By 1974, for the first time since World War I, more bicycles than automobiles were being sold in the United States, and this year it is estimated that there will be more than 100 million cyclists on our roads and bypaths. Surprisingly, the bike-equipment industry has been slow on the uptake. Until the early 1970s it was as far behind as the ski-wear industry was in the '50s. There was no one in the U.S. to tell a couple of million neophyte 10-speed bicycle riders about chamois for the fanny and cleats for the feet. Only the experts, the track and road racers, had a pipeline to Europe, where the design of cycling equipment had long been a science. We caught on, however. At the International Cycle Show in New York last February there were more than 300 exhibitors of clothing and equipment and organizers of tours and such.
A number of these people had gotten so hooked on bicycling that they consequently became involved in it as a business. For example, after attending the University of Montana, Lys and Dan Burden biked 9,000 miles from Alaska to Central America. On their return they decided to share their experience in the adventure of touring, and so they and a small staff devised the cross-country (Oregon to Virginia) Bicentennial Bicycle Tour, March 1). This year more than 4,500 people have already signed up to travel in groups of eight to 10 with a guide-leader, or independently, if they choose.
Another couple, Jean and Hartley Alley, were a working photographer-writer team 15 years ago when they spent six weeks doing a bicycle story. When they finished they had seven bikes between them and had learned a good deal about cycling: they now own and operate a thriving mail-order business, The Touring Cyclist Shop, in Boulder, Colo., where they specialize in helping bikers select equipment for touring. The bikes on the opposite page are packed with their custom-made panniers (a sort of bag that fits over the rear wheel) as well as others they call Handlebar and Daytripper bags and a cylindrical carryall. The waterproof nylon duck panniers can be zipped together when off the bike and used as regular luggage. Each pair has 10 compartments, weighs one pound three ounces and costs $52.50. The front Handlebar bag, excellent for day touring, has 11 compartments, designed to hold sunglasses, clothing, food, maps, camera, film, etc. Several pockets have Velcro fasteners instead of zippers for quick accessibility while cycling. On top are a map and a compass. "If you've ever toured in France, England or the Black Forest in Germany," Alley says, "you know the roads look like a bunch of worms on your map. On days when there isn't any sun you need a compass to check your heading." He advises riders to limit weight in a Handlebar bag to eight pounds or less, as an overloaded bag affects the way the bike handles. The Handlebar costs $50.
The small oblong bag on the rear of the bike is the Day tripper. Alley suggests that this be permanently packed with tools and spare parts, a rain suit and a windbreaker or sweater. It sells for $12. The cylindrical red pack on the rear of the bike is a carryall for either a tent or a down sleeping bag. It can also hold a suit, shirt, tie and street shoes for the bike commuter. It comes in two sizes, at $16 and $20.
Alley advises bike tourers to make a packing list and weigh everything. "The dumbest thing to do is carry too much," he says. "You can wash things along the way at night." The maximum load for any kind of tour should not exceed 35 pounds.
Here are some of Alley's clothing suggestions for a weekend, a month or six-month trip: a cashmere or other soft, compressible sweater; a breathable wind-breaker; wool chamois-lined shorts; cycling gloves; bike shoes; two bright-colored (for safety) cycling jerseys with pockets in the back for small extras; yellow or orange rain suit (rather than a poncho or cape that can sometimes act like a sail and be dangerous); leg and arm warmers that slip off and on easily and weigh very little. If you have room, a sweat suit is handy. Those made specially for cycling come in cotton or wool and have padding in the seat, but are worn over chamois-lined pants nevertheless. The legs are very narrow, with zippers at the bottom. A white cycling cap reflects heat and the sweatband keeps perspiration from getting into one's eyes. To observe traffic and riders behind you, there are miniature rearview mirrors that clip onto sunglasses or cap.
