Head to Toe cycling workwear

11832-12_8106_1024x1024_49bc4d88-b9fd-4645-950c-cb8385845897_1024x1024When I first started buying dedicated cycling clothing, I at first confined myself to getting jerseys and shorts that looked “normal”. So my first pair of shorts were baggy mountain bike shorts with a padded liner. And my first cycling specific jersey was a kind of green jumper.

After getting over that phase and going through several years of succumbing to lycra and “technical fabrics”, I have come full circle and tend to focus on what is sometimes called commuter wear or urban cycling apparel.

Sometimes, it’s true, I arrive at work looking like a normal person in normal workwear, when in fact everything I am wearing is in some way specifically designed for cycling.

  1. Shimano shoes. I’ve mentioned these before. The cleats are recessed, so the shoes themselves look kinda like trainers (ugly, but most are). They’re the most comfortable cycling shoes I’ve ever used, and people usually just think they’re regular trainers (I keep a pair of shoes to change into at work, but sometimes forget I’m wearing them).
  2. Socks. My favourites are merino wool socks, but I also have some Café du Cycliste stripy socks. I guess they’re designed to keep your feet cool or warm or something. The merino wool ones are lethally slippery, as my coccyx continually reminds me.
  3. Swrve trousers. These are stretchy, flat seamed, windproof trousers. They look like black trousers, but they have a special design that minimises chafing, and they don’t constrict your knees when pedalling. They’re cut lower in the front and higher in the back, so they don’t cut in to your belly, and your modesty is preserved at the rear. They’re also slightly rain resistant, so water rolls off in light showers. I really like them. £80, which is £15 cheaper than the Rapha equivalent.
  4. Padded boxer shorts. I have a couple of pairs of these. One is from Rapha: they’re an oversized boxer with a slightly padded chamois – not as padded as proper cycling shorts, but better than riding in your regular underwear. No seams, no chafing etc. I have another, cheaper pair from Tenn outdoors (Amazon). About £30 cheaper than the Rapha ones at £12.99, they’re pretty much the same – slightly tighter in the leg. I bought the Rapha boxers in the sale, by the way. Never pay full price for Rapha.
  5. Base layers – I have a few of these. Some for summer, for wicking sweat. Others for winter, for wicking sweat and thermal properties. I have a merino one, but of course that shrunk. That’s the thing about merino wool. It shrinks every time, even in a 30° wash. I also have some made from artificial fibres. Not as nice next to the skin, not quite as warm as merino, but can be washed without fear.
  6. Shirts. I have three specialist cycling shirts, two from Rapha, and one from Vulpine. The black and white check one from Rapha is the oldest one I have, a bit of a tight fit, and I’m less keen on it for work because I prefer plain colours and not patterns – especially with ties. The other Rapha shirt is a dark blue cotton Oxford shirt, with a heavy fabric that is a little too warm for the hottest days. But it has good stretch and looks like a normal work shirt. They’re nice, but as with most of this stuff, the cost about 4x more than you really want to spend on workwear. Vulpine recently reduced their £100 equivalent Oxford shirts to a more reasonable £58, which is only twice as much as I really want to pay for a shirt. The one I have looks and feels like a regular shirt (mine is a kind of denim blue but it still looks okay with a tie, although a couple of people commented on the “sombre” colour), only with a bit more stretch.
    And here’s the rub. What you’re getting is comfortable enough on the bike and may even be more efficient at wicking sweat away from your body (although with a back pack, all bets are off), but it is to all intents and purposes a normal shirt, only with slightly stretchier (3% elastane) fabric and maybe some flattened seams. So let’s say the other shirts I have for work cost between £4 and £40, which they did. The median price I’ll pay for a (non-white, non-stripy, non-check) shirt for work is somewhere around £25. Now, how much extra should I be paying for flattened stitching and stretch fabric? I’d say no more than £10-£15 more, if that.
    I really like some of the Rapha workwear, especially the knitwear: the crew neck for example, or the “stand collar”. But £120? Or £140? That’s one issue. Another is the inevitable shrinkage from merino wool. The third is the sizing. Rapha’s idea of an “XL” is 107-115 cm, whereas a Marks and Spencer XL is 112-117, which is a 5cm difference at the bottom end and a 2 cm difference at the top. As with all cycling wear, you have to go a size higher, and Rapha’s sole explanation for their XXL is simply “115+ cm”. Har bloody har, Rapha, you body fascists. What does that mean? 116cm? Right.
    Clearly, obviously, Rapha don’t want people like me in their clothes, but you know. The point is, yep I’ve got a belly on me but I’m an XL everywhere else. Why are cycling clothes almost universally a size (or two) smaller than the standards elsewhere? It’s time for EU legislation… oh.
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It’s been a bummer the whole damn summer

