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Monday, May 21, 2007

Question from Europe: American cycling behavior?

Image of Seattle cyclistI received the following thoughtful inquiry from a visitor to my bike commuting tips site. How would you respond?

Dear Mr. Dorn,

I am Italian from Verona, but I will soon relocate to Tucson, AZ, for four years. Just like you, I am not at all fond of driving, so I would like to avoid doing so even in the future.

First, I would like to thank you...for showing me that, despite what is stated by all my American friends and acquaintances, it is actually possible to cycle in the U.S., and that cyclists have every right to use the road in a respectful and law-abiding manner (I had previously been told that it is illegal to cycle other than on the sidewalk).

I am however left with an excruciating doubt: Why do American cyclists, even brave and dedicated bike commuters, seem to be always dressed for fitness, instead of wearing ordinary, day-to-day garments?

Here in Europe even long-distance bike commuters dress "normally", wearing a suit if necessary, a blouse or shirt, and, at times, even dressy shoes, a skirt or a dress. American bike commuters, on the other hand, seem to dress a bit like pro racers, a la Lance Armstrong, wearing sporty padded shorts, technical high-performance shirts, Kevlar-quality helmets, multiple reflective belts, knee pads, elbow pads, mirror-like wrap-around sunglasses, etc. Then they shower and change into "civilian" clothes at the office.

Is there a particular motivation behind this choice, or is it a simple matter of taste, a mere preference? If there actually is a practical reason, what is it?

Is it because, as you write, cycling is mainly perceived as a recreational, sporting or fitness activity? Or are Americans too afraid of sweat and body odor to wear the same clothes both while cycling and at work?

Is it really so dangerous to ride a bike in the States, or are most American cyclists simply more risk-averse and concerned with personal safety than Europeans?

Please, forgive my outlandish and bizarre questions, but I am very concerned and curious about these matters.


I replied as follows: "Sigh. Yes, cycling conditions are different in the U.S. However, there are a variety of bike commuting types in the U.S., depending on conditions, experience, skill level, personal taste, and motivations. Some people commute just a few miles, others commute more than 50 miles. Some are motivated by a desire for fitness, others are bike commuters for economic reasons. Some enjoy calm streets with adequate space; others encounter significant hazards. Some use bicycles only in warm months, others bike year round. Some have supportive employers, others face significant workplace challenges to commuting by bicycle."

"Compared to driving, bicycling in the U.S. is safe. Exaggerated fears about safety are often a significant obstacle to prospective bike commuters; once they begin they often find their fears diminish quickly. I'm not familiar enough with Tucson to say how bicycling-friendly it is. However, I'm certain you can make bicycling work as a commute mode in any city, with enough determination. And you seem to have that."

So, how might you respond? Please leave a comment.

Image: Harry Soltes/Seattle Times
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips


Anonymous said...

I typically do wear regular clothes when bicycling, and most of the people I see bicycling around do the same (I live in Boston). I see an occasional lycra-clad bicyclist zipping by, but they are generally the exception.

In the warm weather, I usually bike to work in casual pants and a T-shirt, and then change into business casual when I arrive. I do this because I don't like sweating too much in my work clothes. However, when the weather is cooler, I tend to just bike in my work clothes since I don't sweat as much, and they help me stay warm.

I wish more people would bike in regular clothes. I really think it helps send the message that bicycling is just another mode of transportation, and it's not only for Lance Armstrong.

Mary Worrell said...

I'm going to respond to the "regular clothes" part. I live in Hampton Roads, a southeast region of Virginia. Most of the time, since we're on the water, it's nice and breezy. However, we have some killer humidity. I bike to work in shorts, t-shirt and sports bra and change into office attire when I arrive. We don't have showers, so a quick towel off is all I have.

I do this because I don't want to sweat through my office attire, which tends to be pricier and more formal than anything I wear around town or at home.

Depending on the letter-writer's job, it may be perfectly OK to bike to work in "regular clothes." However, my office clothes aren't the most convenient for biking (see: skirt).

Warren T said...

