Posted by: Travis | April 6, 2010

Travis’s Guide to Cycling Style and Cultural Norms Part 3: Clothing

Knowing what you’re doing when it comes to cycling clothing is very important for a few reasons.  To begin with, most cycling clothes are specifically designed excel at their job of being cycling clothes, usually at the cost of being comfortable off the bike, being fashionable and being reasonably priced (because the cycling market is pretty small, clothing brands have to spread their R&D costs over a fewer number of customers, hence the expensive nature of cycling clothes).

Secondly you can experience all kinds of weather over the course of a road ride and it’s important to know how to dress so you’ll be comfortable in as many of those conditions as possible. Take for example a ride i did a few Saturdays ago. When i left home at 8:30am it was about 40 degrees. I rode at a pretty low intensity for about 30 minutes, then gradually picked it up for another 20-30 minutes before meeting up with the Spectrum ride, a local fast group ride. The temperature hadn’t changed much on the group ride, but i was working a lot harder, so i needed less clothing. At the halfway point of the Spectrum ride a few teammates and i peeled off and started climbing over the mountains that lie between the bay and the ocean. It was warming up and i was going slow and working hard, so i didn’t need much in the way of clothing. Once the got to the top we had a screaming 45-50mph descent down to the coast in 50 degree weather, so i needed all of the clothing i had. Once we got to the coast we rode some inland hills before coming back to the coast on our way south. We then started to climb back over the Santa Cruz mountains headed for home. The temperature was probably up around 60, but i was working hard so i stripped off all of my extra layers. The another descent back toward the bay where i needed more clothes. On the flats and rolling hills between the end of the descent and my apartment i could lose a few layers, but it was still not more than about 65 degrees, so i had to keep something on. With a long ride that includes climbing and descending, as well as wide temperature swings,  it’s important to know how to properly dress so that you can be comfortable for the entire ride.

Lastly, as much as we hate to admit it, clothing does a great deal to communicate what kind of cyclist you see yourself being, and how dedicated to or knowledgeable of the sport you are. Sure, you can say that you don’t care about what other cyclists think about you, but if you’re on a group ride and some little aspect of your clothing is wrong, don’t expect anyone to open up space and let you in. To them you are new to the sport and don’t know how to properly handle a bike and they are putting themselves at risk for letting you in and putting their front wheel a few inches away from your rear wheel.

So, enough with all of that, let’s get to the guidelines.

