I’m fond of writing that I don’t believe there’s much in the bike industry that you need to be warned against. Today’s bike manufacturers do a damn fine job of making frames, forks, wheels, components and apparel. Compared to the under-engineered components of the 1990s, the styrofoam bucket helmets of the ’80s, or the crap frames of the ’70s, today’s cyclist rides a much better bike that fits better, goes faster and thanks to better apparel is more comfortable and, generally, safer.
However, I’ve decided that I’ve had it with black clothing. Now, if I were playing in a rock band—especially if it was a heavy metal band—or if I was mourning the death of a loved one, I could be forgiven for wearing all black all the time. But I’m not. And as a cyclist, there are some good reasons why you really shouldn’t be wearing an abundance of black when you’re riding a bike. And I’m about to lay out why.
The reason I’ve decided to address this is simple. The majority of clothing samples I’ve been sent in the last two years have been black. I’ve opted not to review a number of pieces for this reason. I figure it’s high time I stop being polite about this and just saying that I prefer to have a bright color.
Dammit, I’m a father and my tolerance for anything that compromises my safety on a ride has evaporated. It’s that simple. And for the record, I take this stuff seriously enough that I resigned from the board of a team I helped to start because for two years running they went with a kit that was mostly black. I had grave concerns that if a member was hit by a car while wearing our kit and the driver said they couldn’t/didn’t see the rider, we could be exposed to some serious liability. And then there’s that whole conscience thingy.
So here’s the deal: While people may like to kid us about being brightly colored MAMILs, those bright colors frequently contribute to our survival by making sure that people see us as they are driving down the road smoking meth and texting their BFFs. Of course, we could cover you in blinking lights and mount a Marshall stack to your head playing Gary Newman’s “Cars” and you might still be run over by a bishop finishing off a bottle of Jack. Bright colors aren’t insurance; they’re just a good start.
Everyone knows that bright colors are easy to see. But let’s take a moment to do a little refresher in biology. Our eyes have three kinds of receptors: rods, cones and ganglion cells. These latter cells are the ones that help you get sleepy and why you don’t want to be looking at an iPad at bedtime. The former are extremely sensitive to light and are what allow you to navigate through your bedroom once you’ve turned off that iPad without turning on the lights and waking your spouse. It’s the cone cells that I want to talk about.
Cones are the cells that allow us to perceive color. Once the number of photons hits a minimum threshold, our vision goes from black and white, to color. In low light situations, we will more readily perceive colors with longer wavelengths. Remember that dude Roy G. Biv? After nightfall, blues and purples become indistinguishable from black, while red, yellow and orange remain visible. Our brains are wired to perceive long-wavelength colors most quickly. Red light has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum; orange is next, followed by yellow.
Pure and simple, if you want to be seen, stick with these colors.
Of course, there’s more to this that meets the eye. Black isn’t just a color that is harder to see than red, it’s the complete absence of color. Let’s drill down on that a bit; black doesn’t send a signal to your brain to process, it’s just a void in information. I can’t possibly overstate this; black is as close to being invisible as we can get, short of a Harry Potter cloak. If the entire world was white, our eyes would pick black up like fireflies in the night sky, but that’s not the world we live in.
This would be why if you want to buy a Ferrari and drive through the streets of Peoria on a Sunday afternoon doing your best Ayrton Senna impression, choose black, not red because you’ll attract less attention, though the mellifluous piping of that 12-cylinder Testarossa isn’t exactly camouflage.
Speaking of which—camouflage, that is—that’s why police cars are white-black-white, not black-white-black. Black interrupts the white, creating a discontinuity in the contours of a car, which is why sometimes you won’t notice that there was a cop in your vicinity until it’s practically on top of you.
Look, I’m not obtuse; black is very stylish in both casual and formal wear. Nothing makes for as classic an impression as black. However, we’ve got a terrible epidemic of riders being run over by cars, which is why this blog post from Search and State is guilty of sacrificing function on the altar of style.
Unfortunately, this means the more broken up and splashed with different colors your kit is, it actually makes you harder to see. Remember those Pearl Izumi jerseys that were one solid color? The greatest favor we could do ourselves in terms of visibility would be to buy one of those jerseys (if they still made them) in either Screaming Yellow or red and then wear a pair of shorts exactly the same color. There’s something darkly comic to the fact that we can’t buy a pair of bibs that match the color of a jersey so that we may make ourselves as visually large as possible.
I’ll admit that it’s not a look that I find attractive. I don’t see myself riding around as a vision of orange, even if it is my favorite color. Team kits are going to remain busy designs thanks to the clash of sponsor logos and the desire to make a design pleasing to the eye. Eye-catching has a slightly different meaning here. It’s likely that you’re not a graphic designer, not responsible for the look of the kits you wear, so you don’t have much power over the look of any jerseys or bibs. But as with everything in life, we can vote with our money. You needn’t buy anything that is dominated by black. A crazy splash of bright colors is infinitely better than a mostly black jersey. And to back up my words, I’m not going to review any tops that are dominated by black. That’s going to upset some manufacturers; tough. I’m no longer willing to take the risk that someone won’t see me when, clearly, I could wear the visual equivalent of a Who concert.
Everyone has someone out there who wants them to arrive home from their ride. A few bright colors isn’t a big ask.
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