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Gearing up for the rainy season: wool, knickers, and other urban cycling essentials

Posted by Elly Blue (Columnist) on September 9th, 2009 at 4:10 pm

B. Spoke knickers in action
(Photo by B. Spoke Tailor)

Even with more sunny weather ahead of us in the forecast, it's impossible to escape the impending reality of the rainy season. Cool, rainy mornings last week had us delving into the backs of our closets for pants, long sleeve shirts, even jackets. And of course, wool.

Last winter we sang the praises of wool as a winter riding fabric, for the chic utility rider as well as for the performance minded sporty cyclist.

It seems that the bike industry is starting to catch on.

We've been receiving increasing mail from companies that appear to be targeting a demographic that perhaps got into cycling through racing bikes and who now use their bike for transportation and want to look good while riding hard and fast. One of these, Outlier, makes high-quality tight weave wool caps, marketing them as "tailored performance clothing for cycling in the city."

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On the other end of the spectrum, we have the vélocouturists (best exemplified through Patrick Barber's blog of the same name) and the apparel makers who hope to win their hearts.

Last winter, we mentioned a staple of vélocouture: knickerbockers, or trousers that come below the knee, for winter riding.

One of the original wool knicker makers with a cycling bent is Nan Eastep of B. Spoke Tailor (formerly known as Joyriders). Eastep works with customers all over the country to create custom, tailored knickers (see photos here).

B. Spoke is based out of the Bay Area, but will be in Portland this Sunday, Sept 13th for a 7:30pm fitting session hosted at a private home in SW Portland. The cost of the knickers is $175 plus shipping. If interested in attending the session, or to order knickers from elsewhere in the world, contact: nan at bspoketailor dot com.

Clever Cycles at SE 9th and Hawthorne has the largest selection we know about in town of fashionable clothes that work well for bike riding, from fitted, full-skirted dresses with a back cycling jersey-style pocket by Sheila Moon to a full line of Ibex wool outfits to a big wool blanket to wrap your baby in for nighttime bakfiets rides.

Another excellent local source for wool garb that can pass as outdoor gear or everyday wear is the Icebreaker store downtown (Icebreaker generously provided the gear for our coverage of Cycle Oregon next week).

Showers Pass's new Club Pants convert to knickers. (Photo by Showers Pass)

Showers Pass is coming out next month with a version of their club pants that converts to knickers.

We'll have a review up shortly of a couple of rain jackets marketed for urban utility riding, including the tweedy Portland from local business Showers Pass, and a sleek, more performance-oriented jacket from a new company called Cutter (which also makes wool jerseys and performance knickers).

It's interesting to see how the bicycle apparel industry is wrapping its mind around utility cycling. Much of the new gear billed for urban utility seems focused on performance -- clothes that you can really work up a sweat in while hunched over the bars of a road bike, and that are designed to look sporty, aerodynamic, and tight fitting.

We'll likely see a lot more of that in coming years; hopefully joined by even more folks like B. Spoke, and like M-Horton designs (who we profiled earlier this year) who are making "regular" clothes that just happen to be designed with bicycle transportation in mind.

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  • carlos September 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    shorts and a pair of tights. It ain't fashionable but it gets the job done at a fraction of the price.

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  • TTse September 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    But how long do you want to walk around in a pair of shorts over tights Carlos?

    I mean, I get you, if it's for the to/from work thing, yeah it works, but if you're looking for something that you can ride in and wear all day, wool is awesome. It sheds moderate rain well, stays warm, and most importantly resists the stink.

    And don't forget, you can stock up for pretty cheap at the thrift store. I wear the heck out of a cashmere sweater that I found for free.

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  • Stephanie @ Showers Pass September 9, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    +The Club Convertible Pants will be available in Men's and Women's Styles for $120. They fit well over street or cycling clothes.

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  • cold worker September 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    i'm with carlos. but i have admittedly low-brow taste.

