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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2002

Fashion vs. Function

Recently, Bicycling magazine started showing up in my mailbox. I didn't ask for it, nor am I paying for it. I let my subscription lapse several years ago, when I felt I'd read variations on the same dozen articles a dozen times each. But now it's back on my coffee table, and I'm browsing through it again, even though for the most part, it seems editorially irrelevant and graphically gauche.

Amid the other, mostly useless copy is a page called Style Man ("Answers to Everything"). It's a feisty, wisecracking Q & A session dealing with all sorts of issues around bike gear and apparel....bike style. It's obnoxious, belligerent, and occasionally even witty. It reminds me a bit of the old Mr Surlywrench column in the late, lamented California Bicyclist: candor bordering on rudeness but sneaking by as humor.

Style Man sets himself up to be the arbiter of what's cool--and what's not--in biker looks. In a recent column he tackled the tough question of which is hipper: sweatbands or bandanas? I don't even remember his verdict, but what I do remember is that he came down hard against wearing bandanas in what he calls "doo-rag" mode....wrapped over the head, a la Deion Sanders. Well, I have to take exception to that. I have worn bandanas doo-rag style for many years. So do many of my friends. I find they do an admirable job of capturing sweat before it drips into my eyes, and they have the added benefit of saving me from the heartbreak of helmet hair. They also help to keep my helmet from sliding around. So where does this jumped-up, junior-grade journalist get off saying this is unhip?

Okay, we're not taking any of this style stuff seriously. It's all lighthearted horseplay, right? Right! Having made that disclaimer, let me say that I am very weary of people appointing themselves style arbiters in my little cycling subculture, whether they be magazine writers, bike shop sales clerks, or some of my buddies on a Saturday ride. As a rebuttal to Style Man, I am setting up shop for one month only as a sort of Anti-Style Man, the champion of fashion freds the world over. (Incidentally, can anyone out there tell me the origin of the term "Fred" or "Phred"? I've heard various stories, but nothing definite. If you can offer a satisfactory etymology of the term, I will publish it in a future column.)

How we look is a useful way of communicating with one another. It serves as a shorthand way of telling others who we are. This is never more true than when two cyclists meet on the road. One rider, tricked out in all the latest clothing and accessories, looking at another rider, attired in much the same way, can say to himself: "I am like you, and we are both cool. We understand one another." It's basic caveman, friend-or-foe stuff, made somewhat more complex by the subtle, shifting code language of current fashion trends.

Road cyclists generally take their fashion cues from the pro peloton. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. Pro racers do look cutting-edge cool. They're slim, sleek, and slippery. The only problem is that most of the rest of us don't resemble pros in most of the ways that matter. We're not 130-pound, 20-something hotshots, paid to ride hard, 24-7. We are, for the most part, weekend warriors and weekday worriers. We have jobs and families, and all the constraints on our time and attention that come with them. We ride for fun, when and if we can. And we ride in ways that bear only a superficial resemblance to the ways the pros ride. Things that are important for them don't neccesarily matter for us, and things they don't need may be very useful for the average rider.

I'll be the first to encourage you to wear the coolest shorts, jerseys, and gloves on the market. This is money well spent....a case where looking fashionable is consistent with being functional. (I'm assuming you shop wisely and buy good quality in all these categories. Just because a jersey has a pro team logo on it does not mean the fabric breathes or the fit is comfortable or the pocket stitching is reinforced. And before you buy some logo-splashed shorts in lurid colors, ask yourself: where do I wipe the chain grease?) Aside from those basic articles of clothing though, there are many aspects of our personal appearance that needn't conform to the pro template. Here are a few examples of looks that don't fit in the peloton, but might be perfectly okay for a recreational tourist....

1. Hairy legs

The most plausible reason pros shave their legs is that they receive almost daily leg massages from the team soigneurs. Smooth flesh makes some sense here. Two other reasons are often put forward for going to the trouble of shaving off our body hair.
One is that it's aerodynamic. Yeah, right! Compared to the aerodynamically messy mass of the rider's body and bike, how much wind resistance can a few hairs offer? I have a poster out in my workshop of Steve Bauer, the great Canadian pro from a few years back. His legs are shaved, but his arms are not, and they're about as hairy as a gorilla's. If shaving the lower leg is so aerodynamic, why not shave the arms too?

Another reason given is that road rash heals better without all the hair in the way, or at any rate you don't rip out all your hair when you pull off a bandage. Fair enough. Except where do we get most of our road rash in a typical crash? On the lower leg? I don't think so. Sometimes you might get a little on the outside of your calf, but the worst of it is almost always on your hips and butt....and who shaves their ass?

