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Out of our Clothes

Being alone, in a group of strangers, can be intimidating. You don’t know them; you might not see anything you know in a group of people you just met. I’ve heard stories about bicycle rides, from back in the “Golden Era,” that attempted to address this issue and make themselves more inviting to everyone. Well, maybe not everyone. 

Before this “everyone” had money for a car, the standards of the day still required neckties and jackets, even on hot days, and hats on heads in public streets. You couldn’t afford not to dress up. So, like any social gathering, bike rides could get pretty gaudy if not controlled by something. This something was usually the utility and versatility of the machine itself. Riding bikes farther and getting more involved in the physical exertion and adventuring escapades of cycling. Going beyond the limitations of dresses and long pants. Bicycles got people out of their parents' clothes, but this didn’t happen without a fight.

Cycling isn’t now, nor was it then, a strictly two-wheeled activity for poor people. After all, the well-to-do's would have been the first to pay for the construction of these high-tech machines. And what better way to ornament them than with the added stability of a third wheel? Tricycles were an aristocratic reaction to the greasy and anarchistic bicycle culture. But it’s wrong to think that trikes were simply decadent. While seen as unnecessary by some, this third wheel did serve a specific function: it helped the wealthy keep their balance; tricycles allowed the rich to keep their clothes on. 

While the parents and grandparents of these tricycle riders had been disrobed in novels for more than a century by this time, the trickle down effect of done-up dress had actually gained momentum, and the most successful of the middle class, now, aspired to be seen in the attire of the rich. And tricycles were made to pose. Bicycles have always been more on the move. If you’ve ever seen a trike, sitting still, with a rider on it, you know what I’m talking about. Put on your Sunday best, and park your tricycle so that everyone can see how sporting and dignified you look perched on it like a pedestal. So, there was a split: some cyclists wanted to adopt the carriage culture of the upper class, with it’s privileged and overly layered dress code, and some cyclists saw bicycle culture as something potentially more egalitarian and democratizing. Vulgar even. What if we dressed the way our activities demanded? What if we looked like what we did? And what if we used this functional dress to increase our sense of solidarity, even amongst groups of strangers?

Uniforms, more akin to what tradesmen wore to work, were adopted by clubs. People looked like what they did. The bicycle. Esthetically, early cycling kits were heavily influenced by the army, as were the riding formations, but not in a bellicose way. It was the discipline, preparedness, and the never leave a man behind attitude of the military that attracted these pioneers of the bicycle. The “new cavalry” was perfect for the emerging challenge-sport trend of the day. The questions, the limits: how far, how fast, is it humanly possible? Bicycles traversed the frontier, and tricycles stayed in the park, enjoying picnic style leisure and meandering through the nostalgic comfort of the aristocracy.

The era of oil impressions depicting lunch dates in the grass on tricycles would not go away quietly. The wealthy revolted, and with a final effort to wrangle in bicyclists, they encouraged cycling to transform into a spectator sport. They tried to convince the fastest bicycle riders to compete, against one another, for prize money, and the most prideful took them up on the offer. Celebrities were born. Now, bicyclists thought of themselves as singularly as their three-wheeled overlords. Everyone imagined what it would be like, the moment where the realization would happen: I am fast. We started pretending we were someone else with a more famous name. Riding bikes became subjective make believe. 

Gone were the clubs and the team mentality. Gone were the uniforms and the cohesive movement of the peloton. They had been replaced by opportunism and personal glory, solo attacks, and in some cases greed. But even in this corrosively competitive environment, the camaraderie of the bicycle persisted as an undeniable fact. Out of respect for each other’s abilities, professional colleagues eventually returned to the abandoned techniques of drafting and pack riding. They formed teams that dressed alike and sang gay songs. And while this likely never happened, in a race, I think racers used to sing on long training rides. This wasn’t just to relieve the boredom, it also stretched and strengthened the lungs. Singing used to be cross training. But most importantly, it built team spirit; it made people feel like they belonged. 

Against the best intentions of the elite to make cycling a cut-throat curbside spectacle, the professional riders, whether knowingly or not, continued the most important traditions of the original bicyclists, with their clubs and teams of merry men, their military-esque uniforms and marching band formations, their pelotons of women in bloomers, and their cycling songs sung by bicycle choirs. Some large clubs had a routine where a certain lyric of a song would be repeated individually by every single rider on a ride. The goal was to get all the way out of town before you were done “making a roll call.” That’s how everyone knew you had a big club. The repeated lines were simple and sometimes sung in cannon or, more commonly, with the rest of the group echoing each rider as they rotated through to the front and performed their solo. 

Oh, let’s all ride a hundred miles, and let's do it a thousand times.

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