Lycra, eco and sleek – Flora Macdonald Johnston wants to look every inch the cycle pro
“Yes, but what will make my bum look great?” I’m quizzing the by-now utterly horrified manager of speciality cycling store Sigma Sports, outfitters to top athletes and enthusiasts, about pro cycling kit. He politely declines to answer, but shows me the newest brands for cycling shorts and bibs (that is, shorts and leggings with Lycra braces) complete with bum-enhancing padding.
My cycling conversion began last year while trudging on my hour-and-a-half-long walk to work – and staring enviously at cyclists as they zoomed past. Lockdown had forced me to rethink my daily commute, and walking seemed the safest option. But watching the streams of bike riders smugly whizzing by was too much. So I decided to join them.
I was not, however, going to look drab and shabby. Oh no, I would be sleek and chic: think Catwoman commuter. I set some ground rules: head-to-toe high-performance Lycra or recycled fabric clothing, a bike with cleats, no mismatching outfits, and under no circumstances would I cycle in jeans – ever.
Where does one buy the best kit on the market? To better understand the landscape, I dived into forums such as The Paceline and CycleChat, followed dedicated news channels like PezCycling News, and became obsessed with female cycling teams such as Drops – Britain’s number-one all-female UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Continental racing team. A few brands hit the top spots: British brand Rapha; Aussie label Maap; newly launched minimalist label Universal Colours (“a new cult favourite”, according to Sigma Sports’ co-founder and managing director, Ian Whittingham); another British label, Chpt3, founded by former pro cyclist David Millar; and Brandt-Sorenson, a fashion partnership between Cecilia Brandt and cyclist Nicholas Brandt-Sorenson, which specialises in handcrafted apparel and accessories (think colour and logos).
I succumbed to the Rapha hype, and opted for its women’s Pro Team short-sleeve jersey in black with white logoed armband (£120). For maximum comfort and “moisture evaporation”, it features a lightweight panel, and has three pockets on the back (one with a zip, which held my work key-card, keys and other miscellaneous objects nicely). The fit was comfortable, the sweat patches minimal and, vainly, I noted approving looks from superior cyclists.
For a splash of colour, I tried team Drops’ long-sleeve racing jersey (£99) sponsored by Le Col – the high-performance brand founded by former GB cyclist Yanto Barker – which is designed by team co-founder Tom Varney, a third-generation print designer. Maap’s long-sleeve jerseys (£120) also come in a kaleidoscope of colourways, from neon yellow to pastel green. “When it comes to cycling jerseys, you really get what you pay for so it’s worth spending more,” says Varney. “Look for breathable high-tech fabrics that will help you go the distance.”
If you have a bony bottom like I do, you’ll understand the need to invest in serious padding. Italian label Bianchi is king. Sadly, however, its cycling shorts are not sustainable, being made with 80 per cent polyamide and 20 per cent elastane. But they had the thickest padding of all those I tried, moved well and the silicone leg grippers meant my shorts never rode up (£69). I was also impressed by the more eco-friendly brand Futurum, which sources products as near as possible to its Netherlands factory. Its shorts have sufficient padding, but I especially liked the reflective details, meaning greater visibility in low light (€79.99). Racers might opt for Assos’s new T.Laalalai bib shorts (£165), which took five years to design. They feature high-compression, extra-stretchy fabric for ultimate speediness.
Shoes and socks are a contentious subject. If you mean business, the Specialized S-Works 6 shoe is the way to go (£310). It has a roomy toe, with a close fit. A mesh upper and “body geometry” designed footbed means it’s comfortable while feeling secure. For socks, I went with Universal Colours (£18). It launched during lockdown last spring and its transparency and sleek designs have already made it one of the most popular brands. Its three ranges are all sustainable: Mono and Spectrum are made from 100 per cent recycled fabrics, and the high-performance Chroma from partially recycled fabrics.
London weather is not the most predictable at the best of times but Maium’s raincoats (€155-€175) are eco- and cycle-friendly; made from 77 recycled plastic bottles, side zips allow for pedal movement, while reflective silver is good for night commutes. Reflective experts Proviz’s new Reflect360 tailored gilet is also great for high vis (£74.99). Brandt-Sorenson’s ultra-lightweight yet toasty Usadada puffa scarf proved to be a winner on brisk and foggy mornings ($500). For sunny va-va voom, check out Oakley’s EVZero Ascend range: rose lenses look fabulous and are designed to enhance colour and contrast so you can see more detail (£143).
Of a plethora of stylish helmets, those by Kask and Oakley met my aesthetic (and performance) standards. Founded in 2004, Italian label Kask creates the exceptionally light Protone helmet, which features 14 vents to increase airflow (so minimal hat hair), and has an aerodynamic shell (£199). Its “octo fit adjustment system” also meant I could accommodate my cycling chapeau (£25).
Varney’s advice for styling yourself like a pro is firm: “There’s no school like old skool. Real racers wear white shoes, white socks and a white helmet. And if you really know your stuff, you pair with white sunglasses to match.” I might not have followed this advice to the letter, but I do know one thing – my bum looked peachy.
The lady cyclist
Beatrice Hodgkin is keen to cycle from conference to cocktail hour without a change of costume
Yes, I became a lockdown cycle cliché. But I didn’t want the kit.
I wanted to be able to jump on my upright bike and cycle to work, to meet friends, or go to a meeting, jump off and walk straight in. Not for me the body-con jackets, or boxy jackets or swathes of fluoro. God forbid logos on my bum, calves and arms. I never want to undertake a Superman-type outfit change in a loo.
