Class conscious

Growing up in York in the 1970s, I would be exposed every so often to a great exodus of workmen cycling from a workplace, whether it was the British Rail carriage works or Rowntree's factory. The phenomenon was almost Chinese: a wobbling mass of becapped boiler-suited blokes, monopolising the road, ringing bells and shouting to one another with a school's-out cheeriness. These bicyclists rode in the old, working-class manner, which is to say: splay-footed, the pedals driven by the heels, the upper body rocking effortfully forwards with each press of the pedal. It's not the most efficient way to ride a bike - you ought to use the ball of your foot - but in those days people cycled quite unselfconsciously. They didn't care what they looked like, and they rode bikes mainly because they were cheaper than cars.

In the early sixties, we had acquired a house with a garage but it was a good ten years before my father felt prosperous enough to buy a car. Until then, the garage had merely provided accommodation - almost decadently spacious in extent - for our much-used bicycles. When my father finally bought an old, noxious but exciting Singer Gazelle our bikes were banished to the margins of the garage, and relegated to the status of things that might, if one were not careful, scratch the paint off the revered motor.

Now things are very different. A latterday Norman Tebbit would not brutally advise the working class to get on their bikes and look for work; he'd tell them instead to get in their Sierras. Sure, roughly a third of households in Britain still do not possess a car, but the bike no longer symbolises being working-class in the way that it did. On the contrary, bien pensant opinion is so anti-car, and bikes are so expensively engineered (a good one now costs as much as a perfectly driveable car), and bike shops are so like extremely chic nightclubs (except with added self-righteousness) that the thoughtful middle-class cyclist is an icon of modern urban living. In London, for example, we have Jon Snow, Jeremy Paxman and Alan Bennett . . . although Bennett, to do him credit, is old school. I'll bet any amount of money, for example, that his bike clips are not luminous.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex