The terrible tyranny of two-wheel tribal wear

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.


  1. Ruben Gil says:

    I ride my bike to and from work 5 days a week. I am a cook, so I wear my work pants and a starter dri wick shirt while I ride, which is loose fitting. I also wear my helmet, have lights on my bike and carry the rest of my uniform in my back pack. It seems like I get more nods from the serious riders in spandex than I do from a casual rider. I don’t ride a cause ride to and from work, I ride hard and always try to improve my time. Overall, I respect for all riders, I just don’t like it when the casual riders do not follow the rules of the road and ate all over the place while they ride. We have trails and are fitting the same battle in the streets, so let’s get on the same page and follow the same rules to get the respect we deserve,

  2. Opus the Poet says:

    When I address the local city council here in the Beautiful Suburbs of Hell I wear a wicking T in the usual glow in the dark colors and a pair of wicking baggies because I need the pockets, and I get upheld as a person wearing “ordinary clothes” to ride in for transportation. I’m still wearing the glow in the dark clown suit, just without the corporate logos.

  3. Jim Lyle says:

    LOL. We’re just like the motorcycle tribes.

    I agree, just get out there and ride…safely.

  4. clay says:

    Nothing new.. i realized years ago that cyclists are no different than any other human; they will categorize each other ad infinitum.. almost always to their own collective detriment. I even tried waving heartily at passing cyclists to make sure they noticed my attempt to “connect” with a supposedly like-minded individual, but to no avail. If anything, i got a menacing glare. It’s basically fascism. There’s nothing you can do about it.

  5. D. D. Syrdal says:

    We are tribal in every other way, so I guess this is no great surprise. Suburbanites vs. city dwellers, vs country folk. Years ago on the tv show ‘Taxi’ Latke told of the rivalry in his home country between the hill people and the valley people. We always seem to find a way to splinter off into groups.

    When I ride, even to work, I like the spandex and ‘bike’ clothes, because that way I don’t wreck my good clothes or get them all dirty. I used to ride 14 miles each, so by the time I got to work I needed a shower. No way could I do it in the clothes I intended to spend the day working in. For me it was simply a question of practicality.

    Years ago I saw Deepak Chopra on an astronomy show talking about how if we ever do discover intelligent life in the universe, the human race will have to give up our tribal behavior. I’m not sure even that would be enough to bring us all together.

  6. Tony says:

    Its interesting in your opening remarks about the press expectations. Here in Europe if you go to any of these types of event or see spokespeople they are nearly always wearing ordinary clothing, Some commuters wear the lycra gear but its not the sort of thing you will see much in campaigning circles.

    If other cyclists see you so differently, what effect do you think it has on the perceptions of the motorists? There is a concern that motorists see lycra clad cyclists as more competent and predictable and therefore able to be passed closer whereas in normal clothes they could wobble at any moment and damage your paintwork so better give them some extra clearance. Certainly the bikeshare riders in London have a tiny fraction of the accident and injury rate of own bike riders.

  7. Eric W says:

    …The bottom line is, clothes don’t make the bike rider.

    Nope – it’s the BIKE!

    I have the same experiences you have, only I think it’s the bike. The velo retro tribe doesn’t like my new bike, the carbon fiber boys seem to think it’s too heavy, cyclocross people think it’s not dirty enough and tires are smooth, and the commuters think it’s too much bike to be practical. It is just right for me and my riding style.

    My small tribe, the TI tribe, all stop and admire each others bikes briefly when we meet, kinda like dogs. Not really interested, but I’ll take a sniff. kinda thing.

    And when I ride my other bike for a short errand – no-one will even look at my urban clunker. That makes me a loner on that bike, not part of any tribe. Of course I never wear spandex on that bike. It would clash horrorably.

    All the other stuff applies, but it’s not clothes. It’s the actual bike.

  8. I ride 3 different bikes. My fav is a newish cannondale racer, a close second is my surly fixie, and the third is the beast, an REI touring bike (think go far, go slow) to which i attach over a 100 pounds of gear. with each ride i wear what is comfortable. the racer – spandex and jersey. the fixie (which i commute on) everyday clothes and the touring bike shorts and hiking shoes.

    altogether i ride about a hundred miles a week and i make it a point to nod or wave to every other rider i pass or or who passes. but i have to agree with you: there is definitely a tribal mindset out there. if i am not wearing the right gear for who i just nodded to too. but if i’ve got the right gear on, i usually get a nod or hand signal.

    like you, these days, i often find myself dressing for my destination. i ride regularly, so it is often funny to nod at someone also riding a schedule who nodded to me the day before, but doesn’t recognize me in different gear the very next day, so ignores me. go figure.

    in this way we (cyclists) don’t seem to be helping ourselves.

    love the work you do, keep it up.

