On the trail of British cycling culture
BY NORA MANTHEY
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2015)
Every year, a colourful quiver of boldly dressed cyclists parades through London – it’s Tweed Run time. The point of the race is not speed but to exhibit a special case of whimsical and nostalgic beauty. Our London correspondent Nora Manthey attended the event.
Tweed is the material of choice for knickerbockers, a piece of clothing that one may still spot on the golf course or during hunting season. But there is another sporting event where these breeches are a must have: the Tweed Run in London. In combination with old bicycles, the woollen fabric becomes quite presentable. But if you are thinking ‘old’ in terms of rusty and rundown, you are mistaken. The trusty bikes are just as gaudy as their owners and, due to the number of participants, cause quite a scene.
Ted Young-Ing, founder of the Tweed Run, was actually just looking for an opportunity to wear his first “Plus-fours”, knee-length knickerbockers. During the turn of the century and until the 1920s, it was the trouser of choice for gentlemen on bikes, long pre-dating the tight cycling shorts made from lycra that would have been downright indecent back then.
The first Tweed Run in 2009 was supposed to be a simple bike ride and picnic among friends, but some 300 bike enthusiasts joined the maiden voyage and did not stop short of adopting the unusual dress-code. Ever since, fans of British biking culture have got together every year. The event is meant to revive and praise the past; it,s the hour of historical bicycles and their stylish riders.
Befitting reigning etiquette, jerseys or regular streetwear are taboo. Men and women often wear waistcoats and blazers and decorate themselves with period conform hats and caps. Those who choose to wear dress shirts only often sport braces. Most also wear plaid knee-high socks that peek out from under the knickerbockers.
With the sound of a megaphone, the curious bunch sets in motion. The instruction to start riding in small groups is intentionally drowned out by bicycle bells. Coattails blow in the wind, as riders of penny-farthings push off and take two steps to climb into the saddle of the oldest form of fixie-bikes. Those who are able to participate can call themselves lucky, since the only 500 tickets available sell out in minutes. This year, they were gone in a mere 90 seconds.
While many tweed runners are regulars by now, there are some newcomers. One of them is Edward Li. The dentist generally wears black in his spare time and is interested in fashion. His outfit – a dark red jacket, tweed breeches and cheeky cap – was inspired by teachers from the post-war era. He chose that period in honour of the Tweed Run and the “school theme” because he wanted to have fun, just like a kid.
Peter and Patricia come especially from Cambridge. It’s the couple’s sixth time taking part in the Tweed Run and they hope to just “have a happy day.” Peter is retired and Patricia is getting close to retirement as well. Because of their age, the two could almost be considered “Classics.” They find it easy to dress in this vintage style and their bikes also match the theme of the day. Both ride traditional British brands (Hetchins and Mercian), they say. Vintage bicycles are their hobby, which they have maintained for more than ten years. Their garage is decorated with at least 40 vintage models that have been lovingly restored and maintained.
A love of everything vintage brings participants together. Mikó wears only vintage clothing and says that when he grew up his “grandmother was the youngest person around ”. That is where his “weakness for everything old” comes from. He got his outfit for this special day by trading one vinyl record player from the GDR against this three-piece suit that a worker from the 1920s would have worn to church or to go cast his vote. He got his bike in a more modern fashion, purchasing it in an online auction. Though the trusty bicycle is probably around 100 years old.
Sporting a modern three-piece, Mikhail does not take the tweed-theme too seriously. His suit is made out of flannel. For him, British fashion is all about timeless elegance, which he is hoping to preserve with his business. He runs the “Bowtique,” a factory for bowties made out of silk.
But even the Tweed Run has rules. The most important one: listen to the marshals! These dressed-to-the-nines volunteers stand on every corner and point the way. Marshal Stefanie meets the historical criteria to a T, since these wide-cut trousers allowed women from the turn of the century to pedal without showing (too) much leg and contributed to the emancipation movement. Stefanie believes that aside from the appeal of the British past, it is the spectacle that draws people to the Tweed Run.
Karina, who is originally from Japan, agrees that many British seem to miss the times when ladies and gentlemen dressed as such. And, she says, the Brits just seem to love to dress up. She is a stylist and understands that feeling. Her outfit, however, is not completely in line with the époque, as Katrina chose to wear a combination of her mother’s clothes from the 1980s. She may be violating Marshal Viktor’s styling tip for newcomers: “attention to detail, originality, and authenticity.” For Viktor, the appeal of the Tweed Run is that he can remember times when “cycling was not just pedalling as fast as possible, but when riders had style.” And he paid “attention to detail” from the very chain on his pocket watch to his flask. His red leather gloves are stylish and for his job rather practical.
The marshals have a difficult job, since this is the first year that the Tweed Run has been held without assistance from the police and partly runs through London’s heavy traffic. Red double-decker buses, black cabs and hurried commuters keep passing on the right. Sometimes the marshals have to shout over the noise. But no one seems to mind. Instead, cheerful participants keep saying “yes, marshal” and “thank you, marshal,” as they pedal from Trafalgar Square through the royal St James’s Park in the direction of Big Ben and on across Westminster Bridge.
Befitting the theme of the day, it’s time for tea during the first break, served on real vintage porcelain. It again shows the organisers’ and participants’ love of detail. The sight of ladies and gentlemen standing in line in a park framed by historical buildings transports one back to an older England. It is British, sophisticated and beautiful – and of course eccentric.
Later, the group continues their ride through Hyde Park and around Regent’s Park. They travel a total distance of 12 miles, with the highlight being the picnic in a park near King’s Cross. The day ends in an art-deco ballroom in the sophisticated district of Bloomsbury. It is also where the winners of the categories “best bike” and “best beard” are announced. But the real winners are those who were able to combine eccentricity and elegance, bringing yesterday to life today.
Picture credits © Amy Shore