The Dust-Up: On Designer Cycling Denim and Maligning Lycra


The Dust-Up: On Designer Cycling Denim and Maligning Lycra

In this installment of The Dust-Up, Hailey Moore writes about the clichés of cycling fashion, the paradox of self-expression, why riding in cut-offs and flannel has perhaps jumped the shark, and the liberation found in embracing performance apparel. Read on for a thorough reflection on why we wear what we wear when we ride…

Ride up Four Mile Canyon outside of Boulder, Colorado on any given weekend and you’re likely to see cyclists sporting the full spectrum of kit style: the latest Rapha tech tee and cargo bibs denoting the graveleurs; roadies in painted-on spandex and windshield sunnies doing hill repeats; bygone (and loudly) branded event jerseys on presumed e-bike retirees; baggies for the singletrack-bound, and all manner of jorts and flapping plaid adorning the self-identified casual rider.

Of course, these descriptions lean heavily on cliché and are based on my at-a-glance assumptions but I’d wager they’re not far off in most cases: cycling, more than other sports, seems to place greater weight on what you wear while doing it (look no further than the not-so-tongue-in-cheek Velominatti strictures), or rather, what your attire signals to others about your approach. To flatten all nuance, one could look at it as a seriousness scale, with the tightest lycra signaling the most extreme stance with those loose, thrift-store flannels and pearl snap shirts marking the other “so chill” end of the spectrum.

Here, form follows function, but function—arguably—follows intention and identity.

And, this makes some intuitive sense. As humans, we haven’t evolved away from wanting the tribal feeling of security that comes from belonging to a group (somewhat cringingly, the term “tribe” has even made a bit of a resurgence in talking about a community you subscribe to). Individuality may be an ideal, but it’s one that’s held in check by the risk of being ostracized, and everyone has varying degrees of tolerance for just how far they’re willing to stick their neck out.

In competitive cycling—a sport where success nearly always relies on the drafting benefits of, literally, “making the group”—looking the part becomes even more important in that it has actual performance benefits (identifying your teammates, aerodynamic gains) and, of course, there’s the weight of historical precedent. But, as more cycling sub-niches crop up and brands leverage alternative kit choices, this “looking the part” feels even more reductive and passé. While I don’t think we’ll see much shake-up in the attire of Tour de France riders, I do think it’s worth taking a closer look at how we, consciously or not, interpret certain kit decisions.

On a recent ride up the aforementioned Four Mile, I’d seen the typical Saturday mixed cycling milieu, but just as I was approaching the final s-curve that marks the end of the pavement and the jump to dirt, two guys on road bikes pedaled past. Nothing strange about that, but—wait a second—I did a double take. What was that gap between one of the riders’ jersey and bibs? Denim? On lycra?! Given I was now behind my canyon compatriots, I had some time to observe the contrasting fabric situation. Indeed, the rider in question was wearing a traditional kit of jersey and bibs, with the addition of a pair of jorts (Riptons, I was pretty sure) slid overtop of his spandex shorts. This was a first.*

How we present ourselves to the world through the clothes we choose to wear (on and off the bike) is, in part, internally guided. Once, during a conversation about the line between vanity and taking pride in one’s appearance, a friend I was chatting with just shrugged and simply said, “I think it’s fun to decorate myself.” No baggage. The creativity inherent in the clothes we choose to wear is what makes fashion art, but on a more basic level it’s another method we have for conveying who we are (if you were ever forced to wear an outfit as a kid that made you squirm, I’m sure you can relate. I’m personally still traumatized by a certain matching paisley corduroy getup, and the squeaky sheen of patent leather dress shoes).

Still, I’ll turn to the “if a tree falls in the forest argument” in saying that if no one is around to witness your personal display of self-expression, would you still go to the same lengths to get dressed? I can say from my own experience that, as the work-from-home-live-at-home reality of the pandemic dragged on from 2020 and into 2021, I found myself less likely to put in much effort to my personal appearance on a daily basis. Paradoxically, without an audience, I was less motivated to engage in this form of self-expression.

So, back to my denim-and-lycra-layered friend:

The road reached its fork—commonly known as The Junction—with two dirt routes to choose from. The pair ahead took the same split I was planning to ride, so I had a little more time to consider the Ripton-meets-bibs look. As the first warmer day of the season, I couldn’t imagine that the extra layer of denim was particularly breathable, and I wondered if the lycra made him slide around in the jorts. I also wondered to myself why was it really just the jersey part of this equation that made things weird? Lastly, I really wanted to know if he would have felt the need to add the jorts if his ride for the day had been up an adjacent all-paved climb. So many questions, but foremost was simply: why?

It’s not exactly incisive reporting to call out the fact that the rise of Gravel’s popularity has given way to a shift in “acceptable” kit, at least outside of race scenarios (see: any Gravel marketing campaign where the business-casual combo of t-shirt or plaid/flannel top is paired with traditional bibs on riders whose smiling faces and buck-the-norm style let’s you know they’re not taking this too seriously).

