Too many people associate “biking clothes” with form-fitting synthetic materials that make you look like you’re training for the next Tour de France. While this is of course a particular category of cycling clothing, our purpose here is to shift the focus to a different group of riders—urban commuters.
The distinct and different needs of these groups are obvious. For commuters, cycling is about navigating around those stuck in traffic as they make their way to the office, not setting speed records. They don’t have to look like they’re preparing for a time trial just because they’re on their bike a lot. For anyone who cycles as their primary method of daily transport, clothing selections should be about getting bike-friendly performance while still maintaining the everyday fashion they need or want.
You don’t need special clothes to ride a bike, but it helps to wear the right clothes. Here are a few tips for choosing clothes that will provide the style, comfort and functionality you need to keep—and look—cool on your bike.
Keep it loose
We always think of cycling clothes as being quite tight, especially on the legs. This is because the drag from air resistance is the number one problem for anyone trying to slice through the atmosphere on their way to a record time. Most urban commuters are more focused on slicing through motionless traffic on their way to the office. Leave the Lycra to the pros and focus on dressing for comfort and practical considerations.
Loosening things up is the key to better air circulation and freedom of movement. With a loose fit, you’re less constricted in your movements and thus more comfortable. The only tight thing you need on a bike is your grip on the handlebars. When it comes to your clothes, loosen up!
Of course, there is the matter of protecting your leg from the bike chain (are you seriously still not using a chainless bike?). Still, that’s no reason to compromise when it comes to getting dressed. You can always roll the trouser leg up or use any number of clips or bands specially made for this purpose.
Wear layers of clothes that you can add or take off as needed. Possibly the most over-used and cliched fashion advice ever, it just happens to be perfectly suited to casual cycling. This is especially relevant in cooler climates, where it can be cold at the beginning of a ride but after even low levels of effort powering the bike, you warm up quickly. There’s not much you can do if you just have one thick, heavy jacket over your dress shirt. There is no weirder feeling than arriving at your destination, sweating and overheated, when it’s really cold outside. Avoid it by being able to peel off a layer or two. Bear in mind that bright colors and reflective elements add a safety factor by boosting your visibility.
We’re referring to outerwear here and, again, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before but breathable and quick-drying fabrics and materials are the way to go for obvious reasons. WIth the advent of breathable weather-proof fabrics, it’s hard to generalise in simple terms of natural vs. synthetic. Just a few minutes of browsing online is enough to see that there is a bewildering range of choices for cyclists of every kind so, whatever it’s made from, just be sure that air goes through it and water doesn’t.
Get ready to (hear the thunder) rumble
We’ve already written about the subject of preparing for wet weather while riding, including tips on what kinds of clothes work best, so we won’t dive in too deep here. It’s enough to say that you are definitely going to get caught in the rain one day, so be prepared. This might mean taking along your waterproof jacket after a quick look at the forecast or maybe leaving a small, foldable poncho in your bag at all times. It’s up to you, but don’t learn your lesson the hard way.
We’re using this as a catch-all term for a place to keep your stuff. It might be a backpack, a shoulder bag, a crossbody bag, a laptop bag or anything else to hold things you need to take with you or pick up along the way. Nylon, polyester, leather—they all work so it’s really about what you feel comfortable carrying while cycling and if you want it on you or on the bike. There’s a huge selection of bike saddlebags available now. You might still think of “saddlebags” as those large containers that hang on either side of a wheel, used by cyclists on some epic, around-the-universe odyssey but it’s become a general term for bags of all sizes that are affixed to the bike. They can go under your seat, in the bike frame, on the handlebars and more. They’re ideal for storing things like the poncho mentioned above or gloves. Oh, that reminds us…
Ok, these might be better considered as accessories rather than clothes but we’re taking a flexible approach here. It’s funny how often we think about gloves in terms of “Wow, I wish I had some gloves right now”. This year, make it a goal to be prepared in advance for that first morning or late afternoon when you feel the effects of the cool air working on your fingers. When your hands stay warm, they can stay where they belong—the handlebar grips. We all know what it’s like when we actually look forward to having to stop at a light so we can shove our hands in our pockets for a few precious seconds before setting off again. Get whatever kind of gloves you like, stick them in the bottom of your biking bag and forget about them until that first crisp autumn morning tells you it’s time to get them out.
Your feet do all the work on a bike, so they deserve some extra attention (ok, fine, it’s really your legs—just play along). It’s hard to stick with firm rules here because there are so many variables, especially related to gender-based fashion, but the main takeaway is that it’s important to wear something that feels firmly secured to your foot. Sounds obvious, we know, but some footwear, like flip flops or some kinds of sandals, just isn’t safe because it has a harder time staying in contact with your pedals. Open-toed footwear on a bike just isn’t a good idea either. A quick rule of thumb (or big toe?) is that you shouldn’t have to expend any mental or physical energy grabbing the shoe with your toes to make sure it stays in place. When riding, your shoes should feel like a firm extension of your foot—this is not the time or place to wear something that you’d take to the beach.
Some of you might not put helmets in the “clothing” category, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree. If they’re part of your regular cycling ensemble, and they should be, there are now more choices than ever for getting the protection you need in a super-stylish look. If you haven’t looked at what’s on offer the urban commuter these days, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. A good bit of style has been infused into this market and the days of choosing from among the same helmets used by long-distance bikers are gone. As with other clothes, you’re looking for good air circulation and a firm but not-too-tight fit. Extra points for a helmet with integrated lights!
You can see that you don’t have to spend a fortune on high-tech cycling clothes that were designed in a laboratory and tested on world class athletes. You probably have most of what you need right now in your closet. Experiment to see what works best for you and remember that you can always be perfectly comfortable while commuting on a work on a bike without having to buy a separate wardrobe.