The Need For Speed (or Not)

On one end of the spectrum we have lycra-clad, high speed commuters, on the other we have style-conscious, slow bike proponents, and in the middle we have just about everyone else. We’re 100% for any and all of it, because we love bikes and bicyclists and we’re always happy to see anyone on the road who’s not in a motor vehicle.

We know folks who have long commutes and need to ride fast so they don’t spend half the day getting to and from work. We get that. Years back I (Alan) had a 30+ mile round trip commute. If I had ridden at a leisurely 8 miles per hour in street clothes I would have been on the road 4 hours per day. Instead, I wore lycra, rode hard, cleaned up and changed at work, and kept my commute time to a reasonable 2 hours or so.

We also know people who live in the city center and rarely ride more than a couple of miles at a time, so they have no need to ride fast or wear specialized clothing. We get that too. Years back I (Alan again) lived in an urban setting and had a basic city bike that I used to get around the neighborhood. I rode an easy pace that kept me dry and comfortable in whatever I happened to be wearing.

These days, many of our bike trips are short and are ridden at a leisurely pace, but because we’re living car-lite in the suburbs, we sometimes also need to ride longer distances at higher speeds because everything is so darned spread out. Covering those distances in a reasonable amount of time requires greater effort and possibly even specialized equipment suited to the task. Our bike and clothing choices reflect this dichotomy. We tend to prefer versatile bikes that are comfortable when ridden at 8 mph down to the corner coffee shop, but are also light and efficient enough that they’re enjoyable for running an errand 15 miles away. Our wardrobes also reflect this need for versatility and include a fair amount of “technical” clothing that looks presentable but is breathable and comfortable during physical activity (REI loves the EcoVelo’s ;-)).

We’d love to know what kind of distances you’re riding, what kind of average speeds you typically maintain, and what kind of clothing you most frequently wear while on the bike.

How long is your average utilitarian bike ride (commute, errand, etc.)?

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What is your usual average speed on a utilitarian bike ride (commute, errand, etc.)?

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What type of clothing do you typically wear on a utilitarian bike ride (commute, errand, etc.)?

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Feel free to elaborate in the comments section below.

35 Responses to “The Need For Speed (or Not)”

  • Maven says:

    At 6.5 miles one way, I find that my work commute is just a hair too long to be really comfortable in street clothes in most weathers. In the summer I shower and change at work; in cooler weather, it really depends on what my work clothes for the day are going to be. Yesterday I wore a wool base layer under my dress and leggings over my tights and stripped them off when I got to work. I must admit that I spend a fair amount of my ride time fantasizing about an ideal bike/work outfit that would keep me cool, stylish, and office-ready…

  • Rob Sayers says:

    Clothing depends on the time of year around here. My workplace is business casual, and from late spring into early fall it’s just too hot to wear my worth clothes. I’ll wear a normal t-shirt and cargo shorts and change when I get to work.

    The rest of the year I roll up my right pantsleg and ride in my khakis or slacks. The commute is about 5 miles one-way, so there isn’t much benefit to really pushing hard. The difference between a leisurely commute and a time-trail commute is about 10 minutes.

  • John Lascurettes says:

    I keep promising myself that I’ll slow down on my 11-mile round trip commute, but within about a third of the distance or less, I find myself pushing it (especially as it gets colder and I need my own heat-stack to warm me up). Because of this, I wear specialized clothes and change at work. I keep my walking shoes at work to save on weight.

    This is okay though. It’s the best exercise I get on a daily basis and lost 25 pounds over the course of a year doing it.

    My specialized clothing tends to be even more specialized in the soggy NW winters as I’m more prone to sweating when I’m wearing supposedly breathable rain shells than I am when I can dress in light wicking fabrics in the summer.

    In all of my specialized equipment nothing beats a wool base layer (though my rainproof shoes are pretty close).

  • Blake T. says:

    I tend to wear a mix- I often wear a padded undershort, with a non-cycling specific outer (short or pants (currently I prefer Dickies shorts and pants), and depending on the time of year, I wear lycra as well as wool. I generally commute down into the 20’s when there is no snow on the road, and I hope to take it colder this year! Oddly enough, people driver better here in Rochester, NY during the winter.

