One day last winter, I found myself riding Downtown to attend an early morning press conference.
And something I’ve learned in recent years is that the press likes to talk to people who look like their preconceived notions of a cyclist.
It doesn’t matter if the guy next to you is the head of a bicycling organization, a professional cyclist or someone who’s been riding for decades. If he or she is dressed in street clothes and you’re in spandex, you can expect the camera in your face.
Since there were things I wanted to say on the day’s subject, I put on my best road gear and set out on a rush hour ride to City Hall.
On the way, though, I noticed an interesting thing.
Despite the chilly early hour, there were a lot of other riders on the road.
Some, like me, were dressed in spandex. Many of whom nodded in my direction as they passed, acknowledging me as one of their own.
Others were clad in jeans or business attire, apparently on their way to work or school. And not one of whom seemed to take any notice of me, as if we were members of two separate species.
More interesting, though, was what happened later that same evening as the situation was reversed.
I had a business party to attend that night, starting just after working hours. And since it was located in an office building on Wilshire Blvd, in an area where parking is virtually non-existent — or unaffordable — during the evening rush, I concluded that riding was once again the most viable option.
So I threw on my jeans and a button-down shirt, along with a semi-professional looking jacket, and set out along the same route I’d taken earlier that day.
Except this time, the situation was reversed.
Many of the bike commuters I encountered threw a brief nod in my direction; a couple even struck up a conversation as we waited for red lights to change.
Yet the spandex-clad riders I passed hardly cast a glance in my direction. The way I was dressed marked me as a member of another tribe.
And that, my friend, is when it finally sank through my thick helmet-covered skull.
I was exactly the same rider on both the morning and evening rides. I was on the same bike and riding the same way. Let alone the same direction.
But I was seen in a completely different manner by different people, strictly because of what I was wearing.
The clothing we bike in isn’t just what feels comfortable as we pedal to our destination, or what will be appropriate once we get there.
It’s what connects us to others like us, identifying us as members of our own cycling tribe. And more importantly, what separates us from all the other self-selected cycling tribes, whispering — or sometimes shouting — in the unmistakable language of bicycle fashion, I’m not like you.
And probably don’t want to be.
Divide, and self conquer.
No wonder we can’t even present enough of a unified front to get the governor to sign a damn three-foot passing bill.
Too often we’ve seen the spandex crowd turn up their noses at the fixie riders in our midst. Or the cycle chic and citizen cyclists, to borrow a phrase or two from Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic fame, criticizing those who insist on donning specialized bicycling attire instead of regular street clothes, let alone helmets.
Or haute couture and drop dead heels, in some cases.
Then there are the women who wonder why they should have to dress to the nines just to ride a bike. The hipsters who wouldn’t be caught dead wrapped in a skin-tight logo-covered road jersey.
And the great mass of casual riders who just want to go for a bike ride, and don’t know what all the fuss is about.
Or even that there is a fuss.
Of course, there are reasons for what we wear.
When I first started riding, I saw no reason to wear anything other than the T-shirt and cut-off jeans I wore for any other physical activity.
Until a couple of more experienced riders explained that bike shorts and jerseys actually made for cycling would dramatically cut down on the wicked wind resistance that wore me out before I barely got going. Not to mention eliminating those aggravating sweat and chafing issues, while offering the support necessary to help ensure the existence of any potential future generations.
If you get my drift.
And so I rode for over twenty years; eventually the concept that I could ride in something else, even for a quick trip to the market or out for coffee, lost in the deep dark depths of bike days long past.
As my fellow cycling advocates and colleagues can attest, it took me a couple years of riding to various meetings — and the embarrassment of usually being the only one sitting through them just a stretchy microthread’s-width away from near nudity — before I worked up the courage to bike in regular clothes like they did. And dress for the destination rather than the ride.
It just seemed oddly foreign to me after all those years in spandex.
Just as it would to many fixie or casual riders to wear the brightly colored skin-tight attire most roadies wrap around themselves before they hit the road. Even if they would likely be far more comfortable on long rides, as I learned myself so many years ago.
Now I still wear spandex for long, fast rides demanding physical exertion. And jeans and casual shorts and shirts — some made for bicycling, some not — for transportation and more relaxed riding.
The bottom line is, clothes don’t make the bike rider.
It doesn’t matter who you are, how you ride, what you ride, where you ride, or what you wear. Especially not what you wear.
The only thing that really matters that you ride.
The rest is just details.
And once we finally figure that out, once we realize that the one thing that links us all together is more important than all our tribes and differences, we’ll be a social and political force no one can resist.
Not even Jerry Brown.
On a related subject, Melissa Balmer of Long Beach-based Women on Bikes SoCal offers a must-read look at women, bicycling and cycle chic — and whether bike advocacy has to make room, not just for all the many types of women who already ride, but all those who might want to.
If we don’t agree with one and other’s approach could we step back and and try and understand where she is coming from rather than attacking first? Is there something we could learn from each other? Could we find the places where we agree and be cordial in our agreeing-to-disagree where we disagree? If we become known as a movement of great diversity yet united in our good will towards getting women and girls on bikes won’t we be much much stronger and powerful for it?
Seriously. It’s an important topic for anyone who cares about bike advocacy and reaching out to women — and potential bike riders — of all sorts. And not just because she mentions me in it.
So read it, already.