The Styled Side: what to wear when you're biking
You don't have to wear spandex when you pedal. More companies are designing functional clothes for biking that also look great off the bike.
Whatever the reason, some clothes aren't built specifically for that kind of wear-and-tear. I've had to say goodbye to several jeans because my leg movements tore a hole in the crotch, for example.
But the wheels of change have come.
"Companies are creating very focused gear for the biking commuter who doesn't want to have to change into another outfit for the office," says Michelle Dalton Tyree from Fashion Trends Daily. "Customers want comfortable, flexible clothes for ALL areas of their life."
This isn't spandex-style, though.
These are clothes that look normal to the naked eye, but they are engineered in ways to make them better for biking.
"Stretch is key!" says Tyree. "Plus, style is also important. People want tailored clothes so they can hop off the bike and walk into the office without having to change."
And there's a growing market of consumers in need of these clothes, too, with the rate of bike commuters in large cities climbing 105 percent from 2000 to 2013.
So we wanted to put some of them to the test on a bike and in everyday life, and I recruited frequent and infrequent bicyclists of KPCC to take a ride.
How we judged the clothes
There are four things that we looked at for these reviews.
First, is the item designed for mobility as you move?
Plus, it needs to be breathable and light for SoCal's climate (which, as you know, continues to reach record high temperatures every year).
Third, the clothing should stay clean or at least wash easily.
Finally, how does they look? This is SoCal, after all, where looks can sometimes be everything.
Men's chinos – Leo Duran
How I bike: I bike nearly every day to commute to work. Plus, I frequently cycle through my neighborhood of downtown L.A. to get groceries or meet up with friends for a drink.
The look I want: I prefer to wear slim-legged pants (shows off my butt!), which can be at odds with how biking pants should have ample room in the thighs for movement.
Why to get them: these pants have the most thoughtful design features.
Features: There is a reflective flap that pulls-out of the back pocket, as well as iridescent imprints on the inside legs that are revealed when the cuff is rolled up. The pockets are also very deep, and one even contains a "mini-pocket" specifically for a smartphone the size of an iPhone 6 Plus or smaller.
Review: These pants are lightweight and breathable. The quandary is that they are snug in the calves (good), but billowy in the seat and thighs (bad). That means they stretch in the right places on the bike, but didn't do any favors for my butt when off the bike.
The waistband landed pretty high on me, too, leaving a kind of "diaper" look to the front if I tucked my shirt. Also, the diagonal pockets puckered whenever I sat down, so it looked like two little caves opened every time I was at my desk or on the bike.
That said, these were exceptionally comfortable to ride in. They are vanity-sized, too, so buy a size down from what you normally wear; I'm traditionally a 30" in Levi's, and Betabrand's 28" fit me well.
Why to get them: these looked the best on and off the bike, and are better for cooler areas like the beach cities.
Features: The legs have reflective tape on the inside that reveal when the cuff is rolled up. One of the belt loops is also a holster for a mini U-lock.
Review: The Levi's are thicker than the others, and unfortunately I once wore them on a recent 95 degree day. They're definitely the least breathable.
On the plus side, they had the best fit out of all of the pants I tried. They kept my legs looking nice and slim off the bike, but also easily stretched in the thigh for mobility while riding.
The pockets, however, had the same problem as the Betabrands: when seated, the pockets puckered open.
Why to get them: these made the best impression in the office.
Features: It's made with extremely high-quality cotton. Plus, the inseam and back-pocket button enclosure are hot pink for better visibility at night. Also, the pockets zipper shut to keep your items secure.
Review: Despite being slim fit, I think these pants were still made for people with tree trunk-like thighs: they are very roomy throughout the leg. Plus they have a thick weight to them, so they didn't help me stay cool on hot days.
The material is the most "lux" out of all the pants and fooled many people at KPCC when I said they were made for biking. These are definitely the ones I would wear if I biked to work to give a presentation to KPCC head Bill Davis (but they wrinkle out of the wash, so they do need to be ironed).
The front panel over the crotch is long, like Betabrand's, so these pants are designed to be worn more high on the waist. Meanwhile the pocket openings are flush with the side seam to make the entire front flat, which meant no puckering pockets when sitting.
Plus, those pockets can zipper close. Pro: whatever you carry is secure. Con: I tried jamming my phone or hand into a pocket too many times before realizing it was zippered shut.
Why to get them: these are the best for feeling comfortable in warm weather.
Features: Two of the back belt-loops are reflective, and the crotch is reinforced with extra stitching. They are also made of the same synthetic material as many hiking pants (nylon and Coolplus). There is also a helpful mini-pocket in the back that can holster a smartphone as large as an iPhone 6 (or in my case, a Nexus 5x).
