Thursday, March 8, 2012

March and April straddle winter and spring, nights and mornings bitingly chilly while afternoons tease out t-shirts with sunshine. It’s hard enough to settle on an outfit when commuting by car, given the shifts in temperature from sunrise to sunset; on a bike, planning is even more important, especially with the risk of spring precipitation. Dedicated cycling clothing keeps riders warm and dry, but famously falls short of fashionable and is often, especially for higher-quality materials, prohibitively expensive.

Proper dress can be a challenge, then, given the limitations of both style and price, not to mention the frustration of planning for a day’s worth of completely different weather conditions. Some compromise is necessary- gearing up for commuting during the early springtime is not as simple as rolling out in a midsummer ensemble of a t-shirt and shorts- but choosing to cycle year round should not require the cession of comfort, nor should comfort exclude appearance.

Madeline Gulley, a seasoned all-season cyclist living in Cleveland Heights, and Ben, a downtown bicycle courier, agree that the solution to dressing for transition-weather biking lies in layers- wearing them, many of them, and making each one count. Ben’s formula for successful top-layering is such: “minimum three layers on top, plus a shell for wind and precipitation...that huge winter jacket is going to be regrettable at 2:30 when the sun comes out and your two options are shiver or sweat. You want options, and you want ones that aren't cumbersome when they have to come off.”

Madeline, too, follows a base-layer-plus-shell standard, and although she readily admits that it looks gauche; “My rain shell jacket makes me look like a yield sign-“ she also appreciates how well it works. “The jacket’s high visibility makes me feel very safe riding, and I’ve yet to find a jacket that is better at being both waterproof and breathable.” If she finds that she needs to wear something nicer than a hooded sweatshirt at whatever destination she’s pedaling towards, she’ll wear or bring a sweater and shed the yield-sign apparel at the door.

As for the question of cycling pants, Madeline speaks up for skinny jeans: “I wear skinny jeans to ride to commute all year round; in the rain or snow this means carrying an extra pair of pants but I only wear cycling bottoms like tights when I’m riding my cross or road bike.” As a student, commuting in jeans makes hopping off the bike and into the classroom easy- she’s already wearing street clothes. As a messenger, Ben has a different opinion. “Your jeans will get drenched,” he emphatically states, and while that’s merely an annoyance in the summertime, it can make a cold-weather commute miserable. For a courier, appearance at a destination doesn’t matter so much- dropping a package only takes so long, so what really matters is comfort on the road. “Wear cycling tights with a layer of thermals underneath and some shorts on top. The weird looks people are giving you? You are comfortable.”

Outfitted, then, in several layers of thermals and sweaters with tapered pants and a jacket to keep out the rain, a rider still needs to dress his hands and feet for the weather. While cycling during the winter calls for insulated gloves (the best come with some sort of windproof outer fabric), springtime temperatures may only require a light cycling glove. Even if thick fleece fingers are no longer appropriate, a windproof or waterproof style is ideal for chilly mornings and unexpected drizzle.

As for shoes, a lot depends on pedals. For people riding with toe clips or on platform pedals, choosing a shoe to bike in is often as simple as putting on a pair of sneakers on the way out the door. Rain presents a problem, however, and although carrying an extra pair of shoes is an obvious solution, it also means a heavier pack. One option is simply to keep a spare pair of shoes at work or school. Commuting in boots is less comfortable than sneakers, but often, a slim pair of work boots can keep toes warm and dry when pedaling around in damp weather.

Madeline and Ben both ride clipless pedals, which require a dedicated cycling shoe. For Ben, a special winter cycling shoe or bootie is a practical option- as a messenger, he’s on his wheels all day. Madeline’s rides into school or to work call for a costume change, though, and while carrying an extra pair of shoes (or simply wearing cycling shoes) was a longtime routine, she recently discovered a product that let her eliminate the shoe-change after a ride: “DZR shoes, and other recessed cleat cycling shoes, are probably the best thing that’s ever happened to my commute.” DZR shoes look like any other sidewalk-strutting footwear, but have a cleat built into the sole of the shoe (rather than mounted on the bottom), allowing a rider to walk away from the bike rack without an awkward, clicking stride.

Several companies around the USA have begun manufacturing fashion-savvy clothing for urban cyclists, with people like Madeline in mind. Outfitters such as SWRVE, Swobo, and Outlier all market attractive-but-functional bike gear, from sleek, just-a-little-long jackets to (dare I say dressy?) straight-legged pants made with a water-repellent fabric. Even Levi’s has launched a line of cyclist-friendly clothing; part of the famed company’s 2012 lookbook includes the “Commuter Series,” featuring snappy denim jackets that roll raindrops and jeans with special loops along the beltline for miniature U-locks. Writers for the men’s fashion website frequently review bike-related gear and apparel, and thus provide another good source to check when looking for polished-but-practical bikewear.

Madeline brings up a good point, though- even with the appearance of pedal-friendly threads, “the fashion/ function disparity is especially true for women.” SWRVE, Outlier and Levi’s all manufacture mostly menswear, although some pieces can be sold as unisex, and Outlier makes an attractive (and enormously popular) riding pant for women. “There are some women focused apparel companies, Terry comes to mind,” says Madeline, but much of their clothing caters to the fitness-cycling subset, which means lots of bright patterns that don’t mesh with Madeline’s urban-chic.

Nonetheless, female cyclists can make do by following the general guidelines that both Ben and Madeline provide- tapered pants, layers up top, and the accent of a nice sweater when being particularly presentable is important. “You're trying not to look like a spandex lord,” quips Ben, and both he and Madeline have made- with similar formulas- their appearances suit both Cleveland’s April streets and an urban cyclist’s interest in a versatile, attractive uniform.

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