In defense of spandex

Or, why being uncool is cool…

Even in Portland, one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, you can get some dirty looks for dressing like a bicyclist.  Granted, you have to be in some great shape to look good wearing head-to-toe bike gear – lycra shorts or tights, cycling jersey with rear pockets, helmet, shoes with cleats, etc.  And also granted, a lot of folks who dress like that, ride like asses – not signalling or stopping for red lights, stop signs, pedestrians, etc.  Of course, so do a lot of people in street clothes.  Not sure if there’s a statistically significant difference, or we are just more likely to notice people transgressing in spandex.  I personally figure I look kinda like a sausage that’s starting to plump up and bust out of it’s skin.  But frankly, I don’t give a damn – and here’s why you shouldn’t either.


  • It’s actually designed for this activity.  It’s aerodynamic, so you don’t waste calories fighting wind resistance.  It wicks moisture away well, so you don’t stay wet long.  And it isn’t going to get caught in your gears.
  • It saves wear and tear on your real clothes.  Especially if you’re somewhere rainy like Oregon, where even if you’re not getting road spray from your own tires, you’re getting it from cars in the next lane 200+ days a year.
  • In my cases, and I suspect many more, it’s medically better than wearing street clothes.  I’ll explain why in a bit.

Now, I have some rough rules about when I don the bike clothes:

  • I’m going to be riding more than 20 minutes
  • The weather is, or has recently been non-sunny
  • I’m not going anywhere I need to wear “real” clothes, or I can pack a set to change into.

So I wear bike clothes for anything where I’m exclusively biking, or where I am going to be biking for large portions of the day.  I don’t bother for quick trips to the grocery store or running local errands, unless the roads are wet and I don’t feel like wearing muddy clothes all day.  Before I did this, I ended up ruining my favorite pair of jeans when they got caught under the chain guard on my commuting bike and ripped up to my knee, then got stuck, causing me to fall over in the middle of the street.  Not my finest moment.

When I was bike commuting downtown (about 16-17 miles, the last few on bike paths, but mostly on city streets) I wore my bike gear for the commute after I showed up the first day soaked in sweat and stinking.  In the fall and spring it might be less uncomfortable to do so, but being Italian, I sweat pretty much at any temperature over 65°F.  When I switched to bike gear, I still sweat, though less so, because it was thinner, wicked better, and dried faster than street clothes.  And even though a shower wasn’t available to me at the office, the amount of stench lingering after taking all of my bike gear off was pretty minimal.  While I never asked anyone, I suspect I was a little noticable on warm days, but not horrible.

I’ve also fallen a few times, once when I hit a stretch of polished paving stones that I thought were just colored asphalt after a rain had made them, effectively, glass, and a few times the first time I bought a bike with clipless pedals.  My bike gear was largely unphased by this.  The tights I wore in the first case did sprout a small hole, but you pretty much can’t tell it happened unless you look for it, and I still wear them all the time.  My experience in falling in street clothes is that the only thing that has a chance of surviving a fall at any speed on asphalt or concrete is leather and denim, and maybe not even 50% of the time in the latter case.

Don’t get me wrong, bike clothes, can be expensive.  But I have a harder time finding jeans I like and that fit than I do finding some bike shorts or leggings I can squeeze myself into.  And I work hard not to pay full price for bike gear.  In fact, in cooler weather I tend to wear an inexpensive pair of running tights over a good pair of biking shorts with a chamois, which is well cheaper than a dedicated bib or tights with a chamois built in.

However biking for more than recreation is going to take some more time to change, and require you to have a roomy backpack or good pannier to fit your street clothes.  Make sure you get a fully waterproof bag, and not one that is merely water-resistant.  Roll-top bags seem to be the way to go, especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest or the south, where thunderstorms are frequent and brutal.  Even when it’s not raining, the chance of a car dousing me with the spray from a standing puddle is pretty decent, and having a choice between very wet-and-dirty bike clothes and somewhat wet-and-dirty street clothes is no fun.

