A recent study out of England evaluated whether a cyclist's appearance made any difference in how they were treated by passing motorists. So during Bike to Work Week, I decided to replicate that experiment, USA-style, to see if wearing different clothes affected how drivers treated me. I have an easy, low-stress, 3.5-mile bike commute to work. It consists of mostly residential streets with a few stoplights across busy roads, a couple of heads-up places and a lovely protected bike lane. Every day I rode the same route, the same bike and in the same manner. The only thing that changed each day was my wardrobe—or, in one case, my costume. Here's how it went down:
Day 1: Hi Vis
I saw a yellow finch, three white dogs being walked and one brown poodle noodling around on the ground scratching his back. None were fazed by my neon fashion. I rolled up to another commuter while waiting to cross a busy street. He appeared to be going to work, reminded me of a professor. He was nicely dressed in an outdoorsy way, button down shirt tucked in with a belt, canvas hiking pants with Velcro straps holding the fabric of his pants away from the chain, backpack with 2 metal water bottles and a rack that was empty. He glanced over at me in all my day glow glory and rolled a half wheel in front of me. Then he quickly made a dicey cross in front a car that was moving way over the speed limit. Maybe I’m projecting here but it was as if he was embarrassed to be seen next to a hi-vis Rainbow Bright. Other than my interaction with the “professor” this commute was no different than most. Most fellow commuters tend to be very friendly. Drivers behaved and gave me plenty of room.
Day 2: Casual – Cut-off jeans and t-shirt
There were only a few things worth mentioning about this day, and none had to do with how I was treated by motorists. The first thing was it was a gorgeous morning with orange poppies and purple irises waving hello with a clear blue sky. Secondly, cutoff jeans shorts are seriously uncomfortable on a bike. In the evening I got caught in a torrential rainstorm, complete with tornado sirens while riding through downtown Columbus for the Yay Bikes! event Ride the Elevator. We had to cut our ride short but it was a ride none of us will ever forget. It was like riding through a waterfall and down a river for about a mile. Jean shorts take on an enormous amount of water and tend to grow as few sizes when soaked. For the second day in a row, I was treated with respect and was given plenty of room when cars passed.
Day 3: Team Kit – so pro
I felt really conflicted this day. I’m no stranger to wearing a team kit. I’m on the Paradise Garage Racing Team and have been racing mountain bikes for over 16 years. What made this absurd was my glasses, shoes, helmet and kit cost 10x what I paid for my used bike. My carbon-soled shoes with cleats on the wet plastic pedals made for a tricky ride in the rain; my feet kept slipping off the pedals. My padded bibs, super soft jersey and rain resistant jacket kept me comfortable and dry. No one seemed to notice how ridiculous my outfit was in relation to my bike. My guess is most people don’t know the difference between a high-end bike and a beater. Again, everyone treated me with care when passing. Today was the first day no one waved at me. I felt slightly invisible, and since I was a bit self-conscious that was just fine by me. Was I off-putting in my so pro look or was it just the rain?
Day 4: Dress Up
This is the day that people were the most friendly. Two guys said hi and I got a few nods from the bus stop. Oddly enough, the hard soles of my heels made for a comfortable ride. They had a similar feel to my hard racing shoes. The heel acted as a hook and my feet never slipped off of the pedals. Fun commuting tip for anyone that wears a dress or skirt: tuck a little bit in one of the leg bands of your shorts and no matter the amount of wind your dress or skirt won’t go flying up and over your head! Cars treated me with the same respect and care as they did all week.
Day 5: Crazy town — I’m a green bunny
Somehow this seemed like a great idea until the morning of my commute. The realization that I was going to ride downtown and meet a bunch of fellow cyclists on the steps of Columbus City Hall in a green bunny suit made me want to pull the blankets over my head and stay in bed. This wasn’t the first time I have ridden a bike in this costume. I actually did an entire winter mountain bike series racing a borrowed fat bike in this fabulous furry $9 bunny suit. The main difference is I knew most of the people at the race series, while I hadn't met most of the city officials or business leaders who would be at the Bike to Work Week event. Clearly, I hadn’t thought this all the way through. I quickly made my way through my neighborhood hoping that none of my neighbors would see me. I high-tailed it (so to speak!) along my regular route to work and then continued all the way downtown to the steps of City Hall. My entire ride was a bit unexpected. No waves, no honks, no nods, no greetings of any sort. I even rode by two bus stops full of middle school students and no one said a word. Other than a construction worker in the Short North stopping his jackhammer and doing a double take there was nothing remarkable about this ride. Nothing to see here, keep it weird Columbus!
Obviously this wasn’t a hardcore scientific experiment, just my own observations from my easy commute. But no matter what I wore, I wasn’t treated all that much differently. The entire week was great. No one honked at me, there were no close passes or white knuckle moments. I followed all traffic laws and, as the law allows, rode as far right as practicable—which sometimes meant riding where the passenger car tire goes or taking the lane. I never hugged the curb, didn't dart in and out of parked cars or ride in the door zone. I made sure I was predictable and visible at all times. My take from the week was it didn't matter what I wore what mattered is how I rode. The bottom line is—wear whatever you want! Just ride!
I encourage you all to try this for a week. It's seriously a hoot! Don't have a critter costume? No worries, just wear something a bit outrageous on the fifth day. You just might be surprised what happens! Or, you know, maybe not. Either way, you'll have biked a bunch and be a better person for it.
Your friend, Heidi