Rachel Aldred - Cycling: What Not To Wear?

Rachel Aldred, LCC trustee and transport researcher, on the pressure to dress 'like a cross between Darth Vader and a Christmas Tree'

 

'Why can't I wear what I want to wear, and it not be weird?'

In my work life, I do research into cycling, and this remark made during an interview (with another female cyclist, as it happens) really resonated with me. The interviewee felt under pressure from two conflicting images: the 'proper cyclist', kitted out in fluorescent and helmet, and the 'chic cyclist', in lipstick and heels. (At various times, she'd experienced criticism or hostility in response to her trying to live up to either stereotype).

Personally, I'm often not even sure what I want to wear on the bike. Sometimes, I'll be rushing along through on the minutes for work in my scruffy trackie bottoms and unbrushed hair feeling that I'm letting the side down. (I do occasionally wonder whether some point I'm going to be sitting in an academic audience and see myself appear in a presentation as an illustration of why cycling is so low status in the UK...)

My research has corroborated this personal experience: the pressure on cyclists, male and female, to look either like you're competing in an Olympic sport, or alternatively, to show it's possible to look super-stylish while riding. Clothes and appearance signify a lot, whether we want it to or not - and often, we're just trying to get to work and back without aggro, which can itself be difficult enough, without feeling that our appearance is part of the problem.

In a paper I've written I write about how cyclists are often assumed - in a car dominated society - to be incompetent road users. This often intersects in a toxic manner with other stereotypes. When it first became clear that women cyclists were disproportionately at risk of being killed by HGVs in London, initial responses often focused on what women were doing 'wrong' - from not cycling assertively enough to not wearing a helmet - even though the dead women were often very experienced and competent and wearing a helmet isn't going to make much difference if an HGV runs over your head.

One way that cyclists feel they can counter this perceived incompetence is through looking like a 'proper cyclist'. While completely understandable, there are two problems with this. Firstly, being a 'proper cyclist' itself leaves one open to being seen as a 'Lycra Lout' and so on - because being a cyclist is so stigmatised in the UK, doing it 'better' isn't a solution. Secondly, the bar just keeps on going up. Unlike The Netherlands, where people never seem to need anything special to ride a bike, in the UK we now apparently need to look like a cross between Darth Vader and a Christmas Tree. It might be an intriguing fancy dress choice but it's not terribly attractive to the 97% of people who don't (for example) cycle to work. And apparently we still seem to be invisible.

Like many people who cycle in the UK, I know all this, but still struggle with all these pressures. I ride eight miles into work, which culminates with the New Cavendish Street HGV-taxi-Bimmer free-for-all. It's a head-down, grit-your-teeth and ride-in-the-middle-of-the-lane-despite-the-revving maelstrom. It certainly wakes me up before my morning lecture. It's infrastructure designed for what TfL in the London Cycling Design Standards called the 'hardened commuter'. Me, I guess, then - although it wouldn't be what I'd choose, if there was a better alternative, and I can see why many of my colleagues don't fancy it.

People riding in these circumstances tend to wear 'gear' of various sorts. It makes us feel that somehow we're protected as we jostle with drivers who like to cut us up with inches to spare. But then it's a great barrier to entry for cycling. Driving, an inherently far more difficult and dangerous task, has been made easier and easier. With in-car GPS you no longer even need to read a map, and you don't have to fear your car not being there when you return, thanks to dramatically enhanced car security which has made the once popular British pastime of joyriding near extinct.

Yet cycling has come to necessitate lots of knowledge, skills, and stuff, quite apart from high levels of emotional resilience. In high-cycling countries, bikes come equipped with built in lights and locks; in the UK, they get added to the list of gear that cyclists have to remember to lug about. When I moved job to Central London, I breathed a sigh of relief that the high density of bike shops (compared with Newham, which I think had the grand total of one!) means that I don't have to worry about carrying (and using) a puncture repair kit. I can admit that while I'm good at some things, bike maintenance is sadly not one of them, and a bike mechanic can do it in a quarter the time that I can.

Looking at what people wear to cycle in different places, the link between infrastructure and clothing seems clear. In the UK over the past decades it's led to a vicious circle; the design of street environments leads to only the quick and the brave cycling, who tend to dress like 'professional' cyclists to reflect the type of cycling they do and the hostile environment in which they do it.