I have a good bike messenger bag from Chrome that is barely big enough for spare clothes, and a Vaude pannier with a separate rain cover that worked great for the first year-and-change.  However, it seems to have lost a little stiffness in the backing, and now has a tendency to flap back and catch on the wheel spokes in back, which I am afraid is going to cause it to catch and flip me at some point.  The price of Ortlieb bags dissuaded me at first, though most serious bike commuters/travelers seem to swear by them.  If you have an opinion on panniers, I would love to hear them in the comments section.

Medical Issues

Now, I implied earlier there may be medical reasons as well to get over yourself and sport some Lycra.  In my case, I have two.  I will warn any males who have recently eaten, or would like to in the next couple of hours to maybe bookmark this and come back later, or at least to avoid spending any time on WebMD or Google Images looking at pics of it.

Trust me.

Issue #1: I have had a condition called testicular torsion, which causes one or more testicles to twist around and essentially strangulate on their little rope of blood vessels, nerves and epididymis.  This is beyond painful and can cause necrosis, gangrene and a bunch of unpleasant symptoms, and is fixed with a procedure called an orchiopexy, whereby they staple your nuts to your scrotum.

I am not making this up.

I couldn’t look at a bike seat for a couple of years after this episode.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with arthritis in my hip and told to bike more that I seriously investigated whether I could bike at all, much less seriously.  Now, I had biked a LOT as a kid and into my twenties.  I was doing 200+ miles a week in New Jersey in the 90’s when I lived in Trenton, both bike commuting to work 10 miles each way, five days a week and doing a century around SE NJ and SW PA on the weekends.  Whether that helped precipitate this condition, I’ll never know, but there have been numerous studies on the effect of biking on urogenital problems.  Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time and energy picking out comfortable saddles and I wear a good chamois as often as possible.

Even if you don’t want to be seen in public in spandex, at least wear a good bike short underneath your street clothes.  They even make padded briefs, which are the size of regular brief underwear, for biking.  I, for obvious reasons, have no experience with female issues down there, or equipment for avoiding it.  If you do, please respond with what your experiences have been in that regard.

Issue #2: I also have been afflicted with something called cholinergic urticaria, or hives, that are triggered, in my case, primarily by sweating, though scratching, stress or sunlight also seem to trigger it occasionally.  It means that there is a chance that if I get warm, and sweat too much, and that sweat stays on my skin too long, I can break out in hives.  Sometimes that is merely uncomfortable as hell, and ugly, but not medically urgent.  However, I’ve had about a half a dozen incidents where so much blood rushed to my skin that my blood pressure dropped dangerously and I ended up in the emergency room.  This is No Fun™.

And it’s just unusual enough that most of my regular doctors had no idea how to diagnose it.  It happens pretty rarely, there’s no obvious food or allergen exposure to link the episodes and it can go into remission for months or years at a time.  I actually have a log I now keep on my phone at all times to track when it occurs, how severe it is, and what I did before that, because even I forget about it when it goes dormant.

A pretty typical winter outfit: Pearl Izumi Road Race III shoes, tights, long-sleeve jersey and socks.
A pretty typical winter outfit: Pearl Izumi shoes, tights, long-sleeve jersey and socks. Ancient Giro helmet. Endura skullcap. Louis Garneau jacket (awesome!). Shimano gloves.

I finally found an allergist here in Portland who immediately recognized my symptoms and even helped me connect incidents I thought were unrelated.  He has me on a regimen of Zyrtec and Zantac (which happens to be a slightly different type of antihistamine in addition to its effect on digestion), which, so far, seems to be doing the trick, though it could just be in remission again.  Call me in 5 years ;-).

So far, the best way I have found to prevent the hives besides the antihistamines is to avoid overheating and to dry quickly when I do sweat.  Synthetic fabrics seem to have the best combination of low weight, stretch, wicking and drying properties of anything I have found so far.


And, finally, I wear spandex because I feel good and I get compliments even though I don’t look like Lance Armstrong.  In fairness, I came of age in the eighties, spent a lot of time around hair metal bands, and watched enough Buck Rogers and Solid Gold to be more or less immune to the stuff.

And you know what: I’m 48 years old and in the best shape of my life.  What do I care if some 25-year-old hipster sneers at my bike tights?  He’s wearing skinny jeans that look like tights anyway, and I can kick his ass in damn near any way possible.

So get over yourself.  You bike for you and the planet, and neither one of them care what you are wearing.



One thought on “In defense of spandex

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