Review: These pants are SUPER breathable. I biked three miles from Pasadena to Highland Park one warm afternoon for happy hour, and I definitely didn't feel any heat pooling up in my legs. That was a huge plus considering how hot it can get in the inland-areas of Southern California.
The pants also stay very clean because they are moisture-repellent; the condensation from my happy hour margarita dropped onto my leg without being absorbed.
The design of the pants also made it hard for people to notice at first that they were made of synthetic fabric, but once you get up-close you can see that "hiking pants" sheen. Michelle Dalton Tyree told me they gave the "best butt" out of all the pants, too, but I would have liked them to be more form-fitting in the thighs.
These pants have the most shallow pockets, and they also easily show the outlines of what you do carry. I'd suggest keeping you have in a bag instead.
The brand also designs pants true-to-size, meaning I'd suggest to get a size up from what you're used to. The 31" waist was comparable to a 30" in Levi's.
Men's jeans – Jacob Margolis
How I bike: I'm an amateur competitive racer, so I bike nearly every weekend. That means I traditionally wear spandex while pedaling, and have pretty strong glutes and quads, too!
The look I want: For these more casual clothes, I'm looking for a more relaxed fit that makes room for those thick thighs.
Why to get them: they have the best flexibility and design for the price.
Features: There is a reflective flap that pulls-out of the back pocket, as well as iridescent imprints on the inside legs that are revealed when the cuff is rolled up. There is also a belt loop designed to hold a mini U-lock.
Review: These had the greatest breathability out of all the pants I tried. Plus, these look great on my body, which is tough because I have big cyclist legs. They are also just good looking jeans. And my wife approved!
I hate the reflector that pulls out of the back pocket, but you can tuck that in so it's not a big deal.
And these jeans have the most flexibility out of any of the ones that I tried. I could do full squats in them, and I felt very comfortable on the bike.
Why to get them: these are perfect for a Levi's loyalist.
Features: The legs have reflective tape on the inside that reveal when the cuff is rolled up. One of the belt loops is also a holster for a mini U-lock.
Review: These are the closest to normal jeans with the least flexibility out of the ones I tried. I could not do a full squat in them, so while they weren't uncomfortable, they were not great, either.
The Levi's look like Levi's, though, so you know what you're getting. Plus they have decent breathability and dry well.
Why to get them: they looked the best out of all the jeans.
Features: The inseam is hot pink for better visibility at night when the pant leg is rolled up.
Review: These jeans left me feeling hot, but it could’ve been the waxy finish. Their mobility was good, too, although not as great as Betabrand's.
The waist goes up past my belly button, I imagine to prevent muffin-topping in the front and your rear-end from showing when hunched over on a bike.
That means these will look best with an untucked shirt so you can't tell that they were grandpa pants.
Otherwise, they looked fantastics both walking around and on a bike, plus I loved the dark wash.
THAT PRICE THOUGH!
Women's pants – Tracey Molineux
How I bike: I bike-commute most days to work and out to events or to meet up with friends whenever I can (it’s the BEST way to go anywhere in DTLA, especially). I also bike for exercise a few times per week on the roads around Griffith Park or on the many beautiful mountain-biking trails in the San Gabriel or Santa Monica mountains.
The look I want: I want to be comfortable on my bike, but most important for me is to look like a put-together female employee once I get to work. So I want flattering slim-fit pants (i.e., don’t make my butt look bigger than it really is!) and don’t wrinkle or show stains easily.
Betabrand Bike to Work pants ($118)
Why to get them: these pants were the best for the office.
Features: There is a reflective flap that pulls-out of the back pocket, as well as iridescent imprints on the inside legs that are revealed when the cuff is rolled up. The rear hemline is raised to prevent exposing your crack. Also, there is a place on the rear waistband that can holster a u-Lock.
Review: They are incredibly light and very breathable (even on a 90-degree commute in L.A.). I definitely sweat less wearing them than regular work pants or jeans, and they dry much faster so they’re okay to wear all day at work after riding in, which is saying a lot.
These slacks stretch considerably after a ride, but not as much as most skinny jeans so I’ll definitely keep wearing them. Because they’re not as fitted, I don’t really want to wear them out with friends, but for work they’re fine. That said, they are the most comfortable pair of pants I own
Also the bike lock loop is very comfortable when carrying a bike lock, and that’s something I never really did in other pants since, like many women, I don’t often wear belts.
These pants are also really stain resistant. I know that because when I (clumsily) spilled makeup on them while getting ready, the stain rubbed right off! Love that.
Why to get them: these are best for a night out.
Features: The legs have reflective tape on the inside that reveal when the cuff is rolled up. One of the belt loops is also a holster for a mini U-lock. Has deep pockets
Review: The Levi's are really light for jeans and kept me slightly cooler than the Rapha jeans, but not quite as cool as Betabrand.