For most people, neither the clothing nor the experience is terribly attractive. So increasingly, cycle promotion uses different pictures; the classic image being a young, attractive woman wearing fashionable clothing and looking very relaxed in a park setting. The problem being that while the image has become more attractive, the cycling environment often hasn't: sure, there may be parks, but the experience of cycling to work, to school, or to the shops still usually means dealing with heavy and/or fast moving motor traffic.

And cycling images less often show older people, disabled people, people with baggage, or people with children, cycling in transport contexts. For example, TfL's draft Schools and Young People Plan includes pictures of children being cycle trained or engaged in sport cycling, rather than cycling to school. But if we're to get towards mass cycling, we need a vision of people who aren't youngish, fit commuters being able to cycle around in our city. I want to see more older people (women, especially) cycling. I'm not going to be twenty again but I really hope I will be cycling at seventy in London. But if I were seventy I doubt that I would be seen in my fluoro jacket navigating New Cavendish Street...

Rachel Aldred is a London Cycling Campaign Trustee and chair of the Elected Policy Forum. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Transport at University of Westminster 

 

 

Replies

  • By JHW at 02:34pm 29 Mar 2013

I wonder if you think that some folk choose to wear cycling gear because of the climatic conditions here in the UK. Also the UK is much hillier (not convinced that is a word) than the Netherlands so the chances of completing a cycle ride feeling cool and refreshed are much more limited. Hence I suspect many folk choose to wear 'weird' clothing. A change in infrastructure will not change these conditions and folk may then still opt to wear the 'weird' stuff.

  • By PaulM at 10:50am 30 Mar 2013

Climatic conditions are certainly a factor, but no more so than in the Netherlands, where I believe it also rains. I normnally commute in waterproof trousers in the winter and stetchy cycling trousers in the summer, and then change at the office. I change, but I don't also need to shower (in my view, anyway) because I am not trying to beat my personal best on my commute.

 

During the day, where circumstances allow - not with colleagues, weather dry but not too warm - I will go to business meetings on my bike, a Brompton so I can fold it up and leave it with reception, and for that I will normally be wearing a business suit and I won't want to get sweaty. But that is quite possible, as long as you take things a little more sedately. I reckon that with lights and junctions ot deal with anyway, slowing down only adds a few percent to the journey time. A trip from Fleet St to Marble Arch for example might take 20 minutes if I go hell for leather, but 25 if I relax.

I think the most extreme example of a "normal clothes" ride I have done - twice - is across London from Fleet street to Bayswater or Ken High St - in evening wear complete with black bow tie. It went fine.

I must admit this seems to be a great view of cycling and the general misrepresentation of cyclists. 

Most of the cyclists I know wear their ordinary clothes when they go around cycling. Many cannot afford the sort of "cycling" clothing you are talking about. Many go around on second hand bikes in jeans and normal clothing.

Personally when I go out on for a "bike ride" I do put on cycling specific clothing. When I go shopping I get on my bike in whatever I am wearing at the time.

When I use Boris bikes I definitely do not dress for cycling I jusst get on the bike and go

So in answer to the title of your paper I wear exactly what I want to wear and don't worry about it.

 

Excellent article. Like Rachel I also commute 8 miles to work, and hence I arrive as a sweaty mess. So I wear the standard UK cyclist lunatic outfit (lycra + dayglo). I am aware that this might be making cycling more "niche" in the eyes of some people, but I'd rather have just one outfit that gets sweaty (and lycra dries quickly if it rains).

  • By NeilJ at 10:09am 03 Apr 2013
Personally, I quite like cycling clothing. I'm a fan of designers that take to the challenge of making clothing that is both useful for cycling and going out and about in London. I know the Raffa brand takes this to an extreme, but I think it's pretty cool that cycling has influenced more mainstream fashion. Cycle wear has become part of the many 'looks' of London that help make it such an interesting city. I don't wear Lycra, but I wear my cycling-friendly waterproof jacket in to pubs with pride. I think it looks good, and it also keeps my bum dry when cycling in the rain.

Good article, I definitely wear stuff cycling I wouldn't want to be seen wearing normally and if I had a more relaxed pleasant route it wouldn't be necessary to cycle at car speeds to stay safe. If you dress normally drivers treat you like you're an idiot who happened across a bike and beep for you to get off the road.

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