The Big Confusing Dilemma of What to Wear While Riding your Bike Around Town

Skirt panda

When I rode my bike as a child I did not give much thought to the clothing I would wear while riding it. Have bike. Wearing clothes. Shoelaces tied. Will travel. Remember those days?

Fast forward a few decades and what to wear while biking has become much more wrought. Currently, there are a couple of strange ideas afoot about cycling and clothing selection.

The first is that we need special bike clothes made by specialty manufacturers to ride our bikes around town. If you don’t believe me, please refer to the Terry catalog.

I think companies take perverse pleasure in making us feel as though we are wearing the “wrong” clothes so that we will give them our money to remedy something that was never wrong in the first place.

Now that I’m older, I definitely have preferences about what I like to wear while riding. I prefer clothing that does not chafe, does not reveal anything I don’t want others to see, and that allows my legs to move easily. I wear shirts that don’t gape or expose my chest if I’m bent over my bicycle. But most of what I wear around town is not cycling-specific.

If I’m going for rides of 50 miles or longer, I confess that I prefer cycling-specific clothing, such as shorts with a chamois and a cycling jersey that has rear pockets. I like the extra cushion from the shorts and I enjoy having a spot to stash my keys and lip balm that I can easily reach when pedaling.

Some would say bikey clothing is never necessary and that’s true enough, but as I note I think it has its benefits on longer rides. However, if I am tooling around town or commuting, I wear t-shirts and hiking shorts. When it gets cold, I wear hiking pants and long-sleeve shirts and layers.

I wear regular clothing when I ride. My commute wardrobe is not made by some bikey retailer and sold under the label of “bicycling clothing” (or worse, “urban bicycling clothing”). And is it just me or does making something cycling-specific also tend to make it more expensive?

I'm wearing a dress, but no one gave me guidance. Disaster ahead.
I’m wearing a dress on a diamond frame, but no one gave me guidance. Disaster ahead.

The second myth I’ve come upon of late is that, if we decide to do something crazy like ride in regular clothes, we need some kind of special instructions. These articles generally are written for a female audience and frankly, I find them insulting.

Take this short piece about “How to Bike In a Skirt.” I need an article to teach me how to ride in a skirt? Really?

I ride around town in a dress or a skirt sometimes– not a “bicycling” dress, but a regular dress. Can you believe it? It’s true!

And guess what? It is not a big deal. It doesn’t feel weird. I don’t inappropriately flash people. AND guess what else? I didn’t have to read an article about how to ride in a dress to figure it out. Go me!

It’s as though the bike industry, which spent the past twenty years largely ignoring women as well as transportation cycling in general, thinks we became as lost as they did.

No, we don’t need to be sold special cycling clothes to ride around town. Yes, people ride bikes in regular clothes. No, I don’t need advice to figure out how it’s done.

Nobody expects kids to have special outfits for riding their bikes. They just wear what they’ve got and pedal. Why should adults be any different?

Want to know what to wear while cycling? Watch the little kids and learn from them.

24 thoughts on “The Big Confusing Dilemma of What to Wear While Riding your Bike Around Town”

  1. I wear bike shorts on my bike as I tend to ride 30-50 miles at a lick (just because NOT racing) But I break with “bike culture” and just wear a generic t-shirt. My spares, snacks, water, and accouterments, come along quite nicely in my messenger bag (which I am never seen without). So in short “you GO girl” :)

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  2. Nearly all my riding is to commute. In summertime, I get sweaty heading both to and from work, which I deal with by keeping a couple of changes of clothes at the office. What I wear back and forth, I don’t care if I get sweaty, just a cheap shirt and shorts. When I get to work, I grab one of the bags in my desk drawer, do a quick wipedown in the restroom, and change into the office clothes. I get back into the sweaty duds to return home. I swap out one of the office bags weekly just to keep things fresh.

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  3. Agreed 100%….but I still wear bike specific clothes for my commute…it’s 10 miles each way and I sweat like a pig. Got a shower at work so no reason to try to keep from sweating.

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  4. Mens pants tend to not hold up so well in the crotch area when riding regularly in them. After destroying a few nice pairs of pants, and not being handy enough to re-inforce the rest myself, I did seek out some bike specific pants and they have made a difference. It’s nice to be able to head out in a comfortable good looking pair of pants on a bike and not have to worry about chafing, discomfort, and ruining my clothes.

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    1. Hmmmm…. this is actually a decent point, as long as they did not sell you the pants with an instructional video. :)

      I tend not to wear my work clothes to and from work because I found the wear and tear to be more than I wanted to deal with. However, I generally stick with a system similar to the one that Stuart mentioned.

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      1. That system works well for work commutes but it doesn’t work so well for commutes out on the town where the destination doesn’t have a change of clothes waiting for you.

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  5. I wear what I would wear if I weren’t biking, which has included everything from high heels to big poofy dresses to long coats. I do have to say that when I had a diamond-frame bike, that made certain skirts slightly more challenging, so I wore them less frequently. Now I have a step-through with a chain guard and skirt guard, and I don’t even think about the fact that I will be biking when getting dressed. Pencil skirts are still a bit of an issue.

    Of course, my commute now is less than 20 minutes each way and I have a comfy saddle. When I was biking 45+ minutes each way on a hard plastic saddle, I bought and wore a bunch of bike-specific gear because the t-shirts and shorts or pants I was wearing were uncomfortable. I haven’t worn them in years, though. Not even for 60 km group rides (which I realize is like a walk in the park to you randonneurs).

