Depending on your take on the subject, it’s either crazy, astonishing, predictable or just sad, that one of the reasons most regularly given by women as to why they don’t cycle is their worry about how it will affect their appearance.
From paranoia about helmet hair to distaste about having to gear up like a lycra warrior, there is little doubt that a negative image about how you will look if you cycle is a deterrent for many people who currently do not get on their bikes.
And, given that this image is a particular obstacle predominately (if not exclusively) for women, it is another, important barrier to higher female participation in cycling.
Here, yet again, we compare very unfavourably with our European neighbours in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where the percentage of female cyclists is much higher. But, although dedicated cycle lanes and more protection from the law undeniably contribute to this, take a look at the people on their bikes in these countries and they will invariably be wearing ‘normal’ clothes. All part of a very different cycling culture of course, but an important facet of it, nevertheless.
Clearly the nature of your cycling and the type of bike you use will determine how you dress: a tweed coat would look as out of place on a carbon fibre racer as lycra would beside the wicker basket on a Pashley. There are, of course, certain safety precautions, such as not having anything flapping loosely around your pedals, or wearing long flowing clothes on a bike with a crossbar, that should be sensibly observed when cycling, but it is nonsense to contend that you can’t cycle in ordinary clothes.
And, given that this is particularly the case for short journeys to work, or school, or to the local shops – the very type of travel we should be encouraging by bike and not car – then persuading more people that you don’t have to dress up like a spaceman to cycle takes on even more importance.
Happily, there has been more focus on this in recent years and a number of retaillers selling adaptable cycle gear – “as at home in the office, as in the saddle” or such like – have sprung up, to the extent we now have the Lauren Lavernes of the world recommending their cycling gear of choice. All very well, and if it encourages more people on to their bikes, even better, but essentially this is still specialist gear and it continues to conform to the belief that is necessary to wear particular clothes, whether specialist, adaptable or fashionable, before you can feel comfortable about cycling.
That this gear will be, by definition, expensive, compounds the problem and also fits into the growing fashion industry that is now outdoor gear. Indeed the great outdoors is fast becoming the new fashion catwalk. Open any magazine devoted to outdoor activity these days and at least half the pages will be devoted to advertising and ‘testing” gear. Of course exposure in the outdoors requires certain warm, waterproof and some specialised kit, and expert advice is helpful. But the line between advice and the impression that expensive kit is a necessity, is a fine one, and one whose emphasis will, inevitably, conspire against those who cannot afford it.
After years of spending money on all kinds of ugly, smelling, uncomfortable ‘technical gear’, I now unreservedly admit that my mother (who knew nothing about outdoor gear and whose idea of an outdoor expedition was to navigate her way between Harrods and Harvey Nics, but did know her fashion and fabrics) was right all along in her advocacy of natural fabrics. Wool and silk will keep you warmer, or cooler, than any man made fibre and warm when wet.
So, a wool scarf, tied appropriately, will not only look better, but keep you warmer than a polyester buff and wool gloves will, unlike any of their technical equivalents, keep your hands warm even in soaking rain – see my experiences in Arran.
As for hair, I don’t intend to become embroiled into a debate about helmets, but if you do see the benefit of wearing a helmet, there is a simple solution to the dreaded ‘helmet hair’. Tie a silk scarf, as a turban, or bandeau, under your helmet and, even if you have thick, voluminous hair like me, it will not flatten. I promise! And before you shriek about the cost of silk scarves, in my experience, old ones that I’ve had for years but no longer wear, have tended to be the best, perhaps because they may have a higher proportion of silk. But have a trawl round your local market, charity and ethnic shops, as well as the internet, where you can pick up lovely, cheap and colourful silk scarves very reasonably – you never know, you may even be able to coordinate the colours with your cycling clothes!
So you can keep warm, or cool, or both and look good on a bike, without spending hundreds of pounds – and it can be the excuse you needed to sort out all those accessories at the back of your wardrobe.