I also wear a tee-shirt while commuting - except for today. A friend had given me 3 of his cycling jerseys that he can no longer wear due to weight loss. I will occasionally wear one when riding on the weekends but not during the week. I wore one today and felt kind of silly the whole ride in.

Like Charlie, I want to send the message that anyone can bike to work without having to spend a lot of hard earned cash on cycling clothes. Also, I seem to overheat a bit more with the jerseys.

airstreamdiva said...

Hi. I would like to address 2 aspects brought up in this post, having traveled a bit in both Italy and the US (including Arizona).

1. Arizona is INSANELY hot, so hydration is a must. That said, while you may sweat a lot, the moisture will likely not stay on your body very long at all, but immediately evaporate.

2. As a general rule, Americans ARE much more obsessed with personal cleanliness that Italians. We are a nation that showers in the morning, the evening and sometimes during the day. There are entire retail stores devoted to bath and shower products. Not saying this is good or better than the European way, but it is true.

Good luck with your move!

Jamie said...

I think the problem is that Americans are, as you said, afraid of sweat and body odor. We have a very low tolerance over here for body odor, and people who smell are frequently considered to be unclean - even though all that's wrong is that they sweat a little bit.

But also remember that Americans love to have the latest and greatest STUFF to go along with their activities, even if that activity is only riding to work.

It's not really that dangerous to ride over here. The problem as I see it is that riders are constantly going out of their way to avoid interfering with traffic, even though that's the safest way to ride. Riding on sidewalks, weaving in and out of parked cars on the side of the road, all these sorts of things seem to be reactions to cyclists trying hard not to "hold up" traffic. And all those things are dangerous.

Do what you're entitled to do: take the lane, and ride like a member of traffic.

Unknown said...

I also tend to wear normal work cloths while riding my bicycle to work. There are two exceptions. First, I wear a comfortable athletic shirt and secondly, I wear comfortable shoes. Once I get to work I switch to an appropriate shirt. I work in a bussiness casual dress environment so I tend to wear micro fiber or kahki pants. Both type of pants are very comfortable for my 5 mile ride to work. Once it gets too warm in the mornings, I will switch shorts. I like wearing clothing that is bright so as to stand out in traffic.

Here in the USA people don't ride bicycles very much so the average driver is not on the lookout for cyclist. When we are seen, many drivers clearly don't know what to make of our use of the road. Therefore as a cyclist one has to take extra precautions. I definitely would not ride without a helmet, and as stated above I make sure I am seen. I also make sure I have front and rear LED lights that blink and make me more visable.

I do own a pair of cycling shorts, but I only bought them so that I can be comfortable on the long rides. For 10 to 15 mile rides, they are definitely not needed, but on longer trips they are nice. I don't own any special cycling jerseys, mostly because they are expensive. I like the "cool max" type shirts as they keep you more comfortable, but I will only buy them on sale.

ttt said...

I have often wondered that same question to myself. They always seem a bit out of place to me. My only reasoning for this is that people in America like to show how serious about a sport (or lifestyle) by dressing the part, whether it's football, baseball, or cycling. And, it boils down to just that - cycling is still seen by the majority as sport or recreation in America.

With that said, I have seen a growing number of people biking or waiting at bus stops leaning on their bikes in plain clothes or work clothes around town. And by town, I mean here is Dayton, OH.

At my place of employment, I'd have to say they are in the minority. The lucky few who live close to the office bike in their work attire. Those of us who are a bit further out just wear t-shirt or shorts and change upon arrival/departure.

Have a good everyone and keep up the great site.

Danthelawyer said...

It's a good question.

When I ride to work, it's about 16 miles each way, which takes well over an hour (including all the stoplights). It's often over 90 degrees, and I get plenty sweaty just wearing bike shorts and a jersey. If I were wear my regular clothes, I would be soaked through with sweat by the time I get to work.

Yangmusa said...

I agree with what was said earlier about the consumerist attitude of needing to buy "the right gear" for any activity. Since cycling is historically a recreation activity here, people are not used to thinking of regular clothes as appropriate in the same way that one would when growing up with transportational cycling seen as everyday and normal.