English: A Snickers candy bar, broken in half.
Marathon – yeah, you heard me

Having established that the prevailing wind would be behind me on the way in, I finally did that thing and cycled to work last Friday. It was never the distance that bothered me. My normal drive to work is 16 miles, but to avoid the busiest roads (with the most fatalities), I had to go three miles in the wrong direction, so that made it 19 miles on the day. So I was bothered a bit by the extra three miles, which shouldn’t be necessary in a civilised country.

I also had concerns about getting stranded with a puncture, or being knocked into a ditch by an Audi driver. Then there were the clothes, my Rapha gear, which I’d been accumulating in hopes of looking reasonably smart at work after a 19-mile ride.

Ironically, the three miles in the wrong direction was along the A422 with the wind against me and very fast cars and the odd lorry thundering past me. You can’t hug the left hand side too much because of the horrible state of the road, so you just have to hope. I set off at 6 am, not because I thought I needed 2 1/2 hours to get to work, but because I was hoping 6 am would be a lot quieter than 7 am. It more or less was. I was allowing 90 minutes to get to work, meaning I’d arrive an hour early. We usually get there at least 30 minutes early, so it wouldn’t be too shocking,

(Yeah, Wilshaw, all this talk of teachers going home at three o’clock: no mention of what time we arrive in the morning, eh? Not a morning person, obviously.)

The odd dead hare avoided, I covered the three miles and finally turned off onto the back road to Thornton. On a map, it almost looks like a straight line to Wing from there.

The next half an hour was hard and hilly. It was cold, and although I’d got up at 5 to eat breakfast, I’d not digested it, and my legs wanted to be in bed.ImageLooking at the route profile (above), you can see that the lowest point of the ride is fairly early on, and then you start climbing until about the half way point. That little dip right at the beginning is the bit from my front door to the bottom of my street, which is followed by a sharp left and a steep climb up Page Hill.

Once I hit the roundabout on the A421 between Whaddon and Mursley, things got better. My legs suddenly felt better, and I fairly flew along. The Mursley/Whaddon road is in a shocking state of repair: there are bits of it where 100% of the width of the surface is potholed and there is nowhere for a cyclist to go, apart from up and down as you bounce and rattle. It’s like there’s been a war and the road was strategic and has been shelled. When you read post-apocalyptic science fiction, and it’s a hundred years or so after a disaster, and the few remnants of humanity are living in what’s left of the infrastructure: like that. You can see that there was once a road there, but nature is taking over.

Anyway, once I survived that, and as you can see from the route profile above, it was dead easy. So easy, in fact, that I arrived at work not at 7:30, but at 7:15, having averaged around 15 mph. This is a fairly respectable speed, and fast for me.

I wasn’t very sweaty, and frankly didn’t need the Snickers bar I had in my lunch bag (I actually started typing Marathon, then, if you can believe it).

I wasn’t teaching that day, but got a lot of comments about my clothes. I looked very casual. Probably it was the DZR shoes, which look like, you know, plimsoles, but apparently the grey Rapha trousers and the blue Rapha polo neck were fooling nobody.

I’ll do it again, though, if the weather picks up. But here we are in the middle of June and I can say with all honesty that I still have not been out on my bike on a day when it wasn’t cold, windy, or both. There have been no calm, sunny days at all. The wind has been at at least 15 mph all year, I reckon. 15 mph, as you might guess, is enough wind to make you feel like there’s something pushing against you. It’s what you start to feel even on a calm day when you’re cycling at a decent speed. 15 mph feels like you’re pushing against something, so even on a flat road you feel like you’re going up hill.

I can hear the wind blowing through the trees outside this morning. Forecast says 21 kph, rising to 31 kph by lunchtime. Here’s hoping for some decent weather in France this summer holiday. A faint hope. It’s Auxelles Bas: of course it’s going to rain.