I think the real reason racer boys shave their legs is the same reason women do: because they think it looks silky smooth and pretty. That and wanting to look like a pro. In other words, vanity. Fashion. If you're an amateur, two or three times a week rider, and if you do not get serious massages after every ride, and you still shave your legs, then, my friend, I have to say you're simply a poser.

2. Rearview mirrors

Serious racers, and a lot of semi-serious, recreational hammerheads--legends in their own minds--would not be caught dead with a mirror clipped to their glasses or helmet. It's simply too nerdy. But then, there was a time not that long ago when wearing a helmet was considered too nerdy, and now you hardly ever see a rider without one.
I've been using my mirror for most of ten years now, and I love it. On the rare ride when I don't have it, I miss it. The human head weighs 30 pounds, and in riding position is cantilevered out on the end of a long stalk. Swiveling it backward to check on things to the rear causes a big weight shift that will throw a bike off-line unless the rider has learned to counteract it. (This is a skill which all riders should master, but many do not.) And while you're looking back, you're not looking forward. I've seen riders fly right off the road while they were looking back. With a mirror, you can look to the back and front at the same time with tiny eye flicks back and forth.

Not only is a mirror useful for checking on overtaking traffic, it can be used for ride tactics as well. You can keep an eye on that guy trying to bridge up behind you, and without letting him know you're watching him, you can alter your tempo to hold him off....or to let him catch up, depending on the situation.

Racers say a mirror may take away some of one's innate sense of the total field of action around your bike: you exchange one good, localized rear view for a more 360° sensory input. I'm not sure whether I agree with this or not. I like to think I still have my full sensory array deployed and have simply augmented it with the addition of the mirror. The racers argument is sort of like saying, "I'd rather be blind because my hearing would be so much better." It is true that there is a small blind spot off the right side of my rear wheel where the mirror doesn't easily reach. I try to stay aware of this and compensate. I can see where it could be a problem in a large, tightly bunched pack, and I doubt I would wear a mirror in a criterium for that reason. But I don't do crits. How many of us do? For the more typical recreational riding I do, the mirror makes sense. This is another example of how wanting to look like a pro doesn't always reflect the way we really ride.

3. Oddball clothing

Maynard Hershon once wrote a column about the humbling experience of being blown off the road by an old geezer in black socks. The setup is that he sees this old guy at a stop light and pretty much dismisses him out of hand as a credible rider because his clothes are funky, especially those black socks. Then of course the guy drops him like a nasty habit and rides off into the sunset.

My favorite story in this vein is about Eric House. Eric finished first on the 1992 Terrible Two double century. He did it on a decrepit looking Univega bike, with the pump literally held on with a piece of string. His "jersey" was a white cotton dress shirt, buttoned down to the cuffs. On a day when it was 106°, he finished looking as fresh as if he had just ridden down to the corner store and back, and he left the course littered with the bodies of many tough riders (all dressed in fancy clothes and riding fancy bikes).

I also recall a situation that arose when I attended a bike skills clinic with a club mate of mine named Tom. Tom is not one to worry too much about his appearance. His bike clothes can be tatty; his helmet might be more than a bit retro; and his bike at the time was an ancient Raleigh that looked as if he'd picked it up at a garage sale. At some point, one of the instructors broke us up into little groups for doing skills drills. This perky youngster took one look at funky old Tom and suggested he join the group for rank beginners. Tom just smiled and shook his head. He joined the advanced group and ended up instructing the instructors. In spite of appearances, Tom's handling skills are very advanced. Sometimes those old bikes and old clothes don't mean the rider is worthless. On the contrary, they may be a good clue that the rider has been around the block a few times.... has been riding for years, and has accumulated a whole lot of bike smarts.

The point of all these anecdotes is simple: don't judge a book by its cover. Duh! We all supposedly learned this as children, and yet most of us are at least occasionally guilty of doing exactly that, when we see another rider who doesn't measure up to some sartorial standard we carry around in our heads. If it's a stranger we meet up with on the road, we prejudge them, thus making it more difficult to relate to them in any meaningful way, like maybe hooking up with them for the rest of the ride. If we see them at a ride start, we effectively exclude them from our social circle because they don't look right. If it's one of our friends in the nonstandard clothing, we tease them about it, because we think we're funnier than we really are.

All of it adds up to judging people based on how they look, rather than on their actions or their character. Isn't this something we're supposed to have outgrown as a society? It may seem as if I'm making too much out of a few humorous words in the Style Man column, but the fact that the column exists at all tells me we're still slaves to these facile issues of fashion. And if you've ever been on the receiving end of the teasing or the ostracism--when you chose practicality over pretense or function over fashion--then you know this matters.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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