The apparel oft proclaims the cyclist

Spot the difference: Erin O’Connor..

As hundreds – possibly thousands – of cyclists huff and puff their way around London on Boris’s ugly and cumbersome new Barclays-sponsored bikes, they can take comfort knowing that, apparently, ‘It’s not the bike; it’s what you wear when riding it that counts.’

At least that’s according to model Erin O’Connor, in an article in last week’s Guardian. ‘Style and functionality can coexist,’ she says. ‘I like cycling in high-waisted, Katherine Hepburn-style trousers, gathered at the ankle.’

I have to admit that what I look like is not high on my list of priorities when I’m cycling. Given that I have a long commute to work – 10 miles each way – I tend more towards comfort and practicality than style. The chances are I’ll be wearing a pair of leggings and a t-shirt (usually one of my many Glastonbury recycling crew t-shirts). In winter, the outfit is completed with a pair of stripy knee high socks and that universal sign of a commuting cyclist – a fluorescent jacket.

…and me

There are times, though, when a girl wants to make more of an effort – when looking as though I’ve just stepped out of a gym won’t cut it. However, finding the right outfit has been a bit of a challenge. My first attempts at cycling in a skirt quickly made me realise why women’s bikes are step-through. I swung my leg over the back of the bike, as usual, and got the front of my skirt caught on the back of the seat. Cue an undignified crash to the ground, and some amused sniggers from passers-by (not one of whom, I have to add, asked if I was OK).

Later attempts have seen me inadvertently flash my knickers as I’m cycling along. Even trousers, although admittedly better at protecting my modesty, can be problematic – a loose trouser leg, caught in my chain, has given me some worryingly wobbly moments on more than one occasion.

But nonetheless, I have persevered and found some everyday outfits that I feel confident and comfortable wearing while cycling. OK, so they’re not quite Erin O’Connor’s ‘Katherine Hepburn-style trousers’, but when do I ever look that stylish anyway? 

It’s about more than just about style, or practicality, though. It’s also about the kind of message it sends out to other people.

Take lycra, for example. Not only is it unflattering and ugly, it’s also completely unnecessary. I can understand lycra might have a place, say, in the Tour de France. But for a regular commute? The problem is that it makes cycling look like a sport, like you have to put effort into it and you have to wear the right gear. And anyone who doesn’t consider themselves to be particularly sporty – or well off – is going to be put off.

The same goes for the proliferation of new ‘chic’ and ‘fashionable’ cycle wear popping up everywhere (as illustrated in this article, also from the Guardian). It might look better, but essentially it’s no different from lycra. It’s still ‘the right gear’.

Yes, it all looks great, but yes, it’s all hugely expensive. Do I really need to spend £72 on a reflective sailor bib – lovely though it may be – just so I can have something ‘stylish’ to wear on my bike?

Nah. Anyone who wants to cycle should feel like they can wear whatever they want. 

If Boris is to achieve his aim of getting 20 per cent of Londoners cycling (or was that one in five journeys made by bike? I can’t remember) then – amongst other things – cycling has to be seen as an everyday activity. Not a sport. And certainly not one that requires you to go out and spend a fortune on special gear or to look a certain way.

So maybe the best way to do this is for people like me to lead by example. And maybe by cycling along in my normal clothes, I might encourage someone to get on their bike, too (assuming I don’t fall off again).

Basically, what I’m saying is that – in a roundabout kind of way – I agree with Erin O’Connor. It is what you wear when riding your bike that counts. Just perhaps not in the way she meant it.


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