Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.
Today I’m picking a fight with…CYCLING APPAREL. Because there are rules for what to wear on your favorite bike.
How cyclists dress when on their bike is one of the most complicated and least consistent parts of outdoor fashion.
It varies widely depending on the type of bike one is riding and for all but one type of cycling discipline, the choices can vary wildly.
That one discipline of course is road riding. Roadies are largely united in how they choose to bike in the world. Head to toe spandex, matching and color coordinated socks, gloves, helmets, water bottles and GU packets.
Sunglasses big enough to make Paddy O’Connell swoon.
There is no more vain group of outdoor athletes, maybe no more vain group of athletes period. Seriously other than golfers who cares more about how they dress than roadies? My 12 year old daughter doesn’t spend as much time planning her outfit for the first day of school as most roadies do planning for a random Tuesday night group ride.
A roadie’s worth is only as good as their drip.
But the uniformity ends there. Mountain bikers have a mostly distinct look, but there are tons of variations and Gravel riders have a real problem. Some dress exactly like roadies others like mountain bikers and even others somehow combine road fashion with mountain bike aesthetics with a healthy dash of a Seattle hipster cyclist.
So what’s a two wheeled rider to do? Well, that’s why I’m here.
Today, I’m going to give you all the guidance you require for what to wear on that next ride despite the type of bike you may be riding.
Starting with roadies. <insert uncomfortable silence here>
Uh, you know, I don’t really care. I don’t really get road based sports. I put in my time on a road bike about 20 years ago and while it can be fun to ride roads with some pals the inclusion of cars and the fixation on what you’re wearing just doesn’t jive with what I’m looking to do outside and to be honest I can be kind of surly about it so let’s move on.
Mountain bikers! Ok, now we’re talking!
The typical mountain biking kit is a pair of chamoised bike shorts (not bibs), stupidly baggy shorts over the bike shorts and some variation of an overly logo’d bike jersey, baggy long sleeve crappy tech tee, wool t-shirt, cotton t-shirt, cotton button up, bowling shirt, tank top with arm warmers, just arm warmers, gore tex jacket (even on a sunny day), or if you’re racing a less annoying but equally tight version of the roadie uniform.
And before I get to my recommendation I need to get on my soapbox and yell at all the mountain bikers who forgo a very important accessory.
Those who don’t wear gloves.
What the hell do you think you’re proving?! I have never crashed my mountain bike and not had my hands get involved somehow. And even if you’re riding mainly in areas that aren’t that rocky, a high speed skid on packed dirt can take skin off of your palms, so throw some gloves on for christ's sake.
Anyway the funny thing about what to wear when you’re mountain biking is that the roadie uniform works the best. Riding a mountain bike is dynamic. You’re up out of the saddle a ton and constantly changing your position on the bike and most mountain bikers wear shorts that are baggie as fuck because they like the way it looks and separates them from looking like a road cyclist.
The truth is that a pair of bibs with no baggies actually makes the most sense for a mountain biker because it offers you less material to get hooked on your saddle as you move into the correct position for the terrain you’re riding.
There was a time when I was racing mountain bikes that I absolutely eschewed wearing baggies and kept shit tight because of that very reason. Now do I still apply this function over fashion mentality to my mountain bike fit checks? Hell no.
Everyone knows that mountain biking is easily the coolest of all biking disciplines. We know this because every cheap big box bike sold to someone who doesn’t want to get the cruiser bike that they probably should be getting is a barely functioning mountain bike look alike complete with a barely working front suspension fork.
In the arena of what constitutes a cool looking bike to the general populace…mountain bikes wins in a landslide.
So here’s the way to success. We start with the bike shorts or bib. Bib shorts if you’ve never tried them really can’t be beat. Sure you look like a porn star dressed for a scene about wrestlers when you have nothing but the bibs on, but once you complete the full ensemble you’ll love the way they perform and stay in place.
Over the bibs go a pair of shorts, but don’t go too baggy. Our dearly departed Kitsbow first showed me what was possible with their Haskell shorts but since they couldn’t figure their shit out, that crown now sits with Ornot and their Mission short.
Short shorts are in these days boys and girls, and the less fabric you have on your legs the better.
Up top, no bike jerseys with zippers and pockets or any long sleeve/moto inspired shirts. Almost all road jerseys and moto silhouettes are made with the worst of the worst dogshit fabric and even worse than that is the way they look has been scientifically proven to burn your eyes out of their sockets.
Not to take a pot shot here, but if you want to know what i’m talking about check out Troy Lee Designs mountain bike jerseys. If you think those are aesthetically pleasing stay put because I’m sending a personal athletic apparel stylist to your house ASAP to show you the amount of good looking options that exist for riding your bike.
You’re damn right that’s a Kitsbow henley. In a few years that thing will be worth a fortune but I’m gonna mountain bike in it anyway.
What you want are t-shirts. Now don’t forget, if the weather is favorable that can include cotton! I enjoy nothing more than ripping around in a cotton/poly blend Guardians of the Galaxy t-shirt on a dry hot day when everyone else is wrapped in cheap ass plastic because they think that’s what they’re supposed to be wearing.
But your go to t-shirt should be merino wool. It’s the most versatile, will probably look the best and will definitely perform the best. After that a high end double knit synthetic will be comfortable and dry quickly.
And as much as it irritates me, yes a button down shirt works too. And if you happen to work in IT then I guess you can go right from the trail to the server room without missing a beat.
For colder days don’t get bike specific cold weather apparel. What you already have for running or skiing or hiking or whatever will work just fine on the bike when temps dip.
Lastly we get to the most diverse of riding types: GRAVEL.
Gravel riders definitely have an identity problem. They are as much affiliated with roadies as they are with mountain bikers or mustachioed hipsters.
After this past spring's uber famous Belgian Waffle Ride, YouTube has been inundated with videos from participants and at a glance it looks like a road race. The riders dress the same and the bikes most pros ride are hard to immediately differentiate from road bikes.
On the other end of the spectrum there isn’t a more laid back group of cyclists than gravelers.
When I bought my first gravel bike last year I asked the folks at the shop, “what do you wear when you ride a gravel bike?”
And the answer was a universal, “whatever you want man.”
The surge of jorts wearing bike riders owes a lot to the gravel movement and with bikepacking becoming more popular, firmly on the exploration end of cycling and gravel being a prominent player in those types of adventures, there really is no such thing as the right or wrong kit to wear on a gravel bike.
Jorts and a cotton t-shirt…the perfect cycling ensemble.
Although I’d warn you against wearing a matching roadie kit while bikepacking…I mean, you could, but it would be…just weird.
My go to is pretty much my mountain biking kit although I swap my fox helmet for a specialized road lid with a bike cap underneath. But that’s really only when I’m going on a ride that is guaranteed to last more than an hour. If it’s a quick 10 miles or less I’ll often just wear what I have on. Just pop on a helmet, add a water bottle and hit it.
The big picture takeaways here are that cycling, road riding aside, is leading the casualization of the outdoors. The big outdoor brands have worked hard to establish what we’re supposed to wear when doing a particular activity. You see the occasional variation but for the most part it is what it is at this point.
Except on bikes. Bikes make everything more fun and how we dress when we bike is no exception. Even roadies can get in on the action as fashion influences the design of their kits.
But like all things that take place outside, what happens on dirt is better and more interesting.
In a single ride on trails you may see a gravel cyclist rocking a beanie, a flannel with jorts and weird patchwork bike bags all over their rig and then a minute later you can pass a mountain biker heading to a ramp to put in their boat on a combo bikepacking/packrafting trip.
It’s a glorious time to be riding bikes! As long as you dress the part appropriately.