04 November 2008

Winter Cycling Clothes

A few days ago I posted about a bike brand that made lovely bikes and then, for reasons I don't understand, had a page about 'recommended clothing'. The post illicited many responses, which is always great.

Many people, however, wandered off onto tangents. Let's tidy it up a bit by shovelling the proverbial footpath.

Firstly, yes yes yes, we all all aware that Minneapolis is cold in the winter. Although, having spent most of my childhood - for reasons beyond my control - growing up in Calgary, Canada, Minnesota winters are girlie winters to me... :-).

And like the Montréalers on the blog, others know too well the chill of winter. One of the chaps behind Larry vs Harry cargo bikes used to be a bike courier in Montréal, in the winter, and he couldn't recognize the need for such Rambo gear in the previous post.

'My winters are are colder than your winters' is not the point of the post or anything to do with what I'm trying to say.

Many visitors to this blog ride their bikes or are involved with bike policy in cities around the world. Those of you in North America are in a minority. It is in everybody's interest to do whatever we can to change that to a majority, or at the least increase the numbers.
Urban cycling is a product and products should be sold properly. If you want people to buy a product, it is generally not a good idea to overcomplicate it.

When you buy shampoo, you usually assume that you'll just have to squirt some in your hands and lather it into your hair. You may not choose to buy a shampoo that comes complete with two bottles that require you to mix two carefully-measured liquids together [measuring spoons included] with a custom-made mixing apparatus [batteries not included] after which you insert the completed mixture into the Shampoo Application Tool © [please use protective glasses!] that applies the shampoo onto your scalp. Pay $30 extra and get the newly improved Lather Removal Kit!
Snowfall Bicycle
So while I may think someone who buys the above shampoo kit to be quite odd.
- I completely respect those who ride long distances each day.
- I used to race so I can appreciate the joy of bike racing or bike touring.
- I realise that some people live - and ride - in climates that are colder than average or in areas with a hillier geography than average.

I love everyone mentioned above. We all do.

However, for the majority out there that needs inspiration, very few of the points above are good marketing. They are quite useless in fact. They all highlight that cycling can be strenuous and difficult and this is what many companies have been trying to sell for decades in North America and elsewhere.
Long distances? 50% of Americans live within 8 km of their workplace. That's a lot of Americans. 85% of Americans use their car for journeys under 5 km. Certainly, many of these people don't have bike-friendly routes to use, but if only 10% of the above numbers were encouraged to ride, think of the difference that would make. Or even 5%.

Let's face it. In order to ride a bike you need... a bike. Period. Anybody who tells you that you need more than that wants to sell you something.

Nothing wrong with merchants wishing to sell you products. That's as old as homo sapiens. It's economics. I just choose to criticise this prevalent over-complication of a simple issue.

One of our readers, the always interesting Adrienne, wrote in the comments that:
"What if every person in America decided to ride bikes? That would be wonderful! What if everyone of them decided to do it in helmets and lycra and clips? Would that make it less so?"

On paper, it would be fantastic. I believe, though, that no matter how you twist it or turn it, the majority will never end up as 'bicycle enthusiasts'. Just look at the cities that are moving forward these days. Portland isn't filled with lycra-clad, Oakley-glassed, carbon-fibered cyclists. There are many average people on average bikes. Look at New York City - the day is coming when New Yorkers Who Ride a Bike will outnumber New York Cyclists. Look at Paris. Nowhere on the planet has seen such a massive increase in the number of bikes on the streets in such a short amount of time as in the French capital.

European cities - both those with great numbers of people on bikes and those who are booming - have traditionally avoided the overcomplication factor and they are reaping the benefits on all levels of society. Reduced traffic and pollution, better health standards, fewer sick days for citizens... and so on. People just want to be inspired to ride a bike and that's what we should be focusing on.
Let the merchants adapt to the 'New Wave of Cycling' instead of trying to get the general population to adapt to the tiresome 'Cycling is a Sport' mantra.