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  • jv September 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Knickers are silly; your feet and legs are still going to get wet - just wear some cheap rain pants that pack up and normal clothes underneath. Also, chainguards are a simple proven alternative to all this pants rolling/knickerness. I think the real point of knickers is to make a fashion statement, build identity, and illustrate to others that you ride a bicycle even when you are off your bike. I don't think specialized clothing is neccessary to ride a bike in the rain and sleet of Portland. If you are sweating through your clothes then just slow down and enjoy a more relaxexd commute...I ride to work in dress slacks and $15 rain pants if I really need them...Sometimes I have an extra change of shoes/socks at the office.

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  • Stig3 September 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Yeah cheap thin tights over your bike shorts. If you're too cold, you're goin' too slow.

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  • Andrew September 9, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Seriously? Just run a larger Clever Cycles banner or skyscraper and be done with it. Knickers, wtf?

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  • Andrew September 9, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    No better yet, wool cycling chaps!

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  • Peter September 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    How is this one-sided advertisement allowed to be published? Why not tell me to smoke cigarettes (your brand, of course) and eat lots of red meat to keep warm on my bike this winter.
    Just say "NO!" to wool!

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    • Greg October 4, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      Why so anti-wool?

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  • Jeff September 9, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    Knickers for women, yes, it accentuates slender legs.

    But man-knickers? So men can show of hairy cankles? I just don't get it when shorts and leg warmers/tights has been the urban-cycling fashion standard for years.

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  • Tim Roth September 9, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Don't knock the knickers y'all. Especially if you have no fashion sense to begin with. We're not all slobs. Some of us like to wear comfortable, fashionable clothes that work well for biking and are suitable to wear at our final destination. I think rolling up one pant leg is more of a "yeah I rode my bike here" statement than wearing knickers. Knickers are fucking awesome. And really, if you are so frightened of other folks knowing you rode your bike, why do it at all? Celebrate your mode.

    Also, I'm probably going to start an equestrian themed bike-specific clothing company if anyone wants to invest. Just sayin'...

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  • drew September 10, 2009 at 1:11 am

    I just cram my pants legs into my socks. Works fine if I remember to pull them out when off the bike.

    But I did spring for the Showers Pass jacket and pants (both E-vent material). Never thought I could be so dry and comfy riding a bike for long periods in the rain.

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  • Jeff September 10, 2009 at 5:51 am

    Black Vinyl Skin Suit. 'nuff said...

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  • Joe September 10, 2009 at 7:08 am

    wild and wool'ee season is coming! :)

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  • karl dawson September 10, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Andy and Bax army surplus is the way to go. Army wool pants never go out of style.

    http://www.andyandbax.com

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  • redhippie September 10, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Wool is fine, but it just isn't that cold in Portland and wool absorbs just too much water for use as pants. The other issue is how well they hold up with repeated washings, and snags that un-ravel.

    Despite laying down some serious coin for wool jerseys and pants, they pretty much were starting to unravel in less than a winter season. Luckily I was able to return the pants, and I live with a $120 Ralpha jersey that looks a $5 jersey. Now my main jerseys/insulation layers are Sport hill and Icebreaker (from their annual warehouse clearance). These have stood up to repeated washings much better than my Ralpha and Swobo. Ibex also looks really good.

    For pants I swear by soft shell fabrics. I a lot of soft-shell garments for backcountry skiing and mountaineering and they are tough, reasonably water repellant, insulate and stand up to repeated washing. My favorite knicker pants are made by Ibex, Ralpha and Swerve. My favorite wet weather and slightly colder pants are the Showers pass Club pants.

    I think Wool would be great in Minnesota or some place colder and drier, but for the rain of Portland they don't make as much sense.

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  • Rich R September 10, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Love my pa of Ralpha knickers I wear and even though my co-workers initially gave me sh*t about them, they've learned to tolerate them. I could care less either way actually - to each, his/her own right? They are great for that chill that's quickly approaching. I'm heading to the B. Spoke fitting this Sunday also.

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  • Boneshaker September 10, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Wool makes an amazing base layer, but a terrible outer. I'm surprised anyone wants to wear wool pants. It doesn't stretch, it's heavy and it holds water. Not exactly the ideal solution for those of us who ride through Nov-Mar. For about half the price you can get a nice pair of tights that actually keep you warm and dry. Problem is they won't match a Rivendell Atlantis or look right with seersucker shirts & wingtips. To each their own I guess...