This is in-step with Gravel’s values of diversity and inclusivity and, personally, I welcome more technical lifestyle apparel choices on the market. And yet, what started as reactionary, counterculture “anti-lycra” alternatives—where lycra serves as the signifier of what is commonly maligned about competitive (formerly, road) cycling—is already starting to feel a bit token now that so many brands are jumping on the bandwagon.

I recently finished reading an extensive oral history of the grunge movement in Seattle, titled “Everybody Loves Our Town,” and at one point, the author shares anecdotes from different figures of the era that seek to illustrate the moment when grunge became mainstream. After recalling a “grunge fashion” spread in Vogue, on the cusp of the heroin chic movement, a few of the interviewees point to a Marc Jacbos’ grunge collection that the designer sent to Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. Here’s Courtney’s recollection of their reaction,

“Do you know what we did with it? We burned it. We were punkers and didn’t like that kind of thing.”

To me, the Marc Jacobs grunge collection exemplifies the commodification of a countercultural moment, and, in large part, I see an analogous trend in current “alt” cycling fashion. I’ll be the first to reach for a pair of Riptons, but—let’s be honest—quasi-designer cycling denim is the Marc Jacobs-ification of what you can find at Goodwill: old jeans that you can turn into your own damn jorts for less than $10. But, I think many (and, at times, myself) have felt the social incentive to don a visual, brand-name symbol of a group we want to identify with. But, what does it mean when the signaling drowns out the original message?

As an editor of this site, and general consumer of cycling media across the sport, I’ve noticed a prevailing lycra stigma in alt bike spaces, where describing someone as a “lycra roadie” or “wearing spandex” becomes a not-so-subtle jab and judgment call. And, to be perfectly honest, it always leaves me feeling pretty irked. So, if your hackles were raised by my flippant descriptions of riders at the beginning of this piece, that was kind of the point: no one wants to be put into a box based on the superficial, but I think we all have a human, if flawed, tendency to do so when it comes to others.

Here’s the thing: I’ve ridden in all the kits. I’ve done plenty of day races in sleek spandex but I’ve also raced in cotton and wool. I’ve done tours where I started in my “cool” clothes only to get so chafed that I borrowed my partner’s bibs. On multi-day trips, I’ve bemoaned cotton tees that never dry and bulky flannel that I don’t have room to pack. Even so, during my ITT on the Ozark Gravel Doom route, I cut out my chamois after 140 miles because the northwestern Arkansas humidity was turning it into a sponge and rubbing saddle sores. On my most recent bikepacking effort at this year’s North-South Colorado Bikepacking race, I pulled a Lael and started in those same chamois-less bibs to ward off the impending ill effects of moisture, while retaining what I like about bibs.

I think that traditional kit—jersey and bibs—serve a valuable, functional purpose, especially for longer one-day or multi-day, efforts. While I think it’s easier to get away with casual wear on the bike from spring through fall, technical, wicking, and packable layers feel paramount to comfort for winter riding. In the hotter seasons, I don’t love chamois, but I do like the way that bibs minimize pressure on the stomach while the compression of the legs means the shorts will stay in place.

Jerseys are great because you can open them up easily to let the cape fly and catch the breeze and, as someone who rides Medium frames, the pockets have proved indispensable in my ability to carry enough calories with me on casual tours and bikepacking efforts alike.

While I do acknowledge the problematic nature of synthetic fabrics from a sustainability standpoint, I also tend to think there are other, more impactful avenues to reduce impact (like, using a bike more than a car, for one)—and, a lot of companies are already working on ways to reuse/recycle non-organic fibers.

Admittedly, I care about the way I present myself to the world and to some extent indulge in the fun of “decorating myself.” But, the more I ride, the more I want what I wear to serve the experience that I’m after on the day. The more I ride, the more I also find myself leaning away from carbon bikes in favor of metal ones, while simultaneously opting for “performance” apparel over casual alternatives: both contribute to a more comfortable riding experience for me which ultimately lets me enjoy more time on my bike.

There are now many brands making tasteful (IMO) jersey and bibs options (e.g. Rapha, Ornot, Albion, Velocio, PedalEd, etc.), just as there are now brands (including the aforementioned) trying to capitalize on the hipster kit aesthetic. Rather than taking a cynical tack towards the latter and pulling a Kurt-and-Courtney and burning my Riptons, in my view, having a range of options is infinitely liberating. Now that counterculture cycling apparel has (also) been commodified and thereby diluting the symbolism of, say, wearing jorts I feel especially inclined to wear absolutely whatever I want.

Sometimes jorts (trendy or otherwise) and a t-shirt are my outfit of choice for a relaxed pedal to my favorite bakery. Other times, I’ll reach for head-to-toe lycra when I have the itch to ride hard or I know my hours in the saddle will be long. But, reversing one’s kit selection for these two scenarios should be just fine, too, if that’s what you want to do. There’s room for both in our sport (just, you know, maybe not at the same time).

*Okay, a first in the sense of seeing denim on lycra in full seriousness in the wild. We all know about SSCXWC

If you’re new to this series, welcome to The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention.