It's the Clothes, Man!

[Blogger's Note - 4/2/2007: In the comments to this article, Jon noted that I make it sound like I think the only reason people don't bike commute when they could is the clothing. I don't think this, but in re-reading the post I agree that I make it sound that way. I believe there are many reasons, but instead of changing the post after the fact I decided just to add this note here. Please enjoy the article and thanks to Jon for his comment.]

It's been said in a few places that one of the reasons people don't start bike commuting is the perception that, in order to partake of the cycling world properly, one must dress the part. That means skin-tight lycra and flashy bike jerseys and the like. I'm not going to get into whether that's the case for sport cyclists, but I am going to flat-out deny it for commuters.

Now, before we go any further, here's my confession: I do actually own one pair of bike tights and one pair of bike shorts. The tights I got as a Christmas present and I have worn them on occasion, though not as much as I did when I first bought them.

The shorts, on the other hand, I have worn to bike since it started getting warm out. My bike shorts aren't the ones whose close cousin is a Speedo swim suit. Well, not completely. They are two-layered shorts - one layer with the skintight shorts and padded rump, and one layer that provides the pockets and bagginess that hides the first layer. In other words, they look like a normal pair of shorts. Under that, if you care, I wear UnderArmour boxer briefs - they're the most comfortable and quick-drying ones I've personally found. Hope that last part wasn't TMI.

Other than that, if it's not too hot out I just wear my work shirt (I wear mostly polos or short-sleeved rugby shirts to work) with the bike shorts, and a reflective vest over the shirt; or if it is pretty hot out and I expect to sweat a lot (and I do sweat a lot normally) I wear a regular t-shirt with the vest.

I don't have any fancy bike shoes or bike socks or anything like that. All winter I wore a pair of hiking boots and my rain pants (to keep dry) over my work pants. I'd possibly add a set of long underwear underneath if it was SUPER cold. My office gets cold enough, though, that long underwear in the office wasn't a bad thing. And of course, I could always pop into the john and take it off.

Now that it's getting warmer, I'm just wearing a pair of sports sandals and ankle socks to ride to work. Some folks like to have proper bike shoes so they can add clips to their pedals, but that hasn't been an issue for me yet (though I will probably get a set of PowerGrips and see how those work) before going to real bike shoes.

So that's my bike wardrobe. If I'm in shorts and a t-shirt, I bring my work clothes with me and change at work, then sit with my fan on at my desk for a few minutes while I cool off. The one item I may pick up before fall is a cycling jacket - something in a color that really stands out. The jacket I was wearing was a nice royal blue one, and I just threw on my reflective vest with it, but I'd like to be a little more visible and such a jacket would certainly help.

But I really think that one reason people don't take up bike commuting is that the idea of wearing all the spandex that seems to be required for cycling is a little off-putting, especially in a society as rampantly obese as ours has become. The argument can be made that "yeah, they might look bad now, but wait till they get going for a while, let's see how much weight they take off." That may be true, but it's not going to get them on the bike now, is it?

Another reason that bike clothes turn folks off is the colors involved. Let's face it - some bike jerseys are downright awful and gaudy. Now, on this topic I'm going to go with the brighter colors. Why? Visibility. Visibility is the key to survival on a bike in the city. So don't be afraid to throw on that bright lime green jacket - it's going to get you noticed. But the gaudiness is another reason some folks might not pick up the habit.

But the other side of that - the gaudy factor, with all sorts of advertisments, cartoon characters, geckos, skulls and crossbones, etc. - can get to be a little much as well. I was in Bike Source the other day and I was looking through the jerseys, and came across adult jerseys that had Ernie, Bert, and Cookie Monster from Sesame Street on them. I honestly don't know a self-respecting professional who would wear Cookie Monster to work.

So what to do? I think it's important for sites such as mine to talk about the clothing of cycling and point out that, although racing clothes are skintight and streamlined by design, you don't have to wear those to go to work. Racing clothes were designed to be as aerodynamic as possible, decreasing wind resistance and supporting the cyclist's body as he strives up the Pyrenees or what have you.

In truth, though, it's much more convenient if you DON'T wear the racing clothes to work. Just grab some old grubbies you have at home. If you have a commuter type bike you probably don't need the cycling shorts with the padded rumps, since your saddle isn't going to be designed to push you forward onto your handlebars and assume the proper racing position. It's going to be more comfortable. Throw on a light long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned over your t-shirt - the sleeves will keep you safe from too much sun and the flapping of the shirt will help to cool you. Find some shoes that are comfortable to walk in - you never know when you're going to have a break-down and have to walk the bike.

The folks at Rivendell Bicycle Works in California have a similar essay on bike clothing and a lot of great advice on looking "normal" as you bike. Take my words and their words to heart, but come up with your own wardrobe for cycling. Wear what's comfortable and convenient for you.


  1. This was great! I'm a newbie bike commuter and I'm an excellent case in point. I'm definitely in the overweight/obese category, but I'm not worrying about what I wear. I'm making it a goal down the road to buy some bike clothes once I get to the point that i won't look too horrible in them. Right now I'm just wearing a pair of workout pants and sweat absorbing shirt. I do sweat a lot and take a shower before going to work, but I find it very convenient to take my work clothes with.

    Thanks for your blog! I'm going to link from mine!

  2. Jon, I agree that it's not ALL about the clothes. There are certainly plenty of other reasons people don't take up bike commuting. I guess I did sort of leave that impression and I shouldn't have done so. Obviously people don't do it for any number of reasons, the clothes being simply one of them.

    I think it has more to do with fear of being different - which in a normal work-day society is one of the greatest fears there is. But in a way the clothes are part of that.

    My point in making the post was to try to allay one fear people might have about starting this out.

    JamiMaria, thanks for the comments. And congrats on your goal - setting a goal like that is a great way to stick with it, even when the going gets rough.


Post a Comment