Deciphering the world of fashion is certainly a fruitless endeavor. Answers to questions like: ‘What’s hot? What’s not? What statement does this ensemble make?’ are clearly subjective or arbitrary at best, while at worst they are an indictment of our society’s rampant materialism, classism, and structural hegemony. Those of us in the mountain bike world likely believe that we are above making such analyses and are more concerned about riding our bikes than appeasing the knobby tired zeitgeist. However, a closer examination reveals that our sport is just as arbitrary in its collective pronouncements of what apparel is deemed acceptable. While you may not agree with my initial assessment of mountain bike fashion (you would do well to remain skeptical), in my mind there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that a vast swath of mountain bikers are, for lack of a better term, fashion victims.
The aspect of mountain bike fashion that I’d like to discuss here has to do with the fit of our kits. As a rabid fan of the UCI Downhill World Cup for over 15 years I’ve seen the skin suits and bullet helmets come and go as the winds of fashion changed direction. Obviously the World Cup doesn’t exist in a vacuum; therefore the fashion preferences of the riders and the UCI are influenced by society at large, implying that we too agree with this change on the whole.
Of course it begs some obvious questions: “If the winners and losers are often determined by just thousandths of seconds, why are we so opposed to tight fitting kits in spite of their obvious aerodynamic advantages? Why are we concerned with our tire’s rolling resistance, but pay no attention to our apparel’s wind resistance? Why do we obsess over shaving a handful of grams off of our bikes when the weight of our kit is never a concern?”
While the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind the current preference for heavy, flowing, baggy apparel could readily serve as the subject of an expansive doctoral dissertation in the subjects of psychology, sociology, anthropology, or history; I think we can effectively cut to the chase of this topic by identifying the strange, seemingly arbitrary exceptions to this apparent preference by our sport and others.
To wit: Brandon Semenuk or Martin Soderstom’s skinny jeans (essentially jeggings) worn with t-shirts are ok, while riding in lycra shorts and a t-shirt are not ok. Kelly Slater’s wetsuit is ok to surf in, but in warmer waters it’s not ok for him to wear a tight fitting pair of trunks like those worn by Michael Phelps, even if it does make it easier to catch waves. Likewise, mountain biking in a skin suit is also not ok for equally groundless reasons. Visor-less skate lids are the “right” helmet to wear for dirt jumping, but try trail riding or even, ‘gasp’ doing downhill shuttle runs with a visor-less full-face helmet and you risk facing a felony charge levied by the mountain bike fashion police.
One glaring example of this strange line of reasoning in practice is the story behind the development of Specialized’s SWAT bibs. When Specialized employees wanted to carry additional water, food, and tools on their person without the additional weight and discomfort of a hydration pack, they began wearing pocketed road jerseys under their baggy mountain bike jerseys. That’s right, they wore two jerseys to appease the mountain bike fashion gods! SWAT bibs offered the pockets without the additional material of the second jersey. Even so, a “road” jersey is still a more efficient storage solution because in addition to allowing easy access to the pockets, this layout also eliminates one extra layer of material along the lower back of the rider.
Meanwhile nearly everyone competing in the World Cup circuit and even a few riders on the Enduro World Series (Gee Atherton and Jared Graves, I’m looking at you) are wearing kit that has been aggressively tailored to ensure that they don’t sacrifice their standing in the points race merely to look good, thereby rendering themselves fashion victims indeed.^ Witness one Shawn Palmer who lost the 1996 World Champs to Nico Vouilloz by .15 of a second while wearing a baggy moto kit. Palmer didn’t make the same mistake at the 1997 Mammoth Kamakaze or in subsequent World Championship races. Pro mountain bike racers aren’t the only ones tailoring their kit though; riders in the upper echelons of the motocross racing world tailor their kits as well, thus invalidating the old canard that loose mountain bike kit is “moto”.