But I also think climate and the distance commuted is very important. Here in San Francisco the climate is mild and the city is compact - and most people bike in regular clothes. I regularly bike the whole way to work in Silicon Valley, and the distance is so far (70 km) that the only comfortable and practical thing to do is to wear bike clothes and change when I arrive.

Yokota Fritz said...

I generally wear normal work clothing for my commute, but I now live where the climate is very mild. When I lived in Texas, I wore the "uniform" -- I'd arrive home in the evening with my jersey coated in white salt from the evaportated sweat. Depending on the distance your Italian friend travels, he may want to consider at least changing his shirt after the morning commute.

Many of my European friends here in the U.S., incidentally, *love* living in a huge home with a yard in the suburbs and driving the big SUV to work. Props to your correspondent for not jumping right into this American Dream lifestyle.

Finally, Dave Moulton poo poohs the idea of cycling in non-cycling clothing.

Anonymous said...

I believe this phenomenon is partially due to the marketing and sale of the wrong type of commuter bicycles in the United States. I rode a vintage Raleigh 3 speed (and now a similarly equiped Shimano 8 speed) 5 miles each way in regular work clothes with no discomfort. Riding my road bike or mountain bike, with it's forward leaning stance begs for more comfortable clothes. When are the bicycle stores going to promote high-quality commuter style bicycles?

Anonymous said...

Portland, Oregon, rider here.

Hmmm. Seems to me I read something about road cycling (on the sidewalk or otherwise) in Arizona being a capital offense. Or maybe they send you to Guantanamo. I'm not sure but perhaps you should check the local laws before putting 2 wheels to pavement.

Anyhow, on to business. I think the choice of clothing depends on a number of factors, among them:

Length/Height of commute
Riding style
Employer expectations/facilities

During my daily 5-mile (one way) commute I see a wide variety of clothing and bikes. If I had to quantify it, I would say that less than 10 percent of the riders are Armstrong-like (My guess is that many of that crowd are on training rides and are not commuters). Most commuters (you know, those with fenders and racks/panniers or backpacks) seem to assemble a hodge-podge of cycling and non-cycling-specific clothing; much of it very well used. Scruffy is the new Hipster. I do see some people in business casual clothing taking it easy and keeping the sweat production to a minimum. Personally, my only cycling garment is the fur coat nature provided me with--oh, and a couple of those leg straps to keep me clear of the chainrings.

I say relax and wear what's comfortable.

Happy Trails,

PS. Welcome to Amerika.

Anonymous said...

I live in the southeast U.S. where the summers are long, hot, and most importantly, humid. The month of May is pretty pleasant. But by mid June, I would have to be insane to wear non-wicking clothes on my 13 mile commute.

Even plain old cotton T-shirts become a soggy, sweat-soaked prison, so I try not to wear them. I have to tie a bandanna around my head, underneath my helmet, just to prevent the river of sweat that pours off my forehead from getting into my eyes as I ride.

I've been to New Mexico (though not in the middle of summer) and the dry climate is vastly different.

Anonymous said...

My commute is only 6.5 miles round trip, longer if I'm doing errands and/or going out after work. I tend to wear my regular clothes when riding to work as it makes it much simpler (no need to find a place to change or carry extra clothing). The only exception is when it's really hot I will wear shorts and a t-shirt to keep my work clothing from getting sweaty. Like the first commenter I live & work in the Boston area and people seem to only wear bike clothes when they're out for a long ride for fitness purposes.

Theresa said...

I don't normally read this blog, but my mom sent me the link because I ride a bike around here in Tucson. Here you will see a lot more cyclists in riding specific clothing because a lot of them are in training for various events during the cooler months. Also, during the summer it is far too hot to wear normal clothing during the day. (We are talking about temperatures that are regularly over 100F in the summer.) This means that you have to really be careful to make sure you have enough water and that you don't overheat. That being said, if I am riding when it is cooler I will often just wear normal clothes.

