Tuesday 22 October 2019

Damian Corless: 'Mamil sightings may be on the increase but future generations will surely give thanks as lycra is headed for the banned list'

Bicycles on O’Connell Street, Dublin, in 1946
Bicycles on O’Connell Street, Dublin, in 1946

Damian Corless

This week is National Bike Week, which gives us an opportunity to reflect on the road we've travelled from the first boneshakers to bike-to-work schemes, bicycles for hire, cycle lanes and legally dubious motor-enhanced models.

Ireland's love affair with the bicycle got off to a shaky start, with some alarmed rural dwellers mistaking the first cyclists for evil spirits. At least one terrified pioneer had to pedal furiously to escape a hail of stones. Historian Brian Griffin dug up a report from one early enthusiast whose group approached the village of Spiddal in the 1880s.

As dusk descended, they switched on their lamps. One wrote: "It happened to be a holiday and the people had assembled in crowds along the roadside to chat or indulge in rustic games. As we noiselessly approached, every voice grew silent and they gazed, awestruck, at the mysterious light against the murky sky... But as soon as they saw that we were real flesh and blood, they ran alongside with shouts of delight and exclamations in Irish."

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The lethal Penny Farthing, or Ordinary Bicycle, was the natural enemy of long skirts, so the Safety Bicycle appeared in 1886 especially for women. With two same-sized wheels, a chain and pedals, it was such an advance, men quickly demanded the same. The spectacle of women in the saddle drew open hostility from the man on the street. Beatrice Grimshaw lamented that "yells, hoots, prayers and curses followed after the daring pioneers of feminine wheeling wherever they appeared".

By the turn of the 20th century, the craze had swept Ireland as both an adventure sport and a practical means of getting from A to B. With factories springing up everywhere, the Irish became a nation of bicycle owners.

In 1898, Irish Tourist ran a piece entitled 'Dublin 50 Years Hence', which imagined the River Liffey from Capel Street Bridge to the Custom House pumped dry to create a long, broad cycleway. That didn't happen and 50 years on, the Liffey still flowed freely to the sea, but the vision of Dublin as a bicycle city had otherwise come to pass.

In 1954, one newspaper complained that cyclists acted like they owned the roads. In an article headed 'Are You A Road Menace?', the writer fulminated: "What of the bicycle menace? Dublin alone, sometimes known as The City of The Bicycles, offers some startling lapses of road safety. Defective brakes, lack of rear lights, cycling three abreast, swerving unexpectedly, taking chances in crowded traffic - all play their part in the toll of road accidents."

Irish society had run on two wheels for generations before a small economic boom in the 1960s brought many more cars on to the roads.

The upwardly mobile classes now looked down on the humble two-wheeler that had served them so well for so long. Cycling's prestige hit a pre-Lance Armstrong low when Fianna Fáil's Mícheál Ó Móráin attacked Fine Gael for failing to protect the law-abiding public from "the thug, the robber, the flick-knife operator and the gentlemen in Dublin with their bicycle chains".

Cycling in Ireland enjoyed not just a rehabilitation, but a renaissance in the 1980s.

When the very first professional rankings were compiled in 1984, the stats placed Waterford's Sean Kelly as world No 1, a position he held for five straight seasons.

But it was the media-friendly Stephen Roche who really put Irish bums back on triangular seats. In 1987, Roche won cycling's big three events, the World Championship, Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Cycling was now Ireland's new national sport.

As Roche-mania swept the land, he realised he'd created a monster: "You end up being hassled by people talking about bicycles all the time. That's why I stay home a lot."

Sadly, the cycling craze coincided with the arrival of a revealing new wonder fabric in sports clothing, Lycra, which, in turn, gave us the 'mamil', or middle-aged man in Lycra. Sporting crazes come and go, but men in the throes of midlife crisis will always be with us, and the unsightly bulging of the biking mamil remains a hazardous distraction to all road users.

In the name of a greener future, we are all being encouraged on to our bikes, which may mean a short-term increase in mamil sightings. But as a non-biodegradable, non-recyclable synthetic fibre, Lycra is headed for the banned list. Future generations will surely give thanks.

Irish Independent

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