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Friday
Apr252008

What to wear


The picture above is from 1952; the year I started racing and riding seriously. The photo taken at a British Hill Climb; typically an end of season event taking place around October when temperatures were falling slightly.

Notice what the spectators are wearing; regular everyday clothes. (Click on the picture for a larger image.) These cyclists probably rode a considerable distance to the event; the only special equipment is the cycling shoes. Cords or heavier tweeds were popular in the colder months, being warm, comfortable, and hard wearing.

The person in the center is wearing jeans; he is probably a newcomer to the sport and would soon be advised, or figure out for himself that jeans were neither warm or comfortable. The thing is these are regular pants or trousers, worn in conjunction with bicycle clips to keep the bottoms from being caught in the chain.

On the upper body you will notice a mixture of sweaters and light jackets. I always wore a woolen undershirt next to my skin, wool stayed warm even when wet from sweat or outside elements. Often when setting out on a ride in the early morning hours, I would place a sheet of newspaper under my top sweater, to keep the cold wind off my chest. Later as the day warmed up, this was discarded.


In the summer everyone wore regular shorts. (Picture left.) Racing clothes were made out of wool, they were expensive, needed to be hand washed, and took forever to dry. You could not throw them in the drier, or they would become matted and shrink.

No one wore racing gear on a training ride. I do remember that when I did put these clothes on to race, they felt so comfortable and unrestrictive that I automatically rode faster.

The shorts had a real chamois leather insert inside, and I would smear a handful of Vaseline on it before a race. It felt extremely weird for about the first minute, but then kept me comfortable throughout the race, with zero chaffing.

Even the pros did not wear racing gear for training rides. The picture above is of Fausto Coppi (Left.) with his brother Serse. (Right.) and a few other riders about to set out on a training ride.

The trousers they are wearing would be specially made for cycling, but they are styled after regular street clothes with the exception that they fit just below the knee, and are worn in conjunction with knee length socks. On the top they are wearing a variety of woolen sweaters.

My mother was an expert at sewing, and I would take an old pair of trousers, and have her cut them off just below the knee. She would sew some wide elastic on the bottom to fit under my knee. The material cut from the bottom of the leg, she would make a double seat, which added comfort and made them wear longer.

By the 1970s, proper cycling clothes were available, but there were training clothes and racing clothes. Now it has become acceptable to train or simply ride for pleasure in racing gear.

I would not dress up in Lycra for a short trip to the post-office or store, but if I am riding for an hour or more, I love it and would not go back to wearing regular clothes for a long ride. The modern clothes are so comfortable, and the great thing is, I can throw the shorts and jersey in the washing machine, they are almost dry after the spin cycle, and air dry in a few hours.

However, in the 1950s we rode a hundred plus miles in a day in regular clothes so we proved that it can be done. You don’t have to wear special clothes to enjoy cycling, it is a personal choice; wear what you feel comfortable in.

Having said that; if you were invited to a formal dinner where everyone wore a tuxedo and black tie, you would look out of place if you showed up in casual clothes. Maybe you are thick-skinned enough that it wouldn’t bother you, but other guests would feel uncomfortable. The same would have been true if someone had shown up on a 1950s Club Run wearing racing gear.

It would also be the same today if I showed up dressed in street clothes, 1950s style for a ride with a group all wearing Lycra and helmets. Even if I was fit enough to stay with the group, some in the group would feel uncomfortable.

I know there will be others who disagree with me on this one; I can just hear the comments on “elitism.” We live in a social structure, and I feel that although we ultimately wear and do as we please, we do have a certain obligation not to offend or make others in our immediate peer group feel uncomfortable.

I use the term “immediate peer group,” because it seems when we wear Lycra we offend Joe Public, and that is not my problem, I will conform within limitations. Where Joe Public is concerned the “Gay Lycra outfits,” is just an expression of their contempt for the fact that we are on the road.

I remember in the 1950s, all the stuff you would normally carry in the rear pockets of your jersey, we carried in a small canvas bag called a Musette bag. (Tools, food, money, batteries for lights, etc.) I remember the general public, even those who used a bicycle for transport, would always ask, “What do you carry in those stupid little bags?”

Drivers delayed briefly by a group of cyclists wearing regular street clothes, the group I’m sure would be labeled, “Leftist, hippy, tree-huggers;” you can’t win that one.

