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When it comes to cycling, your attire is extremely important—almost as important as your bicycle itself. If you can’t regulate your temperature properly or move freely, your ride will suck. Different rides and different conditions call for different clothes, but there’s one thing we’ve long agreed on: you don’t do real rides in jeans.
For years I lived by this denim-free code. From roads to mountain trails, and regardless of whether it was hot and dry or cold and rainy, I made sure to don Lycra with a proper chamois before even attempting to ride for long distances or with any kind of vigor. Failure to do so, I understood, would result not only in discomfort, but also chafing, ingrown hairs, tinea cruris, scurvy, dropsy, and, finally, death.
Indeed, due to a a compound case of cognitive dissonance, marketing susceptibility, and conformity, I maintained this attitude despite the fact that I’d regularly commute and run errands on my bike all over the city while wearing cotton underwear and jeans with no ill effect.
Recently, however, I’ve embraced the importance of dressing down and realized I’d been giving short shrift to this incredibly versatile garment. I’ve found that riding in jeans has no real disadvantages in most cases (I certainly wouldn’t do a road race in jeans—but then again, at this point in my life I probably wouldn’t do a road race at all) and it also has several clear advantages, chief among them as follows.
Jeans Have Pockets
When riding in jeans, I don’t need to relocate my wallet, keys, and phone to a backpack or a hard-to-reach jersey pocket. I simply keep them in my hip pockets, where I always do. (Read that again: hip pockets, not back pockets—back pockets are for suckers who wanna get pickpocketed.) This means I can easily access my wallet when the cops pull me over, and my phone is always handy to photograph wildlife or make massive stock trades. (Though you could possibly argue it’s best to be separated from your phone while riding, as you’re not tempted to constantly photograph bike-lane blockers.) Jean pockets are also highly secure, so you don’t have to worry about your wallet falling out or your keys jangling like sleigh bells.
Jeans Are Warm
A pair of jeans is all I require to stay comfortable, even when temperatures drop down to freezing, and if it’s really gets cold, I just add some thermal underwear. This is vastly simpler than futzing around with the various permutations of knee warmers and leg warmers, and it’s much more dignified than wearing full tights. Analyzing the weather and curating the appropriate Lycra ensemble can seriously cut into your riding time, whereas jeans work across a wide range of temperatures and are comfortable to boot, which is why they’re the default garment for most of the Western world. Just pull ’em on and go.
Jeans Unlock the Rest of Your Wardrobe for Cycling
Lycra only works well in context. For example, tights are fine when paired with clipless shoes and jerseys and gilets and all the rest of it, but unless you’re going for that eighties look, you’re probably not going to wear them with sneakers and a sweater. It’s also no fun wearing Lycra off the bike. Sure, we’ve all stewed in our chamois for an hour or two post-ride while drinking beer, but it’s gross, and you kind of feel like that astronaut driving 900 miles in a diaper.
Meanwhile, jeans go with every single article of clothing you own, which in turn encourages you to explore the on-the-bike potential of some of your other non-bike-specific clothing, as well as mix and match both cycling and non-cycling accessories. (Apart from jeans, wool sweaters may be the most underrated cycling garment in your wardrobe.) Just like additional tire volume encourages you to leave the beaten path and do a little exploring, jeans allow you to dress for any situation that might arise, from singletrack to a single-origin coffee purchase at Whole Foods.
Jeans Mean Less Laundry
Whatever else you may have heard, barring any mishaps such as soiling (sometimes those wildlife encounters can be pretty frightening), the truth is you need only wash your jeans every third leap year—and this is true even if you ride your bike in them. All you really need is some fresh underwear and you’re good. In fact, with judicious use of jeans and merino, you’ll hardly have to do laundry at all. As for that Lycra gear, as soon as you peel it off, it’s a biohazard until it takes a trip through the washing machine, and anyone who rides frequently knows that you can spend almost as much time laundering your piles of kit as you do riding.
Of course, not all jeans are created equal, and it can take some trial and error to discern which work best. Or save some time and choose from the many cycling-optimized jeans already out there. The ones that first got me hooked were from Osloh, and they even incorporate a chamois—which is not strictly necessary but is psychologically comforting if you come from a roadie background. Lately, I’ve been wearing Opus jeans from Vulpine, which are about as comfortable as it gets both on and off the bike without draping yourself in velvet. And Swrve jeans are very highly regarded (though I’ve never personally tried a pair). If you think wearing expensive cycling-specific jeans is stupid and pretentious, then just seek something with a little stretch from Uniqlo; I’ve had great results with those, too. (Note: Look for tapered versions that won’t get caught in your chain; i.e., skip the bell-bottoms.)
For best results cycling with jeans, pair them with merino underwear. When summer comes and it’s too hot to ride in jeans, just cut them into jorts, get new jeans for the fall, and begin the cycle anew. You may never stuff yourself into a pair of tights again.