Helmets are strongly recommended. All the leaders in the Bicentennial Tour are required to wear them, and Alley says, "I've started wearing one again. You get a lot of resistance, though. People say, 'Gee, I look horrible,' or, 'When you're going fast it whistles in your ears.' But believe me, even the best riders fall. Dogs run out in front of bikes or a front wheel begins to shimmy on a fast curve, and when you put a bike on a street with a motor vehicle the bike never wins." Bell Helmets Inc. has been manufacturing protective headwear for more than 20 years, and its new bicycle helmet weighs only one pound two ounces. It was tested for two years by touring riders, racers, coaches and doctors. The design provides maximum protection and ventilation. There are 12 scooped vents to keep an airflow throughout the helmet, the straps do not interfere with peripheral vision and it rides high enough in front so a biker doesn't have to raise his head to see. The outer shell is of high-impact Lexan, a material that provides the greatest degree of strength for weight, and the inner shell is shock-absorbing polystyrene. It costs $32.50.
The Burdens and the Alleys were cyclists first and business people second. Dave Jacobs, who makes Cool Gear bicycle clothes and is probably the largest supplier in this country, was a businessman who turned bike racer. A former Canadian Alpine ski coach who also manufactures children's ski wear, Jacobs saw his first bicycle shirts on a trip to Japan in 1971 and knew he was onto something. He took one to a bicycle shop in Boulder, and they thought it was great. "I went home and translated the prices from a Japanese brochure, cut out the pictures, transposed them to my letter-head and went back and said, 'This is my line.' When they wanted to distribute them to a 10-state area I realized no one else in the U.S. was selling cycling jerseys nationally. You had to write to Belgium, France or Italy and wait 90 days for them to be delivered. Since 1972 we've sold between 20,000 and 25,000 shirts and more than 10,000 pants—and our delivery time is one week."
His gear is intended for recreational riders and bike tourers as well as racers. "We couldn't be in business just supplying racers," he says. "The racers are our testing program. If we make products that they use and like, then the touring cyclist should like them, too. And we get a lot of mail from people with ideas. Bikers are very precise. They like to get into specifics. A 'bikie' is a bike freak, not necessarily into racing, but into the technical aspects of the sport. One of our Colorado racers helped us develop a totally new concept in a shirt. When it's, say, 40° out and you're going 25 mph, the effective temperature is near zero. People used to stuff the fronts of their shirts with newspapers. Now we've developed a zippered shirt with a urethane-coated nylon front that is impervious to air. If the whole shirt were like that, it would be like wearing a wet suit, so the back is open mesh, like fishnet. This vents the heat so there is no moisture collection inside. The shirt costs $16.25. The racer who developed it is an IBM guy who likes bicycling and thinks about it a lot."
Jacobs has been racing for two years, and sponsors a team as well. Every day at noon he and three or four of his employees, several of whom are racers, ride 30 to 40 miles. Then they shower and change at the plant and brown-bag it for lunch.
Steve Woznick, the Pan-Am Games sprint champion, emphasizes that one must take care to choose clothing that is both efficient and protective of the three areas where the body touches the bike—the feet, the seat and the hands. "Most people don't realize how shoes with cleats hook onto the pedals," he says. "They don't know that, with cleats, when you push down on one pedal you pull up with the other with equal power. This will give a rider twice the power of a person wearing sneakers. The stiffer the shoe the better, because when the instep is rigid it keeps the arch from flexing and all the pressure goes to the pedals. The chamois-lined wool bicycle pants are very important. If you ride 20 miles or more you'll discover that jean fabric doesn't stretch. And seams become abrasive. Even underwear binds and bunches up while you're riding. One doesn't need underwear, because the chamois acts, and feels, like a second skin, and it prevents chafing of the legs.
"A fall can ruin your palms if they aren't protected by padded gloves. The best kind of glove is made of leather with crocheting on top for ventilation and for wiping your brow. The padding in the palms also helps absorb road shocks and vibrations. Some doctors claim it helps prevent numbness in your hands and arms from the continuous pressure on long rides."
Dave Jacobs had one of the better ideas when he decided it was time to adjust bike seats to the body and not vice versa. For years riders have had to oil bike seats, hoping that would soften them up sufficiently. Jacobs' alternative, called The Seat, is reshaped and redesigned in molded polyurethane, with varying thicknesses of a foamlike material located under areas where the pelvic bones receive—and exert—the most pressure.
So, from beginning to end, rider comfort and safety are of primary interest to a new sporting industry in the U.S., and for millions of bikies these products have become available none too soon. It's a long way from Oregon to Virginia.