  9. […] Ted Discovers That When It Comes to Bike Community, It Matters What You Wear (Biking In LA) […]

  10. Kevin says:

    Great article. And you’re right: we would all do well to join together in support of bicycling rights so that our misinformed Governor in California will know that not only do we bike… we vote.

  11. I’m not liking tribal divisions either much. A smile and the fact that you are riding, should be enough to garner recognition from other cycling folk as we pass, and respect on the road needs to be universal. We do reflect on one another by our behavior and road manners, or lack thereof.

    Frankly I’m not one to emulate pro teams and give free advertising to their corporate sponsors by wearing their emblems… any enthusiasm for such is further diminished by the rampant doping of the pro riders. I ride for transportation and fun.

    My own clothing choices are more weather dependent. The more adverse the conditions, or longer the distance I am tackling then the more I am apt to have some technical fabrics on. The same helmet (with mirror and lights attached) goes with me whatever I am riding, with few exceptions. I own some padded shorts but don’t appreciate the “adult diaper” feeling. Jackets and visibility on the roadway are big priorities for me in the fall, winter and early springtime (low light commuting hours).

    A well-maintained bicycle is key, no matter what. Oil your chain! Adjust your brakes! Obey traffic laws, and enjoy the ride.

  12. I have no love for these superficial divisions between cycling tribes. I’ve definitely noticed a difference in how various categories of cyclists respond to my wave and “hi” depending on what I’m wearing and riding. If I’m on my folding bike, most spandex clad roadies won’t even look at me but most other categories will give a friendly response, and I get a “love your bike” from lots of kids.

    Our common interests are much greater than our differences. I’d really like to see us overcome them.

  13. everyday crystal says:

    I ride mostly as a commuter but also for pleasure on the weekends. I don’t own spandex but only because I’m uncomfortable in it. Whether I’m in work clothing or my weekend bike wear I find that most cyclists make no acknowledgement when passing, particularly cyclists in spandex.

    It used to bother me; I was thrilled to finally be part of the cycling world & viewed all bike-riders as my compatriots. A couple of years into it I think cyclists are the same on or off the bike and few people acknowledge each other when walking on the sidewalk or driving down the street (at least in SoCal).

  14. Lune says:

    I also commute, and I don’t own spandex. But I’ve found that, at least here, if I give people a nod or a wave, they _generally_ reciprocate regardless of what’s covering their skin.

  15. Charlie says:

    I no longer commute (I’m retired). But, I live car-free, so everywhere I go now is by bike. It seems, most roadie-type riders are in spandex, everyone else is in everyday clothing.

    The lack of acknowledgement (head nod, saying hi, etc) from the lycra roadie crowd (and vice-a-versa) does none of us any good. But when I hear roadies talking and saying I’m not a ‘real’ cyclist… that gets my blood pressure up. I used to ride like you, logging 100-350 miles a week. But, I’m no longer a ‘youngster’ and in need of speed and bragging rights. I have more important things in my life.

    Sure, I own some bike shorts. You’ll never see me wearing them. They come out only on long rides and are hidden under loose fitting shorts. Bike jerseys? No. Underarmor works fine. No matter where I ride to, I don’t feel out of place stopping and going in since I look like a normal person.

    I strongly believe in dressing for the destination. Dressing for a training ride is another thing. If it is a short or non-training type ride, destination dressing should win out. If you can’t handle sitting in the saddle for a five-mile ride without padding, it is more likely the saddle (or bike) and not your clothing that is the problem.

    ‘Nice’ shorts or pants, a polo and cap gets me a heck of a lot of respect from drivers and pedestrians. Respect I keep hearing the lycra clad croud complain that they don’t get.

  16. I will commute by bike even after I can no longer walk, and will wear whatever is most useful given the situation. For now, I wear lycra on long rides and on short rides street clothes. I nod at anyone who is looking up, no matter what they are wearing or hanging from their handlebars (I have Ortlieb panniers). We are cyclists, don’t hear us roar!

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