There is no clothing item more iconic or deemed more essential than the bike short. That moment when you first pull on a skin-tight pair of Lycra, feel the cushy, plush sofa cushion against your butt, and realize that now everyone can view your sidepipe in high relief … that’s the moment you truly feel like a cyclist.
I remember my first pair of bike shorts, long before the bib short had been invented. I remember standing in front of the mirror asking the question every man asks: “Am I really going to appear in public wearing these?”
And I remember a Thousand and One occurrences and special moments related to bike shorts. The day I first wore a pair with a team logo. The day I learned that the UCI would no longer require that shorts be black. My first Assos. My first bib short.
One thing I don’t remember ever doing, except one fatal time, is questioning whether or not cycling shorts were necessary. That was when I rode from Cologne to Berlin in regular pants. I was with my 16-year-old son, and he wasn’t a cyclist, so our speeds were slow, our days were long, and our sweat in the hot sun was profuse. With back-to-back ten-hour days, I soon had a saddle sore that belonged in a medical journal.
In Leipzig I broke down and staggered into a bike shop. It was 4:50 pm. I found a pair of shorts and hobbled to the counter. They were high, seventy euros, but anything to stanch the oozing and the pain. I pushed them over the counter.
“Sorry,” the clerk said. “We are closed.”
“Yes.” He showed me his wrist watch, which read exactly five o’clock. “We close at five.”
“And you won’t ring these up?”
“No. But you can come back tomorrow. I will put them under the counter for you.”
“I don’t think I will be here tomorrow,” I said, and left, upset at not getting my shorts, but impressed with German punctuality and presumably with their labor laws as well.
For the remaining two or three days I suffered a lot, and then in Berlin, with a couple days’ rest, things healed up just fine. “Never again,” I said.
By the third day of my Big Bike Tour that began this July, I was working on another saddle sore and it promised to be a doozy when it fully flowered. I started to panic because I was wearing bike shorts already. The different pedalstroke and position on the saddle were causing the friction. One morning I got the idea of wearing tights over the shorts. Perhaps the extra layer would make a difference. It did, the rubbing stopped, the skin healed, and a couple of days later I could ride without the tights.
Now that I’m planning another long ride, this time to Texas, I’ve started playing again with the idea of ditching the cycling shorts. My inspiration was three people I met at Big Sur, a young fellow and two girls, he having ridden from Montana and they from Canada. He had jeans and they had short-shorts, with nary a cycling pad anywhere. “Don’t you get saddle sores?” I asked.
“What are those?”
“Good answer,” I said.
Ditching the shorts would save space, reduce the amount of clothes-changing and clothes-washing I’d have to do, and release me from the perpetual chore of worrying about my bibs. How was the pad holding up? Where would I get another if this wore out? What was that funny blotch on the pad that looked like it just twitched?
I’ve found over the last forty years that cycling is a hidebound hoarders’ delight of conventional wisdom, much of which is bunk. What did cyclists do before Assos? And I considered that after my trip, my butt had gotten leathery and tough. Along with the 32-lb. backpack to take the weight off my bike and get rid of the clunky saddlebags, maybe now would also be a good time to test riding lots of in-town miles without cycling shorts.
So along with my reconfigured bike I set out with a reconfigured undercarriage as well. Because there is no rule in cycling so hallowed that it shouldn’t be broken.
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