Bicycle commute clothing: A response for Buji
(When I started writing this back at the beginning of August, daytime temperatures here were at or above 100F every day. In the last week we've had some rain and the resulting cloudy days have reduced temperatures to 'only' 90F or so. Believe me, that feels like relief!)
Bujiatang left a comment on "Wednesday Musette":
I was wondering if I could ask a bit of advice myself about commuting.
I wear cotton boxers and the weather in Minnesota has been a bit hot and muggy too.
do you suggest a different garment? A better fabric?
any advice is appreciated.
Do we really need cycling clothes for commuting? If your commute is short - no, you don't. But if you're planning to ride every day or your commute is more than a couple of miles, cycling clothes can make your saddle time more comfortable. These days there are more choices than the traditional jersey and shorts, but I wouldn't be caught dead in them. Strange, isn't it? I think nothing of wearing a jersey and shorts, but draw the line at those dorky capris. Go figure.
Here are a couple of links to other cycling clothing choices:
Though he didn't say so explicitly, Buji hit squarely on 2 essential aspects of any high-performance clothing: garment design and fabric design. I've elaborated on them in the sections below.
Let me preface this by saying that long ago, I rode every day wearing cutoffs and jockey shorts. Maybe I had an advanced case of iron butt or those pain receptors weren't fully developed, but if I tried that now, I'd be off the bike for days. All those seams would act as tiny saw blades on my skin. In order to continue riding every day I need to be careful about preventing saddle sores. (See the saddle sore piece for more.)
My commute here in Oklahoma is 7 miles - roughly a half hour ride at my leisurely pace. Please remember that "Oklahoma" is an Indian word for "this place is only 2 miles from the sun!" Yesterday's homeward ride featured 102F. It was still 101F at 10PM and it was over 80F when I rode to work in the morning. Dancers may 'glow' but I sweat like a pig.
In all honesty, I'll admit that I've ridden around town on a Saturday morning wearing cargo shorts over jockeys. I wouldn't make a regular practice of it, however. Cargo shorts are wonderful when I'm running errands and visiting yard sales, but they're not a good choice for long distances or every day use. I've worn cycling shorts under cargo shorts a few times, and while it's convenient, I wouldn't want to wear them all day. It's a near-certain prescription for saddle sores. I've even tried riding to work using synthetic shorts under my work clothes (think 'tighty whities' with legs) but I don't like sitting in an air conditioned shop as the stuff slowly dries.
My usual practice is to wear boxer shorts, but on a bike saddle they form folds and creases that have the same effect as those seams in jockeys. Eventually they start cutting into my skin. Even worse, the 'dangly bits' sometimes get trapped between my leg and the saddle, leading to some strange gyrations as I try to get everything situated comfortably.
My son gave me some synthetic polo shirts for Father's Day this year. They wick just as a cycling jersey does, so I've given some thought to getting some baggy mountain bike shorts for occasional use.
(A word of advice is in order here. Don't wear gym shorts when cycling. They tend to get hooked over the nose of the saddle. When you stand up, they stay down. This can be somewhat upsetting, though there are certain people who find it perversely exciting. You know who you are.)
Over short distances, nearly any type of clothing will suffice for commuting, but as Buji has noted, there may be better alternatives than cotton.
Fabrics and sweat
Back in the old days, cycling clothes were made of light wool. Even now, some very nice and very spendy cycling clothes are made of wool. Wool fibers move moisture over their surfaces by capillary action if I recall right. Sweat evaporates from the outside and the fibers wick more away from the skin. All wicking fibers do this, not just wool. In the late 70s or early 80s, synthetics were developed that performed the same function.
Cotton doesn't wick. Anyone wearing a t-shirt on a hot day has seen wet patches on their shirt. A wicking synthetic doesn't exhibit these characteristics. Sweat dissipates throughout the material very quickly, leaving no wet spots. the cotton fibers swell up, and the saturated fabric doesn't permit air flow, so there's less evaporation from the skin underneath. I once had a jacket made of ventile cotton and it exhibited this effect very well. When wet, the fibers swelled and stiffened the fabric almost like heavy canvas.
Why is this important? In cold weather, exercising hard enough to produce sweat isn't bad in itself. There's something invigorating about working hard in the cold, in fact. But a problem arises if you have to stop for a flat tire, for instance. You're no longer working as hard so you're not producing as much heat. Meanwhile, sweat continues to evaporate, chilling the body even more. Hypothermia is called the killer of the unprepared for good reason.
Sweat is one way your body controls temperature. In summer, we're all accustomed to sweating copiously on long, hot rides. Cycling clothing wicks the sweat away, and as it evaporates, it cools the air right next to the skin. I could be wrong, but I think a cycling jersey offers a larger surface area for evaporation than the skin beneath it, adding to the cooling effect.
Co-worker: I'd ride a bike but I wouldn't wear them funny shorts.
Me: Given your looks, that's probably a wise decision.
I'm not writing about exotic prints, sublimated artwork, or custom embroidery. This is about the basic construction of cycling clothing.
Anyone interested in the history of bicycle racing can see that clothing construction hasn't changed substantially in half a century. Fabrics have changed radically in that time, but the basics of bike clothing are almost set in stone. Jerseys have 3 pockets across the back - except for track jerseys which have none - and there's a zipper down the front. Zipers have been growing longer every year it seems. Back in the 1960s and earlier, jerseys came with collars like polo shirts and sometimes included a front pocket up near the shoulder for cigarettes. They stayed dry up there.
Purpose-built cycling clothing is all about sweat management, long distance comfort, and drag reduction. Form fitting clothes like the traditional bike jersey and shorts reduce drag by reducing frontal area and reduced flapping. That saves some energy, though frankly it's probably miniscule. Without quantifying it, let's just say there's a noticeable difference between wearing my cycling jersey in warm weather and that big white parachute of an anorak when it's cold.
Cycling shorts are black so those of us who throw a chain or repair a tire have someplace to wipe our hands afterward. Black doesn't show the grease and dirt. See the saddle sore post for more about shorts, saddle sores and other stuff you may not really want to know.
I mentioned these synthetic polo shirts up above. They'd be suitable for a short ride if I had someplace to put my keys and wallet. Likewise, I have some wicking T-shirts at home that would be equally suitable. But that's one thing about bike commuting - maybe one of the most important things, actually - and that is the problem solving we do in order to ride back and forth to work. I can't claim that my solutions are universal. What works well for me may not work at all for you. We each find solutions that are sometimes unique to our situations.