  • Marin says:

    I’m not a particularly fast or long distance rider, but I find that I have a magnetic attraction to bike grease. Seriously–if I even THINK about a bicycle I end up with gunk on my pants. So I end up wearing old (and/or grease colored) sporty clothing for my commuting even though I probably could get away with just wearing work clothes on many days.

  • Roland Smith says:

    Cycling is my main transport to work and around town, so I wear my daily clothes, but I did buy a water-repellant but breathing jacket because of this.

    My riding clothes tend to be slightly different between summer and the other seasons. In summer it is just shorts with a t-shirt. The rest of the year usually jeans with a soft-shell jacket. What I wear under the jacket depends on the weather. In spring and autumn usually just a t-shirt. In winter I add an extra layers, upto a fleece sweater.

    At work I usually change my t-shirt, because I tend to work up a sweat when commuting; its good exercise.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I wear technical cycling clothes of various types for my commutes. I used to wear technical non-cycling specific clothes but I don’t climb or hike as much anymore and most of my technical clothes have migrated to cycling specific now.

    I ride a 17-22mph on the flats most of the time, less in winter, more in spring and summer. I like to push myself as my cycling is the bulk of the exercise I get.

  • Sharper says:

    For me, “utility” riding is different than commute; when I’m riding my cargo-enabled bike to the farmer’s market 2 miles away, I go in my street clothes. When I’m riding my road bike to work 5.5 miles away, it’s lycra and a change when I arrive.

  • Mike says:

    My ride is only 5.5 miles each way and I’ve been able to do it at a leisurely 12-14 mph with few clothing or hygiene issues… I’m lucky in that I work for myself and my boss (me) is very forgiving if I show up a bit red-faced or sweaty in the summer. If I were going to work in a law office, I suppose I’d have to give a lot more thought to being presentable when I arrived.

    I was interested to see my answers (so far) fit into the majority category of each question. On the bike trail, there are days when it seems I’m the only one not trying to shave a few seconds off a personal best.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    13 – 15 miles one way, depending on route, for me. I voted technical non-cycling clothing, even though it’s just cargo shorts, some type of weather appropriate athletic top, and sneakers because I change at work. I’ve been averaging 12 mph on a frankenstein road bike thingy, outfitted to go faster than a pure town bike but not as fast as a straight road bike. With the condition of some of the roads I take, that is probably for the better… we’re talking seriously cracked and pitted. I would like to get my time consistently down to an hour or less just to have a little more flexibility in my schedule for the day. I’ve only been at it 3 days a week for a month though, so hopefully that will come as I get in shape.

  • Tali says:

    I agree that cycling is good, across the speed/distance spectrum. Over any distance coverable in a day, cycling is going to be the least expensive, most enjoyable and 2nd most environmentally friendly (after walking).

    However, I think that there is a sweet spot for cycle journey distance of between roughly 1 to 5 miles. Over this distance, we can add to the above advantages a door to door journey time likely to be competitive with, or even quicker than, public transport, motoring or walking. Barring extremes of climate or terrain, the best clothing for such a journey is probably street clothing, and the best bicycle is one that will keep you comfortable and the clothing clean.

    Of course, the 1 to 5 miles sweet spot does vary by local conditions such as terrain, the level of traffic congestion, car parking, public transport availability and quality, as well as factors specific to the journey itself. The bicycle, automobile, bus, train and airliner are all just transportation tools, and have distance and route types that they are best suited for.

    My own experience of cycling 25 miles round trip as a commuter with the clipless pedals, cycle clothing and fast road bike with a shower and change at the end was that I soon decided that the bus wasn’t so bad, especially in winter, where I could have a nice seat and read a book, getting from home to desk and v.v. in about the same elapsed time wasn’t enough to keep me on the bike.

    I’m doubtful that promotion of the environmental and health benefits of longer journeys will be enough to outweigh the real disadvantages for many people and allow en masse adoption of cycling for longer journeys. We must look to public transport as the greener alternative for longer journeys, IMO. But those who can stick with longer cycle coumutes should not take this as a denegration of what they do.

    So at the risk of being contriversial, I’d suggest that the promotion of the 1 to 5 mile journey in street/work clothes is the type of cycle journey that is most in need of encouragement, and, as evidenced in The Netherlands, et al, is probably the type of cycling with the best hope of mass adoption. You need only look at the number of cycles in the cycle parking at a Dutch (or many European) railroad station to see the general approach to longer distances in what is likely the most cycle friendly country on the planet.

