Built for comfort

June 28, 2022 Comments Off on Built for comfort

Many years ago I read this post on the Rivendell bike blog. At the time I agreed with it … but not for me.

I’ve always believed that cycling clothing is stupid, but like most “cyclists,” it was always easier to go with the flow than to do what hundreds of millions of people do every day, that is, bicycle in normal clothes.

Since covid I have ditched cycling-specific clothing, or rather, I’ve ditched cycling clothing that is designed around the needs of professional bike racers. Helmets, shoes, socks, bibs, jerseys, arm warmers, snazzy little mini-gloves, and all the other items designed to make professionals go as fast as possible have been tossed or donated. The fact is that unless you ride a road bike for money, you don’t need any of that stuff.

When you consider reality, there are lots of great ways out there to ride a bicycle that don’t involve bicycle race wear. My favorite is loose shorts.

When I started cycling in 1982, a pair of bike shorts cost $40. If you rode daily you might own three pairs. Modern race wear can easily cost $350 for the bibs alone. When I rode to Canada from LA, I started with two pairs of expensive bib shorts. By the time I got home I was wearing floppy mountain biker shorts. Nowadays I ride in shorts that work great on the bike, look like normal attire when I reach my destination, and function perfectly when I shift to my main mode of transportation, walking. My favorite pair of shorts is made by Chrome. They cost $132 and appear to never wear out. They work wonderfully on a bike saddle, and unlike traditional bike shorts, they easily take the abuse of sitting on stones, sand, gravelly surfaces, or parking lot cement.

The biggest obstacle to riding in normal shorts for many cyclists is the lack of a pad. In my very limited experience, this has never been an issue despite logging tens of thousands of miles with nothing thicker than a thin pair of nylon underwear beneath the shorts. Comfort on a bike, in my opinion only, is much more related to being overweight and/or riding on a racing saddle than it is related to shorts. When you are carrying too much weight above the waist, the increased pressure on your ass and crotch hurts. The times I wear a fully loaded backpack (up to 40 lbs.), the added pressure becomes painful after a few hours and I typically have to get off and rest my ass for a few minutes. However, when wearing a heavy pack I’m also touring and can therefore rest whenever I want, so that hasn’t been an issue. Also, when I switched from a racing saddle to a wider leather one that, after breaking in, conforms to the contour of my undercarriage, my riding comfort went through the roof, even with a heavy pack. More than any pair of unpadded shorts, a hard, narrow saddle jammed up against your soft parts will cause pain.

Loose shorts, whether a cheap pair of cargo pants from Target or a bike-specific pair like those made by Chrome, are more comfortable than bibs because they don’t squeeze your legs, butt, and gut as does race wear. It’s not until you acknowledge that you are not, and are never going to be a professional bike racer that you understand how uncomfortable race wear really is. Loose fitting pants are merciful to the crotch area as well.

I think another great benefit to cargo-style shorts is that they get you out of the body-shaming loop that most race wear marketers engender. None of us looks all that great with every curve, bump, lump, angle, droop, and bend highlighted by skin-tight clothing, especially pants. In fact, except for a very tiny minority, almost every post-40-y/o cyclist in Lyra looks like a giant sausage, or a grape with legs. And feeling like you look fat in tight clothing is a huge riding disincentive to lots of people. Why should cycling require you to display all the details of your anatomy whether you want to or not? Loose pants have the advantage of letting people look normal whether they’re super skinny or super not.

In a similar vein, race wear is never fashionable off the bike, and rarely fashionable on it. Race wear, unless it’s black, seems to always incorporate the ugliest designs. Having a comfy pair of loose fitting shorts that are just as pleasant to ride in as they are to sit in at a cafe opens up a lot more uses for bicycling. Normal shorts can help you bridge the gap from pro bike racer wannabe to normal human using a bike to get somewhere to do something fun or (gasp!) useful. And if you’re into fashion, there’s a lot more to choose from on the normal pants rack than there is from the rogues’ gallery that is cycling fashion, where the norm is bizarre and the bizarre is shit-you-can’t-make-up. For people who like clothing variety, it’s so much cheaper to buy several pairs of normal shorts than to buy even one pair of high quality race wear bibs.

A comfy pair of cheap shorts takes little care. Splatter them with ketchup or soy sauce? No prob. Toss ’em in the wash, load up on the suds, and then dry them on high. They’ll be fine, but not so much with race wear. The bibs are delicate and the Lycra is, too. Use race wear hard, launder race wear hard, and you’ll be shelling out for another $700 kit before your cargo shorts from the discount rack have so much as started to fade.

Maybe one of the biggest bonuses to a loose pair of shorts is that they prevent you from taking yourself seriously. No matter the degree of your delusion, you just can’t gin up the fantasy mill that you’re a Tour contender with floppy pants. But don the head-to-toe race wear costume and you can’t help but feel that you coulda been a contendah. Normal clothing is an antidote to the delusions and the bad behavior that come with race wear: snobism, being judgypants about other people’s degree of kit coordination, and of course the secret fear that you are the one who looks ridiculous wearing this most amazing set of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Comfy and floppy pants destroy the exclusiveness and hierarchy of race wear that is designed to make people feel inferior, inadequate, fat, poor, and unwelcome if they don’t own or can’t afford the costume.

At some point you will wonder, “What do I wear when it’s too cold for shorts?”

This question was solved several thousand years ago with something called “long pants.” The way they work is that you put them on, then roll up the right leg so it doesn’t hit the chain and get smeared with grease. In addition to a number of clothiers who produce jeans, khakis, and completely normal-looking pants with small reinforcements and additions to enhance their utility on a bicycle, there are other very, very old school manufacturers who make stuff that works absolutely great on a bike. My all time favorite pants for riding when it’s cold, wet, or nasty outside are the L.L. Bean winter wool slacks. They cost $130 and it takes about 20,000 miles for the seat to wear out. I’m on my second pair and absolutely love them as they work great with a belt or with suspenders, your call.

And don’t wrinkle your nose at “suspenders.” What do you think holds up your bibs?


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