Lucy King gets on her bike and puts her plus fours through their paces on the Tweed Run to see if shooting tweeds can still cut the sporting mustard in the age of Lycra
There’s been a lot of talk about what makes a gentleman recently thanks to the launch of Country Life magazine’s gentleman of the year award. One of the critical criteria for gentlemanliness is apparently abstinence from Lycra.
Fair enough. Lycra is an unflattering, even unforgiving fabric that encourages excessive speed in its wearers and consequently the ungentlemanly habits of sweating and swearing.
It is however fairly cool, comfortable and aerodynamic. As a result it has been adopted as the first choice for most modern sports, from soccer through swimming and cross country skiing to cycling.
A few sports are still holding back the tide – gameshooting and stalking being among them (I do have a friend who swears by Lycra running tights for hill stalking, but we won’t talk about him right now, and clay shooting clobber is a completely different kettle of ugly fish).
Fieldsports are one of the last bastions of pukka PE kit: fashions are changing but high numbers of participants still wear proper clothes – shirts, ties and tailored breeks and jackets – made from proper fabrics, most typically tweed.
It could be argued that gameshooting has successfully resisted Lycra for so long because it isn’t really that energetic. It’s true that some driven days can be on an athletic par with darts or tiddlywinks, but some walked-up shooting and hill stalking can give you as good a work out as you’ll get anywhere, and still involve tweed.
In the past, tweed was the cloth of choice for a number of other sports – including golf, skiing and cycling. There are honourable (normally cold weather) exceptions, such as the Cresta Run, but turning up to the Tour de France or Ryder Cup in plus fours would be generally regarded as akin to wearing a knitted bathing suit on the beach at Ibiza.
Opportunities to see if tweed still cuts the mustard on a bike are therefore relatively rare. The biggest and best of them, however, is the Tweed Run, and I was delighted to be offered a place on this year’s ride and the chance to see some tweed and some gentlemanly temperaments being properly tested.
The Tweed Run was founded in 2009 with the intention of bringing a bit of style back to metropolitan cycling. Vintage bikes and plus fours are strongly encouraged, as are moustaches and good manners.
The first ride saw 300 people peddle their way around the centre of London. It has since become so popular that this year’s event – now capped at 500 – sold out in less than two minutes, and Tweed Runs have been held in Tokyo and New York.
This year’s London event was held in May. While it wasn’t officially a “scorcher”, it was warm and sunny – quite a bit warmer than typical tweed weather. How would tweeds and tempers cope?
The riders who came together for a group photograph in the quadrangle at Somerset House before setting off were a picture of gentlemanly and ladylike bonhomie, decked out in an awe inspiring array of tweed, sprinkled with some truly fantastical facial hair. My team mates were no exception, to the tweed that is.
I was riding with the team from champagne house Pol Roger, which was sponsoring the run for the first time, joining Tyrell’s crisps, the Campaign for Wool and timeless stalwarts of cycling style, Brooks and Pashley.
Our hosts, Paul Graham and Freya Miller from Pol Roger were riding gorgeous new Pashleys specially made for the occasion and looked the epitome of the gallant gentleman in light weight plus fours and waistcoat by tailor Charlie Allen and ladylike grace in a summery skirt and deep blue Harris tweed blazer. The other guests were no less dapper.
But what would the riders be like after a sunny day in the saddle? Pedalling to the point of perspiration was bound to bring out latent personality traits, and if the golden age of British cinema of the mid-20th century tells us one thing, it’s that there are two types of men in tweed: good chaps and frightful cads.
Would there be hot and bothered bounders making off with bottles of champagne and whispering sweet whiskery nothings into the ears of innocent girls by the end of the day? I made a mental note to look out for candidates for The Spectator’s “cad of the year” contest as well as the archetypal Country Life gent.
Things began well, with plenty of gentlemanly relish and little or no sign of bounder-ism. It was hot but tempers stayed cool and under control. Courtesy ruled with a friendly iron fist (inside a tweed cycling glove).
This was most noticeable in the way the marshals (all volunteers) kept the London traffic in check: a forceful but exceedingly polite “thank you sir, thank you madam! Please bear with us for a few minutes more; the last riders are coming up now,” worked remarkably well and there was less impatient honking from drivers than there is on a normal commuting day.
Courtesy was also king as we stopped for elevenses at the Guildhall. Though a fair few were mopping their perspiring brows, and in sore need of tea, no one queue jumped or complained. There may have been a few who snaffled extra shortbread, but if they did they had the decency to do it
As we prepared to move off again, however, there was a faint whiff of cad-age: two heavily bearded young men at the back were bickering as they wobbled off on a tandem, flying a flag proclaiming them to be tailors Cad & the Dandy. It wasn’t clear which was which, so I asked. “I’m both. He’s just the ‘and’.” Came the reply from the front man. And that settled that.
After a long ride crossing and re-crossing the Thames, meeting the riders from the London Space for Cycling campaign and taking in some of London’s most revered spots – Parliament Square, Buckingham Palace, and, most importantly St James’s and Saville Row – we stopped for lunch in
The tweed was still holding up, proving surprisingly breatheable in spite of its thickness, and I was doubly grateful for it a sensible fabric in which to sit on the grass – far better proof against thistles and ants than Lycra.
Tempers, which had survived the run’s sometimes painfully slow progress, were tested again by the fiendishly difficult “throw a hat on a pigeon” competition organised by Cordings. Team Pol Roger made a reasonable fist of it, but were along way from getting the three consecutive hats on to the wobbling decoys that was required to win.
The final stretch took us a short distance to the finish at Clerkenwell. I was passed again by the Cad & the Dandy on their tandem – the Cad now appropriately gin and tonic in hand for the home strait.
At last, bikes were piled against walls, and we were rewarded with a glass of Monsieur Roger’s fine white-foiled fizz. As this began to take effect, a few inner cads seemed to stir – and a number of beards drifted almost imperceptibly closer to innocent ladylike ears. I can only speculate as to what would have happened had the riders been clad in Lycra.
Before the whiskers could whisper anything too shocking, prizes were presented to the best dressed riders, for the best bikes, and to those with the best moustaches. The judges must have had a tough time deciding.
It was a much simpler matter to pass judgment on tweed and its fitness for purpose. Tweed is not be built for speed, but this fact is far outweighed by its beneficial effects on the atmosphere and enjoyment of the riders. Its extra padding was also surprisingly welcome after a long day in the saddle. Equally, it is a little hotter than Lycra, but it’s nothing that a glass of champagne can’t fix.
To prove this, we pushed off one last time to the Running Horse pub in Mayfair, run by Pol Roger guest and all round good chap James Chase, where we feasted like true gentlefolk – on Pol Roger and the most genteel pork scratchings known to man, or woman. Eating pork scratchings while dressed in Lycra wouldn’t have had quite the same aura of class…
With thanks to Paul and Freya from Pol Roger, James at the Running Horse, and the wonderful Louisa Lewis for photography and roadside assistance.