It's official: bicycles are the new black. To Britain's monied and middle-aged male business elite, concerned with consuming the beautiful things in life, two wheels and a frame have unexpectedly become the most desirable object of our time.
Choosing to buy a Ferrari or a Moto Guzzi when mid-life crisis strikes is just too obvious an option for the discerning alpha male of a certain age, whereas a hand-built bicycle engineered to world-class standards represents something exquisite but stylishly understated. The temptation of the sleek lines of a Campagnolo, the hand-built individualism of a Condor or the supreme good looks of a Colnago are just too much to resist for any red-blooded man with a head for design and a passionate heart.
The global bicycle industry, including bikes, parts and accessories, is worth more than $20 billion, according to BikeBiz.co.uk, and the UK industry racked up about £974 million in sales in 2002. In terms of participation, road racing remains the most popular form of cycle sport in the Britain.
In 2002, there were 2,101 road races with 126,060 participants.
Bike junkie and former brand consultant Simon Mottram runs Rapha, a newly launched bikewear company that sells a range of elegant jerseys and accessories for men. Mottram estimates that the hardcore road cycling market in the UK is worth £50 million, and it's his ambition to stake out a 5%-10% share of it. His timing, it seems, is spot-on, because the growing cycle market has coincided with the rise of what think-tank Demos terms 'eternal youths' among well-off middle-aged professionals, who are determined to 'have their time again' and aren't afraid to use their powerful consumer clout to buy the best toys around.
And one of the best toyshops is Condor Cycles on Grays Inn Road in central London. It's run by Grant Young, whose father Monty set up the business in 1948. The family firm has a healthy six-figure turnover and specialises in supplying custom-built road bikes, manufactured in either Britain or Italy.
'City-based people in high-ranking jobs make up about a third of our customer base,' says Young, although he has a number of celebrities on his books too - Mick Jagger, Jeff Banks and Jon Snow. 'We get loads of barristers and lawyers who haven't been on a bike since they were a kid.' It's these same cyclists, now grown up, who are prepared to dig deep into their wallets in order to rekindle their dormant passion. And born-again bikers are not afraid to splash out for the experience, typically £3,000 on a bike and £400-£500 on the clothing to go with it. After all, they're used to buying only the best in life.
Rapha is the latest company to tap into this newly emerging market of 35- to 50-year-old professional and corporate men, keen to wave their Coutts card at something more energetic than golf. Road cycling - whether just commuting to work or taking part in amateur races - has all the right credentials: a gritty heritage with real heroes such as Merckx, Indurain, Hinault and Armstrong; punishing participatory events such as the Etape du Tour, where amateur riders are invited to race one stage of the Tour de France; and expensive, high-tech equipment to fiddle with. The surface appeal of road cycling is irresistible to the competitive man in search of masochistic machismo.
An avid cyclist for years, Mottram - formerly of Sapient and an ex-partner at brand consultancy Circus - took the plunge earlier this year, quitting work as a freelance consultant and setting up his business after getting a couple of investors on-side. The name Rapha comes from a legendary French cycling team from the 1960s - St Raphael - that had five-times Tour de France winner Anquetil as its leader. 'They were just an amazing team,' says Mottram reverentially. 'They were absolutely at the moment when it all came together as the most beautiful sport. The riders were like film stars.'
Mottram's luxury product range is pricy: a Sportwool jersey (£105), a Softshell jacket (£175), Epic musette bags (£30-£35), an off-the-bike Merino top (£130) and an Epic cap (£20). The competition comes from established brands - Swiss manufacturer Assos, Italian maker Campagnolo and American brands Specialized and Nike. In fact, 40 to 50 firms offer bike clothes. What makes Rapha different?
'The products out there don't live up to the demands of the sport or the demands of the most discerning customers,' explains Mottram. 'Clothes and accessories are badly made. So, if someone spends five grand on a titanium bike and then buys a day-glo polyester jersey that doesn't work very well, it's just not good enough. The origins of Rapha were to say we can do more with clothing - let's bring it up to the level of the bikes.
We're trying to give the customer more than what they thought they needed.' So out goes the lurid Spandex and in comes high-performance style.
Who are Rapha's target customers? 'They are affluent,' says Mottram firmly.
'They're 30- to 50-year-old men who are active road riders and love the sport. They don't have to be as obsessed as I am, but they will at least have an appreciation of cycling.
'Typical would be a late-30s corporate lawyer who works in the City, very successful, very discerning, who demands the best brands in everything.
He is design-literate and will own the right kind of car, will wear the right kind of clothes - who at weekends will go out and ride his bike and he will do one difficult ride a year to test himself.'
A close fit is Michael Gollner, 46, MD of Citigroup Venture Capital Europe, who keeps a bike in both London and New York - and it would be no surprise to find him tearing around Richmond Park and Central Park in the same week. As a former top-level amateur cyclist, he also takes part in the Etape every year. 'Part of the pleasure is the festival atmosphere the race has,' says Gollner. Born-again bikers are seduced by the peripheral pleasures of biking - enjoying the countryside, exploring new parts of France. Indeed, a nascent industry nurturing the luxury lifestyle of the upmarket cyclist is taking off (see boxes).