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  • Dianna September 10, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Aww. Knickers are cute enough, and they provide a perfect excuse for funny knee socks. Jeff #10, no need to be such a killjoy.

    Then again, the point about getting your ankles wet is well-taken. Cue my discovery from last year, that slicing the sleeves off an unloved sweater gives you two snazzy long spats (legwarmers, if you prefer) that protect nicely from Portland Medium Drizzle and kicked-up road gunk. They can also keep your pantslegs folded away from your chain and give you the appearance of wearing some rather chic cuffed boots. Classy!

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  • Jason S. September 10, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Maybe those people down on knickers don't ride their bike very much. Years of using a bike for commuting and other utility leads to one desiring clothing that does not look like crap but also is more comfortable because it was designed for riding a bicycle.

    Personally, I prefer knickers with long wool socks over long pants; I really love the freedom of exposed ankles.

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  • Zaphod September 10, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I'm running wool base layers year round, adjusting thickness based on temp.

    Some are suggesting to ride slowly in street clothes and take life easy, that's fantastic for those who want to go slow. A bicycle is about freedom & part of that is to roll at the velocity I like. Poorly ventilated street clothes force me to do something I don't want to do: go slow. That or suffer nasty cold, stinky and clammy cotton.

    I'm not blazing around like a TdF rider but there are places I need to go and I'm not keen on creeping along. With a little momentum, I maintain fitness and get to my destination faster. With the right layers, I do this in comfortable bliss. This can be done on the cheap or high-zoot so it's not an elitist thing.

    Roll what you want but stay warm this season.

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  • Ryan G. September 10, 2009 at 10:28 am

    jv, #5 said:

    "I think the real point of knickers is to make a fashion statement, build identity, and illustrate to others that you ride a bicycle even when you are off your bike."

    I disagree, but for the sake of argument let's assume that you're correct so that I can ask you, "So what?" Are any of those things that bad?

    The only fashion statement I'm making by wearing knickers is that I like to wear knickers...

    As for identity, riding my bike is part of my identity. So if my clothing reflects that, then my identity is building the clothing style- not the other way around...

    Wearing knickers to illustrate to others that I rode my bike? I'm not, but so what if I were? I see people leaving yoga studios in their yoga clothes; I see people leaving the gym in workout clothes; I see people sitting in ski lodges in ski clothes; I see wait staff having drinks in their black-and-whites after work. So what? Should they have to change before they can be seen in public? People wear clothes that work well for what they are doing in them and that reflect their identity. So if my clothes make a fashion statement, build identity, and let people know I rode my bike, then all I can say is, "SWEET!"

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  • Lazlo September 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

    "Andy and Bax army surplus is the way to go. Army wool pants never go out of style."

    +1 I have a thin pair of wool army pants with elastic cuffs that rock. Cuts the wind, absorbs very little water, and warm but breathable.

    "...wool absorbs just too much water for use as pants. The other issue is how well they hold up with repeated washings, and snags that un-ravel."

    My old wool army pants have held up for 6 or 7 years with no problem.

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  • Mike September 10, 2009 at 10:35 am

    We can drop f-bombs now? @11

    @11 - So if we don't wear knickers we're slobs who have no sense of fashion? I respectfully disagree, but I always do get a good chuckle when I see a guy over the age of 18 trying to rock a pair of knickers.

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  • Dan September 10, 2009 at 11:06 am

    For keeping pant legs out of your chain, the rubber band that comes on your asparagus works rather well, at a significant savings over trendy Rapha/Swobo et al wool knickers.

    The whole "you have to buy this $150 top and that $120 pair of knickers to bike through the winter" sets my teeth on edge. Almost anyone who lives in Portland and does a modicum of outdoor activities already owns clothing that is perfectly suitable for biking through the winter here. Biking should simplify things, not be an excuse for lifestyle consumerism among people who are too "enlightened" to want that McMansion in the burbs and the monster TV.

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  • chelsea September 10, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Whoa, stop the knicker hate. I don't own any, but I think they are cute. Also, the nordstrom rack has a ton of smarwool socks, at least in the women's department for about half what they cost at REI. I stocked up on those things.

