Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Observation on Chic Commuting by Bike

Being an online bike guy, I read lots and lots of stuff about bicycle commuting, and I'm getting kind of tired of one popular notion about commuting by bike. It is that it is feasible and/or easy to commute in the clothes you plan to wear all day.


When the weather is nice and the temperature just right, one can indeed commute to work and back without becoming a sweaty mess or a sopping wet one. That means that depending on where you live, you might be able to wear your regular work clothes quite a few times without incident. My concern is that people who plan to do it this way will inevitably get caught in the rain or get their clothes dirtier than planned sooner or later. That experience will suck, and they may be less inclined to ride next time.


Don't get me wrong; I don't think everybody needs to get all bike-specific with their commuting clothes (although bike clothes do dry more easily while you work). Keeping your work clothes dry and clean on the way in or leaving enough clothes at work on the weekend or whatever will prevent the aforementioned nasty experiences and make you more likely to keep it up.


Another bonus of commute clothes vs. work clothes is that you are more likely to ride harder and/or have more fun. Yes, you may sweat more, but some deodorant and a towel are enough to be fresh and pretty after you change for lots of people, at least the ones who shower every day. I don't know about you, but I commute by bike mainly for the sheer fun of it. Different clothes = more fun. That means that even fair weather only riders could be having more fun too.


I know some people are into this cycle chic thing, but I just don't get it. I mean, many of their bicycle choices are driven by the fact that they will be wearing "lovely shoes and trousers/skirt" (see the fenders section)... are these chic people really going to remain regular bike commuters in the long term? Not after the rain and sweat and dirt of commuting makes them look un-chic at work a few times. C'mon, chic people, instead of reducing the fun of cycling in order to increase the fun of wearing stuff, including your bicycle, just drop the high style and let your bike sing! A dutch city bike just looks like a depressed pack mule to me. That is what happens when you make a beautiful machine a mere servant of your clothes. Even if you really like that style of bike, why not do it some justice and ride the hell out of it instead of using it as an accessory?

You know what? Who am I to tell you what to do? Get your kicks however you like. Might I suggest, however, that a set of clothes separate from those you intend to wear at work all day would allow you to 1) ride more days of the year and 2) offer the opportunity to wear TWO fabulous outfits every day! The healthy glow and relaxed good nature that really commuting for fun will give you, combined with your awesome clothes, will make you even more attractive, I promise!

Yer Pal,

R A N T W I C K
PS - Rain gear only makes your work clothes that much more hot and uncomfortable to ride in. Please feel free to argue with this or any of my points in the comments.


PPS - Counter-point comments of reasonable depth have been coming in... I invite you to read them, because cycling starts with balance.

29 comments:

Jim said...

A related point I'd like to make is that the whole "work clothes" concept assumes a certain sort of work environment that isn't universal. For example, I work at a university, where my employment is not contingent on the style of my attire. As long as I'm comfortable and can do my job, there's no issue with wearing shorts etc. So, my point is, if you're in a position to choose, don't forget you can factor in lifestyle choices like bikes and freedom-of-clothing in your career choices!

RANTWICK said...

Hey Jim,

Good point! I was being a little rantwick-centric there, since I work in typical office attire.
I suspect I would change clothes no matter what was acceptable at work, but I get what you're saying.

Any openings for confused slackers at your school?

Mikael said...

According to the European Cyclists Federation there are 100 million people who cycle regularly. In the blazing heat of Seville, in the snowstorms of Scandinavia, in the hills of Switzerlands.

Basically, millions and millions of people seem to have figured out that urban cycling isn't a geeky/gear-fixated activity. 80% of Copenhagen cyclists ride througout the winter.

If you see it differently, that's just fine.

But one 'cycling enthusiast's' rant is hardly going to change 125 years of bicycle history. :-) Anything you can walk in, you can ride a bicycle in. The rest of us dress for our destination, not our journey.

Greg Collins said...

