In case you haven't noticed, cycling has gone the way of aerobics, tennis and skiing: it's turned into a stylish exercise.
Forget the bike you rode as a kid and think instead of the big time--of bicycles sleek as arrows with names like Bianchi, Masi, Cannondale, Trek and prices that can set you back anywhere from $300 to $3,000.
Maybe it was great to whiz around on your chromed two wheeler in a pair of cutoffs, wrinkled T-shirt and time-honored sneakers. But that was before chrome was out and cycling had become a fashion sport.
It was also before the 1984 Olympics, before Greg LeMond's victory last July in the Tour de France and before affluent Americans went looking for an alternative to running.
Combined, those forces have turned cycling into what Ultra Sport magazine claims is "America's hottest sport." Today's savvy cyclists wear European-inspired, form-fitting nylon/Lycra shorts, logo-laden team jerseys, color-coordinated gloves, high-tech shoes, Space Age helmets and protective wraparound glasses.
Wearing the right gear has "definite advantages," according to Eric Gottesfeld, manager of I. Martin Imports in Los Angeles.
Starting from the ground up, he explains: "You wouldn't want to wear running shoes to go bowling. The shoes are very important."
Touring shoes, often made of a mesh and leather upper, have stiffer soles than typical athletic shoes for more efficient cycling.
Cleated shoes, in leather or reinforced mesh, "lock" the shoe into the pedal for greater efficiency. And new combinations of shoes and pedal attachments work like the quick-release boot-binding system on skis.
The body-conturing fit of shorts and tights makes the clothing more aerodynamic; the inner padding of chamois, or a synthetic material, reduces chafing.
For convenience, most tops, despite their snug design, are constructed with a row of low back pockets to carry food, tools and spare inner tubes.
And all the vivid colors, which might look like vanity, are also a form of protection--against motorists. Gottesfeld, out for an early morning ride recently, says he wore a bright pink jersey so he would be highly visible and command "respect."
Experienced cyclist Peter Jenkins uses the latest equipment (a metallic-pink Pinarello cycle, striking clothing, quick-release shoe/pedal combination, helmet) for comfort, performance and safety.
"I've learned the hard way," he says. "Most people don't think bicycles have a right to be on the road." He is particularly fearful of drivers who recklessly open car doors or make life-threatening turns at intersections.
"Bright colors are good for safety," agrees Chris Grimm, marketing director of Bicycle USA, official publication of the League of American Wheelmen. He laments that too many motorists still treat the bicycle as a toy rather than a vehicle, despite the growing legion of mature riders.
Statistics from the Bicycle Federation of North America show the number of adults who cycle weekly climbed from 10 million in 1983 to 14 million in 1986. And bicycle sales, 6.8 million in 1983, rose to 12.9 million in 1986.
While clubs and events tend to bring out more men than women--virtually all of them in peacock finery--Grimm says the ranks of new riders are predominantly women. "I've heard the figure is as high as 75%.
"A lot of people might disagree, but I think the clothing has helped increase the popularity of the sport. Americans are so trendy they grab on to something like this."
European manufacturers, such as Descente and La Vie Claire (for whom LeMond rode in the Tour de France), are still the apparel favorites. But American companies, including some on the West Coast, are racing to catch up.
Cyclist and designer Adam Simon, president of Systems L.A. California, says his 6-month-old firm specializes in "funky prints and wild color combinations." Based on recent orders, the firm's unisex shorts, tights, tank tops, matching seat covers and one-piece triathlon suits will be seen nationwide and as far away as Aruba and Australia.
"If someone has an expensive bike, he wants hot clothes to match," Simon reasons. "We're not going after the overweight, middle-aged man. We're going after the Yuppie with a BMW and a $1,000 or a $1,500 bike."
That seems pretty much the industry's favorite person, although stores, such as Two Wheel Transit Authority in Huntington Beach, report a customer range of 20-50.
"A lot of older guys are looking for something to keep them in shape," observes Denise Dickinson, who purchases the store's clothing.
'Scared People Away'
In the past, the look of racing-style apparel "definitely scared people away," she says. "It was so streamlined. But now I think people accept it as what you wear for cycling."
Black is preferred by females with less-than-perfect shapes. (It's also preferred by riders who need a place to wipe their hands after they've fixed a chain or a tire, Grimm adds.)