I’m fundamentally a form-follows-function person. That’s not to say that I think that clothing, buildings and home furnishings all need to be austere to the point of Bauhausian sterility, but I think that style should never trump substance. Having said that, I accept the reality that such an outlook makes me a candidate for both the worst home decorator and least romantic male of the 21st century, even though it’s early in this 100-year span.
That preference is borne of a hopelessly strategic approach to most dimensions of my life. Practically, that has translated to an affinity for technical fibers (including wool). Show me two jackets; if one of them, thanks to the use of a special fabrics, happens to be both lighter and warmer, I’m inclined to go with it, even if it doesn’t look quite as workaday. On the contrary, many years ago, when I was living in New England, I realized that I enjoyed having people note my preference for specialized garments. I didn’t really care what they thought of my choice; back then I just like that they noticed I wasn’t wearing some cotton coat that would lose it’s ability to keep you warm or dry the moment it started raining or snowing, and during the cold months of the fall, winter and spring, that could happen a couple of times each week.
That said, there are plenty of people who try to use their outerwear to project something they are not. I’m thinking of lawyers with Carhartt barn coats and urban yuppies who’ve never seen a ski left, let alone a mountain, decorated in the finest down from The North Face. My urge is to make a statement more authentic, not less so. And while anyone is entitled to wear what they want, I appreciate pieces that confirm I’m active. That means my outerwear is cut for my cyclist’s physique and I prefer items that offer as much warmth as possible while simultaneously throwing overboard the homogenized style of Old Navy. In short, I like pieces that don’t necessarily scream “cyclist” while still conveying that my wardrobe didn’t come from Macy’s. RKP T-shirts are handy in this regard, but they aren’t all that warm.
There are two pieces in my wardrobe I’ve decided are worth mentioning; one, a piece from Giro’s New Road line, is a recent addition, while the other has been a part of my cool weather rotation for a couple of years. That piece is the Assos DB.4 kickTop. Again with the crazy names. Around the house, when I can’t find it, I just refer to it as my Assos pullover, to which my wife will respond, “Your black one?”
Compared to a couple of similar (though cotton-constructed) pullovers I have from Ralph Lauren, the DB.4 kickTop is lighter, warmer and includes two zippered pockets. Both zip to the neck in the event of a chill breeze. Unlike the pullovers from Ralph Lauren, the Assos device won’t wrinkle, packs into a backpack like a dime in a pocket and in the event of rain dries as quickly as a toddler’s tears.
The bad news is that Assos has decided not to carry this piece in the U.S. anymore. You can still find some around, but it’s not easy. Ah, the power of Google.
Giro has been adding new pieces to its apparel line and easily my favorite piece from the fall line is the new Soft Shell Jacket. It’s cut from medium-weight polyester (304 gm/m²), which makes it heavy enough to keep you comfortable down into the 40s yet light enough that I never overheated in around-town trips and could jam it in a small bag when traveling. Despite the fact that it is cut from polyester, the jacket doesn’t have that shiny finish that makes you look like a square. Part of its ability to help regulate temperature comes via two small chest zips that open vents right at your collarbones. Given how small they are I wondered just how much they could do; I was surprised to realize that they offered just enough ventilation to keep me from breaking a sweat when chasing Mini-Shred around the neighborhood.
Inside the jacket, it’s got two chest pockets big enough for a pair of sunglasses in their case, while there are two zippered pockets for hands or keys. There is a fifth pocket at the small of the back, zippered on both sized with the capacity to carry a loaf of bread or a couple of water bottles, it’s that big. I didn’t discover it until reading about the jacket’s features because it was so well cut that it is completely concealed when not in use. Kinda makes it the perfect jacket for riding to a party without worrying about how to bring a bottle of wine.
To keep the jacket form fitting both on and off the bike, it is cut with raglan sleeves. While the zipper starts at the center of the bottom hem, but then sweeps to the right at the neck to keep soft fabric at your chin. When zipped up, this feature is terrific, but when the jacket is unzipped, there are times when the collar will rub against my chin and it can be hard to keep it out of the way. The cuffs stretch to keep the wind from running up the sleeves while elasticized drawstrings at the hem allow you to gather the jacket around you a bit more when riding.
The Giro Soft Shell Jacket goes for $250 and comes in five sizes (S-XXL). It comes in but one color, dark heather gray, which has proven to be as versatile as gray flannel. Noteworthy is how Giro positions its return policy alongside the garment’s features. In a sense, their commitment to your satisfaction could be said to be one of the jacket’s features. I just can’t imagine anyone returning one of these things. Wearing this both on and off the bike is a chance to wear a garment that suits me and my lifestyle.
So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.