People in town and cities all over mainland Europe seem to cope with cycling to work in their work clothes. Doctors, lawyers, bakers, etc., etc..

I look at it like this; I don't work up a sweat and need to shower and change if I walk to work but I would if I was going to run to the office. Simple chillax, slow down, and ride at a pace that doesn't make you sweat.

As for getting dirty, the bike chain is the main source of that. So get a belt drive bike or one with a good chainguard/chaincase.

RANTWICK said...

Mikael, Greg -

Thanks for your comments, and points well taken. I guess for me that kind of riding takes most of the fun out of it.

It is becoming obvious I'm going to take some heat for my opinions on this one...

Dave Feucht said...

Just to be fair, I think it's a bit narrow to assume that everyone's idea of optimum enjoyment is to ride as hard and fast as possible. Personally, I enjoy riding slowly and watching the world I'm passing through as I go.

My choice of bike is dependent on "allows me to wear anything I want and allows me to do as little maintenance as possible." Whether stylish or not, I don't want to have to change clothes just to go to the store or to work or anywhere, really.

I'm not all that stylish of a person, but I want my bike to be a practical vehicle, and that means it should be easy to ride at the drop of a hat. I don't want to have to tie my pants up or put special shoes on or carry multiple sets of clothing everywhere I go (what about groceries, library, farmers market, etc - I'm certainly not going to change clothes to go to those places just in case I get a little wet).

It rains quite a bit here, and when it's dumping, I just wear a poncho. If it's just light rain, I just get slightly wet and let myself dry off. It's not like rain is toxic.

Certainly, if I had to wear a suit on a day where it's dumping rain, it might change my choice of attire - I might wear mid-calf boots to work and stick my trousers inside the boots on the way in, then pull them out when I got there.

Riding a bike for me is not an athletic pursuit, it's just a practical way to get from A to B, whatever A and B are. And I never have to take a shower when I get to work.

Jocey said...

I'm a full-time, year-round, regardless-of-the-weather bike commuter. I've ridden in Texas, Boston and now live and ride in Portland, Oregon. I'm a gal that likes to dress and look nice when I'm getting around on my bikes. I'm also a hyper competitive mountain, cyclocross and road racer.
My most favorite aspect of cycling: it appeals to every side of my personality.
Some days, I pull out my race kit and beat everyone during the commute. It's a hammerfest.
Other days, I dress to the nines and take it as easy as possible, even stopping to sip coffee and watch the other cyclists roll by.
Skirts, lycra, cowboy boots... I enjoy riding wearing it all.

Certainly though, when a gent takes me out on a date, I'd prefer he didn't pick me up looking like a sweaty commuter, that's not what I intend to look like. Style on two-wheels scores big in my book.

RANTWICK said...

Jocey - You are much more well-rounded than I! I'm not a racer by any stretch of the imagination, but speed is part of the joy for me.

Dave - You know what? I am coming to realize that I wasn't particularly fairand took a rather narrow view in this post... it really is unlike me!

In any case, I sure am pleased to be getting everyone's comments. Perhaps when they're all in I will have been re-educated if not repentant.

Dave Feucht said...

Rantwick: I wasn't trying to convince you you're a bad person or anything, you just simply stated that you don't understand why someone would choose a bike so that they could wear whatever they want on it, or ride any other way but hard and fast, so I was trying to explain why I do what I do. That doesn't mean it's wrong to ride hard and fast, just that it's not that outrageous to think that people would ride bikes for different reasons.

RANTWICK said...

Dave - I didn't think you were trying to put me down, and part of the beauty of bikes is their versatility, as you say.

I'm just not used to posting stuff that isn't a little better balanced and its got me a little twitchy.

Ben Brown said...

I agree that cycling slowly is definitely enjoyable, we all like to speed along some of the time but some people always seem to be in a rush, and they're usually the one's who look gross in skin tight lycra worn through in the bum so you can see a lot more than you would want. Plus dutch style bikes just have a totally different effect on your cycling and your approach to it, it's just a more fun relaxed attitude in my opinion.

