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