Yet the disdain for tight fitting kit remains. In an effort to reinforce the argument that ignorance of mountain bike fashion law is no excuse for violation, Commencal Bikes has taken it upon itself to educate the mountain bike masses by applying graphics to their bikes decrying the use of lycra bib shorts while suggesting jeans and “race” shorts as acceptable alternatives; the graphic serving as a mountain bike fashion police public service announcement, if you will. Given the fact that pros are actively moving away from loose fitting kit without being so transgressive as to completely abandon it, I wonder if Commencal is in the dark regarding this fact, is in denial that this fact exists, or feels that the ivory tower populated by World Cup racers has no right to violate the law, thereby invoking the Kantian moral imperative.
Whatever the case may be, in exchange for approval from Commencal and the other agents of the fashion police, mountain bikers reap the benefits of baggy kits when they get to work harder on windy days, and ride slower both when climbing and descending, all while overheating on hot days. To be fair, there are of course other, more sought after benefits to baggy mountain bike apparel, benefits that I wholeheartedly endorse such as increased storage in cargo shorts, improved abrasion protection, better kit durability, improved modesty (if that matters to you), and the improved UV light protection offered by multiple layers of kit. Are these benefits possible to achieve within the architecture of a tight fitting kit? Clearly, except maybe for the modesty bit; although much can be done graphically to lend modesty to even tight fitting apparel. I suspect that a design house like Troy Lee Designs could certainly pull it off while still making it look cool. So why do we persist in punishing ourselves in order to appease the fashion police? Perhaps it merely comes down to homophobia, as I continually hear that tight fitting kit is “gay.” If that’s the case, this article is essentially pointless, because you can’t fix stupid.
An argument can be made that if you ride “only for fun”, never enter a race, never Strava your rides, and never try to push your riding partners to keep up with you, then it doesn’t matter what you wear. To that I say, ‘You are 100% correct, it doesn’t matter at all. Enjoy your ride.’ This brings me to my main point: Why can’t we just let people wear what they want without being a bunch of a**h***s about it?
Because I decry the act of pointing out problems without offering solutions, here’s my functional mountain bike fashion suggestion: Troy Lee Designs’ Ace kit offers a great blend of functionality, in the form of multiple pockets, and breathability all while offering the improved aerodynamics and the modesty that seems to be the most valued aspect of baggy kits, but without most of the inherent drawbacks.
Now, I’m not trying to change the world; I’m just trying to help riders that enjoy the sport as much as I do to make the riding experience as enjoyable as possible. It should also be said that I’m not bothered if you disagree with me. You are welcome to your opinion and the freedom to express yourself through the apparel you choose to ride in. My hope is that this piece will serve to achieve just that, give people the confidence to wear what they want, irrespective of the pressures placed upon all of us by the bullies of the mountain bike world.
^Gee Atherton’s choice of kit fit is especially perplexing given his family’s involvement in the literal establishment of a mountain bike fashion police department. At the 2008 Canberra, Australia World Cup DH round Rachael Atherton took it upon herself to protest her second place finish (by 4 seconds) to Tracy Moseley who donned a skin suit for the race. Atherton’s protest took the form of using a felt tipped marker to apply the words, “SKINSUITS SUCK!” to her forearms, and then holding her arms high above her head while standing on the podium to make sure everyone knew her stance on the topic of mountain bike fashion.
For the record, this is what Moseley and Atherton had to say to the press about it all:
Moseley: “I always get shit for wearing this suit – it doesn’t look cool – but I know wearing it makes a difference.”
Atherton: “It’s a bit of a touchy subject. If you ask any of the girls you don’t see them busting out skin suits, because that’s not what we feel like doing. If you win, we want it to be on skill and training and stuff like that. Fair enough to Tracey, if she wants to do that to win. But for the sport, and the longevity of the sport, to wear cool race kit and to make an image for yourself is more important than the odd win here and there.”
Shortly thereafter the UCI banned the use of skin suits in World Cup downhill racing beginning with the 2009 season. Of course the background leading up to the UCI’s decision on this matter involves many other riders who expressed disdain for skinsuits over the years, including most prominently, Steve Peat, but it’s my opinion that Rachael Atherton’s protest was the final nail in the coffin for the UCI approved DH skinsuit.