Here's another comment from a reader who has recently embraced urban cycling in New York, as posted on the piece about New York's increase of cyclists.
"It is true, yes, in New York although it's harder to see the change from my perspective as a participant in it (started riding daily mid-summer). There has been some mild resentment of the new riders from established "tribes", but I think even they realize that normalized cycling is better for all. American cycling lore (the gear, the outfit, the helmet) will continue to be passed down through the athletic segments (currently, half of my ladyfriends are "triathletes") but submission to that lore among everyone else has been broken with surprising ease. It makes me think that the massive conformity displayed previously was more a result of self-selection (adults that want to compete in athletic events, or place themselves in front of speeding cars with no support from infrastructure or law) than any part of our nature, which is a huge relief!"

Encouraging news which backs up my postulate about how most people aren't going to end up in lycra or on the membership rosters of bicycle clubs.

So what should be tell people who live in cold climates? Should we present them with a long, expensive list of 'gear' that they need to purchase? Will that encourage Mr Average and his family? Not.

Pierre, from Montréal, wrote a comment about what he wears in the dead of winter and I thought about what I wore.

People who live in a cold city probably own clothing that they wear each and every day and which is suitable for the climate. What's wrong with those clothes? They already own them and use them. There is absolutely nothing to stop them from wearing them on a bike - unless you want to sell them something, of course.

When a snowstorm hits or the temperature falls, this is what I wear. I ski and snowboard, so I own a ski jacket. I have ski gloves. I have winter boots. I supplement these things with a scarf and a flat cap. This is the same clothing I take when I drive an hour and half to ski/snowboard in Sweden or when I head to the Alps. This is the same clothing I'd wear if I went to Minneapolis or Montréal in the winter. On or off a bike.

Most people have clothes like this. It is enough. All they need is a bike. Spread the word.


disgruntled said...

Well said. I would add - as a Brit - that I am in awe of some of the commutes that our American cousins who do cycle undertake on their bikes. From what I've seen of America, I know how spread out it is outside of the east coast. I think my five-mile ride to pick up a paper pretty hard core (hey, there are hills) and then someone comments who does 22km on her bike and that's only half way to work (the rest she drives). Respect is due ...

Abhishek said...

I like your idea of this post and I totally commend it. The best part about this year's winter is that I am riding a bike and I can finally buy and wear some nice winter clothes. Earlier, when I drove I was not as concerned about my winter clothes and did not get to use them much. Florida winters are not quite that treacherous.

I agree with the truth in the statistics of how close Americans live to work and how long average trips are. This is a very general statistic because over 95% of those people do not ride their bikes to work. Hence the abysmally low percentage of bike commuters in most American cities.

As a fun project, you should put up a poll of how far your American readers commute one way to work. It will give you an idea of your commenting clientele.

kstrygg said...

Your post is very much appreciated.

Karl McCracken said...

You're definitely on a roll today - great article, but fantastic, brilliant, really first rate photos.

I'm not convinced about the flat cap though . . .

cyclingred said...

Why not wear normal clothing for skiing also?

I ride with both lycra and normal clothing. In the summer it works fine. But I do have trouble in the winter time. I just can find a combination of normal clothing that works. This is mostly true for my legs.

Ski jacket for example would be way to hot for me.

Nphorcer said...

I agree completely. Its not about weather its about making people realize how feasible cycling is. You shouldn't need to dress like a stormtrooper (no pun intended) just to go shopping.

The Jolly Crank said...

Yes! Yes! Exactly!As I kind of mentioned in my comment on that earlier post, I have been telling people for years that if they do outdoor activities in the winter, they already have the clothes in their closet to bike in. If they don't, I tell them to get regular, good winter clothes, NOT cycling specific clothes. Cycling specific clothes are not as practical and their price is artificially inflated. It's a scam by the American cycling industry (maybe necessary for its viability but a scam nonetheless).

Ciclostático said...

"Let's face it. In order to ride a bike you need... a bike."

That's the one and only truth. A lot of people use to overcomplicate bike riding. They think you can not ride without lycra, helmet, and all that "wannabe-Lance-Armstrong stuff".

I'm from Madrid, Spain, one of the most "non bike-friendly" cities in all europe, if not the most.

