Cycling: it’s art and sport…

In RIDE Cycling Review #65 (volume 3, 2014) we published a feature about style. It outlines the writer’s thoughts on how a cyclist should look. In the past three months, we’ve received one irate email about the sentiment contained but also plenty of good-humoured appreciation. It is a lighthearted piece about style and cycling… please take it in the spirit in which it was intended (ie. a bit of fun in an all-too-serious world) and please share among your bunch.

Without further ado, may we present the online version of James Stout’s Style Guide by Observation.

It’s not taught, it’s learned. There are no rules, rather just guidelines. Cycling is about style – and there is right, wrong and a mix of both. There can be the classic aesthetic or trends may emerge. James Stout offers his observations…

“Elegance does not consist of putting on a new dress.” – Coco Chanel


In Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, the author contests that rock and roll is a totality. It is not an art form, it is the realisation of all previous art. Rock is a mix of the everyday and the ephemeral, the purest aesthetic art and the most mundane emotion. This moment in music and culture is in the fusion of something so normal with something so beautiful that rock transcends “high art” and “low culture” and becomes something we can all relate to, a pure expression of human emotion. ‘Rock and roll’ is not something one goes to galleries to appreciate, it’s something one can’t help but dance to in one’s bedroom. It’s not a refined cultured and acquired taste, it’s an unrefined, raw emotion.

Ever since I started riding bicycles, and long before I began racing them, I have been a student of the art of bicycle racing, of what differentiates a cyclist from a bike rider. The aesthetic part of cycling has always appealed to me as much as the athletic part. Anyone can sweat but it takes a true icon to push themselves to the limit and still look good.

When my friends had posters of fast cars and women wearing flimsy bikinis, I had pictures of fast bikes and men in form-fitting lycra. I remember the first time I saw the Onda forks on a Pinarello Prince, and the high neckline on an Assos gilet. To me it was just like when the Sex Pistols or The Beatles shattered the world of music. The first time I saw those wavy forks reformed my conceptions of beauty and utility, and how they could be combined. There was something so perfectly self-contained and beautiful about it, something that made it transcend the form of a bicycle and become something entirely more beautiful. Likewise that gilet, the high neck – zipped up against the cold – recalling the ruff of a medieval courtesan or a soldier’s formal jacket. As soon as I saw one, I knew I had to have it.

These products were like that rock album that you heard and couldn’t wait to save up to buy, it was game-changing stuff for a boy raised on a farm in rural England.

Building on Meltzer, Hebdige defined subcultures as defining their own style, judging things by their own standards. When I first picked up those cycling magazines, I felt like those 1960s kids. I had my own tribe now, and their approval was all that mattered. Cycling took me out of my world and into a new one. I was to be apprenticed and inducted into this subculture and with it to develop an appreciation of its incredibly complex and intangible style.

Bike racing was never just a sport to me; It was always a fusion of art, theatre and energy. People get into cycling for various reasons; some want to lose weight, some want to get fit, others want to complete an event or a challenge. I didn’t want any of these things, for me the reward was the act of being a cyclist and as such I made sure – right from the early days – to cultivate my image and aesthetic. I studied form as much as I studied fitness. I learned as much watching Ivan Basso stirring his espresso in Overcoming as I did from any physiology text.

I internalised the aesthetic and the language of the bicycle racer and began to loathe the people I saw out on bikes every day with their flapping jerseys and peaked helmets. Their appearance was, to me, a sacrilegious act, and an affront to what I hold so dear. Nobody ever told me what looked good and what didn’t. How to wear my cap or when to wear my gloves. I watched. I learned. And, like obscenity, I knew style when I saw it.

More recently, as I went about the métier of the bike racer, living in Catalunya and pedalling up and down the Pyrenees all day, I became aware of an apocryphal tendency in the faith I had embraced. Years before, I had received my education from glossy magazines, via Eurosport and by the side of the road. I didn’t learn about bicycle racing on the internet; nobody gave me a list of how to do it. I had to watch and learn. Now, things are different; it’s too easy to create content these days, too easy to pronounce commandments in text as if they were carved in tables of stone. Style is not about following ‘The Rules’, it’s about knowing what people think the rules are, and then breaking them but in doing so, contributing to the realisation that those were never the rules in the first place. Style can’t be defined or listed, it can only be observed.