  1. Spend money on the contact points – The basic rule i recommend following for someone trying to get into the sport without breaking the bank is to spend slightly more than you are comfortable with on the contact points (shorts, shoes, gloves) and save money elsewhere. You can spend as much as you want for a pair of shorts (all the way up to around $500), but to get a decent set of shorts be prepared to spend about $100 and have them last about a year with heavy use. Shorts are a personal choice, but i have had good luck with Specialized and Pearl Izumi. Shoes are another area where it’s worth spending some money. Again, about $100 is about the price of entry for a decent product, but you can buy cycling shoes all the way up to $700 and beyond.  The most expensive shoes I’ve ever owned (and we’re talking by a factor of 2) are cycling shoes, but boy do they keep my feet comfy. You can probably expect shoes to last 3-5 years. Sidi is a popular brand that makes great shoes, but i find they don’t have enough room in the toes. Specialized and Shimano also make great shoes. I prefer not to wear gloves, but if you do you can expect to spend $25-$40 on them. Specialized and Giro are brands that i would recommend.
  2. Wear spandex – Just suck it up and wear the spandex. No matter what you do someone is going to think you look silly (cyclists will think you look silly for not wearing spandex, non-cyclists think you look funny for wearing spandex), so you might as well be comfortable while riding. That doesn’t mean that when you hop on your bike for a few blocks to run an errand that you should wear spandex shorts, but if you’re out for a bike ride, suck it up and squeeze into some lycra, you’ll find it’s much more comfortable.
  3. No yellow (or green, or polka dot) jerseys – This is a big one. Don’t wear any leaders jerseys from any grand tours or stage races. Those jerseys are trophies for the riders that earned them in those races, they just happen to be wearable. Buying one and wearing it around on your bike is like going to the trophy store and buying a huge softball trophy that you didn’t earn and then proudly displaying it on your desk. Just don’t do it. Less black and white, however is the issue of wearing the jersey or full team kit of your favorite pro team. I don’t really care either way, but some people view it as the same as the leaders jersey- the riders on that team have earned their way onto that team, and for others to just go buy the jersey is wrong. I kind of see where they’re coming from, but i say if you want to wear the jersey of your favorite team (just like wearing a LeBron James jersey), feel free. That being said, if you are going to wear the team shorts, please please please, wear the matching jersey. If you only have the shorts and not the jersey….then search ebay for the matching jersey and put the shorts away until you find it. If you just have the jersey, don’t mismatch it with some other shorts, just wear some plain shorts.
  4. (Base) Layer – This is one that i hadn’t really learned about until recently, but the short of it is that base layers are awesome. I have a few sleeveless ones that keep the jersey off my skin and a layer of air circulating around on really hot days, but also keep the cold and wet jersey off my skin on the cooler days. I also have a couple of long sleeve base layers that help wick sweat away from my skin on cold days and are a huge help layering on days with wide temperature swings. You want to wick the sweat away from your skin as soon as possible to keep you comfortable and base layers are a great way of doing that.
  5. Arm/Leg/Knee Warmers are your friend – As i mentioned previously, when dealing with large temperature swings and going back and forth between climbing and descending, layering is tremendously important. The best way to layer so that you can add/remove layers while out riding is the use of Arm/Leg/Knee warmers. Arm warmers are basically a sleeve that goes from your wrist to somewhere between mid bicep and arm pit. When arm warmers are paired with a short sleeve or sleeveless base layer and a jersey, you can basically go from warm weather clothes to clothes that will keep you comfortable down to about 55-60 degrees in just a  few minutes. Leg warmers do a similar thing, except they go from mid thigh to ankle, and knee warmers go from mid thigh to mid calf. I have all three and i use them a lot. If the temperature isn’t likely to go above 60 degrees while i’m out, i’ll just wear the long sleeve base layer, otherwise i’ll wear arm warmers. I’ll wear the knee warmers between 60 degrees and about 40 degrees, then the leg warmers when things get below 40 degrees. Always cover your arms before your legs (your arms aren’t doing any work), and always tuck your warmers into your jersey or shorts.
  6. Tights only below 45 degrees – I have a pair of tights, but it’s got to be damn cold for me to bust them out. Around 30 degrees my…ahem…equipment down there gets a little cold with just my shorts and leg warmers, so i call in the reinforcements and put the tights on. However, i find that for most people, that threshold temperature is a little bit higher. Luckily, the only time i encounter this kind of weather is dawn rides during the winter, which don’t happen that often. I may have broken out the tights one or twice this winter, but certainly no more. I realize some of you live in places where you go days without seeing temps above 35 degrees in the winter. To you i say, suck it up, get some tights, learn to love them. Bottom line: don’t wear tights when it’s 60 degrees out, only break them out when it’s excessively cold.
  7. Dress for the ride, not the moment you step outside – This is a big one that takes a while to get down, but try and dress for 30 minutes after you leave the house, not the minute you walk out the door. If you’re a little cold for the first 5 minutes of a ride, that’s probably a good thing. Remember, there’s nothing worse than wearing too much clothing and then getting hot and starting to sweat like crazy 20 minutes after leaving for a ride. Likewise, if your going out for a ride after work and expect to be home near dark, and it’s 75 degrees right now, it might drop 15-20 degrees during the ride, pack a vest or arm warmers just in case. Getting caught out with too much or not enough clothing can make what would otherwise be a fun ride a real death march.
  8. Cycling caps are good – Remember when i said that you shouldn’t wear a mountain bike helmet on the road with one of those little visors? Well, if you like those little visors, just wear a cycling cap under your helmet. They’re cheap (well, unless you get a $50 Rapha one), machine washable, and the visor can keep the sun and rain out of your eyes. If you’re one of those people that is bashful about helmet hair, you can also leave it on after you take your helmet off at rest stops at gas stations without looking like a total dork.
  9. Bib shorts, God’s gift to cyclists –  Rather than the traditional shorts with elastic waist, most serious cyclists wear bib shorts, which have straps that come over your shoulders like suspenders. These shorts, while they look funny, are infinitely more comfortable than regular shorts. They keep the chamois (pad) from sagging and feeling like a diaper, and they don’t constrain your waist. Go out a buy a pair, but be warned, you won’t ever go back to wearing regular shorts. They’re that good.
  10. Socks – A quick word on socks. The trend right now is for tall socks that come up to mid calf. While i have a few pair of tall socks, i prefer short ‘no-see-um’ socks. Don’t know why that is, that’s just what i prefer, though i don’t mind the tall socks. What i hate, however, are the traditional mid level socks that cyclists have been wearing for the last 20-30 years. Just not a fan, they feel funny and i think they’re are only that tall so that you can fit a sponsors logo on them. I’ll pass on them and keep my short socks with the occasional tall socks to keep them interesting.
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