  • Alan says:


    Very good points all. Of course, the issue here in the U.S. is that our cities are so spread out horizontally; our cities and infrastructure couldn’t be more dissimilar to that of a country like the Netherlands. We can hardly afford to only encourage bike trips of less than 5 miles; doing so would eliminate a very large percentage of potential trips.


  • Adrienne says:

    I ride what I got, I wear what I got and on occasion I wear padded granny panties underneath : )

  • Andy E says:

    I like a mix of everything. Jeans on bottom, wool on top has been a killer combo for me. As with most folks i try to dress for the amount of energy i’m putting into the ride.

    Oh, most important… WOOL SOCKS! year-round. tip: nordstrom rack has great deals on smartwool socks!

  • Alan says:

    @Andy E

    “tip: nordstrom rack has great deals on smartwool socks!”

    Oooo.. good tip, Andy. Thanks…


  • William Henderson says:

    If you had a fourth category, “Wool”, I would’ve selected that. Light merino wool top under a sweater, wool skivvies, and wool pants, slacks or jeans is my day-to-day wear, and it’s no coincidence that this stuff is all great for biking. If I’m taking a longer (50-100 mile) ride, the choices are almost the same: shorts instead of pants, clipless Keens instead of shoes and platform pedals, and maybe leave the sweater at home unless it’s cold.

    If it’s raining I wear (or pack) a Shower’s Pass ‘Portland’ jacket and I go for the wool or Filson pants.

  • William Henderson says:

    Tip two:
    These merino wool shirts are a good deal at REI, killer if you have a coupon….

  • tim says:

    40 miles round trip commute. Tack on a few extra miles for a trip to the bank, UPS or the library. Technical (SIDI) shoes, wools socks about 8 months a year, Endura and Police cycling shorts and pants (please see Olympic uniform ! awesome stuff- look at closeouts). On top I tend to wear technical cycling stuff when warm, and as it gets cold shift to a series of thicker (thrift store) wool sweaters, with or without a wind vest.

    I work for myself, so I shower when sweaty, when I feel like it, and when clients are comming in-usually. I have held meetings with clients still in lycra!!

    Alan, your chart only went to 30 miles, how about a study on long distance commuters?

  • ToddBS says:

    Honestly, since I switched to a Brooks saddle, I rarely wear bike-specific shorts. So far I’ve gone up to 20 miles at a time in cargo shorts and boxer briefs without so much as a raw spot.

  • Willis says:

    For question three I would have liked to have seen “work clothes” as an option as most of my 5-6 mile trips are back and forth to work each day. While I use the bike for groceries, beer runs, and trips to the drugstore for necessities, mostly I am dressed for success with a technical outer layer in the cold for the majority of my rides. Street clothes would be my preference for trips that are not commuting but now that I can commute everyday I find I differentiate between work and street clothing as I can’t wear half of the things I own near where I work for the fear of being mistaken for a homeless guy.

  • Bryan Willman says:

    My commutes are intended to also be training time – idea being to do two things (travel someplace and train) at the same time. Oddly, I mostly commute to the gym, so I ride hard to go lift weights, and ride home slow from being very tired.

    Ironically I’ve pointed out to people that if they commute via bicycle, they perhaps don’t need to go to the gym anymore, and so it can be a net time win.

    (My personal case is unique.)

  • Sweet William says:

    Strangely, if I’m short on time, I ride slower and wear my work clothes. But in Summer, it’s too hot to wear anything other than shorts and a tshirt.

  • David says:

    Cycling shorts year round. Cotton T shirt during the Summer. Wool socks and hiking boots year round. Summer time that is just about all that I wear. Long sleeve cycling jerseys and wind breakers and long finger gloves during the colder months.

    This winter I will be riding in a velomobile so I expect I will be dressing somewhat lighter.

  • The Opoponax says:

    My work commute is about 5 miles each way, including some hills and a schlep over one of the East River bridges. My other usual bike trips are 3-ish miles to the boyfriend’s house, and 5-ish miles to visit the friends in a somewhat far-off part of Brooklyn. And then of course you have the quick neighborhood jaunts of two miles or less. I wear street clothes for all of this and ride at a leisurely pace. I don’t have a bike computer so I couldn’t really say how fast I was going, but I don’t push. And for my work commute I take the last mile or two, which is on a dedicated bike path, as a “cool down” period so as to show up looking vaguely civilized.