Because the Levi's are a bit less fitted around the waist and the calves, these jeans look more like a high-waisted boot cut jeans than a skinny jean like the name suggests. But these are a really flattering dark wash jean, so even though they aren't as fitted, I still feel good wearing these to work or out for the night.
These jeans are really easy to move in and like all of the pants, the higher waist gives great coverage while riding. The legs are also easy to roll up to the knee during hot weather and more comfortable to ride in than regular pants.
These jeans look clean after rides too, but the Rapha fabric feels easier to wipe stains off when you do get a stain showing through.
Rapha skinny jeans ($220)
Why to get them: these looked the best on and off the bike.
Features: The hot pink inseam and a Rapha logo on the inside right leg are both reflective at night. It is also made of very stretchy denim.
Review: These Rapha jeans are the most fitted and flattering, easily passing for a nice pair of skinny jeans that look great to wear to work or out to a nice event. They feel like they stretch a bit after a ride, but they were the least mobile out of the pants I tried.
However, the thicker material and dark wash seemed to hide any stretch and stains, and that kept them looking really good even after a round-trip commute.
That material also mean that these were heavier and warmer than the other pairs of pants I tried, but that could've been that the fit. They are tighter around the calves, especially, which made them harder to roll up in hot SoCal weather. But they still kept me considerably cooler than regular pants, and once I got to work, they seemed to dry the quickest.
And because these jeans fit the most similarly to regular skinny jeans, I kept wanting to wear these jeans even when I wasn't bike-commuting. And it turns out, how they look and feel are more important to me than being the most comfortable during the ride. I love these jeans, more than the other pairs.
Women's dresses – Maura Walz
How I bike: I'm looking to bike more often to work in Pasadena, or at least to places close to my home in Glassell Park. Consider me one of those people who likes to bike, but haven't been doing it regularly for one reason or another.
The look I want: I just want what I normally wear to function well on a bike while not leaving me a sweaty mess once I get off of it. That means both the look and comfort are really important to me.
Why to get it: this is a really cute dress in general
Features: There is a grid pattern on the dress that's subtle in regular light. However, the shine of headlights or a camera flash illuminates the lines so you're clearly seen at night. It's also made of a very lightweight material for breathability, enhanced with a flap that conceals a ventilated panel over the back shoulders. And as a bonus, the dress has two front pockets to help keep your items safe.
Review: It’s super cute and definitely something that people could wear to work or to a bar and not look like they were wearing biking gear.
I also really love the checked pattern with the reflective stripes — I don’t ride around much at night specifically because I am always afraid that my lights won’t be enough, and the stripes are super subtle and classy looking.
The pencil skirt also looked great, but the flip-side is that the fabric rode up in a very serious way as I was riding. If the skirt had been a little bit more A-line, or if the fabric had been a little bit more stretchy, or if it had pleating so that the skirt could expand when you’re riding, then it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem.
The fabric of the dress reminded me of a light raincoat, which is good and bad. The good part of that was that it was very good at cutting through the wind as I rode.
On the other hand, I was surprised that I didn’t think the fabric was that breathable in the same way that raincoats can get kind of hot in the summer – the heat is trapped in. The ventilation flap in the back helped counteract this a little bit (and in general is a super cool feature) but not quite enough.
The fabric was super easy to clean, though — I sort of feel like I could just sponge it down.
How we reviewed what we wore
We reached out to these companies based on recommendations from the staff and our friends and family, as well as what we could find online ourselves.
Over more than a month, we were tasked with riding in each of these items at least three times to get a good feel for how they function on and off a bike.
You might have noticed that there are fewer items for women that we reviewed, however, and there's a reason for that: there is not a lot out there.
"Several of the companies I spoke with said that women’s bike-specific clothing comprises about 10 percent of their business," says Michelle Dalton Tyree. "That’s not a lot, and a change from what's available in the normal clothing market."
Tyree said a number of designers told her there's a lack of demand because they believe women are more reluctant to commute to work out of safety concerns on the road.
Although Adrienne Mercante, senior menswear designer at Betabrand, disputes that and suggests it's because women have far more complicated wardrobes compared to men.
"If you're a women and you're going to ride your bike," she says, "you have to plan your outfit around riding a bike. Like, I can't wear this dress or I can't wear these shoes, whereas with men, you have pants and pants work on a bike."
For women looking for more options, we discovered that Terry Bicycles carries a line of fashionable dresses made for biking (but unfortunately, we found the site too late into the review process to include any of their dresses).
Michelle Dalton Tyree also learned that these designers are calling bike-specific clothes "gateway garments."
"They started out creating very focused gear for the biking commuter," she says, "but they had to pivot and make it more general because today's customer wants comfortable, flexible clothes for all areas of their life."
It ties into the growing trend of athleisure wear that functions well in the gym and on the street.
But if you want to try any of these clothes yourself, your best bet is to shop online.