Looking Good

Serious cyclists can look like real people too

This is Amanda Bejarano-Ligato, she and her husband Richard have cycled long distances in America and Asia. Her bike is loaded with the very best equipment and she looks great in normal clothes. I like this image because she looks so different from the majority of cyclists I see on the roads when commuting and touring in Britain.

Of course it’s not so easy to look relaxed when you are commuting in poor weather but I’m really bothered that so many cyclists on our streets look like aliens and I feel that does little to encourage other road users to see cycling as a normal activity.

There are some honourable exceptions, I sometimes pass a woman who cycles with her kids to school in our area then heads into the city for work. She wears a long red coat and a leather stetson (see comment below, it’s an Australian bush hat, CR 23/08/10) which seem to give very good weather protection as well as a fashion statement to punctuate her stately progress. But the majority of people, especially men, seem to be compelled to don unfortunate combinations of figure-hugging and often lurid garments, often ugly and invariably geeky.

There seems to be a combination of issues at work in all this. First the idea that cycling is somehow difficult and technical, a demanding sporting activity.

This image is from a website of a company selling cycling kit so I guess they need to persuade you that this stuff is essential but I’d question many of the assumptions, especially if you are not cycling 40+ miles. That “Windproof/Waterproof jacket is a good example. I have tried quite a lot of technical waterproof jackets, persisting in the belief that it must be possible to stay dry on a bike but I always ending up soaking wet because there isn’t a waterproof jacket made that can deal with the amount of sweat I generate when cycling. These days I just use a lightweight windcheater, bought very cheaply from Decathlon. It’s showerproof so it won’t protect me from heavy rain but it breathes very well and is very light so I don’t end up hot and soaked in my own sweat, most importantly it doesn’t look like garish protective equipment, it’s just a blue jacket.

In Britain we have a mild climate and although this last winter has had some periods of below freezing weather, for most of the winter I  have cycled in my usual clothes with a lightweight sweater between my shirt and jacket, My biggest issue is not to arrive at work in an unpleasant sweaty state even though I tend to enjoy keeping up a good speed on my bike. The second problem is that, although a lot of my work can be done in relaxed clothing, I often want to sharpen up my appearance for an occasion where the right appearance can lend some authority to what I want to say.

I pay careful attention to fabrics, there are plenty of clothes designed for travel and outdoor wear that don’t look silly but keep your temperature and moisture under control. If it is really cold I have some very thin Patagonia base layers (vests and Long Johns to normal people) that are unobtrusive and comfortable indoors and out. I generally wear cotton or linen shirts which are not really the most breathable but OK for my relatively short commute, I choose them because they can look formal when I need to. I also have some more casual summer shirts that will breathe and dry out rapidly, bought from the travel section of various outdoor shops.

“I always pack four pairs of Craghopper trousers, Michael Palin

My favourite cycling/everyday garment is my Craghopper Kiwi trousers. I have a lot of pairs and I wear them nearly all the time. They are light and comfortable, don’t need ironing but look smart enough, especially the dark colours which I often wear with a smart jacket when others are wearing suits. If they get wet they dry out quickly (best to keep them on as your body heat helps the process). Craghoppers make these in three lengths which is vital if you are shorter or taller than average and they make zip-off versions so, in the summer, you can cycle to a meeting in shorts and look more formal in seconds even when there is nowhere to change. For touring I tend to wear them as shorts over a pair of Lycra cycling shorts with the zip-off bits in my bag for evenings, whether for the unexpected invitation for dinner at the British Embassy (not had one of those yet), an air-conditioned restaurant or a chilly campsite.

I also look out for smart jackets and trousers which are lightweight and “uncrushable” so you can roll them up in a bag for a day with no ill effects, Here I am in Beijing, after a 4 mile city ride on a hot day. I pulled the jacket out of my bike bag, shook it out and I’m ready to go (my Chinese colleagues took the photo because they were so impressed by the bike and the way I used it).

To be a bit more formal I just fasten the top button of my shirt, the collarless design avoids the question of ties. The hairstyle of course comes with the job – professors have to look the part. That jacket came from Marks and Spencer and was not sold as a specialist travel product but I could see it was very light and the synthetic fabric would resist wrinkles. I also have some very lightweight smart trousers in modern fabrics which seem to resist creases very well so I can always roll up a change of smart clothes in my bag if I need to..

