5 Steps to Embrace the Bicycle Lifestyle
Step 5: Bicycle Attire
(Fairfax County, VA) Growing up in Wisconsin, I was always kind of amused by people from the south who said, “Wisconsin! Damn it’s cold up there.” But I never really thought of Wisconsin as cold because we always dressed for the weather. In our case it was insulated boots, layers, down parkas, a Packers knit cap, and great gloves. To dress for the cold, we (our parents) had to invest in the correct gear to keep us protected; because we had the right gear for the elements, we did not mind the weather.
At GrüneStrasse, we assert that having the right gear for the job increases your likelihood of doing it, and doing it well. Just like winter weather in Wisconsin, having the right gear for task is essential—without it you will find that maintaining a bicycle lifestyle is difficult and limited in duration. A lifestyle choice requires lifestyle tools.
Please see our other Installments in this Series
- September Step 1: Backpack or Pannier?
- October Step 2 – 4: On Bike Accessories
Step 5: Proper Cycling Attire Can Boost Your Riding Frequency
As autumn sets in and frost and even snow become part of the commuter calculus, it is an excellent time to delve into cycling attire. Most activities have specialized attire and cycling is no exception.
One of the great things about cycling is that you actually do not need a lot of specialized equipment. If your bike is functional and safe, you can easily ride without lycra, special shoes, gloves, or skin-tight jerseys. And you certainly do not need to kit up for a short ride to the grocery store or to pick up kids from school. So why bother with all that gear?
Comfort. Jeans and T-shirt are great for local trips in good weather. When the weather turns nasty, wet, cold, and dark, you are going to want gear that keeps you warm, safe, and illuminated. Below are my reasons why bicycle attire enhances comfort while biking:
- Cycling Gear is cut to fit properly when riding a bicycle
- Cycling gear is designed to enhance movement and eliminate / reduce chafing
- Cycling gear is designed to handle perspiration and wick-away excess moisture
- Cycling gear has padding in crucial areas. Notably in the seat and hands/wrists
- Cycling gear maximizes your energy and improves efficiency. The most obvious difference between cycling gear and regular clothing is that cycling kit is aerodynamic and sleek, helping you cut the wind and ride more efficiently. Cycling shoes have stiff soles, so most of your leg push is translated into the crank, not keeping your foot on the pedal.
Types of Cycling Clothing
The definitive item of bicycle attire, cycling shorts are made from stretchy Nylon/Lycra with a pad inside to cushion your butt. There are two variants, waist shorts and bib shorts. Bib shorts are the more comfortable of the two options, though they do make trips to the bathroom a challenge. On a personal note, I wear bibs and LOVE them; I also threaten my children to meet their friends at the front door in bibs if they ever get too far out of line.
Note that road shorts tend to be made from lycra, are sheer, and very aerodynamic. There is a separate class of cycle shorts aimed at mountain bikers that are loose, baggy, and comes with pockets, but still deliver comfort on the bike.
Cycling shorts range from about $30 up to over $200. You should be able to find a decent and dependable set of bike shorts for $50 – $70.
The bike shirt is usually made from wicking synthetic materials or a blend incorporating Merino wool. A typical jersey usually has a high neck to protect you from the sun, a zip at the front — the length varies — and pockets at the back to carry your stuff. The most common jerseys have either short or long sleeves.
Fabrics range from ultra-light breathable mesh, to thick windproof and water-resistant fabrics. For most of your riding you will want a medium-weight short-sleeve jersey that serves you well in summer and acts as a base layer in winter.
Jerseys also range from $15 to $200 depending on the brand, design, and fabric. You should be able to find a good base jersey for around $35.
Bike gloves have a lightly padded leather palm, a breathable fabric back and a Velcro strip to hold it in place around your wrist. There are myriad alternatives, though, with gel padding in the palm, stretchy backs so there is no need for a Velcro tab, perspiration wipes on the thumb and lots of other features.
