity and adventure that is essential to making mountain biking anything more than two-wheeled exercise. And that’s fine. Have your exercise – but don’t pass judgement on others while you’re at it.

Harumph. And now I’m passing judgement. But for someone who criticises young people for being boring in their dress sense, clichéd in their hipstered search for individuality, and I think who seeks to shock and surprise, Perry manages to appear rather closed-minded and set in his ways. Equally, for someone who finds meaning and interpretation in people and personalities and translates that into art, I find the lack of feeling about mountain biking, the absence of higher meaning or existential impact a bit… empty. Mountain biking isn’t just about exercise – it’s about joy, and friends and challenge and connecting with your environment and feeling the world around you. At least, that’s how it is for me. For him, it’s something else.

At one point he talks about shopping. “There’s two sorts of shoppers – there’s people who will find exactly the right thing, and there’s people who say ‘that’ll do, it’s in the ball-park’. The second sort are always happier. The person who relentlessly tries to find exactly the right thing to buy is always going to be unhappy and disappointed.” 

I hate shopping, so I can’t disagree on this front. But it’s a fine line between settling for something and giving up. I can’t help but wonder whether perhaps he has given up looking for more. He seems happy enough with his choices, but I think Grayson Perry is missing out. I wanted to leave his studio full of deep and meaningful thoughts about mountain biking, art, maps, the meaning of life, and our role in the universe. Instead I leave feeling a little bit sad. Or maybe just confused. How can anyone like mountain biking, but… well… not really like it at all?

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