The moment someone quoted a numbered rule from a blog at me, I realised it was time to cast the money lender out of the temple.

More and more, I was being picked up on style points, corrected on my bike’s set-up and told what to wear – not by my fellow racers but by people on the internet. At first, my feelings were hurt and I responded like any arrogant young man. What did these guys know? They’d never pinned on a number in their lives (let alone folded it and pinned it exactly in line with jersey pockets). But slowly, I began to realise, these guys were just the same as the critics who poured scorn on The Beatles’ simplistic melodies or the Sex Pistols’ abilities as musicians. They only saw half of the coin; bike racing is about being useful and beautiful.

Simpson Style: the 1960s… In 1965, Tom Simpson was the world champion. The Brit is famous for many things, including his sense of style. He strikes a classic pose during the Tour de France in 1960. He would wear the rainbow jersey and maillot jaune and he’s part of cycling folklore. At the basin during a race or with tea and slippers at the Tour in 1962, he is a captivating subject… right to the end.

It’s in this fusion that the truly unique element of cycling resides. It’s an art and a sport and if we see it as only one or the other, we miss the point. These guys became focused on the form of cycling without appreciating its function. They looked for rules and order when fluidity and free interpretation were what really defined ‘Style’ as a bike racer.

So, without ever forgetting that the most beautiful thing that one can do on a bike is ride it, here are some musings on style. These are not rules, they are truths. They will continue to be true until the time when they are, evidently, no longer true. That doesn’t mean that it will ever be acceptable to wear a sleeveless jersey but it does mean that, when you see me rolling with my team-mates by the beach on a recovery ride and we have our sleeves rolled up, and you shout something abusive as you overtake us covered in sweat, spit and aerodynamic accoutrements, we’re still right and you’re still wrong.

Let’s start from the bottom up: if I can see your ankles I don’t want to see you. The only excuse is being a trackie, and by that I mean an Olympic medallist. Otherwise, socks should be tight fitting and have at least 30mm of cuff above the ankle but should never come above mid-calf. Socks allow for a modicum of self-expression but I don’t want to look at 17 colours gyrating around your cranks. Oversocks are okay in a time trial, or in the rain. If you train in aero shoe covers, you will soon train alone.

Shave your legs please. Not for massage, not for road rash repair, not for aerodynamics, but because when you’re sweating and crushing souls on your next group ride, you can look down at those smooth calves and feel like a marbled Adonis in motion.

Your shorts should leave 30mm from the knee but should cover more than half of your thigh. Sean Kelly and Eddy Merckx might have worn shorter knicks but you’re not either of them, so don’t try to be. It’s okay to wear plain black knicks, or ones that match your kit but please don’t buy other plain colours, you might be trying to be matchy but you just look cheap. Save the money and spend it on doing laundry to have your kit match instead.

If it’s below 15 degrees, wear knee warmers.

If it’s below 10, full length leg warmers.

Your jersey (full length zip is preferred): this should not flap in the wind. A small amount of sleeve flap is acceptable but body flap is not. Your pockets should be evenly filled. Big items go in the centre, food on the right, wallet on the left. If you must listen to your music, at the very least do us all the courtesy of running your headphones inside your jersey and out of the bottom, loop the cord back up into the centre pocket where you will place your phone.

If you think your jersey is funny, it isn’t. If someone gets paid to race in a given jersey, and that someone is not you, don’t wear it. Pro team kits are only cool once the team has been defunct for over a decade. And, even then, please note: US Postal/Discovery kits will never be cool.