The problem here are not cold winters (Madrid winters can be cold, but not so cold as Copenhagen or Montreal), neither rain (we are one of the sunniest and driest European cities). But you almost don't see bikes here in Madrid. Why?

Well, the city is a little bit hilly, but nothing that a 21-gear bike can't do (yes, here the gears are a REAL necessity). Traffic is...well... "complicated". But not as complicated as Paris or New York. The real problem in our city is people's mind.

On sundays, big parks, bike lanes and "green paths" (old railroads transformed into bike lanes) are full of cyclists with expensive race or mountain bikes. All with helmet and lycra clothes, like if they were going to climb the Tourmalet. And they think that is the ONLY way to ride a bike.

So, on monday, you don't see bikes. People don't assume that they can ride a bike with normal clothes. When people see me riding my folding bike dressed with suit,tie and a laptop on the rack, they say "No! How can you ride with that clothes? And without helmet?". So that's the real problem. In Barcelona or Sevilla you can see a lot of bikes and people with normal clothes riding them, because people think that bike is only a good, cheap and fun way to move around the city, not a sport thing.

So let's copenhagenize Madrid!

Anonymous said...

nobody has really mentioned how these bike are not really for the casual rider. the pricepoint alone prohibits anyone who buys one from making an informed decision. A bike that has a steel frame mass produced in Asia for $1300? Oh and the wood fenders and rack are well thought out too.

The Jolly Crank said...

"A bike that has a steel frame mass produced in Asia for $1300? Oh and the wood fenders and rack are well thought out too."

I couldn't agree more with this poster. And I have test ridden some of these models--they look better than they ride (especially for the price).

Adrienne Johnson said...

What is the difference between a European and an American? The European thinks 150 miles is a long way and the American thinks 150 years is a long time. This probably reaches a bit into what the difference in bike cultures on either side of the globe is going to be.

One of the other things is something I read in a New Yorker article many years ago. It was about American cities and how there are really only two types- ones built before and after the introduction of the car. NY, SF, Boston, Chicago (proper)and others were built with the pedestrian in mind, and therefor are more easily negotiated by bike. They do not require long rides to get across and most neighborhoods contain most of what residents need on a daily basis- short rides with little planning needed. Los Angeles, San Diego, Tampa, Atlanta are post car cities and sprawl all over the place. Neighborhoods are devoted to housing and not services and basic needs like groceries can be miles and miles from home. My mother's neighborhood in suburban LA has no sidewalks in many places, and 45 MPH multi lain roads in others. The last time I biked to the store there (6 miles away)it was 95*f at 9:30a.m. as I biked with speeding Jeeps and Fords. 30 minutes later, it was 100*f for the 6 miles back.

Clothing is just such a minor thing in this discussion. Most of America was built after the car and the obstacles that face riders in these areas have to be looked at in different ways. We need to market whole sale life style changes just to get to bikes, forget about clothes.

Keith said...

I've been riding my bike to work exclusively for about 7 years now. At first my winter wardrobe got more and more complicated. Then I reached some sort of plateau and now it keeps getting less complicated. I now ride in winter in the same clothes I would be wearing if I were just walking about outside. The thing that has made this easiest is a bike with full fenders, an internal rear hub and a fully enclosed chain case. These old Raleigh's may be common over in Denmark, but I had to look a long time to find one here in the US. It has a generator hub as well. The closest thing to that being sold new here in the US is an Electra Amsterdam, and those only have a half chain case and a bottle generator. I think new bikes like mine would sell well and get more people riding, but the price will have to come down, which I think will mean building them here. It's just too expensive to import them from Europe. You make fine bikes over there, but the exchange rate puts them out of reach of most potential buyers over here. Oh, and no, I don't ride 22+ km to work. I chose my city and my home with proximity to necessities in mind.

