YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsHelmets

FASHION : Attire for Bicyclists Slowly Going From Nerdy to Pleasing : Retailers say better designs are coming out. And teen-agers are adding visors to improve the look of helmets.


Fill in the blank:

Golf enthusiast, tennis freak, bike --------------.

Do you find the term nerd irresistible? Not that cycling is a wimpy, undeserving pastime, a tiddlywinks kind of sport. It takes skill, endurance and sheer courage to take to the open road on a metal pretzel with no roll bars and hardly a horn for defense.

No, nerd comes to mind because of the way bicyclists dress. Other sports have outfits that people want to copy--fashionable tennis shoes, sleek riding boots, or the captivating, skirt-free look from gymnastics. These sports have added something to the culture. But, mark my words: This will not happen with cycling fashions.

Consider how modern, outfitted cyclists look. They are waifish, skeletal creatures with inverted birdbaths on their heads.

It's almost as though designers set out to make them scapegoats--but for what? Cyclists are thus left to ride in very large groups for support.

There are two key questions: Why do designers do this? And why don't the cyclists of America ride in protest upon New York City, or wherever it is that cycling clothes are fashioned?

The answer to the first question, it seems, is that engineers had a hand in it. Applying principles of aerodynamics, they urged designers to create the spandex tube look. This had many results, though: It eliminated seam discomfort, pant-leg ride-up AND any likelihood of opposite-sex attraction.

The engineers also wrought the birdbath helmet, so shallow that it seems to float above, rather than upon, the head. But bike shop retailers point out patiently that this helps cyclists avoid their No. 1 nemesis--sweat--while exposing their ears to listen for oncoming motorists.

As to why cyclists won't fight back, that's trickier. But it seems that recreational riders are happy to have a common adversity to promote bonding among their kind, similar to being snowbound in a bus.

Meanwhile, endurance cyclists--the long-haulers who get lost in the Zen of the sport--haven't noticed any fashion problems. Or, as one of them pointed out, "You don't have to look good to go fast."

But all hope is not lost. Retailers say design progress is being made in bike wear.

Several sales representatives at area stores said color schemes are greatly improved over past years. What they're saying is that the cyclist who once climbed into a Day-Glo orange, chartreuse and purple jersey and black shorts can now expect to find matching shorts.

And teen-agers are credited with finding an aesthetic antidote to the birdbath problem. They apply a sleek sun visor to the helmet, according to Bonnie Sessions, senior sales representative at Cycle Scene in Ventura.

"Some of them . . . just don't want to wear helmets (without visors) because they look so uncool," she said.

Still, Sessions feels that designers have recently made a lot of headway with headgear.

"I've never seen so many nice-looking helmets," she said, noting "the graphics and the colors are much better, the contours are sleeker."

She indicated a vast display of helmets, which still looked like birdbaths riddled with artfully conceived holes. But then, this might just be the perception of the truly pedestrian mind.

Another clothing improvement is the cotton blend in spandex shorts, Sessions noted.

"They used to come in just a shiny fabric," she said. "When you first put them on and you've never worn that type of short before, there's something really repulsive about them. The first time I put them on, I went, 'Oh, no!' "

Women, especially, are into the duller fabrics and the newer, color-matched ensembles. One tries to view them positively, knowing that Day-Glo means defense on the road.

As far as accessories go, there's probably not much that can be done to glamorize Neoprene warmer booties, wind hoods or goggles--they're just cycling destiny.

We spoke to one 25-year veteran of the sport who readily accepts the fashion drawbacks.

John Betonte, a Ventura city employee, said people often confront him with questions such as, "Why do you wear that stupid stuff?" One co-worker, in particular, nearly went into hysterics upon seeing Betonte in his winter gear, which features Lycra tights.

But he is unfazed. In fact, he is encouraged, because designers have recently produced bike shoes with recessed cleats. Betonte promptly bought a pair.

With these shoes, cyclists can maintain dignity while dismounting and striding into offices or roadside cafes for refreshment.

The happy result for Betonte? People find that he's "not walking like a duck," he said.

We can only hope that motorists will slow down long enough to notice.

Kathleen Williams writes the weekly fashion column for Ventura County Life. Write to her at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.

Los Angeles Times Articles