Your average person on the street thinks of cyclists, especially road bikers, in terms of their spandex wardrobe. When I first met the husband of one of my college friends and my cycling came up, the first word out of his mouth was “Do you wear ball shorts?” because apparently he’s seen a few too many people wandering around in spandex bike gear, even wearing it for a quick trip to the store.
That’s a deeply silly idea. There’s no reason why a person should have to “dress up” to bike. You should be able to bike around in street clothes, maybe with a few adjustments, and go a decent distance. Thinking you need to be all dressed up to bike is a barrier between you and having fun on two wheels and I’d like to remove that barrier for you. It’s cheaper, simpler, and doesn’t make you self-conscious.
So, if you ask me, you need a bike and probably a helmet. Everything else is just details. I’ve got a guide to solving problems with cycling and street-clothes.
Now, understand that, while you can get away with jeans and a polo shirt and bike 20 miles, you will eventually start to experience real problems. Sometimes it’s all about getting something that looks like “normal” clothing but happens to be made out of more advanced “technical” materials. REI and Columbia Sportswear are good for this sort of things.
I tend to divide other cycling apparel into two big categories.
First, there are a few little accessories that make life easier, like gloves or glasses. Stuff that doesn’t require a changing room to get off but makes a difference.
Second, there’s real hardcore cycling gear. There are real reasons why I put on my form-fitting outfit if I plan on doing a nice 50 mile ride through the mountains.
Technical clothing materials
Cotton is not perfect, but it’s the standard comfy material for normal life for many people. The problem is that it doesn’t wick very well, so if you get it wet, it’ll stay wet. So if you sweat in it, the sweat will collect.
There are better fabrics to be had. There are a variety of “technical” fibers, most of them some variant on polyester or polypropylene or nylon, that are constructed in such a way that water vapor flows through them better. With correct layering and treatments, you can also make them better at letting water vapor through but causing water to bead on top and run off. A lot of it is buried in the details. Polyester can either be really bad at letting moisture through or actually fairly good at it.
The biggest and most annoying problem with these fabrics is keeping them clean. The problem is that the same properties that make them comfortable when you are sweating in them also make them optimal for your skin bacteria to grow in. And it happens in such a way that your washer isn’t always able to get both the bacteria and the stuff they feed on out. So you might pull a bike jersey out of the wash, put it on, and find yourself stinky in an hour.
They have spent some time putting anti-bacterial ingredients in the fibers. Part of the problem is that most of them either wash out.. and in the case of silver nanoparticles, can wreak havoc with the sewage treatment system… or may eventually be shown to be really bad for your skin.
Wool knit doesn’t have some of these problems. It’s a non-starter for the pros because you can’t dye-diffusion transfer logos to it. But wool doesn’t have the problem of stinking. The wool proponents claim that it’s better at breathing and needs to be washed less and this and that and the other thing. But I don’t care, because I can’t wear wool without getting a rash. I’m allergic. And, while I’d love to get a wool jersey just to see if they were right about it, it’s that uncomfortable on me, so I won’t.