by Monica Nolan.
This is our Bike About Town column, which appeared in The Chronicle on May 5, 2011.
It all started with Bill Cunningham, the 80-year-old fashion maven who has biked around Manhattan, photographing street-level fashion for the last 40-odd years. Now the subject of a documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” his example was my inspiration: Instead of offering do’s and don’ts for appropriate Bike to Work Day apparel, why not cruise the streets of San Francisco and report on current bike commuting styles?
Outside the Embarcadero Center Cinema, I spotted my first target: Lisa Torres wore a flared skirt, mini-boots with heels and a black leather jacket. The final touch: She was pushing a bike with flowered panniers.
Torres said, “What I wear to work is what I wear during my bike commute,” a 40-minute ride to her research job for the U.S. government. She banishes the idea that a bike ride automatically requires a shower and change of clothing: “I have to say sweat has never been a problem,” she says, adding with a smile, “no one has ever complained.”
Brian Lake agrees. Wearing shirt, tie and dress pants, only his helmet identified his commuting choice as he stood outside the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets. Lake, who commutes from his home in Menlo Park to his job in San Francisco via Caltrain and his folding bicycle, says that San Francisco isn’t that much warmer than his native England. “Not enough to get you sweaty over a mile and a half,” he says. He leaves his suit jacket at the office for the most part, adding a scarf and gloves if the wind is blowing.
His personal fashion dilemma: catching his trousers in his bike chain. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said, noting that most riders roll their pant leg up, tuck it into their sock, or wear an ankle cuff.
A bike with a chain guard solves the problem too. David Madson, on his way home from his fundraising job at California Pacific Medical Center, looked the classic businessman, from his gray suit to his polished shoes. His only concession to his two-wheeled ride was a helmet. “I have fenders, I have a chain guard. I only ride about 3 miles to work, and I ride a flat route. I don’t work up a sweat or anything,” he told me while waiting for the light to change.
For some, sweat is the point. Susan Demo, who bikes 9 miles to her job at a biotech company in South San Francisco, showers and changes at work. “Instead of going to the gym after driving home, I get home already having worked out,” she says. “Not bad.”
Yet most commuters who bike don’t consider their trip to work much of a workout. Stefanie Codoni still visits the gym – using her bike to get there. Growing up in Germany, Codoni rode her bike to school. Now she rides from her home near San Rafael to her job at Sony’s San Francisco office via the San Rafael-Larkspur bike tunnel and the Larkspur ferry. She wears her regular work outfit – “jeans, heels, shirt and typically a cardigan.”
Whatever the personal style, one thing seems clear: A growing number of riders have thrown away the old prescriptions for specialized shoes and clothing and just grabbed what was in the closet. Torres’ advice to first-time bike commuters puts it most succinctly: “Don’t think about it too much.”
– Choose clothing that allows you to move. If you can climb onto your bike and lean forward to grab the handlebars in your favorite outfit, you’re good to go. Some people prefer clothing made of natural fibers, like wool or cotton, because of their breathability.
– Shoes with some traction on the sole are probably best if you’re not used to biking. Save the slippery dress shoes for later experimentation.
– Commuting is not racing. Take your time and enjoy!
Check out the latest in bike-friendly fashions at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Bike from Work Party and Fashion Show: 6-9 p.m. next Thurs. $5-$10. 21+. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., S.F. For more information on the event, or on Bike to Work Day next Thurs., go to www.sfbike.org.
Bike About Town is presented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a 12,000-member nonprofit dedicated to creating safer streets and more livable communities by promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation. For more biking resources, go to www.sfbike.org.