The mountain biker was standing there, at the base of a local ski resort, having just completed a grueling, day-long summer race. He was the image of mountain manliness – muscular build, broad shoulders, and a grizzly beard beneath mud-spattered sunglasses. This archetype of the modern, high-altitude athlete was astride his mount; a filthy, expensive 29er with top-of-the-line accoutrements. Everything about him exuded the best of a new breed. He was a singletrack outlaw of the New West. But there was one problem: this mountain man was sheathed in hot pink spandex.
Mountain bikers are under siege by skin-tight, stretchy fabrics, and it pains me to write about fashion in the outdoors. These two subjects shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath, yet the outdoor industry is awash in it. Trends rule the fashion world, and by association, trends dictate what we mountain bikers must don when escaping to nature (unless you prefer to don nothing.) But when fashion overshadows function, as it often does, the outdoor experience plays second-fiddle to the latest design wrapped on our active bodies. Lycra has become the preferred term, but it’s still spandex, spun in eye-searing colors and seeping into our cycling lives. The mountain bike industry is only the latest victim, and the madness must stop.
Rewind to the 1980’s and early ’90s, when spandex squeezed itself onto the limbs of another outdoor class. At the time, rock climbing had shimmied from the dark cracks of obscurity into the light of world-wide attention. An explosive increase in user numbers followed, enabled by better gear and increased exposure. But the spotlight shed a harsh light on the spandex style of the time. Zebra stripes, polka dots, and obnoxious neon were synonymous with putting hand to rock. Not surprisingly, there’s little photographic record to be found from those days. Perhaps embarrassing picture albums have been secreted away to cobwebbed attic corners so the climbing community could move on without the specter of the Spandex Age. Thankfully, the Internet was an infant in those unspoken times, or else we’d be haunted still.
Rock climbers have since woken up from their folly, and spandex is now only worn at the crag as an ironic prank, or for a good belly laugh. Well, if you’re a modern mountain biker and your gear closet is infected by colorful jerseys and shorts splattered with corporate logos, then the joke’s now on you.
I didn’t notice this trend at first, but the realization of what happened to my mountain biking brothers hit me like a rock in the face after an endo. It happened as I was riding the Mid Mountain Trail in Park City a few years ago, when I caught up to and passed an overweight couple on rental bikes wearing Lycra jerseys covered in, of all things, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream logos. My brain reeled. I could not fathom why anyone would find it necessary to wear such a thing for what amounts to a casual afternoon ride.
How did it come to this? How did mountain biking fall prey to the spandex disease? The blame probably falls on Lance Armstrong. His rise to the top of the cycling universe made every pedaling humanoid, sitting in front of a TV broadcasting the Tour de France, want to imitate someone they could never be. Sometimes the only way to touch greatness is to look like greatness.
Roadies were the first Lance Armstrong wannabes. This makes sense as Armstrong found his fame on a road bike. And that’s just fine. The roadies can have it. But why do mountain bikers now insist on playing dress up, as if they’re competing in a corporate-sponsored, thousand-mile road race?
However people justify stuffing themselves into neon horrors, putting on these bicycle costumes is wrong, like the afro-haired roller-skater wearing tight rainbow shorts and 70’s era headphones while cruising the beach boardwalk is wrong. Just as rock climbers do today, we will all look back in ten years, and shake our heads in humiliation at photos of our shaven chicken legs poking out below some bike company’s name printed on tight shorts bulging with anatomy nobody should have to look at. Only today, the Internet is part of our daily lives, and those photos are never, ever going to disappear.
So consider this a plea to everyone who mountain bikes. Stop and look at yourself in the mirror next time you suit up for a ride. Scrutinize how feminine those tight shorts make your cheeks look. Imagine what children must think when you pedal by in an unzipped, form-fitted jersey, releasing a bouquet of sweaty chest hair. Please, for the sake of everyone’s recently ingested lunches think twice before sliding into that spandex, sleeveless one-piece.
Now, try to remember the reasons you started to mountain bike in the beginning. I’ll bet it wasn’t so you could be all aggro with a heart-rate monitor strapped to your chest while you track your daily vertical on a GPS watch and strut around in a jersey from a bike team you don’t (and never will) belong to. I’ll bet you first straddled a bike to simply be outside.
Mountain bikes are among the best ways to travel in our forests and deserts. To ride is to enjoy the steady cadence of pedals spinning around while your body slices through cool air. To pedal is to smell pine trees, defy gravity on banked turns, and hear the crunch of dead leaves beneath rubber tires. Being in nature is the primary reason to mountain bike, and all you really need to ride are shorts and a T-shirt.
There is a small movement underfoot in response to jersey madness. We are the anti-spandex, and we ride our bikes just fine without it. We roll over trails on the weekends alongside you, hammer up steep hills in the mornings with you, and even compete against you in organized races while wearing simple polyester shirts and cargo shorts. We ride, and we do it without embarrassing ourselves in what are essentially mobile billboards covered in a cacophony of logos. You are all welcome to join us.
Back at the mountain bike race last summer, after finally getting the nerve to approach Hot Pink Mountain Man, we politely inquired if he was wearing pink spandex in support of breast cancer research or something. He said “no” and gave us a quizzical look. This grown man didn’t need a reason to be head-to-toe in pink that would make lesser men go blind. Astonished, we walked away, further mystified in our puzzlement over the spandex disaster, and more entrenched in our commitment to resist joining the neon-colored majority.
Hell, maybe we’re wrong. They say only real men wear spandex.
Of course, everything written here only applies to men. Mountain biking women should forever continue to wear skin-tight clothing for obvious reasons.