What Manhattan’s proposed Gaudi skyscraper would’ve looked like had it been built….

There’s a regrettable tendency for some cycling advocates to demonise their fellows who wear lycra and ride road bikes, especially expensive machines made from carbon fibre and equipped with exotic groupsets.

It’s an unfortunate attitude because so-called “lycra louts” are the pioneers of riding on the road in Australian cities. As a group they’ve had a big role in helping to normalise the idea that cyclists are legitimate road users.

They’re the ones who’ve long had the confidence to mix it with motorists. Without them the visibility of on-road cycling would drop appreciably and the ‘safety in numbers’ effect would be weakened.

It’s sometimes said lycra louts earn cycling a bad name because they tend to flout road rules and earn the ire of motorists. However I’ve never seen any objective evidence to support that conjecture. Nor does it fit with my personal observations over the years.

I suspect cyclists who take a ‘flexible’ attitude to road rules are defined more by their age and sex than by what they ride or wear. If anything lycra louts might well cause motorists the least angst overall because they tend to ride fast and confidently.

I think a key reason some advocates criticise road bikes and lycra is their association with sport – they imply cycling is primarily a recreation. This is at odds with the utilitarian approach to cycling characteristic of European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Cyclists in those cities mostly ride practical, comfortable bikes and wear the same ordinary clothes they would if they were driving or taking the train. Cycling is just a means of transport rather than an end in itself.

Perhaps the cyclists who use the same roads as me here in Melbourne aren’t representative, but I see some road bike riders who (like me) don’t wear lycra. I also see some mountain bike riders who wear lycra. And I even know people who regularly commute on road bikes.

I suspect the prominence of road bikes and lycra is over-stated. Carbon fibre frames and Campagnolo groupsets are not typical of the Australian bicycle fleet. Most Australians already choose bikes more for comfort than speed – I see more mountain and hybrid bike riders on the streets than road bike riders (maybe the latter simply stand out more).

Like European city bikes, MTBs and hybrids are upright and relatively comfortable with friendly gearing for negotiating hills. They might look clunky and dated compared to chic Euro city bikes, but like them they’re designed more for comfort than speed.

Australia has its own cycling history that reflects local circumstances. Back in the day when I got my first  Malvern Star it looked, like every other boy’s, like a “racer” (the fashion was to turn the drops up – that provided a comfortable, upright and safe riding position for children). The racer form is part of Australia’s cycling tradition – we’ve never had bikes that looked like those in Denmark or China.

Girl’s bikes had a more traditional step-through design but then from around the late 80s mountain bikes stormed the market. Judging by the relative floorspace devoted to them in my local bike shop, MTBs and hybrid variants still strongly outsell road bikes.

I’ve not lived and cycled in a European city but when I used to commute 10 km each way by bicycle in Melbourne a separate set of cycling clothes was mandatory, otherwise one risked sweatiness in summer and mud in winter. I rode a mountain bike initially and then a hybrid – both had mudguards but they were never 100% effective.

Average cycling distances are likely to be longer in our more sprawled cities than they are in the likes of Copenhagen. Inner city cyclists could doubtless commute in their work clothes, but they account for less than 10% of the population in Australia’s capitals. Cyclists living elsewhere will probably want to wear special clothing (doesn’t have to be lycra though) and, better still, also have easy access to a shower and change facilities.

As the rise in popularity of MTBs shows, the existence of cyclists who ride other types of bicycles doesn’t in any way prevent the emergence of new fashions. Australians already mostly choose reasonably comfortable bikes and some of them will no doubt find other options like Euro-style bicycles attractive.

Road bikes are unlikely to enjoy wide popularity but roadies are not the enemy of cycling, even if some of them look silly in lycra. If anything they’ve had – and have – a key role in establishing the legitimacy of cycling on roads.