Is cycling the new golf?

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014
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CAMERON BURNELL/Fairfax NZ

Mountain biker Tama McConnell has an aversion to lycra.

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Kevin Endres manages one of the country's top cycling events – the REV 100, which sprints into action in Cambridge today – at a time when summer cycling events and Bike Wise Month are in full swing.

Naturally Endres will be too busy to set off on the 100km ride, but there will be other rides for him before the season ends. He fits the profile perfectly for the riders that the REV 100 and other cycling classics increasingly attract – not the youngsters, but men in their 40s and 50s in shiny lycra who might otherwise be playing golf in conservative duds.

Cycling, the 46-year-old declares, is the new golf. He's echoing the words of super-cyclist Alison Shanks who puts the trend down to cycling giving the ability to "spend money on flash toys, get outdoors and get fit at the same time. Cycling is also a very social sport".

Endres is in the biggest age-group of riders in the 1500-strong REV 100, part of the Avantidrome REV Cycle Festival – men between 40 and 50. He says they have the time and that they embrace cycling "because it's a cardio sport, low impact, not running, not pounding, and you can do it as a group. It's attractive to the middle-aged.

"The new golf is how some people describe it. Golf was the thing in the 1980s and 90s. People want to get more active and a lot of bikes are being sold, not necessarily to ride to work, but for after work and on the weekends."

Research shows nearly 1.3 million New Zealanders ride bikes, more than 75,000 of them took part in organised cycling events last year and 7000 are licensed competitive cyclists.

Middle-aged men feature largely, and the New Zealand Household Travel Survey has determined that children aged 5 to 14 and adults between 45 and 54 are the most persistent travellers by bike.

But cycling's growing appeal – in all its forms, to all ages – is not just a phenomenon of New Zealand with its ample outdoors. Floppy-haired London mayor Boris Johnson, 49, is determined to make London a cycling city and was just one of the eclectic mix of riders in last year's Ride London festival, with its mass participation ride for 20,000 people.

It's not surprising golf is losing out to pedal popularity here and in Europe.

Wellington mountain biker Tama McConnell, 45, played golf for 20 years before he took up biking. Many of his friends have also largely abandoned golf for cycling. "There was a kind of a space of nine months where we asked, 'why are we doing this [golf]'. It was after they started to have kids.

"It's the time golf takes, five or six hours a round. It's not just the pressure from partners, it's wanting to do more with your weekend than be on a golf course. You don't want to take your day off up with one activity. And golf involves membership fees and stuffy rules.

"Everyone's focused on health these days. Cycling is a good way to keep fit."

Endres says part of the reason for cycling's popularity "is that people who want to be more flexible can enjoy the sport without joining a club, but at a certain level you can join a club and get skills from people who'll help you advance".

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Typically, Endres has always been active in one sport or another. "I dabbled in triathlon for a while, but being committed to three things was starting to push it. I liked the bike side of it, the challenge and the social side of it, and that it was quite good on the body. You get tired but not sore."

And the toys the middle-aged crave don't have to cost the earth: "You can get a quite acceptable bike for $1000 – or $10,000."

McConnell, who works in telecommunications, says cycling is quite affordable, "unless you get carried away" – although cyclists like to primp and upgrade their bikes, and look at catalogues, and dream.

McConnell rides with the sort of middle-aged blokes who used to get together for a round of golf and a drink at the clubhouse – "a cool group of people who stick together socially as well. We go for a ride, have a beer after. It takes about two hours, with the exercise going uphill and the thrill going down, all in a short time. With golfing it's sometimes booked and you're forced to play when you don't want to. With mountain biking if it's wet you wait till it clears, or you can do it tomorrow."

McConnell does not do road biking. Mountain bikers and road bikers might have in common that they consider cycling the new golf, but they have a curled-lip approach to each other's outward appearances. Aficionados of mountain biking won't be seen dead in lycra, or even sprawled out in a patch of gorse. McConnell's semi-serious reason for keeping off the road: "I have an aversion to lycra. It's just wrong."