Big Oak said...

Wouldn't it be ironic if many of the people wearing chic clothing on their commutes to work are models for cycling clothing?

I'm guessing that people, being people, want to look good while they are biking. In Scandinavia where the summer days aren't so hot and there are extended periods of cool weather, cycling with chic clothes might make sense.

Of course, clothing manufacturers are always looking for the next fashion thing, so cycling chic is a natural market here in the US.

Plus, I bet they don't ride too far to work, either.

Steve A said...

I seriously doubt the "wear regular clothes" crowd are factoring in a 20 mile commute in North Texas summers. I guarantee they'll be sweaty no matter how slow they go. Some of your commenters hit on the real answer which is there is no single answer that works all the time, much less for everybody. Even I occasionally wear cycling specific crud.

RANTWICK said...

Ben - From the comments so far, you are definitely not alone in appreciating a more relaxed ride. Who knows, maybe I'll give it a try someday when I mellow out a little.

Big Oak, Steve - I agree that there are climate and distance factors that can well have an effect on people's choices.

I'm thinking my post inadvertently exposed my bias against "fashion" in general. Oops.

Steve is right I think, in that the most useful observations people have made is that there is no single answer even for one person, let alone everybody.

orc said...

I ride my bicycle to work and back in my work clothes, but luckily for me I'm not hired for fashion, because even though I can make it 90% of the way to work without sweating there's a .8 mile climb up from the river to where I work and by the time I reach the top of that ramp it has become a different story.

Thank goodness for wool is all I can say. I can stagger in the door dripping with sweat and half an hour later look like I just took the bus instead (well, with the exception of me wearing +4s instead of regular pants.)

When I ride wearing long pants, of course I use a pants clip. It doesn't help with getting the pants dirty (the wake from my front wheel is inconsiderately wider than my fender, so the toes of my shoes and the front of my lower legs get grubbed no matter what) but in the inconvenience column it's right up there with reaching out and grabbing the handle of the door when I get to my destination.

Anonymous said...

Outlier (www.outlier.cc) makes fantastic clothes you can both ride in and work in. In the downpour on Thursday, my workwear shorts were bone dry twenty-minutes after arriving at work. It's cheaper than Rapha, but has both form and function.

No customs or HST when you order.

cafiend said...

Yeah, I was surprised at the limited viewpoint taken by our host, but I considered it might be a rhetorical device to stimulate discussion.

I wear cycling clothing for my commute because it runs close to (or slightly over depending on errands) a 30-mile day. I don't feel like fighting non-athletic clothing for that length of time.

I've observed many times that I would ride slower if I did not have to deal with motorized traffic. That has been true everywhere I lived and commuted. When I worked as a painter I wore painter pants. When I worked as a sailmaker I wore clean painter pants. Their many pockets came in handy. For short distances I did not get too sweaty, especially because in summer I could work in shorts at either job. Commutes during this period were under ten miles for the day.

I like painter pants. On my one long bike tour I brought them as alternate apparel because, at the time, you could wear a clean pair even into a somewhat nice restaurant.

One day I did accompany a training ride for about 18 miles while wearing my work garb. I happened to meet the gang on my way home, so I joined the paceline on my fendered fixed gear and off we went.

Generally, non-cycling pants bind my thighs and chafe my crotchal region. I don't care for that at all.

Here in hilly NH, even a 7-mile round trip to the grocery store involves ups and downs that pump up my legs. I will tend to wear some sort of warmup pants in cool weather and shorts in summer for shopping trips by bike.

I find in Wolfe City I will walk rather than use the bike at all for many errands from the workplace. The one exception is the bank, because the route is flat and straight, so it's a quick sprint, as opposed to the left turns and nuisance hills in the other direction.

