Questions Cyclists Are Asked: What’s With Those Tight, Bright Shirts You Wear? by Tamia Nelson

Why do some cyclists wear garishly colored, close-fitting shirts? And why are there pockets in the back?” Tamia used to ask these questions when she saw lycra- and Coolmax-clad cyclists whizzing by on the roads. Now she knows the answers.

From time to time after cycling to the HyperMart for the groceries, I’ll catch someone staring at me. Some folks even edge away. I can almost hear their thoughts: “Why are you wearing that weird shirt? That yucky color! And those funny pockets! Why are they in the back? You must be nuts! I would never dress like that!”

No, I’m not nuts, but I’m not exactly surprised by my fellow shopper’s reaction, either. Back in the day, I used to ask myself the same questions whenever I saw lycra- and Coolmax-clad cyclists. The difference between then and now? Now I know the answers to…


Cyclists call their specialized shirts jerseys, and the cycling jersey is a garment where function is the predominate factor, with fashion taking second place. Originally knitted from wool, today most (but not all) jerseys are made of…

Synthetic Materials  Materials engineered to wick moisture away from the skin while drying quickly benefits cyclists who work up a sweat. And make no mistake. Cycling at anything but a pedestrian speed will work up a sweat, even in cold weather. The slippery fabric also slides over the body to prevent binding that can make cycling uncomfortable. Many cyclists also believe that the slippery synthetics will help reduce the severity of road rash (skin abrasions) if they crash.

Can wool jerseys still be had? Sure. How much do you want to spend? If you can afford the price of a high-quality merino wool jersey, you’ll enjoy belonging to an elite club. But for most cyclists, synthetic jerseys are the more affordable option, though recent evidence of freshwater and ocean contamination with non-biodegradable microfibers make this a tough choice for eco-conscious cyclists. (In an encouraging development, a Vermont inventor has a possible solution for this worrisome problem. You can read about it online at the Vermont newspaper, Seven Days.)

Snug Fit  This helps maintain an aerodynamic profile, which helps limit the amount of energy required to push the body and bike through the air. A loose upper garment acts like a drag chute, flapping and slapping vigorously at higher speeds. This isn’t of much concern for cycling gently, but if you’re piling miles on a bike tour, or if you enjoy riding like a racer, than the energy required to overcome that lack of aerodynamics takes a toll.

Functional Design Features  A flat raised collar keeps the sun off the neck’s nape. The front zip from Adam’s apple to xiphoid process allows the wearer to admit just as much cooling breeze as is needed to prevent sweat build-up and to maintain a comfortable body temperature, which reduces dangerous overheating. Those elasticized, rear-facing pockets that puzzle non-cyclists are ideal for securing snacks, small tools, phone and wallet when the cyclist leans low over the handlebars.

Jersey Pockets

Bright Colors  But what about those garish colors? Well, not every jersey is brightly colored. All mine are, though. I want to be seen by tired or distracted motorists in plenty of time for them to avoid adding me to the roadkill butcher’s bill. On another practical note, a few manufacturers make summer-weight, long-sleeved jerseys in brilliant white, designed to keep you from burning to a crisp under the blazing sun. Can’t argue with that, can you? And then there are cyclists who choose garish jerseys for the same reason that other fashionistas select their wardrobe: they like the look. Or because they want to show support for their role models on professional racing teams. And who can argue with someone else’s taste?

Bright Jerseys


Do you have to wear a special jersey when riding a bike? Nope. Wear cotton t-shirts if you prefer. Or even a tweed jacket. But despite having ridden in tees for years, I now find that I prefer jerseys, even on the shortest rides. And I haven’t had to pay a fortune for the privilege. While many fashion-oriented jerseys sell for as much as a Wal-Mart bike, and wool jerseys are now luxury items, I’ve stocked up on inexpensive generic jerseys (solid colors, no team logo, no grabby graphics) during end-of-season sales. But while my jerseys may be cheap, they do the job—and they last. I’m still wearing jerseys I’ve had for almost ten years. That makes them cheaper than many of my cotton tees.

What it comes down to is this: Jerseys make it easier for you to cycle in your comfort zone. They’re textbook examples of the design dictum that form should follow function. And if you go the garish color route, they just might save your life someday. That’s worth a few stares at the local HyperMart, isn’t it? I think so.


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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.