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  6. At my age I rarely ride more than 50 miles anymore. Usually it’s “Cruising At The Speed Of Eight”.. just meandering in South FL. However, that being said, comfort is paramount. So it’s cargo shorts and a tee shirt. When my riding plan is for more than 20 miles, I’ll usually wear my Canari liners under my cargo’s. Again… pure comfort..!! :))

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  7. Most of my biking is commuting, and I’m lucky enough to be able to wear shorts in the office, so it not a problem in the summer.

    If its Winter or I need to wear pants for a meeting? I just simply roll up one pantleg. I ride year round and have yet to purchase bike shorts, a jersey, or any other “bike-specific” clothing!

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  8. Love this post! So much bike media (e.g., magazines and, increasingly, bike blogs) tries to sell us stuff and it’s rarely stuff we need. I agree completely on your specific preferences: chamois shorts for long rides, whatever you damn please for anything less than 50 miles.

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  9. When I commute, I wear my work clothes for the short ride from the final bus stop (our buses have bike racks here in the First State) to my office. On the way home, I skip the bus and ride the 9 miles in a Lycra chamois liner under some cotton running shorts and a high visibility cotton button-down fishing shirt with Velcro closure pockets for my phone, etc..

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  10. ButButBut…Things! How cycling survive to the next generation without new things to buy!? How will I live without something for every weather situation?! This is a crisis!

    Sorry about the hysterics

    Thanks to your Errandonee this winter/spring I discovered a Carhartt makes a pretty good commuter cycling jacket. Good abrasion resistance in the event of a fall on the ice. And I already had it, which automatically makes it the best.

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  11. I ride to and from work in my work clothes, year-round. I can wear shorts in the summer, which is a plus. On really rainy days, I’ll wear workout clothes and change at the office, especially when the weather is too warm to don my rain jacket and pants. When I wear long pants, I have reflective velcro straps to keep the legs in check and add some reflective properties to my legs.

    I love the idea of cycling-oriented trousers with a reinforced butt/crotch, but few come in my size (I have a long inseam that’s outside of most common sizing). Custom is an option, but the price is… ugh.

    The same rule applies for tooling around the town: comfy casual clothes are the rule. I do wear cycling-specific shoes most of the time (my road bikes are my day-to-day commuters, and both have SPD-SL pedals – not the best to balance on with street shoes, though not impossible).

    Great post, MG!

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  12. Thumbs up here as well for wearing ‘regular’ clothes for around town biking. Since I’m retired, I no longer commute but I do use my bike for nearly all the stuff I do – groceries, dentist, haircuts, museums, etc. I prefer to wear things that look more regular and not like I”m a bike racer. I have some shorts or long pants that are ok for riding, but I sweat a lot. So light colored shorts end up looking like I peed in them, even for a short ride. A few years ago at the bike exhibition in Richmond, I spur-of-the-moment bought a pair of Sheila Moon casual shorts. They are black, women-specific, fit perfectly, and have excellent pockets – 2 deep ones on the front where I can keep wallet and cell phone (comfortably), and a zippered one on the rear for keys. They do have a crotch insert, not padded, just a sort of fake leather patch that wears much better than cotton. Not cheap but not out of line for nice shorts. I find I wear them a lot in the summer, only own one pair so I keep washing them. For tops, just about any t-shirt or button shirt I own is fine for around town, sometimes cotton, sometimes polyester or similar.

    Like you, though, for longer rides, I have to wear padded bike shorts. Just can’t manage without them. And I like the bike jersey pocket arrangement.

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  13. Hmm, you say this as if I’m not supposed to want to buy the entire Terry catalogue. (Or at least enter their contest to win a $5000 wardrobe).
    The websites, the magazines,and the catalogues aren’t just trying to sell you more expensive pants (albeit with a gusseted crotch and reflective tape on the hem): they’re trying to sell an aspirational lifestyle, one in which you bike from the yoga studio to the farmer’s market to your converted industrial loft studio apartment, all while balancing a baguette in the front basket of your vaguely retro-French (but not-too-French) bike and never breaking a sweat. This aspirational lifestyle is marketed particularly to women, it seems. I don’t necessarily blame the companies, though: look how successful Lululemon was in convincing women that it was totally acceptable to walk around in public in what are essentially pajama pants.

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    1. Excellent point! Felkerino and I have talked about being aspirational as it relates to car commercials, but I had not really considered it in women’s cycling clothing. So true, though! We ARE being marketed an aspirational lifestyle. Ironically, I was just reading another article about Lululemon and how they have developd an extremely dedicated customer base through their own marketing. Rapha also did this with its line, selling not just cycling-specific clothing, but a compelling story to go along with it.

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  14. well….my homemade dresses and skirts are “ride friendly” for a reason.

    but i can understand the need for padded bike shorts….and pockets….

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  15. Agreed, except my threshold is how fast I might be going before I wear cycling shorts and a jersey. I commute much of the time in street clothes (shorts when feasible) but wear cycling shorts as a base layer. That way I don’t have to readjust my seat every time I switch between commuting and longer rides on my commuter/road to trail/child hauling bike.

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  16. I almost always wear athletic/workout clothes, because I’m a speed racer. I find it nearly impossible not to crank on my way to and from work. Sometimes I wear regular clothes, but that usually results in a bit more sweat than I want. I only have a few “bike specific” clothes and don’t usually wear them for my short commute, only on leisurely longer rides.

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