Cycling Today, March 1999
My first job was the arena for my first post-adolescent rebellion. I couldn’t understand why a book store clerk on subsistence wage belonged in a necktie. The symbolism is obvious, job=noose, but it wasn’t symbolism that bothered me, or even the demonstrably useless garment itself. It was the fact that a demand and not a request was being made: my first dress code.
The unfairness of life, the universe and everything, but especially of neckties (women were exempt from this particular draft; how I envied them their unbuttoned freedom) ricocheted annoyingly in my righteous head until I was more or less forced to seek employment elsewhere. As sturms und drang go it wasn’t exactly original and ultimately a bit tedious, but it did give me some purchase on a wider truth: clothes unmake the man.
Take my wife. (This is not a set-up for a Henny Youngman joke.) She works in The City, which pays for more inner tubes than does writing for a cycling magazine. City institutions are not known for their sartorial daring, but many subscribe to casual Fridays, an import from the US. If you haven’t heard of this institution, I’ll explain the concept. Employees are allowed one work day a week to let their hair down. A brief escape from corporate conformity; a gift from big brother. It’s meant to be a sort of psychic bridge between work and home, the daily grind and the weekend grind. Boiled down? Dress down.
It’s supposed to promote a more relaxing mood. It tends to promote the opposite, because the exceptions ARE the rules: No shorts. No collarless shirts (?). No trainers (!). No jeans of any colour (this alone bins the idea). No culottes (whatever those are). No vinyl (admittedly a good idea). I’m not sure what this leaves, but neoprene would appear to be OK. Even Mao jackets are out. It’s just too nerve-wracking to be truly relaxing.
All of which brings me in a spectacularly roundabout fashion to bicycle helmets.
Once upon a time I was crossing the street and hit by a car. It knocked me out, but no great damage done, I never had much use for most of my higher cognitive functions anyway.
Later I was driving a car and hit by yet another car, which just goes to show that there isn’t safety in numbers after all. It knocked me out, but no great damage done, I never had much use for that eyebrow anyway.
Several years passed in a linear kind of way… and eventually I was straddling a bike and launching myself into the apparent combat zone of city streets. Given that I would appear to be literally a magnet for cars, I put two and two together (my lower cognitive skills remain unimpaired) and opted for some headgear.
My helmet marked me out as a Serious Cyclist, as did my new cycling wardrobe: either garish or black — no in-between — and close-fitting but not too tight to be indecent, depending on your tolerances. I happily spent the next few years honing my skills (“‘honing’ and ‘skills’ must be used together at all times” -Writer’s Handbook) and successfully keeping my head 5'9" over rather than 5'9" under.
Thus might I have travelled life’s road indefinitely if I hadn’t run out of bay leaves for that osso buco recipe (or maybe it was extra confectioner’s sugar for some Pop-Tarts) one fine crisp day and felt too lazy to walk or even to change into my bicycle clothes for a quick sprint to the checkout. Unbidden, an idea filtered into my consciousness. Cycle in street clothes? Lots of people do it. I saw them all the time, never failing to muse on their hideous discomfort.
My stomach gurgled for the sweet grassy freshness of bay leaf, or the thunderous culinary orgasm that is tres sucre Pop-Tart, it doesn’t matter now, when carpe diem, I leapt on my bike and Just Did It. No helmet. No gloves. Naked, really.
Was I de-evolving? Or just joining most of the cycling world? Never mind, it felt good. But that’s what the naturist crowd always says.
Granted, it wasn’t very far, not a true test. So a few days later I did it again.
I was onto something.
Soon I began to punctuate my routine ramblings with such guilty trips, until I had created my own practically week-long casual Friday. At the apogee of my newly discovered freedom I even took to wearing a long black coat which flapped in the wind and tended to get caught in wing mirrors. It finally dawned on me that all along I had been my own big brother by making my own dress code, and what felt so wonderful was the fact that I’d just broken it.
In the end, where we’ve just arrived, I put my helmet back on, at least for urban no man’s lands. I may have misplaced my head now and then, but I haven’t completely lost it. [Update: Lost it.]
. . .
Please note that like most people who work in the City, my wife doesn’t get a bonus worth bashing. She’s in IT, which is barely tolerated by the BSDs.
Now I know what culottes are, or close enough