Come on, be honest, are you guilty of laughing at other riders who turn up in cobbled-together, mismatched kit? Casting a smug look down at your aero Rapha jersey, your sleek ASSOS bibs or your emblazoned club kit. If that’s the case, you’ve landed on the right article.

Think back to that new kid who turned up to your social ride, wanted to join your club, or just slipped in ahead of you at a gran fondo? The hairy legged one, with a washed-out, ill-fitting jersey, worn-out shoes, and wonky helmet. You know the one. That one you sniggered at.

The new one. The clueless one.

An old helmet, the too-short socks, the cringe-worthy jersey. Oh, man, don’t they realise how they look? It’s a bit of an ego boost; that dawning realisation – subconscious, and almost never expressed aloud – that you’re a step above, in another league. Bathe in your superiority, indulge in complacency; you’ll show ’em, won’t you?

The ride starts easy and I’m in good shape, motivated to form the first break after 15 km. Paceline. The break. Up the road. Six of my buddies join me, an in-sync, well-oiled chaingang. Running on endorphins, adrenaline, and then the arrival of lactic acid. It feels great when you feel great, when you’re able to push hard and demonstrate just who’s the hammer, and who’s the nail.

But then you reach the climb. Your beautiful formation disintegrates at the same rate as the climb ramps up. My enthusiasm dwindles after the first kilometre of the climb, and despite being so stylishly kitted out, I’m no longer in control of my legs. To make matters worse, there’s the paralyzing fear of being caught by the newbie. Fuck. Legs, pedal dammit! Fortunately I make it to the top, hunched and sweating ignobly. Brief pause. Drink something. And then, suddenly, he’s next to me, the newbie.

He’s sweating too, but smiling. ‘Nice one!’ he comments cheerfully, ‘that was some speed that you guys rode away with! It’s impressive – gives me a goal to work towards.’

His openness and genuine, brazen keenness make an impression on me almost immediately. There are no pretences around this guy, and his crimes against those ‘rules’ that I hold in such high esteem simply pass him by — he’s blissfully oblivious.

Are you worth as much as your Rapha kit might make you believe?

We start chatting properly and he tells me his backstory: a hard time recently, falling into unhealthy bad habits, relationship woes and limited time to do any sport. A friend of his recommended that he start riding. As a broke student, he bought his current bike on eBay and inherited some second-hand kit from that same friend. He thought he’d give cycling a go after he’d heard so much great stuff about the sport and the community. If he liked it, then he’d save up for a better bike, he concluded.

It wasn’t a particularly dramatic story, nor was it filled with much tragedy, but it got me thinking: did I really need the newest kit or the coolest must-have equipment in order to feel good on the bike? This guy didn’t give a damn about ‘rules’ or things – it was just about being out and riding.

While sexism and racism are as hotly discussed as ever, the topic of lookism is barely touched-upon. What does it even mean? ‘Lookism is the belief that appearance is an indicator of a person’s value. It refers to society’s construction of a standard for beauty or attractiveness, and the resulting oppression that occurs through stereotypes and generalizations about those who do and do not meet society’s standards,’ write M. Neil Browne and Andrea Giampetro-Meyer in „Many Paths To Justice: The Glass Ceiling, the Looking Glass, and Strategies for Getting to the Other Side“.

So what if he isn’t a fashion school graduate?

Once the ride is over it’s easy to conclude that this guy has the potential of a diamond in the rough. Even I could learn something from him, I realise. Instead of judging others over their attire or their appearance, it’s much better to be open-minded. Who is braver: the budget-dresser newbie for throwing themselves into something, or the self-assured experienced one that reckons they know everything in their high-end cycling kit?

It’s only when you truly know yourself that you know your worth. And then you’ll also know that there are no ideals to live up to.

We’re masters of enforced conformity. In fact, these days we’re so good at it that we’d make any dictator proud.

We even turn this conformity into competition. Fit the bill of the ideal cyclist and you win. Where are your Oakleys? Your Rapha – excluding the Core collection, right? Your eye-catching, high socks and Giro shoes? Isn’t that the very vision of a winner?

But what do you win? No one will deny that you don’t look pretty sharp, but why does celebrating that image mean that we can’t accept others for not looking like that too? Why does some other unknown rider’s appearance even matter to us? Why aren’t we applauding diversity and enjoying the sport alongside the rest?

This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #010

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Text Robin Schmitt Illustration Julian Lemme

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