But I do want to be safe, dry, highly visible and to crack cycling’s seemingly impossible challenge of regulating being boiling at the same time as freezing. Sadly, my wardrobe wasn’t up to it. Thankfully, a clutch of fed-up cyclist-designers has started a revolution.
Most important for me is finding the helmet. Since I don’t want to look like an egg, a disco ball, or like I have an exoskeletal alien head, I had been using a velvet horse-riding helmet. But this, according to British Cycling’s policy manager Nick Chamberlin, is not ideal: “Horse-riding helmets are built to protect riders from higher drops and are therefore heavier than a bike helmet… you’re likely to find a bike helmet much lighter, cooler and more comfortable.” Caz Coneller, founder of online cyclewear trove Cyclechic, recommends vintage-inspired designs by Thousand (£89) and Dashel, which are unbulky, and beautifully refined. Dashel has a series in glossy carbon fibre (from £225), while the new ReCycle (£79) can be recycled after its five-year life. I’m a convert.
“Say no to the builder’s bib and be visible and feminine” is Coneller’s steer for being seen. I had tried my husband’s workman-style, high-vis yellow vest. I felt seen. I also felt sad. Paris cyclewear shop Je Suis à Vélo recommended Georgia in Dublin’s D1 Style vest that gives the high-vis concept a Mondrian-inspired spin (€42). When I tried it, two different women stopped me at the traffic lights to ask where I bought it. The brand also does waterproof, neon-pink glove-cuffs (€35) – 19th-century horsewoman meets 20th-century raver.
Similarly old-meets-new world is the Suffragette-chic reflective sash handmade by Bramble and Mr Twigg in Bermondsey to give a hint of reflective, rather than the full-jacket hologram look (£20). Marylebone-based shoe designer Tracey Nuels makes stylish reflective shoes (£150) that are unobtrusively grey or black in normal light, and leather Chelsea boots with reflective strips up the heel (£250). I also like GoFluo’s reflective gilets (€89.95) – navy or green reversible means high-vis becomes low-key.
But while high-vis kit can slip over my regular coats, I needed to find proper defence against rain and wind. Most specifically wet knees. Regular coats don’t cover them. And if they do, you can’t move your legs enough to cycle.
“There should be no need to bring a change of clothes to the office due to bad weather in transit,” says Georgia in Dublin co-founder Georgia Scott. “Our mission is that you can arrive in style… and swan in as you are.” Much of the brand’s range is inspired by 18th- and 19th-century heroines: from history, they cite Lady Worsley; from fiction, Madame Bovary. The result is a series of tailored, waterproof, windproof and breathable jackets with pretty yet practical detailing: reflective piping; long, scalloped cuffs that umbrella your hands; expandable features that accommodate layers, or a backpack, but can also be cinched in. I loved the Hustle and Bustle (€165). And for legs, the brand’s rain wrap is genius (€63). Wrap it around like a skirt over trousers or skirt in seconds, hook it to your leg so it doesn’t flap up, and whip it off in an instant too. “It is much easier to wear than rain trousers, which make you feel like you’re cycling in an oven,” says Publio Crété from Je Suis à Vélo. To keep wider-legged trousers in check underneath, add Brooks England’s Trouser Straps (£17-£20).
Less Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, perhaps, is the Mosse trenchcoat from Dutch brand Basil (€130). It comes in a tactile fabric that’s free from rainwear “crunch” (my tip: size up) and has reflective back strips. Its two zips mean you can zip up the bottom when it’s pouring, but side panels leave room for legs to move: “With our rainwear women can dress for the occasion, not for the ride.”
The Dutch, with their 130 days of rain a year and historic penchant for cycling, have a head start in the stylish cyclewear game. But sustainable Dutch brand Maium’s toasty calf-length puffa styles (€299) take the biscuit. Like the raincoats Flora likes, these puffas also turn into ponchos via side zips and extendable panels. Side slits mean you can hold the handlebars. When you jump off the bike, zip down and no one’s the wiser.
Poncho is not a word usually associated with city style. Festivals, dog walking, maybe. But Johnny Ratcliffe designed The People’s Poncho (£65) for city cycling; he has seen a 500 per cent increase year on year in organic sales through Google search. The best ponchos fold up small, to keep in your bag; don’t crumple; have waist ties so they don’t flap up; and wrist hooks to hold them over the handlebars and keep everything dry underneath. My holy grail was Weathergoods’ Imbris poncho in peach (£125). Its matte fabric hangs beautifully and it has a front pouch for a phone and reflective edge strips. It is unequivocally chic.
This Swedish company also makes elegant panniers (€99-£159). Again, two words I was not aware existed as a couple. These do actually look like handbags. Ditto the capacious waxed canvas pannier/totes by Bramble and Mr Twigg (£90). At the traffic lights I asked a girl about the chic shopper (£59.99) attached to her bike: US brand Linus (stocked by Cyclechic). And later, a guy about his smart satchel pannier: Alban Bike Bags (£140). For the crème de la crème of leather bike satchels, there’s Hill and Ellis, which have hidden hooks, reflective side swatches and a cover for downpours; a sophisticated kaleidoscope of colours includes Oxblood and racing green (£200).
“I believe in the Dutch philosophy for cycling, where it’s just part of life and you don’t have to compromise on your style to do it,” says Hill and Ellis founder Catherine Ellis. Hear hear.
Get alerts on Fashion when a new story is published