Way back when Marc Bolan rode his white swan, and the Goodies pedalled their ‘trandem’, a different band of bearded men, wearing knitted and dark-coloured woolly jerseys, plus fours, and leather shoes, would also ride their own hand-crafted steel bikes with bar and saddle bags around the countryside.
Cranking big gears (at least compared to today’s plethora of choices) and pushing or carrying their irons over the steepest mountain tracks they could manage, these intrepid two wheeled explorers would often ride for days on end, and – when they weren’t riding – would seek shelter and some rest in barns, tents, or even, if the mood for luxury struck them, in youth hostels.
As often as not, their paper map plotted routes would eventually see them rattling their pre-suspension era rigs along rocky and forgotten byways, fuelled by sucking on barley sugar, or chewing on Kendal Mint Cake, before brewing up a cuppa from stream water on some remote and misty mountainside.
As they sat by the wayside, there was no checking the Strava KOM or posting a selfie on Instagram, and they were likely dreaming of a slice of black pudding and lard spread on a doorstep of white bread, all washed down with a tankard of lukewarm ale on their return home on a Sunday night. Ee bah gum, those were the days.
(Credit: Hill Special)
It's funny how things pan out – as those tongue-in-cheek reminiscences from a bygone era pretty much sound, right down to the beards and questionable fashion choices, like a blueprint for the modern-day bikepacker-cum-graveleur, now considered the hippest of cycling trend-setters in 2023.
Because, just like the kids strutting around the high street like it’s 2002, cycling culture is all too susceptible to the whimsical cycles of fashion. Experiences, bikes, and kit that not that long ago were dismissed as outdated relics are now being experienced by a whole new generation of cyclists, eager to discover the Next Big Thing, which – in many cases – is simply a modern rebranding of some old big thing.
So, to celebrate the cyclical nature of cycling fashion, we decided to delve into those long-forgotten trends making a comeback in recent years – starting with none other than the new but very old craze of cycle touring. Sorry, I mean ‘bikepacking’…
To many of us (but not to those fortunate enough to be part of it), the jaded extra-short shorts image of the stereotypical CTC tourer of the 1970s was something to be feared, and sadly, the cycle tourists of the past were somewhat viewed in a less than dazzling light by many.
As for those bulky saddle and bar bags, their over-loaded panniers, their preference for sleeping under canvas or in bus shelters, of riding for days on end in crusty and sweaty kit – well, it wasn’t that sexy a pastime, to say the least.
Sprint forward a few decades into the current era, reshape and rebrand with new side bobbing bags, call it by another name, add a little retro chic air to proceedings, and bang – there you have it, minimalist cycle touring of old is suddenly bikepacking! And it’s downright cool, too, especially in certain newfound corners of the cycling world.
Pose, you’re bikepacking…
Hang on, how about making a few bikepacking events and festivals too – not unlike those CTC camping meets or audax/randonnées from way back when – or glamourise things with the kind of rides those minimalist long-haul French cyclo-tourists did, like the pre-popular Paris-Brest-Paris?
Job done, oh, and let’s make the gear ultra-expensive to match the new rebrand, and why not strap on an old tin mug and a sew-on badge for effect. Perfect.
Those once great oddball beardies of old, known as the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, would be turning in their graves and chuckling if they could see what became of their exceptional but exceptionally under-rated off-road on curly bars riding antics of the 1950s and onwards.
It has to be said that the RSF, or more explicitly its quirky membership and their insane off-road antics, were viewed as absolute crackpots by mainstream cyclists. And yet they do still exist, and are remembered now as apostles of gravel riding – and in many ways they were just that.
Although the RSF was indeed the first official off-road cycling club/organisation around, many had been riding bikes off-road since the invention of the wheel, and even through the pre-dawn of mountain biking many cyclists of the day would often ride road bikes, or slightly adapted cyclocross or touring bikes, along the trails of our land.
It just wasn’t seen as all that hip or cool – until recently that is.
Although there are still many gravel-deniers out there, there is no getting way from the fact that it’s fun and makes perfect sense. And while early ‘90s mountain bike tech continues to be leant on by some, it is great to see the rough stuff return with a makeover, and bikes that are far more capable of taking it on. And who knows – maybe flat bar gravel will even catch on in the future?
When the outsourcing of bike building combined with the mass production of aluminium frames and minimal sizing variations took over our two-wheeled world in the early 1990s, the humble and yet trusted steel frames of old fell out of fashion and favour. As for those small frame local builders who were so impassioned and committed to the sport – well, few of them made it through the aluminium revolution.
Consequently, the last few generations of young cyclists have largely grown up without ever tasting the delights of good old steel frames. However, things have now very much come full circle, and steel most definitely is real again, and real expensive too.
As new cyclists, and older cyclists alike, rediscover this amazing old material, steel frames have come to be considered as artisan. Heck, you can even get exorbitantly priced custom paint jobs too (who would have ever thought of that all those years ago, when custom meant geometry and fit?).
And to top all that, some of the new artisan builders even weld on racks, spray up frame fit pumps to match the frames, and charge an arm and a leg to do it. For those of us long-toothed enough to have known the ancient craftsmen of old steel frame mastery, it does make you appreciate just how underestimated, underappreciated, and underpaid they were.
Sheep and sheerful, wool was very much the clothing material of choice for cyclists for almost a century, right up until acrylic mixes and Lycra took over the cleated catwalk in the 1980s.
Woollen cycling kit was something of a mixed bag, to say the least. There’s no doubt that when treated and washed correctly it was as comfy as could be, although when those woolly shorts shrank and went baggy, that was a whole different matter. However, wool was super snug, and worked great as a winter undervest and top, was perfect for hats, and lasted well too.
Modern fabrics? Well, they have come a long way over the past 40 years, and yet the old ram in the corner did once again emerge from the shadows a few years back, only with a Latino flare and a rebranding by Rapha.
Soon enough the merino wool jersey became a thing of desire, and an extortionately priced one at that. That said, merino is much better at doing its job when compared to the wool of the distant past, and in the last couple of years it has become far more widely available and affordable, and it really is plush, posh, and purposeful.
You can leave your hat on, and these days many do – by constantly wearing their cycling caps, with the peaks turned up, in public, including off the bike.
Oh, how times have changed. Many of us grew up wearing cycling caps, but keeping them on your head while off the bike was something to be derided and scorned, and through the birth of mountain biking the wearing of caps at all became somewhat demonised (although some of us kept the faith, such was our devotion to the hallowed peak – turned down, of course).
That looks like a cap! It’s a cycling cap!
With the widespread dustbin lid helmets of the early ‘90s becoming almost mandatory, the humble peaked cap almost went into extinction, and along the way its once glorious cotton became lost to nylon-Lycra skull cap designs, monstrosities far removed from the glory days of these amazing and versatile cotton head-toppers.
Somewhere along the line, probably also due to the bearded woolly city folk of Rapha, the cotton cap once again rose to cult-like prominence, costing many times the price it should, with the turned up and numbered peaked cap becoming something of an ultra-cycling status symbol. Even – shudders – when you’re not riding your bike.
Quick, someone tell John he’s doing it all wrong…
Please note: No beards or furry animals were harmed during the writing of this feature – and in all honesty, it’s great to see all of the above return to their rightful status within cycling circles, albeit carrying a very different price tag and image on their greatest hits reunion tour.
Meanwhile, we’re just waiting to launch our own range of artisan organic jam butties and sugar free Mars Bars…