Zakkaliciousness said...

lovely to see all your comments. especially when so many agree with me... :-)

karl: flatcaps are timeless and practical.

cyclingred: you'll be pleased to know that for the better part of two decades, when skiing in France in the spring, I choose corduroys, a woolen sweater and a cravat.

adrienne: funny quote about the 150. regarding the heat thing... that's just the opposite of cold. As i wrote in a piece for the L.A. Times, in 1900, 20% of Los Angelinos rode their bike each day. Sure, the car destroyed that, but it's not just the Old School cities on the East Coast.

The heat thing is just the opposite of the cold thing. It's no excuse.

boy, i love all you people, even when you disagree with me.

Tim said...

The simple fact is that when you ride a bike, you're outside.

That means that you have to wear a similar amount of clothing to what you would wear outside in the same weather doing anything else - walking, sitting at a bus stop, gardening, shovelling snow... whatever else would cause you to be outside.

You may need to wear slightly less on the bike than you would just standing around in the same weather - the activity warms you - but not much less for short trips.

If it's insanely cold out, you wouldn't go sit at a bus stop in shirt sleeves. You'd wear a warm coat, scarf, hat and gloves. Therefore, if you're riding a bike in that weather, wear a warm coat and other winter wear.

Cycling-specific clothing is more comfortable on a bike. General purpose clothing is more comfortable off a bike.

If you're spending long enough on a bike to make it worth changing outfits, then don't let Zakalicious stop you ;-) . Wear cycling-specific winter clothing.

If you're just riding the bike a short distance to get where you're going, then wear general purpose winter clothing.

By the same token, if it's insanely hot out (more of a problem in the coming months here in Australia), I wouldn't go walking in a three-piece suit so I'm not going to ride in a three-piece.

But I wouldn't change into a high-tech synthetic walking outfit (or bus-waiting outfit or gardening outfit), so I feel no compulsion to change into wicking breathable vented bike clothes to pedal across town to work.

If you're going outside in inclement weather, dress for the conditions. If you're riding a bike while you're out, good for you.

Anonymous said...

Love this post.

I see your point, but don't agree.

I ride every day to work here in the US. I wear normal clothing. I also wear a helmet.

I must say, however, that for those that I know and occasionally bike commute with, clothing isn't the issue. It's the scary ass traffic and the super sketchy drivers, road conditions, etc. that we have to contend with.

It's just plain scary- that's the issue. Clothing, helmets and type of bikes have nothing to do with it. Period.

People won't ride to do anything if they don't feel safe.

Clothing, chainguards, helmets, etc. all take a backseat and are irrelevant. You have a sophisticated bike viewpoint that I respect, but I think that you miss core issues in the North American continent that was developed post car. It's just not that bike friendly in most places at this point in time and kudos go to those struggling to make it more so.

I personally know tons of people who gave up bike commuting, yet ride all the time recreationally, because it was too nerve wracking or too scary.

So, anyway, let us dissent from your viewpoint on this brilliant blog and keep up the good work.

Adrienne said...

Zack, there are not excuses here. There is fact, and the fact is that bicycles will become more popular in the US when the people interested in utility bicycling start to see the changes in society as a whole that will foster human powered transportation. Marketing clothes is meaningless. When Americans can ride a bike knowing that their health insurance will pay the bill if they have an accident while not wearing a helmet, that they will be seen as equals on the road in the eyes of the law, that communities will be supported in becoming self sustaining and thus rideable and when gas is $6 an gallon, then we can worry about marketing clothes.

There is now a black man leading the United States. The Cold War is long gone. I am discussing culture and social policy over electronic paths with people I have never met on the other side of the world. Bicycles will become ubiquitous here in North America. Just give it a chance (and maybe a little credit for getting to where it is to this point).

Fonk said...

I think that last Anon post makes the real point. It's not about clothing at all, but the traffic.

Since gas rose to about $4/gallon here in the U.S. (though it's back down to about half that now), I've noticed a lot more people commuting on bikes - some in lycra, some in regular clothes; some on race bikes, some on cruisers, etc. And I've never known anyone that told me the reason they didn't ride was "...because then I'd have to wear lycra." Nobody really thinks that here. However, I've heard plenty of people say they won't ride because of the traffic. My wife loves to ride on recreational bike paths, but she won't dare ride on the city streets, even though she knows I do it all the time.