Some bits about biking

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Now the weather is finally warming up a bit (my car reported 13.5°C this afternoon), I’ve managed to get out on the bike a few times. Today I dropped a layer, broke out the 3/4 bib shorts instead of the winter tights and dropped the full-finger gloves. Feeling lighter, I managed a circuit in weak spring sunshine. With just a degree or two more, it would have been perfect. As it was, the wind blowing across the exposed fields (usually displaying rape flowers by this time, I think) was a bit chilly.

Before this last weekend, my previous outing on the bike had been back in March, before I had a minor operation that would have prevented me trying to cycle for at least a fortnight. As it was, the day of the operation was the last sunny day before the winter sneaked back for an extra month. In the meantime, I’ve been preparing for what I’m planning to be my most ambitious season yet with a few bits and pieces.

First up, I got a new water bottle. I’ve been worried for a while that pulling up the stopper on my bidon with my teeth was risky, given the amount of bridgework/crowns I’ve got in my mouth. They made a lot of fuss about this at the hospital, too. Just as I will never, ever, eat Carambar again, I’m thinking pulling up a stopper with my teeth, especially when I’m breathing hard and clumsy, is a recipe for disaster. So I picked up a Camelback bidon with a self-sealing valve, which can be left always-open and which you just squeeze to squirt (careful) on a ride. It’s pretty good, I think. Slightly more than the cheapest plastic bottles, but worth the extra for the teeth peace of mind.

Moving on, I’ve been in the market for a new phone carrier since I “upgraded” to the iPhone 5. So after reading around, I decided to wait for the Quad-Lock Mounting system, and ordered one as soon as they became available in the middle of March. It arrived promptly, but I didn’t get to use it till last weekend. I’m impressed. First of all, the supplied protective case is actually quite attractive and useful. I hadn’t bothered with a case for my iPhone 5, because with the 4 it turned into a spiral of pointless spending – every case I bought left me dissatisfied in some way. But this one is plain, tough, and feels nice to the touch. It also locks onto the bike quickly and securely with a simple quarter turn, and holds the phone without rattles, which is more than can be said of my previous solution.

If you use this referral link, you’ll get 10% discount on a Quad-Lock Mount.

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As you can see, the weak link is likely to the be the elastic. The top bit is a splashproof covering which I doubt I’ll ever use since I am the very definition of a fair weather cyclist.

Next up, an item of clothing that I’ve had for a while but only worn more recently. We all know that Rapha cycling gear is over-priced hipster-bait, but it’s also a lot more stylish than standard cycling gear, and well-made. Planning to cycle into work (one of these days, a pipe dream), I want to be able to turn up wearing clothes that will look acceptable to wear for work. As previously discussed, there’s a whole market for this, which suits urban commuters more than it does the likes of me, but still. Maps and dreams, and all that. Two things stopping me from trying to cycle to work. The first is the distance (which for a cycle safe-ish route will be about 20 miles – 40 miles for the day) divided by my fitness. I struggle with achy legs, especially since being on the statins, so I just don’t know about that – considering I’d have to teach a full day in between rather than just collapse on a bed. The second is a more serious concern about safety. The roads in Buckinghamshire are scandalously bad, and the aggression and ignorance of the local drivers is also second to none. People are horribly rude around here – just try visiting Buckingham Tesco -, and on the road there is too much of the mythological, bigoted belief that vehicle excise duty based on emissions is actually called “road tax” and that cyclists – most of whom are car owners too – don’t pay it.

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Anyway, I wore my Rapha merino wool roll neck today on the ride, and it was very comfortable. I’ve been rocking the roll neck look all winter, and a lot of them are merino. The material is light and non-itchy, whilst at the same time providing protection against the wind and helping to manage homeostasis quite well.

Finally (yes, there’s more), one of the things that has been bugging me a while is the headphone/earbud problem and cycling. My cheap Sennheiser “sports” earbuds were too uncomfortable. They were an over-ear design, which clashed with my glasses, in combination with cycle helmet. So I was looking for an in-ear solution, and making do with the crappy Apple ones that came with my iPhone 5. I find these are okay, but the cable tends to (a) get tangled and (b) pull down rather uncomfortably on my ears. I mitigated the latter problem with a little clip that I took off the Sennheisers, but I’ve been considering a Bluetooth option.