A rain cape would be great for cycling because it vents better than any body-fitting jacket. I would have trouble with a non-aerodynamic garment as I rode along the highway with trucks and storm winds yanking at me, though. In warm weather I wear a wind vest to keep from losing core heat, and make no attempt to stay actually dry. The rain bike has fenders to reduce the amount of direct hosing from below. In a more genteel world I would definitely sport the rain cape. It would probably add 45 minutes to my total commute time.

In most workplaces I kept shoes there so I could ride in cleats. I love the acceleration offered by cleated shoes when dealing with traffic. At my current place of employment I leave appropriate trousers as well, bringing other items fresh each day.

RANTWICK said...

Cafiend - Sadly, it was just an ill-considered quick post rather than an intentional discussion generator. It did indeed generate some "corrective" discussion though, which is the beauty of these blog thingies.

Good point about the demands of riding in traffic... sometimes keeping it leisurely is not an option. Painter pants, huh?

I too really prefer cleats and leave shoes at work.

cafiend said...

These things happen. Wish I had a nickel for every time I blurted something. I'd also like to figure out how to get just half of the world's population each to send me one penny.

John Romeo Alpha said...

Local conditions, climate, average cycling speed, distance traveled, other differences influence this decision. In Phoenix, Arizona, where I commute by bike every day, I ride about 13 miles round trip at about 13 mph average. The temperatures I encounter range from a low of about 30F / -1C in the Winter to 114F / 45C in the summer. In the Winter temperature at that distance and speed, work clothes are quite practical for me. In the summer, same distance and speed, they simply are not. It's not a chic thing for me, I just don't like changing at work if I don't need to. I don't really want to ride slower than I do, nor would I encourage others to ride much slower than that, since the number one factor in people's decision on commuting mode is time in transit. I am interested in the average distance and speed of all those Europeans who commute to work in regular clothes, as well as the typical conditions. I see Seville's average maximum temperature is 36C / 95F. If I left early enough in the morning, I can just about hack that in normal clothes. Hotter than that and it's time for a change for me.

JAT in Seattle said...

Mr. Rantwick,
I agree with your post and don't consider it ill-considered in the least.

Changing at work may be a drag, waste time, and can be inconvenient for many of us who do not have much storage space, but I'd much rather put on a dry shirt and trousers for the work day thatn soldier on in sweaty (summer) or rain-drenched (winter) duds.

I'd be curious to know what all these Scandinavians are wearing in the winter. I also would like to add my two cents: all this cycle-chic stuff just feels a bit precious, beauty-centric, and condescending.

I ride my bike to get where I'm going; I'd rather get there quickly.

RANTWICK said...

JAT - Thanks for the +1!

cafiend said...

Regarding "chic" it is just one of the long history of pretensions to encrust cycling. In the 1990s with mountain biking on the rise it was "extreeeeme! and No Fear and roadies are Euro wannabe wussies and snobs and no one knew that the latest greatest owed a great deal more to the 19th Century than anyone was admitting.

We who simply love to bike just ride it out, as it were. Each trendoid wave claims ownership of the activity, but they all break and recede. If we're lucky, each wave leaves a greater total number of cyclists behind, even as the fickle fashionistas flicker away.

Dave Feucht said...

I realize I risk getting annoying posting again about this, but in reply to JAT, around most of the world, people ride bicycles in whatever clothes they would walk in (this includes Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Japan, China, etc). They all have clothes that are appropriate for the weather wherever they live, and they wear those clothes while riding. Granted, if you have some hills, you might dress slightly lighter than if you were walking - I generally do in the winter here. I typically wear a t-shirt, light sweater, and a jacket/light coat during most of our fall/winter, and then just gradually add wool cap, scarf, gloves and heavier coat as it gets colder. In the Netherlands and Denmark, if it's raining, a lot of people use umbrellas, which I've also done here in Portland, and a lot of people just throw on a poncho over their clothes, which I've also done and works quite well.

Of course, you're not going to go 25mph with a poncho on or with an umbrella, so again, if riding hard and fast is your thing, clearly you have different motivation for your choice of clothing.