So we North Americans may have slightly missed your point when we went off on how cold Minneapolis is, blah blah blah (guilty! :)), but I think your fashion point misses what the real problem is with America and other countries not having a large cycling population like yours. It's not the type of bikes we ride or clothes we wear, as people here are independent enough to ride/wear whatever the hell they want anyway; but rather the problem is our infrastructure.

Dress like cyclo-Rambo or dress like J.Crew, but if people are afraid to get on the streets, it doesn't really matter. This is where we really need to become like Copenhagen - separated bike lanes, special traffic lights, etc. That would get Americans out on their bikes, I truly believe.

Zakkaliciousness said...

the last few commenters:
Oh, we agree... you just don't realise it!

My point is... it's not about the clothing. Marketing 'cycle clothing and equipment' for average, potential urban cyclists is ridiculous.

You all mention lack of instructure. You know that I know this is a major hurdle. The largest of them all. That's why i think we should ditch sports oriented marketing and focus on the real needs of blossoming bicycle culture. Safe, separated infrastructure. Acceptance of the bicycle as an equal transport option. Getting regular people to ride.

One bike at a time. One cyclist at a time. When city councils start seeing an increase, they will be forced to react and to invest in infrastructure.

Yes we can.

David Hembrow said...

I generally wear quite normal clothes, and have ridden in snow and ice.

The only clothes I've bought in the last few years specifically for cycling are woolly hats. I didn't need it when I had hair, but my balding head gets too cold without it.

Anonymous said...

In temperate cities, especially in the West, most Americans do not own winter clothing that is not for recreational purposes. We dash from our warm dry houses to our cars, shiver until the heater kicks in, and dash from out warm dry cars to our warm dry offices or shopping malls. As a nation, we simply do not go outside except to play.

If you happen to have a job that requires you to be outside in all weather, that clothing will likely be work specific. The rest of our outdoor wardrobe is tailored to its intended task: Fishing; hunting; running; skiing; spectator sports; etc. So it is not surprising the first thing we do when it comes to winter cycling is to gear up.


Denis said...

I think each of us should accept & wear the clothes which is suitable for him\her. It doesn`t make any sense to argue about that. Dispute is only a prove of lack of common vision.
In Denmark, there is a long bicycle tradition, that is great! Danish people, I guess, don`t even notice that. It`s absolutely normal.
In our country, for example, people face bikes as some kind of a sport activity, that`s why the majority of them choose that silly clothes. Silly for me, but not for them. It`s like a mental cliche.. The thing is, if a person is comfortable in his clothes - this is good. All that was formed by a national tradition. In my country, I know people who are quite shy to ride a bike, `cause their boss doesn`t get them serious enough.. He can even fire them.. How d`u like that? :-)
Step by step we are moving bike riding to the masses. I ride in normal clothes, but it`s not appropriate for everybody.

Keep on riding!

Zakkaliciousness said...

once again... of COURSE people should wear what they want. that is NOT the point of these posts.

it is about marketing.

Tim said...

Fonk said:
I've never known anyone that told me the reason they didn't ride was "...because then I'd have to wear lycra." Nobody really thinks that here.

Although they may not say it explicitly, many people don't ride bikes because they don't identify themselves a cyclists. In their mind, cyclists are unusual people who ride bikes in funny clothes, and if one is to ride a bike then one must become a cyclist. If one is not a cyclist (complete with funny clothing), one can not seriously consider riding a bike - for sport or for transport.

Zak's point, which I entirely agree with, is that we need to demonstrate to Joe and Jo Average that they can use a bicycle to get from A to B without having to take on a new identity, join a secret society, and become one of them.

A normal-looking person riding a bike in normal-looking clothes breaks down the barriers, and might get other normal-identifying people to consider cycling as a viable mode of transport.

who rides 13km each day in trousers and a business shirt

Adrienne Johnson said...