Tucson really is a great place for biking as we have a lot of bike specific trails as well as bike lanes on many streets. However, if you want to plan on commuting to work here you will want to make sure that you take that into account when you are finding a place to live. Some parts of Tucson and some routes work much better than others. You may be able to find a map of the bike routes in Tucson somewhere online to help you in your search. If it can be used as a bike route it will probably be marked on the map as Tucson wants to be considered one of the most bike friendly towns in the USA.

That being said, this means that the police will also enforce all traffic laws when they see a bicyclist. In Arizona this means that you are basically the same as a car when it comes to obeying the traffic laws (eg. no riding on the sidewalks or speeding).

I don't know where you are going to be working, but if you plan ahead (and always bring water) Tucson is a great place to ride a bike; its just a little different from most other places.

Jett said...

In the US, urban sprawl makes most commuting distances longer than you would find in Europe. Spending 20-40 kilometers on a bike versus 5K makes you think about different clothes. I have a relatively short commute and can get away with street clothes.

The pace of life is faster as well. I live close to downtown Atlanta and the contrast in pace with towns in rural Georgia is striking. You find yourself in a hurry almost without thinking about it when everyone around you is moving fast. For me riding a bike, this translates into more sweat. As pointed out by others, dripping sweat is on the outside edge of acceptable etiquette.

Wear and tear is a factor in what I wear on the bike. I found my slacks last much longer if I don't wear them on the bike.

normd said...

I live and commute by bike south of San Francisco, CA, and I usually don't wear my work clothes when I am on my bike. One reason is the type of bike I happen to own - a hardtail mountain bike. With no chain guard, my trouser leg is likely to get besmirched. Also, the body geometry when riding is not comfortable with a button down shirt and a belt.

My ride to work is less than 4 miles, but wearing cycling shorts and a coolmax jersey as I ride over the hills is just more comfortable. Also, since this ride to and from work is the ONLY exercise I get, I try to make the ride a more vigorous workout.

Changing into office clothes is an annoyance, but less so than sitting all day in clammy feeling clothes.

erin said...

My commute in Los Angeles is only 3.5 miles each way, but hilly enough that I find myself soaked with sweat by the time I get to the office. Yes, this is unacceptable in the American office environment. In this city, cyclists over 18 years of age are not required to wear helmets, and indeed many look on those who do as 'geeks,' but after you've had a few encounters with the traffic out here and drivers' attitudes towards cyclists, you'll see why it's a good idea to wear one.

I'd suggest trying your route to work on a non-working day to get an idea of what roads you want to take, as well as whether you will be able to ride in your work clothes or not. Have fun!

danc said...

Distance, climate and comfort drive clothing decisions not Bicycling magazine's column "Style Man" or advertising. As a 10 mile one-way commuter, I feel technical bike clothing is more practical or better suited, particularly clipless pedals, winter jackets or gloves. Skip the "fashionista" crap, the visitor really needs to be concern with understanding local traffic laws, weather climate and road environment. Direct him to a Bike League "Find It Here" resources page for local Bike clubs, BikeEd courses, Bike Shops, etc.

Finally, Welcome to America!

ek said...

I'm a cycling commuter in DC. By commuter, I mean metro into the city, then to a bike at work for city trips. The colorful racer-gear...not my thing. I wear a suit pretty much every day, that includes on the bike. Can't say I wear helmets either; I'm young and stupid, what can I say? Regular clothes are the way to go; they make it seem tangible and not too formal or specialized. Around downtown in the AM, you see a few other guys in suits on city bikes, women in dresses. Most though look like they're ready to go the distance. It's unappealing to many people, all this gear.

The combo of my bike (all black, 50 pounds & 60 years old) and me in a suit, briefcase on the rear rack usually just causes motorists to slow. I think folks find it refreshing, while wondering why I don't sweat. Basically, by taking it easy. It's a little harder with my lady on the back though, 'cuz we think we're Dutch. Dangerous sure, but life should be enjoyed without safetying ourselves to death. People sometimes honk and wave.