I actually own three sets of bike gloves. I have a summer model which has fabric over the first knuckle; a cool-weather glove that has fully enclosed fingers; and a cold-weather mitten that I wear over the summer gloves in the coldest weather. Gloves range in price from $10 to $100. You can find a good pair of winter-weight cycling gloves for about $30.
When the temperature drops you will want to cover more of your body. Cycling tights extend the coverage to your ankles and are usually made of a thicker material to keep you warm. Like cycling shorts, they are available with and without bibs, and they are also available with and without a pad. You wear unpadded tights over Lycra shorts so you can get more than one use from them in between washes.
Tights are a must-have for riding in northern climates. I just would not bike in cold weather without tights. I have two pairs of winter tights—one is a complete set with padding included and the other is designed to cover my biking shorts. Expect a good pair of tights to cost around $70. If you plan to bike year-round, tights are a must-have.
Like tights, jackets are essential items for year-round riding. There are three main types of jackets: thermal jackets that keep you warm; waterproof “hardshells;” and “softshells” that are both insulating and highly water-resistant.
The all-weather, all-purpose jacket is the Holy Grail of cycling. Many products claim to keep you warm and dry and allow breathability for perspiration. I am sorry—that jacket just does not exist. I have all three: thermals for the cold, dry rides; hardshells for the rain (add layers if you think you will be cold); and softshells for the early days of autumn. If I had to pick one, I would pick a waterproof hardshell first because I can deal with cold, but I cannot deal with wet. A good waterproof jacket will cost around $90.
Want to Bike to Work But No Place for Your Professional Attire?
Is your Bike to Work day confined to Casual Fridays? Do you have two wardrobes—the Bike to Work wardrobe at the office and the rest at home?
GrüneStrasse Backpack Co. produces the Shellback Bike to Work backpack. This hand-crafted backpack stores the entirety of your one-day work requirements to include: crease-free professional attire (suit); laptop; shoes; toiletries; bike repair kit; accessories, and dozens of other bike-friendly features that Simplify, Organize, and Protect.
Socks for cycling are made from thin, sweat-wicking fabrics, usually with a thicker layer on the sole for padding. In the winter, many riders switch to Merino wool as it retains some insulating properties even when wet.
Stiff soles are the main feature of cycling shoes, usually with attachment points for cleats that clip into special pedals. Road bike shoes have a cleat that screws into of the sole and are a bit awkward to walk in. Shoes with recessed cleats, originally developed for mountain biking, are easier to walk in which makes them great for commuting, touring, and more casual riding.
My take is that shoes and pedals should be the last item you buy. If you are new to cycling, the shoes, cleats, and special pedals are a bit pricey and no one wants to be the noob in cycling kit that falls over at the stop sign. My recommendation is to start with the other essential cycling attire and graduate to pedals when you are ready. How will you know you are ready?
- When you are tired of just cruising to the office and want to open it up and set some PRs
- When you’ve realized that 16.6% of your energy is being wasted on regular pedals and not put into each crank
- When cyclists of lesser ability are passing you on the trail
Bike shoes are the difference between a “biker” and a “cyclist.” Bike shoes are not for everyone and many folks do not want or need the hassle of another pair of shoes. On a personal note, I resisted bike shoes for years due to the expense and for the (totally unreasonable) fear that people would judge me as a bike poser. I finally committed to clipless pedals and could not believe the increased speed and power compared to tennis shoes on standard pedals. Yes, I fell a couple of times. But I was never going back to standard pedals.
Shellbackers, I hope my steps on turning your bicycle into your vehicle has been helpful and convinces one or more to keep biking throughout the winter. It can be done! There is a reason that we market backpacks to fearless Bike to Work Commuters! Biking in the winter is hard! Remember that the bicycle lifestyle requires lifestyle equipment. What equipment do you need to be fully committed to the bike lifestyle?
Shellback6 is GrüneStrasse’s regular blog contribution to the Bike to Work and Alternative Transportation Movement. Comments, suggestions, and dissenting points of view welcome!