My first New England winter was an ordeal of such profound and biting discomfort that it served as not just an education, but an expansion of the possible, both in terms of conditions man could live in, and a larger indication of just how inhospitable the universe can be. I nailed a blanket over my drafty bedroom window, dressed in four layers and gave up all cold foods for the season, thus depriving myself of peanut butter and jelly, a staple of such reliable presence in my life I never once considered giving it up for Lent, good Catholic that I was.
In February, when I got my courage up enough to attempt road rides that passed the wind-scarred potato fields of the Hadley farmers, I struggled to find the exact mix of wardrobe necessary to prevent the wind’s blade from penetrating straight to my marrow. I had neither the knowledge nor the patience to understand how riding easy would allow me to generate enough heat to keep me warm. Instead, I would charge out my door and sprint past sensibility and straight to ill-advised, drippy perspiration. I’d return home sooner than anticipated, but long after I’d started to go hypothermic, too destroyed to reflect on my mistakes, thus doomed to repeat them a day or two later.
I took note of what the local Cat. Is and IIs were wearing. We had a half dozen of them and I did my best to do whatever they were willing to suggest. I pestered them with questions, and while I use the plural, “questions,” the fact is, I kept asking a single question over and over: “What’s that?” Coming from well below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was familiar with shorts, jerseys, thin Lycra tights and windbreakers, but nothing more sophisticated or specialized than that. I’d yet to even learn what bib shorts were.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the cool team kits that I had eyed with envy the previous fall had been interrupted by garments awash in sponsor names new to me. Guys were pulling out their very heaviest pieces, thermal jerseys, Roubaix tights and bibs, insulated and windproof arm warmers and booties, lobster gloves not to mention secret-weapon base layers we never saw.
The combined effect was a garish mish-mash of earth tones and neons, pastels offset by saturated vibrant hues. In short, it was a kaleidoscope disaster as offensive to the eye as static is to the ear. Of course, at a certain point, wearing the most retinal-scorching combination became a kind of competition, evolving beyond one’s need for insulation on those coldest rides to the worst possible combination on merely cold days. These were the occasions to pull out those Roubaix bibs, no matter what they said on the side. Extra points went to those who could make a pair of team tights or leg warmers peak from beneath a pair of another team’s bibs. Ditto for combining a thermal vest with mismatched jersey and arm warmers. Double points if that short-sleeve jersey was thermal. The nod always seemed to go to the riders with the greatest history, the Cat Is and IIs who through dint of their experience could turn a pile of Lycra into an abstract expressionist’s canvas, slashing the air with more light than the optic nerve was designed to carry.
At its heart, the anti-kit is about comfort rather than looks, even if the look cultivated is deliberately contrary. It’s an acknowledgement that mother nature trumps all other loyalties, and beating the elements is survival itself. It embodies the message that form doesn’t always follow function, that suffering isn’t in the gear but in the effort, that a body wrapped to face the elements is the body that meets the winter willingly, able to find a reason—after all these years—to stay out, rather than turn home.