What Not to Wear

Yesterday I rode with a friend who, as a sneakerhead in the 90s, spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours collecting and cataloging and agonizing over an assortment of rubber and pleather shoes. He'd photograph and document each pair, but only actually wear a fraction of them, and only then when he was certain to be seen. Only when he was certain to be seen by folks who recognized the sneakers on his feet, and understood how rare and valuable they were. Today my friend is no longer a sneakerhead. Instead, he rides bikes. And collects cycling apparel.

He owns virtually everything every piece produced by Ritte, GSC, Cadence, Manual For Speed, TSH, The Athletic, and Rapha. This season, he's become obsessed with Pandani, Blue Lug, Pissei, Cup & Cone, and Attaquer. This is a man who owns more than one ten thousand dollar bicycle, yet spends more on his riding wardrobe than bikes. And let's not even begin to consider the shoes…

I'll give him a pass, I suppose, because he lives in Los Angeles, where the riding culture has become informed by and infused with a fashionista vibe that can be traced to the rise of cycling as the preferred pastime of the entertainment industry. And as much as we like to poke fun of the whole Cycling is the New Golf meme, at least among young studio executives, apparently this is the New Normal.

My friend has been riding bikes seriously for about three years, so I told him the story of my introduction to the sport. All of my cycling clothes, including the baggy drawstring wool Kucharik shorts I rode for the first year (until I shredded them in corner six of a hilly crit) were hand-me-downs. I would try to wash my cycling kit once a week, and on that day I'd train in my old Webelos uniform: olive shorts, tall white socks, and a faded tan button-down. Sometimes I'd even wear the kerchief, knotted nattily. In my mind, I evoked Bernard Hinault, but in reality, I probably looked like an emaciated reject from a Raleigh catalog photoshoot.

And then I accused my friend of sartorial laziness. For with all the resources in the world, all he could seem to muster is the will and focus to click BUY on anything posted on the Radavist or its associated cool hunting websites. That he was always perfectly matching, well groomed, entirely shaved, shimmering and smelling of the latest blood orange and vanilla embrocations and liniments annoyed me, I explained. It annoyed me because it was uninspired. I was about to launch into a screed about how white collar appropriation of a blue collar sport had ruined everything before he stopped me.

"So… would you have me wearing ill fitting rags and saggy club cut jerseys?" he asked.

I thought for a moment. I thought for a moment about how, ultimately, so many of us are playing dress up in the first place. I thought about how the internal narrative for so many places oneself at the center of a fictional universe, where thanks to power numbers and Strava and the Coggan chart, comparisons to professionals are inevitable. We can ride the same bikes and train with the same technology as elite athletes - so why not similarly wear the same clothing? But that wasn't it, exactly. That really wasn't what he has saying at all.

What he was saying is that, in many corners, the reality is that cycling has become a luxury sport, and so why would one wilfully choose to use dated or inferior equipment? But that really wasn't it either. It was more than that. It was something about fashion and individuality. It was something about expression, and maybe art. It was something about exclusivity and social hierarchy. It was something that I don't fully understand.

I wanted to say something about regular clothes, maybe about Vulpine or Outlier or even Rivendell, and then realized where that discussion would lead to. I wanted to talk about wool. I wanted to talk about the death of the club and how inexpensive custom sublimation had led to horrific kit design had led to delusional amateurs agonizing over fake sponsorships. I wanted to talk about the importance of showing up to the club run in something without logos, in order to make newcomers feel welcome and less intimidated. I wanted to whine about the commercialization of EVERYTHING.

"No, no. That's not really what I mean," I began, listening to my own words. "I guess it's kind of the message you're sending…" and then I cut myself off.

I cut myself off because this wasn't true. By wearing an $800 lycra outfit and riding a $10,000 bike, he wasn't really sending a different message than I was, with my $150 outfit and $1,000 bike. We were rolling west on Marquette, through Englewood, where the median household income is $19,743. We were both jerks.

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