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  • beth h September 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

    All this stuff can be replicated/imitated on the cheap by anyone with a pair of scissors and a modicum of dexterity. I took two pairs of Goodwill slacks and hemmed them to make my own knickers. I find thin wool vests and sweater regularly at Goodwill and yard sales. And I patch and re-seal torn rainwear to make it last more than a couple of seasons.

    While I admit that I DO own club kit, I got most of it on the cheap, either by managing the team order (and picking up MY jersey at significant discount) or by sourcing previous years' stuff from a teammate at a fraction of the cost.

    While it's nice to see all these articles about brave, new designers, all it does is stoke my fire to keep on being as cheap and resourceful as possible. Happy creating, everyone.

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  • Mike September 10, 2009 at 11:57 am

    @25 Perfect.

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  • CMark September 10, 2009 at 11:59 am

    muumuu (castellis underneath)

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  • joeb September 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I don't like rain gear when it is 60+ degrees out. I wore an Ibex base layer, Smartwool socks and some quick drying nylon shorts in a summer drizzle and was dry in the time it took to lock the bike and walk to my desk. Road dirt brushes off bare legs when it dries. I plan to buy only wool items from now on. My biggest concern is staying cool enough so I'll most likely stick to a base layer thickness. The Ibex selection at Clever Cycle is really great. And I'll have to get down to check out Icebreaker.

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  • Laurel September 10, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Hey, I'm a bike commuter and a BikePortland.org lurker. I work at Sock Dreams, a local Portland sock business. We have lots of over-the-knee and knee-high socks that are great for wearing with knickers or skirts! Check us out online (free shipping, y'all), or come see us at our new shop in Sellwood starting next Tuesday (8005 SE 13th Ave). Happy riding!

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  • jj September 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Heh...this is funny!

    Fiber Jihad.

    Wool is expensive, but once wet, doesn't lose its ability to insulate. Cokebottle fabrice (fleece, etc)is exceptionally cheap, and is insulating until such time as it gets wet. Once soaked, they have just about no ability to insulate.

    Cotton is a sponge, and a heavy one at that.

    Bottom line for me is that cotton is not sustainable and once it wears out, its gone. Fleece gets freakishly cold when it's wet, and frankly, I am always nervous after seeing it melt into skin once, but wool is reuseable (can be pulled apart and rewoven or re-knit) is sustainable and provides a vital function for the environment.

    It is the MOST effective clothing material pound for pound. Leather is pretty effective, but like cotton, is a nightmare of chemical processes to preserve on an industrial scale.

    If you want waterproof, get something other than wool. If you want water resistant, or want something that actually *benefits* the environment, get wool.

    If you wanna piss off some anti-hipsters, get knickers ;-)

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  • Donna September 10, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I have gotten some great for biking socks at Sock Dreams. They sell wool tights (the skirt/dress kind), too.

    Some of the best sock deals I have seen have been in the sock clearance basket at Imelda's. You can get nice, wool socks that are made in Europe and the US at excellent prices.

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  • eric September 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Dear Sock Dreams et al.

    Please make some warm wooly knee-high socks for dudes in a fun pattern. I have some ancient argyle snowboard socks which I am rapidly wearing out as I wear them every other day in the winter. I've tried the cotton/nylon socks, and I'd rather go barefoot.
    I've tried the smartwool and icebreaker socks, and they don't stay up.

    Re: knickers. Knickers are nice to wear if you're going to be out all day riding in the cold and wet, but for daily go to school/work duty they are a little precious, and expect to get teased. I do try to wear normal clothes as much as possible so that non-cyclists don't think you have to dress up like a clown in order to ride a bike.

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  • Pato September 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Base layer.
    Insulating layer.
    Rain/Wind layer.

    As a cyclist a budget, I love my grandpa's Pendleton wool shirt -- it's going strong after 30 years.

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  • kww September 11, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Regarding long pants that are home on the bike as well as office, Outlier has some nice long pants that are made of Schoeller fabric. Also Rapha is coming out with some nice pants as well.