I would say that we need to market bicycling as good no matter how you do it. Helmets are fine, recumbents are fine, gears, breaks, shocks, coasters... all of it is great. If your transportation is human powered than all is good. We need to embrace the perfectly quaffed 'supermum' (who BTW, makes many of us out there feel inadequate)as well as the overweight guy in banana yellow spandex on the 38 speed cyclobeast. We all have a place on the road.

Zakkaliciousness said...

I agree, Tim, and Adrienne, I am sure we are on the same page.

As an idealist, yes, we all have a place on the road and yes, people riding bikes is the goal.

There are massive marketing mechanisms in place for The Sport of Cycling, with multi-million dollar companies behind them. They will always be there and cater to a certain crowd. Great.

Marketing cycling as a normal, everday activity is needed. It's marketing a lifestyle without scaring people off with gear or even with hippie-angled environmental messages.

Just as Joe Average may not want to become a 'cycling enthusiast', he may not want to be an 'environmentalist' either.

"Here's a bike. You can ride it around, save some gas money, lose a bit of weight. It's cool, it's easy. Don't ditch your car, just ride a bit more."

tinarama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy B from Jersey said...

Been following this thread for some time but have had nothing to add until Adrienne Johnson's post made me think of something that no one pointed out yet.

If the "Clothing" page on Civia Cycles website had given people "normal clothing" options for cold weather, Zak would have had no reason to make a point about this. The fact is they didn't and the people at Civia Cycles and their parent company QBP (whom I really like BTW) in my opinion, dropped the ball a little by only giving "bicycle nerd" winter clothing options.

I recently wrote an article for a state sponsored publication about cycling in winter a couple of weeks before Zaks original entry came out about this topic. In that article I made sure to say that regular winter cloths will work just fine most of the time. I did mention that a couple of specific things, like a balaclava, may (MAY!) make your riding more comfortable particularly when wearing a helmet (had to talk about always wearing helmets because of whom I was writing this for). But overall I made sure to hammer it home that special bike cloths ARE NOT required.

I have Zak (Mikael) to thank in part for understanding the wisdom of the "cycling is for everyone" philosophy when trying to promote cycling.

Thanks Mikael!

tinarama said...

Keith@20:01 wrote: "The closest thing to that being sold new here in the US is an Electra Amsterdam..." I ride a Breezer Uptown that comes standard with all the features you mentioned and a few more. It's a local (northern California) brand and I love it. I'm starting to see more cargo bikes around here too, and other "unusual" bikes built (and used) more for utility than speed or style. Advertising is powerful but so is community, seeing real people all around you actually going about their business – on a bike. Let's turn off the tv and ride!

Fonk said...

I think it's kind of a chicken-and-egg type of scenario...

Zak makes the point that if we marketed bikes and accessories specifically to the average joe, showing that they don't need to become a "cyclist" (in the American sense), we'll get more people on the roads and thus the infrastructure will follow by mandate of the people.

However, the fear people have here in the U.S. is very real (whether justified or not), and you could give people the most comfortable cruiser around and tell them they don't need any special gear, and they're still not going to get on those mean streets. They want those paths/lanes first (again, my wife is a perfect example).

For the bicycle/accessory companies, this is kind of the sticky wicket. Why market to the people they know are too afraid to ride anyway, and thus won't spend the money, when they can safely market to the "bike geeks" who are already hitting the roads everyday?

I think the government design has to come first, a deliberate attempt to get people out on their bikes. "Build it and they will come." This will help build up a reliable every-man customer base for the bicycle companies to market to, and it'll eventually become self-perpetuating. As I understand it, this is actually how it happened in Copenhagen. It wasn't some free market genius, but rather intentioned design by the city leaders.

Chloe said...

It does seem to be some ingrained thing. My mum has asked me what I'll do when it rains, I replied I can't get much wetter and colder than I would waiting at a bus stop ...

I do get some bizzare and bemused looks when I'm out on my bike, usually from lycra clad folk speeding past me. A sort of 'hmm there's someone in normal clothes going at a relaxed pace they can't be a PROPER cyclist, we have all the gear look! we're SERIOUS!' sort of look.
I think it's the basket that does it, it's seen as so kistch and 'cute'(which it is but I like it :P) but it's also very practical!