Imagine the confusion that would be caused by a group or older gentlemen cyclists, dressed as the Italian Pro group above. How would they be labeled; “Old Poofters on Bikes,” maybe?

Whatever you do, don’t let the clothes you feel comfortable wearing, stop you from riding a bike.


Pictures are from Classic Lightweights, UK.
and Fausto Coppi, It.

Reader Comments (15)

Here's something that ought to bring back memories then.
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter bother yam
I plan to do the Lake Pepin tour this year!

I've used a battered old pair of cords for fall cycling for years. I just didn't want to wreck a newer pair of pants, and they seem less constrictive through the thigh...
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Bujiatang
The Good People of Tweed.cc are excellent ambassadors of the Cycle Chic credo.
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Zakkaliciousness
Coppie's bike has fenders for training, by the way I just got back from the post office wearing jean shorts and a T shirt with tennis shoes and toe clips on my 62 Raleigh path racer. Rich
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Brother Yam - THAT is cool! I just spent a few hours looking at all those links. I even have a nice old Raleigh Sports I have been meaning to fix up - this gives me more impetus to get going!
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter mikew3mc
I dress for my own comfort, no one else's.

If they don't like what I'm wearing I'll be more than happy to tell them where to go and how to get here.

And, for the record, I wouldn't be caught dead in lycra.
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Marrock
"Whatever you do, don’t let the clothes you feel comfortable wearing, stop you from riding a bike."

Amen
April 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter loiscastillo
Don't forget about "Plus 2's" or "Plus 4's"
(2" or 4" below the knee)

No, I'm not that old, but one of my friends was a top Canadian cyclist in the 50's.
April 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Grump
Another very interesting post. What's the story with the frame of the two cyclists in shorts? It appears to have no downtube - did I just miss it or is it something similar to Condor's Paris? http://www.condorcycles.com/paris.html

I have noticed that other "serious" cyclist refuse to wave to you if you're not fully lycra'd up. My own blog is attempting to redess the lycra arguement. http://cyclostyleuk.blogspot.com/

My current leg covering of choice for cycling are black Dockers khakis with an elasticated waist.

Fascinating blog - please keep posting.
April 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter AR
grump said...
Don't forget about "Plus 2's" or "Plus 4's"
(2" or 4" below the knee)

No, I'm not that old, but one of my friends was a top Canadian cyclist in the 50's.

2:31 PM

I'm that old and the plus two or four referred to the fullness in the knee. Plus fours are in one of the pics; very baggy like golfers used to wear. Two's were much closer fitting.
Who could afford a clothes drier in '52? Were they invented then?
I ntice one of the spectators is wearing a Battle Dress blouse. I was issued the same in '64. Very heavy wool and stunk when wet.
April 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter billy
"Whatever you do, don’t let the clothes you feel comfortable wearing, stop you from riding a bike."

— Indeed!
April 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Aaron Edge

Thanks for a lovely post on midcentury cycling apparel. This is a treasure!

I have to say, I was amused because I got a set of thrift-shop wool pants re-sewn in exactly the same way your mom stitched up your pants! Plus two, with an elastic cuff.

If anyone does want to reproduce this trick, it's pretty easy, given an amenable alterations shop and a good thrift store. It produces some nice casual (and period-authentic!) riding clothes at a very reasonable price.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Cousineau

Ive just discovered your blog through twitter. Thanks very much your articles are great.

June 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Lamb

I discovered European cycling in the '70's and pored over a couple of coffee-table books (which I still have) by R John Way and Roger St Pierre, showing, among other things, racers training in winter with fixed-wheel or singlespeed bikes with fenders, and tourists in what we call knickers a la the Coppis, above.

I began racing in NYC in 1980 (& remember Paris-Sport) and trained in racing gear (wool shorts in those first days, too) but wouldn't wear the fake team jerseys I see young riders in today ... they're like kids wearing 'Superman' costumes. We wore solid-color jerseys.

Now at 60, I'm back riding in clothes that wouldn't draw stares in restaurants... and glad to see other retro-grouches doing the same.

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPete Hummers

Well said Dave. Before I too am one of the Public Joes who criticize cycling apparel. But when I switched to biking, I was so thankful of the fabric inoovations nowadays.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPedals Cycling
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