Monday, July 7, 2008

In defence of lycra and other unspeakable cycling clobber

Commenting on my 25 Rules for a Righteous and Contented Life (see earlier post), in which I poked fun at men who dress up in peculiar clothing, someone said to me recently that I should have included a reference to cycling gear.

Being a cyclist myself, I naturally bridled at this. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard a non-cyclist ridicule the strange outfits bike riders wear, so I’ve taken it upon myself to offer some sort of explanation.

What distinguishes cycling gear from the preposterous get-ups worn by freemasons, Ku Klux Klansmen, military brass and religious clerics is that it’s essentially utilitarian, not purely decorative. Try going for a long bike ride wearing ordinary clobber and you’ll soon find out what I mean.

First, let’s take the lycra bike shorts that seem to attract most ridicule. These are light, flexible and body-hugging, meaning they allow freedom of movement while also minimising wind resistance. This latter factor may seem unimportant until you’ve discovered how crucial wind resistance is when you’re riding at a reasonable pace, even in relatively calm conditions. The last thing you want is loose clothing flapping in the breeze – it not only slows you down, but it’s irritating too.

Lycra is surprisingly resilient too, and can withstand repeated violent contact with the ground, whether it’s a rock-strewn track or a bitumen road surface.

But the most important thing about cycling shorts is the imitation chamois padding sewn into the crutch. We won’t go into gratuitous anatomical detail here, but suffice it to say that the bum and the crutch take a hammering on a long bike ride, and comfort in these nether regions, for sheilas as well as blokes, is crucial. I once made the mistake of riding for several hours on a hot day in a pair of track pants – not something I’m anxious to repeat.

The other thing non-cyclists tend to scoff at is the gaudy, attention-grabbing colours of most bike shirts. Well yes, they are designed to attract your attention. That’s to ensure cyclists are seen by motorists. Personally, I recoil at a lot of the garish, multi-coloured tops worn by road cyclists and sometimes wonder myself if they’re not a tad exhibitionist. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want my last thought to be, as I disappeared under the wheels of a truck, that perhaps I should have worn something more colourful.

Finally, there are the shoes. Yes, you can ride a bike wearing ordinary footwear such as sneakers, secured in a crude fashion by cumbersome toe clips with adjustable straps. But one of the great evolutionary leaps in cycling was the advent of the clipless pedal, for which you require special bike shoes with cleats that lock in to the pedal. Few if any cyclists who have made the progression from conventional to clipless pedals ever wonder for even a nanosecond whether they did the right thing.

For a start, clipless pedals increase your pedalling efficiency. Because you’re locked in to the pedal you can apply power on the upstroke as well as the downstroke. But perhaps more important, and this applies even more to mountain biking than road cycling, clipping in to your pedals make you feel as one with the bike. Your feet stay securely in position – there’s no slipping around – and control of the bike is enormously enhanced.

And again, it’s much safer. Before I acquired clipless pedals I would often be distracted by the effort of trying to get my foot into the toeclips, but with clipless pedals it becomes instinctive and effortless; you do it by feel. That reassuring metallic snick as the cleat on your shoe locks into the pedal is a signal that you and the bike are functioning as one unit.

And miraculously, when you’re about to crash, you usually manage to unclip to avoid going down with the bike. Usually, but not always. I recently had the undignified experience of coming to a dead halt in deep soft sand on my mountain bike and not being able to free my feet from the pedals. I fell sideways in slow motion, letting loose a string of expletives as I went down.

This happened in a very remote spot on the Wairarapa coast and normally would have been observed only by seagulls and sheep. But as luck would have it, a couple of stoned surfers were sitting only metres away and must have found this a gratifyingly surreal experience. It’s not every day you get a floorshow in the middle of nowhere while you wait for the waves to come up.


Vaughan said...

Another strange looking piece of cycling clobber are those Steptoe gloves -- the ones your fingers poke out off so they can freeze individually rather than in an awkward bunch.

The gloves stop the skin coming off your palms when you put your hands out in a crash. Useful, too, for swatting stoned surfers over their grinning dials.

The padded crotch on the lycra shorts could have proved useful for me when I was learning to water ski. I kept in the crouch position for too long and I had an involuntary and highly effective personal irrigation.

Unknown said...

Someone somewhere once commented there are only about 6 people in the entire world who look cool in cycling gear.

Personally, I've done lots of cycling in shorts and t shirt (not, though, at this time of the year). Used to (sigh) do two hours around the Wellington bays regularly.

Had to hop off on occasion though and do star jumps to get the blood flowing back to the extremities.

Even with these factors, I still looked less of a dork than I would have wearing lycra.

Anonymous said...

I do the strange clothing, the clip in pedals but one accessory that gets strange looks, and I wouldn't ride without, is a spec mounted mirrror. Feel naked without it!

William Le Couteur said...

How come you don't mention the mandatory five fall-offs because of the clips? I made the change to clips and was warned that you need gloves to keep your hands protected "when" you fall off. Not "if". The very first time on with clips I said to myself:now no falling one moment's lack of concentration, and over I go.
I'm not going to do that again, I thought, and over a period of a year or so connected with the ground about 5 times. Or is it that I'm old?! (62)