Gear: Bicycle Knickers

In the US, it has always been a little unclear; from sports machine to children's toy, to weekend recreation, we've only just begun to see the bicycle front and center as an elegant and powerful tool that provides efficient transportation incorporating civility, speed, economy and fun. Rather than an add-on to our lives, it can hold a primary place in our daily activities. In other less affluent car-centric cultures, bikes have long been a necessity to accomplish the needs of daily life. Here in the US, the automobile took us far away from the utility of cycling. But the evolutionary vision of what a bike can be is still forming in the collective mind of today's culture and I'd say the future looks good. The fact that you are reading this magazine attests to that. It follows that as our bikes evolve toward a closer reflection of our needs and values, so to should what we wear on our bikes. Knickers, breeks, knickerbockers, plus fours, 3/4 -length pants, pedal pushers, and capri's-whatever you call them-they are all some variation of the baggy knee trousers worn by a large part of the population in the early 20th century-sportsmen of all stripes, average citizens, newspaper boys. They were everywhere. Women of the late 19th century took to wearing bloomers, a related form of knickers, in large part so that they could ride-what else-the bicycle, which was becoming a fashionable pursuit. They played a key role in the struggle for the emancipation of women. Alas, over time, knickers fell out of fashion and slowly disappeared from regular use. Happily, there are indicators that the return of the knicker is close at hand. Slightly under the radar of cycling-culture-at-large, you'll find a renewed interest in these distinct and functional pants that have advantages uniquely suited to today's cyclist.

"American transportational cycling is still happening," says Patrick Barber, resident of Portland, OR and proponent of functional, civilized cycling attire. "We're kind of rebuilding. Our bikes don't accommodate street clothing. You have to accommodate somehow and the biggest stress point is where the ankle meets the chain. Knickers that look good and have a cross function are a great step in the right direction."

Knickers for him are "not about resurrecting a tradition," so much as "taking a bunch of old ones and shoving them together" to meet the needs of contemporary cycling here in the United States. Knickers simplify the relationship between you, your bike and your clothes. They also bring sensible cycle clothing into the realm of daily activity. Looking at mainstream images of cycling you might get the impression that spandex and lycra are prerequisites to ride a bike. These sleek outfits are as much about creating a fantasy of fitness and speed as they are about function, and they appear to my eye as a uniform-one that separates the wearer from daily life. Ninety-nine percent of us are not racers and never will be and don't need that sort of get-up to be ready to ride a bike. Its nice to be able to just get on your bike and go and knickers are really helpful in this respect. True, you can just roll up your pant leg or tuck it into your sock to keep clear of the chain, but that seems like coping; a solution that isn't ideal.

These days wool is almost exclusively what I wear to ride, and I don't think you'd know me from the next person on the street. It feels good to comfortably fit in with my fellow citizens. Of course, not all knickers are the same. Like any clothing, some will be more or less your style, and it might be worth considering this if you are a little hesitant to branch out into this new territory. On one end of the style spectrum, you'll find messenger-style rolled up jeans or Carharrt's which become, in effect, a pair of convertible knickers that score pretty high on the cool-o-meter and are easy to fashion yourself. You might come across an easygoing variation marketed to the out-door crowd as 3/4 length climbing pants, usually made out of some modern synthetics that look neat and sharp. Then come the more tailored versions in wool and corduroy that are like a pair of men's dress pants that stop just below the knee. You may also find similar used military versions from Army-Navy suppliers. Women's options are widely available as Capris, or the appropriately named "pedal pushers". They all work. The style to choose depends only on one's fashion preferences. In the last couple of years, a variety of retailers have sprung up to offer a nice range of choices, with knickers made of wool, hemp, cotton and other materials. Among these are Bicycle Fixation, Rivendell Bicycle Works, Chrome, and Swrve. And you could always try to alter a pair of your own pants into this retro-futuristic cool cycling garb. Whatever variation you settle on, knickers allow you the opportunity pedal comfortably around town, break new fashion ground and pick up some groceries all at the same time. All good stuff.