To be honest, I've experimented with my work commute, which is about 5 miles each way if I just go directly to/from work. I've ridden it as hard and fast as I can, still obeying the traffic laws, and as calm and casual as possible. The time difference? Around 5 minutes. Because riding fast isn't a great pleasure of mine personally, that made it an easy decision for me to just take it easy. I'm certainly not that worried about an extra few minutes, and then I can just completely leave the change of clothes issue behind, and the most complicated it gets is shaking off and folding up a poncho or rain coat when I get to work.

I ride my bike to get where I'm going too, but I would rather leave myself an extra 10 minutes and take it easy.

That's just my personal bias. It's ok if you'd rather ride hard. I'm just saying again, the people who would rather take it easier and just wear normal clothes are not out of their minds or weird or pretentious or condescending, they're just getting where they're going too.

RANTWICK said...

Dave - I started writing a lengthy response to your post, but I felt like I was just digging a deeper hole.

Let me just say that I don't find everybody who rides in their regular clothes pretentious or weird or anything else. I was trying to poke fun at some who seem to be nothing more than avid consumers caught up in a fashion trend, but inadvertantly lumped in many others (like you) in my post.

As Cafiend noted, if the fashion trend passes but leaves more butts on bikes in its wake, so much the better.

Dave Feucht said...

Rantwick: In this case I was more replying to JAT than to you, but you're right, we probably should just leave it be at this point :)

RANTWICK said...

Dave - Oh, one more thing. The day I find people commenting and trying to get their point across annoying is the day I'll pack it in on this blogging thing. Thanks for your well thought out and constructive comments.

JAT in Seattle said...

Okay, Mr. Feucht, I'll bite (more like a nibble).

I live in Seattle, you live in Portland, so our weather is really similar, that is to say it rarely pours down rain, but it might be drizzling for a month (seven months?) straight. I only say this so we're clear. I'm only guessing that the weather in Scandinavia is like ours but with more frequent snow.

I have no problem with people wearing whatever they want while they ride. I know the fronts of the thighs of my trousers would be pretty wet at the end of my commute, and I don't rememebr the various 1970s cycling ponchos to have been that effective. I haven't tried an umbrella - I certainly enjoy the mental picture, but as a Seattleite I'm not allowed to own an umbrella, and my regular-clothes gore-tex jacket is too expensive to risk in a crash.

(I'm boring myself already, better get to the controversial part...)

As I've said, I have no problem with people wearing whatever they want, and I'll add that people may go as slowly as they like as long as they behave like reasonably predictable vehicles.

That said, it is my feeling that the emphasis on chic, Copenhagenizing, etc is smug, superior, and pretentious.

Is it more pretentious that BikesnobNYC's examples yesterday of people who've spent too much on pro racer gear and yet can't competently fix a flat or negotiate a hairpin turn? I don't know.

The idea of riders kitting up in their team wear and hammering on their commute really galls some people; I remember a comment on CommuteOrlando in response to the Portland commute video with voice over by Phil and Paul to the effect of yet another example of the hegemony of sport cycling...

I'd rather share the road (by bike or by car) with that guy than with a bunch of meandering poodling tweed-wearers. But that's just me.

And this isn't my blog, it's Rantwick's; he posted his thoughts and almost immediately felt he had to retract what he'd said. I wrote to back him up. The fact he had so many negative comments (a hundred million cycling Elvis Fans can't be wrong, so you must be!)just galvanized the point for me.

Steve said...

Put me in the Rantwick/JAT column.

I've ridden my commute in jeans and a business shirt. I've ridden it in bib shorts with jersey. I prefer the shorts and jersey.

Doesn't matter if I ride hard or easy there are two climbs on the way to work that have me sweating at the top. And that's the easiest flattest route.

As for rain, I live in Seattle. From home to work takes me an hour. Maybe a little longer in the rain. Even with full fenders and a rain jacket, there are plenty of days where everything I'm wearing is soaked by the time I get to work.

As for going to the store, etc. I wear whatever I have on. Well, provided I'm in street clothes.

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