The modern preoccupation with la bella figura is motivation enough for many deskbound executives to climb into the saddle. 'Cycling is a fantastic way to stay fit in that you're doing something - not wasting time like going to the gym,' says Julian Hough, 46, a director of ad agency WCRS. He views it as a civilised tonic to relieve the stresses of executive life. 'Cycling nine miles to work takes half an hour and it's great fun. It gets the adrenalin going, so you don't arrive at work half-asleep.'
But what really animates these high-flying cyclists is the gruelling physical punishment that racing demands. It's something that six-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong knows all about: 'Once, someone asked me what pleasure I take in riding for so long. "Pleasure?" I said.
"I don't understand the question." I don't do it for pleasure, I do it for pain.'
For Mottram, Armstrong's words resonate deeply. 'Road cycling is just about hard slog, and through the hard slog you get to a point that is really beautiful. But without the hard slog, it's nothing. And that's quite appealing to men of a certain age. Lots of men find that when they approach a mid-life crisis, they're drawn to something that is more elemental, more physical and pushes you in ways that intellectual stimulation at work can't do. Cycling is just perfect for that because there's nothing but you and the road. And it's long and hard and gruelling. It's all about the pain.'
Pain is something Luke Scott, 37, director of RSA Films and son of film director Ridley, knows all about. Scott started cycling again last year for a work charity bike ride in France, and was quickly drawn into an enjoyable pastime that got him fit quickly. He cycles to work, and takes trips to Brighton and Wales at the weekends. His bike of choice? Well, it was a £3,000 hand-built Serotta until he wrote it off in an accident in the Pyrenees three months ago. He broke his sternum and fractured his nose two days into a nine-day charity ride. The bike now has pride of place in his office, hanging twisted and scratched like some demented sculpture.
Has the experience tempered Scott's enthusiasm for the sport? 'No. Having the crash just got the blood pumping around my veins and made me more aware of how much I enjoy it.'
Enjoyment for the committed born-again biker comes from setting goals and achieving or surpassing them, which perhaps matches exactly the characteristics of a competitive City high-flyer. Dominique Gabellini, 48, is MD of Professional Language Studies, a training provider whose clients include Barclays, UBS and law firm Allen & Overy. French-born Gabellini was the 2003 League of Veteran Racing Cyclists national criterium champion.
It was three years ago that he rediscovered the sport of his youth. 'I need to have goals in my life and attain them,' he says. 'I need to have objectives. Cycling is about doing a bit better every time. I want to overtake my objectives, achieve a bit more. I don't have a car at the moment, but I couldn't live without my bike.'
Neither could Phones4U founder John Caudwell, who took up cycling five years ago when asked by a friend to join him on a ride. 'I found an old mountain bike in the garage and rode 15 miles. It nearly killed me, but now it's just one turn of the pedals.' At 51, Caudwell's life revolves around cycling, whether it's an evening ride or training for his 2,300 mile Stoke-on-Trent to Athens charity race next month. 'At the moment, I regularly cycle 150 miles from Stoke to London on a Saturday - I'll set off at four in the morning and get to London at 5pm.'
And the more physical punishment, the better - though remember that cycling is about looking sleek and chic, and black is the colour to wear. Traditionally, couriers, the hardest cyclists on the road, wear black. 'It comes from the British time-trial heritage,' explains Mottram. 'In the 1930s, you weren't allowed to road race, so people did time trials in the middle of the night because they didn't want to be spotted by the police. They wore black Alpaca jackets and tights.'
Now, biking really is the new black. mt
NO REST FOR THE KITTED FREEWHEEL BREAKS
VELO CLASSIC TOURS
'Ride through history. Live in luxury' is the motto of this US tour company, which caters to the top end of the road cycling market by providing tours in Europe that incorporate high living with serious sport.
Run by 'Friendly' Phil, who extols the benefit of 'Pastry Power', Gastrobiking Holidays takes new and keen cyclists around France, stopping off for gastro reprieves along the way. www.gastrobiking.com
CINGHIALE CYCLING TOURS
This holiday company is run by former professional cyclist Andy Hampsten - the only American to win the Giro d'Italia - so this option is for diehards.
Holidays are based in Tuscany. Cinghiale is Italian for 'wild boar'. www.cinghiale.com
DuVine takes a softer approach, boasting 'a bike trip with character and soul'. Another operator run by Americans, it aims to provide cyclists with the personalised holiday of their dreams. www.duvine.com
Giro Lone Star 2004 helmet £149.95
2004 F1.13 S2 bibshorts £125
Rapha Sportwool jersey £105
Rapha Softshell jacket £175
DeFeet 2004 Woolie Boolie socks £11.99
Sidi 2004 Ergo 1 Carbon road shoes £188
Campagnolo CO15 Next gloves £16.99
Condor Baracchi Carbon Chorus £2,249.99