    Maybe I’m just a lightweight softie, but anything beyond about 8 miles would be considered a major bike excursion to me, not an everyday commuter thing. Though I have been known to put in some serious miles – those are special occasions, though, not the daily grind.

  • s0fa says:

    In the summer I used to wear a jersey and regular shorts to ride to work at a bike shop but I had so many customers accuse me of wearing a cycling jersey at work as trying to affect an artificial cycling environment that I stopped and started biking to work in whatever and being sweaty.

  • The Opoponax says:

    Also, re:

    “We can hardly afford to only encourage bike trips of less than 5 miles; doing so would eliminate a very large percentage of potential trips.”

    Totally anecdotal, but I recently looked at my (southern, semi-rural, sprawly) hometown on Google Maps. My high school was like 3 miles from my house. The supermarket and other basic errands (pharmacy, video rental, dry cleaner, fast food) were maybe a mile and half or two. My father’s office and our church might have been 5, tops. There were very few places my family went regularly when I was growing up which were more than the 1-5 mile “sweet spot” bike ride from our house. Not sure if this is “average” or not, but it kind of blew my mind. Oh, and I’m in my 20’s, so it’s not like I’m talking about some idyllic pre-sprawl landscape. I’m talking about exurbia in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

  • Kirsten says:

    From my house, it’s 4 miles one way to the edge of town, 8 miles to the main shopping area, 10 miles to downtown, and another 3-5 miles if I cross the river to the next town. So when running errands, I could ride anywhere from 8-30 miles round trip 1-3 times per week. Then there are the leisure rides, but those happen at irregular intervals.

    I wear street shoes and clothes with high-viz orange vest over my jacket or shirt. If it’s raining, I wear oiled leather (I oil them myself with shoe grease) boots and rain gear over the street clothes and the vest over the rain jacket.

    As to speed, I go as fast as conditions and traffic permit. The usual average from my house to the edge of town is 16 mph. Once I hit traffic and depending on which roads I take, I can average 8-16 mph. This is not very fast, but then the roads in this area were not designed with bicycles in mind, so one does their best with what one has.

  • Wild Bill says:

    My commute is about 13 miles each way. I’m doing it because it is good exercise, makes me feel good, and mainly because it is FUN! I try to ride as fast as possible without feeling the burn (~18 mph). Because I’m on the bike for 45-50 minutes at a time, I wear straight up spandex.

  • Tali says:


    “Very good points all. Of course, the issue here in the U.S. is that our cities are so spread out horizontally; our cities and infrastructure couldn’t be more dissimilar to that of a country like the Netherlands. We can hardly afford to only encourage bike trips of less than 5 miles; doing so would eliminate a very large percentage of potential trips.”

    I can’t argue that you don’t have much of a choice if you live in such a sprawling city. But I fear that marketing utility cycling in such an automobile dependant city is going to be difficult. Without using the automobile, living in such cities would be like living in London or New York and avoiding the subway and taxicabs (or cycling). Sprawling cities seem to have little to recommend them without the automobiles they were designed for. I think the bicycle is an alternative to, not a substitute for, the automobile.

  • ToddBS says:

    “Because I’m on the bike for 45-50 minutes at a time, I wear straight up spandex.”

    I’m not sure what the one has to do with the other.

  • Dottie says:

    Interesting to see the results! I’m in the majority for all categories: 5-10 miles at 10-15 mph in street clothes.

  • Elaine says:

    I’m a lot like Sharper above: my commute is 5 miles each way, and I usually ride it in bike or exercise clothes, especially in the rainy months. I’m lucky enough to have a shower at work, so I tend to think of it as riding in my PJs. :) Right now it’s mid-weight base layers with a wool sweater if it’s extra-chilly, wool socks, and rain jacket & pants. Although if the weather’s decent, and what I’m wearing will work, I’ll wear my work clothes home rather than take the extra time to change.

