What should you wear when you ride a bike? Knicks and a jersey when you road ride? Mountain bike jersey and some kind of padded shorts when you ride a mountain bike? Maybe some expensive bike specific jeans for riding around town? The question is, are all those specialised cycling clothes really necessary on every ride? The marketers wanting to sell you that stuff will naturally say yes. I’m here to say maybe, sometimes and even not all that often depending on the riding you do because choosing to ride a bike shouldn’t always require expense and faffing. So, in this post, the point I will be trying to make is that there are plenty of mainstream and often cheap clothes available which can be used for cycling though there are certain attributes to look for which make some clothes more suitable than others. Hopefully, that will open the possibilities for cycling clothes, make it cheaper to ride and make it less of a hassle to jump on a bike when you just want a low performance recreational ride or to go to the shop to get milk, bread or a few beers.
In Australia, like many other places, there is an unfortunate mindset that cycling is only for sport and to do that sport “properly” you must always wear special sports clothing. There are lots of marketers and “aficionados” all over the place who don’t even seem to know about the existence of cycling outside of sport and who will try to force the “rules and norms of cycling” down your throat in the name of selling more stuff. Everything from matching your kit to your bike and fellow riders, when to wear a cycling cap and when not to (more on that later), what length socks to wear and how to wear you sunglasses in relation to your helmet straps to name but a few. Rest assured that you can quite safely ignore, heckle and laugh at those people and promptly flush most of their advice down the toilet. Especially the notion that special bike clothes are a requirement on every ride.
But firstly a disclaimer. When it comes to fashion, I’m exactly the opposite of an authoritative figure so the following doesn’t even pretend to be fashion advice and should instead be taken as a point of departure for you to adopt and adapt as your needs and tastes require. Also, while most of the stuff I write here will apply to both ladies and gentlemen, I am even less of an authority on women’s specific fashion so rather than sticking my foot in my mouth on topics like riding with dresses and heels (which is definitely doable and even desirable), I will post some links at the bottom to people and places better qualified than me to talk about them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a sprightly road ride in my best knicks and jersey as much as the next cyclist and there are times when that kind of garb makes sense but when my ride is less about deliberate exercise, I just want to wear a t-shirt and a pair of shorts or jeans. It’s all about time and place. Furthermore, while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying the pricier bike specific jeans and shirts from brands like Rapha (I couldn’t be happier that there is a market for that sort of stuff because it’s indicative of the popularity of cycling), the reality is that those of us who ride every day don’t have the money to buy Rapha pants and shirts for every day of the week. So being the cheap skate that I am, my first ports of call are usually K-Mart, Target and Big W though for some things like jeans where fit is quite important, it’s best to spend a little more – it’ll be cheaper in the long run.
Bikey shirts and tops
So to start with, let’s cover your top half. Maybe you’ve heard or read that riding in cotton shirts is a bad idea because you will get heat rashes, it’ll never dry out and so on. Well, that’s partly true but when the weather is as cool as it is right now and you’re just nipping into the city, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t wear it. Besides, I can’t remember the last time I saw my favorite band logo printed on a quick dry t-shirt.
In the hotter months, quick dry t-shirts or polos might be a better choice because they stay comfortable for longer. They’re available in just about any colour and configuration you can think of and, as I’ve said before, K-Mart sells those things cheaper than most lunches you’ll likely ever have plus you don’t need to iron them. You can jump on your bike and ride right across town in one in the middle of summer, spray some deodorant at your destination and you’ll be dry and smelling like roses (or Brut or Lynx) in no time. Of course, if K-Mart is a little too embarrassing to even contemplate, Myer, David Jones, Rebel Sport and others will have the same thing with a tiny penguin or horsey embroidered on it for which they’ll happily relieve you of about one hundred dollars if that’s the way you roll.
As another option in the heat, a button down shirt can be a good idea because it allows a large amount of airflow through the gaps between the buttons and down the neck opening. I don’t particularly like riding with garments flapping around too much and will usually opt for a tighter fit but for these kinds of shirts a looser fit may make more sense. Though, if you’re just popping out to the local shops for a spot of Christmas shopping or for a coffee, the flappyness probably doesn’t matter anyway.
Saddle ready shorts and pants
When I go on a ride where I want some extra pockets, want to blend in with people who don’t ride and also want the padded goodness of knicks that my ancient arse requires, I will wear shorts over the top of a pair of knicks. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw for the given requirements though some “aficionados” will scoff at the idea and mumble something about rules and traditions of cycling. You may snicker at them as you walk off looking them up and down.
Shorts that I own for riding vary from a few bike specific pairs to some cheap quick drying ones bought at a department store and also some thick canvas pairs that are substantial enough to wear with ordinary underwear. Though besides extra padding, the advantage that knicks provide over underwear is that they wick and dry the sweat from your nether hills and valleys thus providing better comfort in the warmer months. The options for bike suitable shorts are many and probably the only traits all my pairs of shorts share is that they are quite close fitting and not too long to prevent them from catching on anything or flapping around too much.
