Dedicated non-follower of fashion

by Gautam Raja

Of all the things one might shop for, nothing bores me more than clothes and shoes. I have never been interested in fashion, and my trademark look is a complete lack of one. I hate to spend more than $10 on any item of clothing, and usually buy only when forced by split seams, or a fed-up wife. I try and wear everything I own until it falls to pieces. Some of my sleeping T-shirts are 20 years old.

Over the years, various people (mainly women) have tried to get me more interested in my appearance, with little success. These people would probably be astonished to hear I now happily go shopping for expensive clothing and shoes. I even ooh and aah over bags, fingering the material and the buckles, looking at the number of compartments. But don’t think I’ve turned into a fop—all this shopping is done at bicycle stores. Instead of designer leather, the materials are Cordura or ballistic nylon. And instead of storage for phones and pens, I’m looking at pockets for tools and tyre patch kits.

I am now partly what’s known in cycling circles as “roadie scum”, or as I like to call them, Carbon Clowns (named for their predilection for carbon fibre). I don’t think non-cycling circles even have a name for grown men in skin-tight padded Lycra shorts, neon jerseys, goofy plastic helmets and those shiny shoes I once heard described as “disco slippers”.

But I love that every aspect of this look serves a purpose, all else be damned. While there are many cyclists who wouldn’t be seen in a ditch in Lycra, even the ones who would, have an unwritten rule: When in full cycling regalia, thou shalt not be more than 15 feet from a ready-to-ride racing bicycle.

The permitted distance varies, but the understanding is clear — when in Speedos, stay near water.

There’s another look I favour, one that’s known as urban cyclist or faux-messenger fashion, complete with ‘manpris’, messenger bag, keys on a carabiner and fixed-gear bicycle. Again, everything serves a purpose — the cut-off pants keep cuffs away from chains, the carabiner keeps keys safe but out of pockets where they could chafe, and messenger bags let you carry a lot of bulky stuff without needing racks and panniers on the bicycle. A simple bicycle is easy to leave locked up around town, and takes abuse well.

Utility is all very well, but those padded shorts? Some of my friends consider these a sure sign that cyclists are delicate, debauched creatures in need of a good beating. But the counter point is that even a plush sofa gets uncomfortable after two hours, so can you imagine what a cycle saddle feels like? If you’re doing a 100 kilometre non-stop ride, I say you deserve all the padding you can get. More than cushioning though, the main function of the chamois — for that’s what it’s called — is to dissipate sweat. Let’s not even contemplate four hours of high cadence, warm weather cycling without one.
And those fluorescent jerseys? I can actually measure the difference in cars’ passing distance when in bright versus muted colours.

Whether drivers are giving me a wide berth because they notice me, or whether they think I’m insane, doesn’t matter. This is fashion I can understand. Clothing that protects you from pain, injury, discomfort, even death. Shoes that help you go faster, shorts that help you go further, and bags that let you take it all with you. And those goofy plastic helmets? I’d choose one over hair gel, or indeed a hairstyle, any day.

First published in Gulf News, September 7, 2010