    On the other hand, most of my other utilitarian riding is short distances, farthest store I ride to is about 2 1/2 miles from the house, downtown library etc. is even less, and so I ride in whatever street clothes are comfortable for riding and appropriate for my destination. I do find that my wardrobe has adapted the last few years so that more and more of it is comfortable for cycling!

    Average speed is sort of quirky for errand-running; commuting I average a bit over 10 mph, but around town I’m much more at the mercy of the hills. Going downtown from my house, I’ve broken 25mph, but then coming up at 5 mph in places! Interestingly enough, that affects what I wear, too: have to have enough layers to stay warm while coasting at high speed, but need them to be removable for that last sweaty bit up the hill coming home.

    And then my most common errand destination is the grocery store less than a mile away, on flat streets: I wear whatever I happen to be wearing and go about 10 mph. Sometimes faster if I’m in the middle of cooking something and realized I’m missing an ingredient. :)

  • Edward Lark says:

    Like a lot of the people posting, my ride/clothes vary wildly based on the type of riding and the weather.

    Living in Chicago, my commute and the clothes I wear change drastically between spring/summer and fall/winter. I generally wear cycle shorts (spring/summer) or tights (fall/winter) and cycle-specific shoes (Keen cycle sandals (summer); Sidi shoes (spring/fall); waterproof LG cycling boots (winter). After that, the rest of my commute-wear is generally non-cycle specific – shorts and a technical t-shirt in warmer weather; dickies or swobo cycle knickers and a fleece vest or technical waterproof jacket in the colder weather. Extra tights and rain pants, the vest and the jacket together, a wool balaclava, wool socks and a cheap pair of ski goggles for the worst/coldest winter months. In the winter I tend to go straight to work and straight back – about 13-15 miles – but in the summer I take a much longer route to work and use the commute as training time – bringing the round trip total to 30-45 miles per day.

    I am also much faster and push myself a lot more in the summer (and don’t generally have to fight against chicago winds), so my average speed is in the 17-20 mph range, but in the winter that goes way down to about 12-14 mph. I shower and change at a bike commuter station near my work year-round and carry my work clothes with me, including work shoes. I keep my suit jackets in my office.

    Beyond the commute, though, I use the bike for shopping errands and short utility transport rides and for those just wear street clothes and (try to) ride at a relatively leisurely speed so that I don’t arrive sweaty.

  • veronica choroco says:

    I’m sure there is large number of us out there, the cyclist that has more than one bike for each of the purposes they define. For myself, I live in NYC, I have a Schwinn 5 speed bike that I use for commuting in the city. I wear dresses, high-heels, short skirts (with bike shorts underneath, for those with a wondering eye), pants, shorts, etc, yet I’ve been known to put on the sexy spandex, cleats and do my 40 mile rides on my Specialized Ruby bike. Not to mentioned, my other Specialized bike with is rock-hopped, which is kindly used to do mountain biking, and yes, I do don my spandex again.

    I think this goes to show that you can never judge a rider by what they are riding or wearing. You’ll be surprised.

    Thank you Ecovelo for creating a forum for all of us cyclist of all shapes, sizes, kinds and bike types can share the joys of cycling and keep our environment cleaner.

  • dygituljunky says:

    I’m not the typical bike commuter: for personal safety reasons and weight considerations, I don’t wear my work-clothes on the bike (my work-clothes weigh 20-30 lbs, depending on the season). I also don’t want to stink up the work-clothes (all polyester) during the 9-mile ride.

    I shower and change at work and carry my work clothes in a garment-bag pannier with my insulated, soft-sided lunchbox strapped to the carry handles on the garment-bag pannier. I’m a biggish fella (sometimes known as a Clydesdale) and so with the weight of my pannier and my own person, I can break a serious sweat getting places as speeds that others find slow. Add the weight of my gear to the Atlanta heat and hills and, for me, commuting in regular clothes is not tenable (I’d love to move to a cooler city where it would be).

    I end up wearing the brightest jersey or jacket (plain with only subtle logos) that I can find for the top and mountain shorts down below. I only have to wear long pants for a month or so out of the year.

    I do wear clipless mountain bike shoes since they’re almost as comfortable for walking as regular shoes and make me feel more connected to the bike.

    I tend to push myself to get to work and take it a little easier on the way home but I enjoy the workout as much as I enjoy not being in a car.

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