If it’s cool, armwarmers are fine (jersey sleeves go over, as do any rubber bracelets you wear to show how charitable you are) but they should have no notable wrinkles. Gilets are great (just don’t call them vests) and give an opportunity to sport the high neck look which really accentuates your manorexic physique and pointy cheekbones. Please, pull the back down over your pockets unless you are in the process of pulling something out. If you can’t co-ordinate rolling up the gilet, pulling out a bar and pulling the jersey back down again, you should practise. You wouldn’t tuck a suit jacket into your trousers to get at your pockets would you?

Gloves: I like a good pair of thin long-fingered gloves or short-fingered mitts, never do a bunch ride without the latter but use them for training unless temperature dictates. Quite obviously, wearing long gloves with short sleeves is ridiculous, what are you? A dentist? Keep your gloves clean and please, please don’t ever leave the house with thick, puffy gloves on. If it’s that cold, stay inside or, for the super euro-pro aesthetic, pull on a fleecy headband and go cross-country skiing in your team thermal jacket.

The neck: this is where things get really stylish. Very little gives me more pleasure than the chance to deploy my raffish neckerchief. Years of racing and training in Spain have instilled in me that leaving the house below 10 degrees sans ‘bufanda’ would result in certain death. Obviously, one must have long sleeves on to wear the neckerchief. The latter without the former just makes you look like a dog who has recently returned from the vet.

Then we come to the headgear. I’m not going to get into the helmet debate here but let me say this: the moment you get off your bike, get out of your helmet. Are you unstable on two feet? Afraid of earthquakes? No? Then take that thing off when you stop for coffee (and order a coffee, an espresso or a macchiato… before 11.00am and post-ride a cappuccino is acceptable).

Casquettes (not caps please) are amongst my most prized possessions, as are my winter hats with ear flaps and my Exteondo ‘3 in 1’ hat/scarf/headband. But if I ever, ever, see you riding in a baseball hat I shall cross the road to ensure that you soon lament your lack of protective headwear. If you’ve got this far, and are still considering going outside in an aerodynamic head covering please stop reading now, I have failed you. The only time any aero equipment can ever look good is when you’re winning a race.

Masters of cycling style… Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx in the tricolore and rainbow jerseys in August 1968; together again, this time in team colours during the 1967 Giro d’Italia.
Tom Simpson and Jacques Anquetil during the motorpaced Bordeaux-Paris race in 1965.

 Now for your bike – this is where things can get silly. I studied the form and the fit of the riders I admired. I spent years forming my body to fit the contours of a race bike, no spacers and a 130mm stem, 12cm of drop and a thin wrap of handlebar tape. I like my bike. Every day I wake up and think ‘that’s a beautiful machine’ – it looks graceful, light and yet pugnacious. With that said, the ugliest accessory of all on a bike, however beautiful, is a rider who doesn’t fit it. If you riding look like an electrocuted cat, nobody cares how ‘slammed’ your stem is. You’re trying too hard. Stop it.

A bike is a beautiful machine but it is a machine. Form must follow function, nobody looks good getting dropped, nobody looks bad winning. So set up your bike in the way that lets you pedal it fluidly, steer it safely and stop it easily. And don’t put aerobars on your road bike please.

My bike has a long stem, no stack and big drop. It also has a pretty sizeable saddle bag, two large bottles and a frame fit pump. These things let me ride my bike. A lot. I’ve been scolded about these often but let me tell you when a cyclist looks least stylish: walking home with cycling shoes in hand, because his overpriced little CO2 canister and single tube wasn’t sufficient for a ride over 30km.

If you actually use your bike for serious rides (I don’t mean “training” – athletes train, cyclists ride) you will appreciate the value of equipment that will get you around 200km with gravel and glass. This means a pump you can use as many times as you get flats, at least two tubes, a patch kit and a multi-tool with which you can actually fix most mechanicals. If you spend more time reading blogs than riding bikes, then put your inner tube in your pocket with your little gas cylinder. You will look extremely stylish as you raise a designer label-clad arm to hail a passing car for a ride home. Let’s hope your second flat happened near a cafe where you could order a giant caffeinated milkshake under the pretence that you “earned it”.


– By James Stout

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