Trousers are the other item on the topic of covering your butt for which the range of options is also wide. While they certainly don’t need to look like they’ve been painted on, a reasonably close fit is really the main trait to look out for especially around the hem and I find that most of the time a dark colour is preferable because a splatter of something off the road or a little spot of chain grease is always possible. Again, you can go for a super expensive pair of bike specific jeans or trousers if you want to which may or may not be more breathable and may or may not be more wear resistant than a pair from Jeans West, Target or Myer. Alternatively, get the Myer or Jeans West pants and just ride in them anyway like I have been. I don’t have any first hand experience with expensive bike specific trousers but I’ve found the regular ones to be ample. The ones made of stretch material might wear slightly better though no matter which pants you choose, eventually they will all succumb to a light coloured saddle wear patch around the posterior region. It generally takes my pants about one to two years of regular (weekly) wear to get to that point (yes, I keep my clothes that long). When the wear patch becomes obvious either keep wearing the pants as a badge of honor or just take it as a sign to go and get some new ones.
If you’re off to work or a restaurant, business style slacks (for ladies or gents) that are generally made of a thinner material than denim or cotton drill are great in the heat for breathability and require very little ironing. Wear nice socks with them because you’ll need to tuck the drive side hem into your sock as the thinner material doesn’t roll up very well like on a pair of jeans or chinos. Alternatively, just grab a pant cuff clip – they’re cheap as chips and do the job.
Caps on heads
Because Australia has far-beyond-stupid mandatory helmet laws which are replicated almost nowhere else in the world, riding somewhere with just a cycling cap on is not an option unless you wear it under your helmet which, to me, is pointless except when it’s really cold. But that doesn’t stop you from wearing your cap off the bike. Cycling caps compliment whatever else you’re wearing at any time and I like them because 1) they help promote and normalise cycling 2) almost nobody who wears a baseball cap is playing baseball while they’re wearing it so there isn’t a reason to refrain from wearing a cycling cap when you’re not cycling 3) wearing cycling caps gives the shits to those people unimpressed by you breaking the baseball cap norm and/or promoting cycling. So, go right ahead and pick a couple of nice ones like these and slap one on your head whenever you can.
Treat your feet
When it comes to your delicate footsies, cleated shoes and pedals can be used on casual rides but, like the lycra, they’re mostly just not necessary on those kinds of rides. The best way to go in those situations is to have a bike with flat pedals. That way you aren’t limited to the kinds of shoes you wear and there’s no clopping around like prized stallion when you get off the bike. You can wear skate shoes, dress shoes or even thongs.
Of course, not everyone has the room, interest or money to own multiple bikes and perhaps the one road or mountain bike you have is fitted with some kind of cleated pedals. Fear not, there are options available. For SPD style pedals (as I have mentioned before), there is a good range of cleated, casual shoes* you can buy which have the cleat set into the sole of the shoe far enough to prevent clopping. But if that is too limiting for the kinds of shoes you want to wear, you could opt for a set of touring pedals that have SPD on one side and flat on the other*.
If your only bike is a road bike with the wide, three bolt SPD-SL style pedals, you can buy a set of these little tricksters* which will temporarily convert your cleated pedals into flats. I must admit that I haven’t actually tried those but for that price, you probably can’t go far wrong.
Bags and packs
Lastly, I want to mention bags and the like. If you have a cargo bike, some sort of town bike with panniers or a Brompton to carry your stuff, that’s great. For those of you who don’t or if you’re going out on a bike other that your burden carrying rig, you will likely need to have some sort of bag attached to your person.
Backpacks are an obvious first choice but some people find them bulky, sweat inducing and a bit daggy. So what else is there? Well, you can go for a smaller sling type bag but make sure it has a waist strap otherwise it will creep around to the front of your waist and hang down like an udder within the first kilometre.
But what happens if you only have that tiny sling bag and you ride past a bakery that has donuts on special which you obviously stock up on then you ride past the JB HiFi CD sale where you stop and buy more CDs than you planned and then you realise that you have run out of room? This where the wonder of the drawstring backpack comes into it’s own. Those things can be picked up for free at most conferences, events and the Brisbane City Council even gave them away at one stage when you subscribed to City Cycle. Fold one of those suckers up and stash it in your sling bag. When the load gets too much, just whip out the drawstring backpack, fillerup and hoist it onto your shoulders straight over the top of the sling bag. It works a treat.
If you want something even more lightweight, don’t discount the value of the humble bum bag. They’re cheap, convenient, they don’t generate sweat on your back and they provide really quick access to your stuff when you need it. Plus, if you want to make the ultimate statement in anti-fashion utilitarianism, you can’t beat them.
More on style
Finally, as stated above, fashion advice, especially for the ladies, is a bit beyond me so here are a few links to help out in that regard:
Velo-a-Porter. A very Australian take on practical bike chic for ladies.
The Bird Wheel. An article on the specific topic of riding in heels.
CycleStyle. Australian cycle fashion for everyone.
Bike Pretty. Ladies bike fashion and more.
That’s it – all you need to know about making normal clothes work for you on the bike on your own terms and budget for those rides when specialised cycling clothing is not a thing to wear.
* Large, corporate online sellers have nice pictures of the products I’ve mentioned here but I have no affiliation or loyalty to them and your local bike shop is probably a better place to get that stuff.
Credit to Pixabay for many of the images in this post (and other places on this site).