Beautiful Bicycles Fashion & Memorabilia

Gender-Bending Cycling Fashion, Part Two: Slippers, Polka Dots & Arm Warmers

Classic cycling shoes, the sort worn for vintage events like Eroica, California, are usually Italian perforated leather uppers attached to hardwood soles. Brands such as Detto, Duegi, and Vittoria, come to mind. These shoes, whose bottoms have cleats with a slot to fit onto the pedal cage, are only good for one thing: riding bicycles fitted with toe clips. In this way, they are analogous with are ballet slippers: purpose built for a very specific set of motions. Ill-suited to walking and abysmally slippery off the bike, cycling shoes work like a charm spinning pedals in circles, spreading out the forces across one’s whole foot to allow a rider go all day without a hot spots. I remember the first cycling shoes I owned, a pair of Vittorias, and how I went on a long ride and got caught in a storm; my shoes began filling up with water because I had forgotten to drill holes in the soles for drainage. 

In the 2016 Eroica, California, I used a pair of Duegi 101 black perforated leather shoes with wooden soles. The supple leather shoes fit so well that I was hesitant to scuff them up (which I inevitably did) in heavy road and off-road use. During Eroica, I did have to borrow a screwdriver to scrape mud out of my slotted cleats at a rest stop, but they otherwise worked perfectly. The trick to keeping slotted cleats clean mud is to keep going and avoid put your feet down. Back in January, when I began riding with slotted cleats, I was concerned about injuring my knees by locking my feet in place, but I found that after some cleat adjustment that my knees felt fine. I also discovered that the leather uppers give a little and offer a form of float. 

Looking at old race photos, it seems most of the riders went sockless back in the day. I don’t know the reason for this, other than it looks cool, and maybe is cool (temperature-wise). Like dancers, sockless riders show off the full, uninterrupted lines of their legs down to their gazelle-like achilles tendons. 

Another piece of classic cycling clothing with a feminine twist is the polka dot jersey, reserved for the best climber in races such as the Tour de France. You might ask yourself, in what other circumstances can a man pull-off wearing polka dots? By my count, not many. A navy necktie with very small conservative polka dots might worn on certain formal occasions, but nothing like a white jersey with big red dots that the head Le Grimpeur (the climber) pulls on. I like to climb about as much as anything on a bike and for a tall guy (I’m 6’2″), I’m reasonably good at it for a 49 year old rank amateur. For this reason, I like the polka dotted jersey and I own an unearned one, although putting one on is probably akin to wearing the World Championship stripes without having won such a championship, I feel like wearing polka dots helps me channel some of the climbing finesse and style of the greats: American Andy Hampsten, the Spaniard Bahamontes, and the flamboyant and probably juiced Italian, Marco Pantani.

Which brings us back to ballet. Wearing tight fitting clothing, strange slippers, and polka dots can get you in a mood for dancing, and when you are riding well, maybe especially in the mountains, it can feel and look like a performance. For most of us, there will be no audience, no applause, just the sound of breathing, a heartbeat rhythm of increasing tempo, and the joy of moving higher, into thiner air, on your own power. 

Climbing mountains necessitates two other articles of clothing that look like they belong in the lingerie drawer with a sachet of lavendar: the arm and leg warmers, which are also used by dancers.  Arm warmer are meant to look like sleeves, to extend out from under your jersey, but on long rides they tend to slide down in the style of a burlesque dancer removing a long set of gloves halfway through her act.

So boys, when removing an arm-warmer remember, “nice and sexy, stick out your tush.” As for female riders, kindly do not remove an arm-warmer like this on the bike–it is sure to cause of wake of distraction and destruction behind you.

For those of us with skinny arms, precious few of the grippers sewn into the upper part of arm warmer sleeves actually work and you end up exposing some skin as they slide down mid-ride. Despite this tendency, arm warmers are excellent for days that start cold but get warm or vice versa. Experienced riders can remove them while pedaling, and they are compact enough to be unobtrusively stowed in a jersey pocket. As for leg warmers, wooly types were brought into popular culture by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, but cyclists were wearing less fuzzy versions before and after Jennifer became a maniac for love (“Just a Steeltown girl on a Saturday night, looking for the fight of her life..”). For the record, cyclists rarely wear leg warmers Flashdance-style around the calves and ankles, but rather up higher neatly tucked beneath the legs of their shorts and covering their knees. 

For a budget, less sexy version of arm warmers, you can take this bloke’s advice about repurposing tube socks as arm warmers. I’ve not yet tried this, but I’m curious.


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  • Reply
    January 2, 2017 at 11:21 am

    The Duegi shoes you mention are the only ones I remember with wood soles. And they were sought after and special back in the day for the stiffness of the wood, so take care of your pair. I have a NOS pair I haven’t started into slot-cleat rotation yet. All the Detto Pietros and Vittorias (and Sidis, Patricks, Adidas, Pumas, Maresis, Atac, etc.) I rode back then, and still ride, had either leather soles or plastic soles. The plastic soles all have the adjustable bolt on cleats you mentioned, and the leather soles mostly have nail-on cleats except for the transition period where some leather soles had bolt-on adjustable cleats like the plastic soled shoes coming in.

    Back in the day there were race organization rules that riders were required to wear white socks (for traditional health reasons) and black shorts and shoes. As the rules were relaxed or not enforced, racers enjoyed showing their daring by going sockless. Since racers are tireless conformists, this small opportunity for flaunting the rules counted for a lot. Going sockless was also more common among track riders since the rule had not applied there or was less enforced (?), so sockless riding back then suggested a velodrome background. Also, since track races are generally short, the discomfort doesn’t last as long. I tried it back then and found sockless hotter, sweatier, and less comfortable, so was never tempted much.
    Modern synthetic shoes with brushed cloth interiors make going sockless more doable to my way of thinking.

    Trad cycling clothing colors (and rules) date from earlier in the 20th century when they generally followed the established visuals of jockeys. Cycle racers and jockeys both wore colorful jerseys–silks–that contrasted with the black and dull colors worn on the lower half, and allowed spectators and officials to recognize riders from a distance by the bright colors. Hence the yellow, green, and later polka dot jerseys. For these early 20th C sportsman professionals, the right look was dark on the bottom (like all of mens clothes back then) but bright and gay on the top to suggest the sporting purpose that allowed for a little color.

    • Reply
      The Beautiful Bicycle
      January 2, 2017 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks for your insightful comments Mitch. I hadn’t considered the connection between the attire of jockeys and cyclists, but it makes sense. As for going sockless, that was also against the rules at a certain religious university I once attended and I often went sockless to class as my small protest. I did find that riding sockless in older synthetic leather cycling shoes can render them seriously stinky in short order.

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