Now, I bought a cheap set of Bluetooth speakers (in France) in December, and while they are acceptable for the price, the audio quality is not the greatest. There’s a certain amount of squishy distortion, and the Bluetooth connection drops arbitrarily. So I’ve been looking for a while at various Bluetooth earbuds with a jaundiced eye, but finally took the plunge and went for a set of Plantronics BackBeat Go. They’re an in-ear design, connected by a short, flat, cable, which features volume and call controls and a microphone. I almost never take or make phone calls, so that feature is neither here or there. As for the volume control, one of the benefits of having the phone locked on the handlebar stem and wearing cycling gloves is that I can control the phone on its screen.

So it was all about the reliability of the connection and the sound quality. The BackBeat Go buds come with three sizes of eartips (I stuck with the installed medium) which form a good seal with the ear. Pairing was instant and easy. I’d read someone on Amazon complaining that they were too quiet, but I dread to think what that person considered loud enough. The Plantronics are loud enough. In fact I turned the volume on the phone down a bit.

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Now, wearing headphones while you cycle is foolish and dangerous. On my riding circuit I meet two or three cars per ride, and I’ve always been wary about drowning out the sound of approaching engines. I’ve adopted a paranoid style, with frequent looks over my shoulder, but still end up jumping out of my skin occasionally. These earbuds form such a good seal that they almost completely cut out the outside world. I’m really not sure I should be riding my bike wearing these. I’ll certainly turn the volume much lower if I ever try to ride to work with them. Apart from anything else, the rush of adrenaline I get every time a vehicle scares the life out of me gives me the Jimmy legs.

Apart from that concern, sound quality is very good. Much better than the Apple earbuds, and certainly much better than I expected, given that they’re wireless. The low end is nicely rounded without being woolly, and the response across the audio spectrum is well balanced. A single charge is supposed to last a few hours – I basically need an hour or two at a time – and they recharge quite quickly via the supplied USB cable – which is pleasingly short and unlikely to get tangled. They’re also comfortable to wear and don’t clash with my glasses.

Levi’s commuter wear: oh dear

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So I know I look like a dolt in lycra (though maybe a little less so in my new svelte profile), and I’ve always had a lot of time for “alternative” bike wear, whether it’s the astonishingly expensive Rapha gear, or equally expensive Vulpine, or in-between gear like Twin Six.

It’s seems that with cycling you always have a choice between looking like a twat in lycra or looking like a fashion victim.

I used to ride my bike in jeans and ordinary shoes. Those were the days. I used to ride miles like that, and it never occurred to me that my clothes were holding me back. But then I was young, and I could do anything. Now I’m an old git, I need all the marginal gains I can get, and it’s unfortunately true that even in stretch denim, I need more stretch.

I bought some Rapha trousers a while ago, which I rarely wear, but they’re held in reserve for when I finally pluck up the gumption to cycle the 20 miles to work. For my birthday, thanks to a voucher (which I spent immediately, wary of receivership and administration issues) I got a Rapha Merino roll neck jersey, which will make me look almost completely normal at work, should I get around to doing this thing. Also, for christmas, my sister gave me a grey Vulpine shirt which will also be all right for workwear.

Having dropped a waist size, I was in the market for a new pair of work trousers, and I had a look in the sales. I came across these Levi’s 511 skinny commuter trousers at half price, and tried them on. They fitted all right, had some stretch, and I reckoned they’d be all right at work – but I doubted they’d be any good on the bike.

For a start, although they have a Rapha-like reflective strip on the inside seam (visible if you roll up the leg a bit), I felt that the emphasis on “skinny” in the styling put fashion before practicality. Just to be sure, I tried them on the bike last Sunday, on the rollers in the garage.

I lasted 15 minutes. Even though I was wearing padded undershorts, they were too uncomfortable. They have reinforced seams, but they’re still seams – where there shouldn’t be seams on cycling clothes. And they have some stretch in the fabric, but it’s nowhere near enough to give your leg the proper freedom of movement. So I took them off and completed my session in just the undershorts.

Okay, maybe, for pootling along at low speeds on one of those trendy fashion victtim retro bikes. But hopeless for anything serious, or for any faster pace. And just as expensive as stuff that would actually work. If you want my recommendation for cycling gear that looks all right and is actually appropriate and comfortable for riding properly without being too stupidly expensive, I’d go Twin Six. This topical Dopers Suck jersey, for example, is only £47.96 from Always Riding.

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