The finishing touch is the shoes, I use Reebok Classic black leather trainers that nobody notices but they are very light and comfortable. Hard to find trainers that don’t have assertive “sporty” colour combinations with fabrics that get dirty in everyday use.

Recently clothing manufacturers have started to notice the cycling problem. This review of bspoke clothing is by Liz Dunning who clearly shares my outlook on clothing for everyday cycling and work. It’s sad that you go into bike shops and all you see is the same old garish, multicoloured highly technical clothing that reinforces the idea that riding a bike is not like real life.

But you might be asking yourself about safety and visibility on the road? A lot of people use hi-viz clothing because they feel safer if they are sure they can be seen.

In the past I’ve tended to subscribe to this view myself and I have had fluorescent rain jackets and fluorescent tee-shirts to ensure that motorists notice me. But this is one of the many ways in which cyclists get singled out and made to adjust their lives to pander to other people who will not accept any limitation on their own behaviour. Imagine the outcry if you were not allowed to use a car without first putting on special clothes.

But what’s the problem? Simply that it’s an arms race, every cyclist who wears hi-viz clothing is giving a motorist another reason not to look out for cyclists in normal clothing, they focus on the brightly clad and the rest of us get ignored. After a while we get blamed for not dressing up like an emergency crew. The net result is to reinforce the perception that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity that cannot be attempted without special protective equipment when actually it is a very safe activity.

There’s another effect too. That kind of special clothing makes you look tough and invulnerable and drivers will probably take less care, as indicated by the research into helmet wearing that showed drivers were less careful of men in helmets and gave space to women without helmets. One of the reasons drivers get upset by cyclists is that they are reminded of their own responsibility towards this vulnerable soft human in front, most of the time the other road users are safely hidden in crash-proof boxes. Anything that reduces this awareness of responsibility is ultimately dangerous for all of us.

Of course there are times when being seen is vital. At night you are a fool of you don’t have lights and it’s a good idea to have something reflective on your clothes. In heavy rain a hi-visibility jacket may make a difference, but most of the time you should just get on your bike in your normal everyday clothing, or maybe something special for a special occasion, and ride.

So let’s celebrate a positive, normal view of cycling with the famous Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog

PS If you are ever challenged by a motorist who expects you to wear hi-viz, check out the colour of their car. Research by Monash University in Australia indicates that black and dark coloured cars are much more likely to be involved in accidents, When was the last time you hear anybody calling for controls on the colour of cars? Let’s start with the really dangerous people before criticising cyclists who cause very little actual harm to anybody.

6 Responses to “Looking Good”

  1. Becky Says:

    My thoughts exactly, Chris. I wrote more from an anti-“avid cyclist” point of view but the space alien theme isn’t a million miles (or light years, perhaps) from the truth.

  2. Erik Sandblom Says:

    I have a waterproof jacket with large zippers under the arms. Ideally I would like a vent over the back too. With a wool shirt underneath it’s quite comfortable in the rain.

    I can’t understand why backpacks are so popular among cyclists, like on your photo. They make you very sweaty, because they stop air circulating under your arms and back. This plus helmets are probably major reasons why people feel that cycling needs to be more sweaty than walking, for example.

  3. chrisrust Says:

    I have the impression that people who haven’t ever encountered practical cycling – Touring, Dutch/Danish style urban cycling etc – are actually oblivious to the existence and usefulness of racks, panniers, baskets etc. That’s combined with a genuine tendency to use backpacks for certain off-road cycling where they make sense and the result is a nation of sweaty backs.

  4. Erik Sandblom Says:

    You’re probably right but a lot of Swedes use a backpack even though they have a rear rack too. Unused. Maybe they don’t want to bungy the backpack to the rack for fear of it shifting or falling off. A legitimate concern. Maybe front racks and baskets are what’s needed, so you can keep an eye on it.

  5. chrisrust Says:

    These days you can buy a whole range of bags that mount on a bike rack, including briefcases and backpacks, so it’s just lack of awareness. Never mind Erik, we’d have nothing to feel smug about if everybody did things as well as you and I.
    Famous Yorkshire expression: “All the world’s queer save thee and me, and even thee’s a little queer.”

  6. sheffieldcyclechic Says:

    My “Stetson” you refer to is actually an Australian bush hat. It’s waxed leather and does a very good job of keeping the rain off – I can definitely recommend them!

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