The Unending Dialogue of Women’s Cycling Clothing. Again.

Recently, I found myself in a position to blow some money on cycling clothing. I had been putting this off, because I was holding out for some mythical perfect jersey. But in reality, the sleeveless jersey I had been riding in this summer was simply not enough in colder weather. I needed arm warmers, something with at least a little bit of sleeve, and an outer layer. I do not live in a place with snow, but riding a bike in 38 degree weather sucks, no matter where you live – and for this native Californian, there was nothing but terror in my heart at the very idea of it.

So, I took myself to my local bike shop, where I had previously discussed the clothing dilemma with a woman who works there. I found out that this store’s marketing people had purposely moved away from the long-standing model of women’s jerseys needing a butterfly or two on them, or some pink swirly lines. What I need is three pockets, a zipper, and maybe some words. I’m pretty minimalist – I don’t need anything loud, or cute. Just let me ride my bike, people. I’m not asking for much. So I was thrilled at the idea of a store carrying jerseys, for women, that would be just as classy and sleek as the men’s. I rushed right out to go try on cycling clothes to my heart’s content.

What I failed to anticipate, in my excitement at getting over the aesthetic hurtle, was the sizing issue. I am a very unlikely cyclist – my body type, weight, and build are not typical of

The front.
The front.

the activity. But, I have a bike that lovingly continues to put up with me, and roads that carry me where I want to go, so I don’t think it too much to ask for clothing to accommodate me as well. In relationship to cycling clothing, the letters X and L become all but completely arbitrary. The reality is, most jerseys use Asian sizing standards, which do not translate well to American or European bodies. I was so uncertain about the way it fit, that I had to ask a clerk to look at the jersey on me, to make sure it did not look as strange and ridiculous as it felt.

This is not a critique of the jersey itself – Capo branded, made for Mke’s Bikes in Northern California, this is a women’s jersey (the men have one in exactly the same style, with different cut), with three pockets deep enough to hold everything I ever need, including my cleat covers. It has a full zipper in the front, comes up high around the neck for morning and cold day riding, breathes beautifully, and has ample room in the arms and shoulders. The issue here is not the technical pieces or specifics of the jersey itself. But then, it rarely ever is. The issue here is sizing, and lack of access to a greater variety of sizes without having to order something online, sight unseen, not tried on first, with any number of things that could go wrong. We are not in these things for short periods – in a day I can ride for upwards of five hours.

Something else I rarely see talked about, is the correlation between body image and cycling clothing. Changing from wearing loose fitting capris to lycra was a tremendous shift for me. Cycling clothes are meant to fit tightly – and when I wear them I notice a difference. But in a world that tells larger people they should wear looser fitting clothing, we have to put everything we understand about how to be in the world on hold, and right then and there make a decision about our commitment to putting on these not only tight, but often ill-fitting articles of clothing, to do an activity where are are further marginalized by not only our gender (if we are women) but also our body types. To me, this is not a fair request or expectation.

The world of professional cycling is weight obsessed. Fine. The world of pretty much professional anything is weight obsessed. But on all of the neo-utopian blogs about how cycling is going to change the world (which I, for one, believe to be true), one of the big draws for people is that its healthy exercise, that has direct correlation to weight loss and cardiovascular health. Great! Non-impact aerobics that keep me out of a gym, with lots of room for development, growth and improvement, that has positive environmental impacts, and maybe even a community? Yes! Where do I sign up!? On paper, it all looks great. Until the practicalities of gear creep into the periphery. When I started riding two years ago, I had all of those thoughts in my head, with just a dash of ‘wait…in the *street*?!’, but I was riding to and from work, on a comfy seat, for about 20 miles per week. But I cannot do what I do now in jeans and a t-shirt. Well, maybe I could, but I don’t really want to.

As the world of cycling becomes more accessible and more heavily marketed to more laid back people, often people who are a little bit intimidated and unsure, shouldn’t manufacturers of all sorts start making changes to their models to make room for all of the different sorts of people showing up for this adventure? Bike manufacturers certainly are – Sweetpea Bikes out of Oregon and Public Bikes out of San Francisco make bikes for farmer’s markets, commuting, and lazy Sunday rides. Xtracycle makes bikes built specifically for hauling cargo or loads of groceries. There is acceptance that if we want to change the way people move in the world, we have to give them the tools to do it. So why is the rest of the culture moving so slowly?

Fashion is starting to step up its game – there is a realization that people do not want to all wear traditional looking cyclist clothing, or that owning a bright yellow wind breaker is not the penultimate of fashion for all people. There are huge strides being made in use of materials and designs, allowing the urban cyclist to look the part, without having to sacrifice comfort, dryness, style, or accessory in order to do so. Why is it that we can so easily accommodate that lifestyle, but not any of the others?

Featured image courtesy of: Bicycling Monterey

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