I find myself in a quandary. I've had this dilemma for a few years now. It's a thorny one, with which I've found myself wrestling on the bike, on foot, in cafes and bars, or anywhere else bike traffic is visible. This dilemma bears on a sensitive idea; one we frequently debate at the shop but have barely touched in the blog: style.
I will not be pretending an ability to render any sort of objective judgment on bicycle or sartorial elegance in this post, nor will I project my own values onto the simpler question I'll address here. You won't hear me tell you to wear “fashionable-three-quarter-length-pants” and certainly nothing so tired as to stop wearing neon helmet covers (even if I try to avoid them). I won't be debating the stylistic merits – or demerits, depending on your point of view – of colored tires, matching fenders, or ground effect lighting, or telling you to wear jeans on your training ride. Use equipment that works well for what you're doing, and wear what you want to wear.
The basic intersection of style and bicycles has little to do with whether you prefer denim or tweed or linen, and even less to do with what you choose to ride. The crux lies in how your riding influences your style. However you choose to express yourself through your appearance – be it clothing, accessories, hair, or makeup – that expression must necessarily extend to the hours you spend on your bicycle, and if you're reading this blog those hours are likely not few. How do you let your chosen appearance change when you ride? If you commute, do you change your clothes to do so, or do you wear your normal clothing? By extension, do you feel that you look like yourself while you ride, or do you feel like a bike person? How do you feel about that? The answers to these questions can come in many forms, and will be dictated by everything from meteorology and physiology to geography and demography. In fact, what you actually wear matters much less than how you feel about it. Comfort and aesthetics are different for everyone, but the more it rains the more important it becomes to like your raingear.
Back out on the street it's easy to see who's comfortable and who's not. Not the cyclist passing by who wore the clothes most appropriate for the weather, but the one that knows they look good. Whatever “good” may actually mean for that particular rider, it's pretty obvious when someone hasn't compromised their style to ride their bike, or at least feels at home in what they've chosen to wear. Conversely, it's quite painful to see someone living on their bike who obviously doesn't enjoy what they've ended up wearing. There seems to be an industry-wide assumption that when we swing a leg over a top tube we don't get to look like anybody except “bike guy.” Whether you're dressing like a Boeing supercommuter, a couture model, or a (hardcourt bike polo) Guardian, I'm a fan of choices. Anyone that has been able to see past an industry that tells them to wear a uniform is being a vitally important kind of cycling advocate- they're showing everyone one less sacrifice that must be made to ride a bike. When you roll out happy about how you look, you show each person standing on the sidewalk next to their car that they can do the same.
At last this brings me back to my quandary. I feel quite strongly about this subject, to the point that I would love to dispense heartfelt praise and excited high-fives to more than a few strangers on the street. Despite my utter sincerity, our culture isn't very comfortable – especially in Seattle – with that sort of behavior, and honestly there have been awkward moments. I'd love to be able to tell someone that I think they're doing a great job making cycling look stylistically accessible, but I haven't found a way to express it quickly and clearly enough to avoid uncomfortable misunderstandings. Since I really don't want to be “that guy,” can we come up with a nice shorthand for “Hey-I-think-you're-doing-a-great-job-making-cycling-look-good-and-no-I'm-not-being-sarcastic-or-hitting-on-you”? Or maybe a hand signal? A little help here would be greatly appreciated.