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  • cutter September 11, 2009 at 8:33 am

    So for cold weather riding...

    Knickers + long socks or riding pants?

    To all the knicker-haters out there...the Tech Knickerbocker aren't your typical man/hipster-pri.

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  • shawn. September 11, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Ok, my two cents (sorry, but I was out of town for a few days):

    To the Knicker-haters: Whatevs. You don't like 'em, fine. I think there's plenty of stupid clothing items out there that people wear everyday but I don't make a big deal about them. And knickers were considered a perfectly acceptable and rational clothing item for YEARS, they went out of fashion, now they're coming back.

    To those saying this piece is an "advertisement": True, this story seems like fluff compared to some of the other harder news items covered by this site, but I don't see much complaining when OTHER items are reviewed on here (like bikes or accessories.) Why is clothing such a hot-button? If bikeportland reviewed a bike on here that is available at only one bike shop in town, would it be considered an advertisment?

    To the wool-haters: I think wool is appropriate for most of the winter, when rain is either light or sporadic. When the rains occasionally get heavier, I opt for rain pants. But I hate rain pants, so I avoid them unless absolutely necessary.

    To those who are complaining about the expense of some of these knickers: Yes, they are pricey. If you want to be more budget, find a good pair of wool slacks from Goodwill or whatever, and then "knicker-ize". Shaun Deller has a good article about that:
    http://dellerdesigns.blogspot.com/2008_10_01_archive.html

    Wool army surplus pants from Andy and Bax are great, but they are pretty heavy weight. I found them to work best during the Snowpocalypse last winter (when I wore nothing else) or for winter MMR rides.

    To Jeff, post #10: if hairy man "cankles" are such a problem, why aren't you complaining about shorts? And yeah, knee socks take care of the "hairy cankle" problem spendidly.

    To Eric, post #34: I feel your pain. It seems like sock makers think only women want long (i.e. knee) socks nowadays. It's sort of like the problem post by some commenters of the Shower's Pass jacket story, where Shower's Pass (and other "sport" clothing manufacturers) think women ONLY want "girly" colors. Sock makers think men ONLY want socks that stop at the calf. The solution: buy women's socks. It's pretty much the same thing, just adjust according to foot size.

    And Eric, the best way to hold socks up are sock suspenders. Sock Dreams sells them. Classy!

    Alright, that's enough. Think that's the longest response I've ever posted here...

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  • Fortuitous Bouncing « Man of Depravity September 12, 2009 at 5:16 am

    [...] guide to preparing for urban biking in the winter [...]

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  • Laurel September 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

    @eric #34 & @shawn #38

    We hear your cries for nicely-patterned wool socks for men! We're working on finding a new supplier (and think we've found one) who will knit fun, stripey socks in multiple sizes, in the quantities we'd need. *fingers crossed*

    In the meantime we've got the O Woolies, and several dudes with smaller shoe sizes (8,9,10) have had luck with some of our cashmere blend socks like the Thea and the Vivenne.

    (And here's some of those Sock Garters)

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  • April September 12, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I think dudes in knickers look hot, personally. To each their own.

    I've started wearing more pants like that recently. They're just convenient.

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  • Duncan September 13, 2009 at 6:26 am

    in the winter I just use gators and goretex boots- takes care of the wet feet issue unless it is a downpour, Then I simply wear tevas barefoot and bring shoes.

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  • eric September 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Laurel: The maker of the socks I like the most is lorpen, in Spain.

    Shawn: I really like my knickers, and I've worn them to some pretty dressy parties. the best ones are: http://bicyclefixation.com/shop.html

    Also electrical tape works great as a sock garter in a pinch.

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  • [...] Behold September, as autumn unfurls her russet locks! Where did summer go? Here at Vélocouture we’ve been noticing a spike of interest in what people wear while pedaling their bikes — a blissfully tweedy explosion of bike fashion shows, bespoke knicker fittings, and stories in the media everywhere from the New York Times to good old BikePortland.org. [...]

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  • [...] BikePortland had an article in the search results and I got all excited. It’s Portland, right? Should be plenty of bike-stylish options there, right? [...]

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