The mountain biker's choice of attire, he says, is "slightly baggy shorts, but not too baggy to be snagged on a branch; light cotton stuff, not too figure-hugging and revealing in the wrong places. You can graduate to serious, proper gear but you can put on old shorts.

"If you fall off, grazes take forever to heal. Yes, it's possibly more sensible [to wear lycra], but it's the pain versus the embarrassment."

Endres says lycra's just practical. "You don't want baggy stuff flapping round in the wind. Cycling clothes are often bright and there's a safety element to that.

"We all wear lycra. Even if you started out not doing it, you'd quickly convert. It's not that people like wearing lycra. It works and there are reasons why it works.

"Look at any sport and a type of clothing dominates, the most practical thing. At some point you say it's the fashion of a sport but first and foremost it's practical and it works. When you get hot, lycra doesn't retain the moisture, it lets it evaporate."

Serious cyclist Richard Aitken, 42, who has a plumbing business in Christchurch and is heavily involved with elite cycling teams – managing, owning and sponsoring – says the lycra divide is nonsense, on the mountain bikers' part.

"They wear lycra tops and lycra under their baggy shorts.

"There's a lot of vitriol and comment around middle-aged men in lycra. I don't think anything of it, really. What defines what you wear is how comfortable you are – tops that don't freeze you to death in winter or overheat you in summer."

He didn't want to wear lycra when he started out, he says, but the inside of his legs got chafed so badly he succumbed to it, and to gloves with towelling for brow-wiping and palm-padding to cushion falls. He even shaves his legs.

"If you fall off in gravel it will rip the hairs out of your legs. If you shave the hairs off you tend to slide over the road a bit better. You don't rip yourself up. Seasoned riders do that."

Aitken says cyclists often start in their 20s and ride to quite a high level but then "get on with life" and revisit cycling in middle-age. He was dealing with cricket injuries when he returned to cycling. "I had to find a way to get my knees working again."

He's never played golf but says, just as with golf, a lot of business is done on bikes. If a plumber rides with an electrician, for example, they're likely to be called in for each other's expertise.

And it's social. "You train with friends. There's quite a strong cycling community. You post on Facebook you're going for a ride and you find five other people ready to go too."

Aitken trains five times a week and is "all road, I've resisted going into anything else". He rides a relatively modestly priced Cannondale Supersix Evo. He says a lot of people in cycling – as they have been in golf – are well-off business owners and spend much money on bikes.

Aitken doesn't take part in the REV 100 – "people generally don't travel between islands for races" – but there are numerous events to select from in the South Island, including Le Race in Christchurch, the Forrest Graperide (Blenheim/Renwick) and Greymouth's Around Brunner.

Aitken has seen cycling as a sport burgeon in popularity in the past 10 years. He believes that's partly due to the inspiration of top cyclists like Hayden Roulston and Greg Henderson, professionals riding overseas at top level and returning home to compete.

"It rubs off and spreads to more and more people. It will only keep getting more popular."

The tough Karapoti Classic, based in the Akatarawa Ranges north of Upper Hutt, has been going since 1986 and is billed as the longest-running mountain bike event in the southern hemisphere. The next is on March 1.

Event manager Michael Jacques says riders 35-plus dominate, and the biggest age group is 40 to 49. There is a limit of 1000 riders "but usually 1500 want to it".

His theory is a lot of middle-aged participants were at school in the 1980s "when a lot of these sports were developing. Kids are less active through their school years. In the old days cross-country was compulsory and some kept on running. A lot of kids are coming out of school without an affinity for sports."

He thinks concern for health and weight might not kick in until people are older, when cycling, which doesn't have to be competitive, seems appropriate.

"It's definitely the new golf, definitely a sport heavily populated by the middle-upper income, middle-aged – like motor racing without having to buy the motor." And requiring no particular uniform, except for lycra – or not.

- The Dominion Post

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