Grimy Handshake: Wearer Beware | BIKE Magazine


"Can't forget this little treasure," he said, waving the bright-orange puck held in his hand before stuffing it into an outer pocket on a suspiciously large and overfilled backpack. Considering the relative brevity of the ride we were about to undertake, I wondered whether 'overfill' rhyming with 'overkill' had some sort of deeper meaning. But hey, to each his own, I thought. So I kept my mouth shut, stared off into the sunny distance while he adjusted his kneepads one more time and tapped my bare fingers quietly on my handlebars in anticipation of the coming couple hours.

"Woah, buddy … no knee armor? Are you seriously riding without knee armor?" Unaccustomed as I was to being singled out for a lack of kneepads on a local ride that I have ridden a few hundred times without the benefit of this particular accessory, I didn't at first realize that this query was directed at me. Then it was repeated, and in the silence when a response normally would form, it dawned on me that I was the only rider in this particular group who wasn't wearing knee protection of some sort. Hmmm …

I remember when helmet evangelism was going strong, back before everyone caved in and started wearing helmets all the time. Head injuries being what they are, I can understand the desire to protect against them for oneself, and can halfway sympathize with the ride group mentality that it really sucks the fun out of everyone's day to have to manage a good friend's fractured skull, but even back then, I resented the pressure to conform. So, right here, let's get this out in the open: I am not the poster child for safety apparel. But still, kneepads? For a ride where if I really tried hard I could count maybe a half a dozen rocks in the coming 20 miles? No, that's crossing a line.

"Look, man, sorry. I didn't know there was a dress code for this ride. I haven't ridden with you guys before, so just went with my usual kit. It'll be fine. If I shatter my kneecaps I promise to keep the screaming to a minimum." Staring at a circle of faces staring back at me, it became obvious that every one of those faces thought they were confronting a rookie, an idiot and a profoundly self-destructive individual. An impression no doubt compounded by the sight of my mismatched socks, closeout-rack surf shorts and season-end discount, snap-button Wrangler long-sleeve shirt. "Seriously, guys, I will keep it mellow, and won't make this any of your problem."

"It's not that," said the guy with the Spot tracker. "We just want you to be safe, man."

"I'll do my best," I mumbled. And with that we started to ride. For about 20 feet.

"Dude! Where are your gloves? Do you not own any decent riding gear?"

I wasn't sure if I was being shamed at this point, or if these guys were so obsessed with looking right that they just had to call this one out. Thing is, it's really hard to shame a guy in his 50s who has been riding mountain bikes for more than three decades. I have committed every single fashion mistake there is to commit. I have swung from having no clue and no gear, to thinking I knew everything, was prepared for everything, and carrying the 25-pound backpack of spare parts and first-aid kit as proof. I have worn the latest and greatest in protective wear and still have the scars from crashing while wearing it. I have ridden butt-naked under a full moon and still smile at the memory.

Photo: Sven Martin

"Give it a rest. I don't wear gloves."

"What do you mean, 'You don't wear gloves?' What if you crash? Haven't you thought about that?"

"I think about crashing all the time. I hate crashing. I haven't worn gloves since 1991, unless it is snowing. And every mile that I have ridden, I have looked down past my bare hands at the ground and reminded myself that it would really suck to crash on that stuff. Not wearing gloves helps remind me to keep it together."

"Yeah, but what if you do crash?"

So, this conversation, it's one that I have had many times before, and I have never been able to fully articulate my sense of fatalism about the relative fragility of our existence. There are people out there, you may be one of them, who feel the need to ward against every potential threat. I wouldn't try to dissuade you from that, especially if doing so makes you feel safer, or more competent, or somehow more comfortable. But the world will still come and harvest some of us, no matter how carefully we try to ward against that happening. Blinky lights and MIPS liners won't ward off drunk drivers or oblivious texters piloting 5,000-pound death machines. Gloves and kneepads don't help much if you fall off a cliff. And heavily logo-ed polyester clothing always stinks when you sweat.

Safety is a very personal thing. I wouldn't tell anyone else what is right, or wrong, for them personally. I would hope that others would extend that same courtesy to me. Safety apparel is also a pretty huge consumer market. Fear of 'what if' doesn't seem to be a very rational place from which to make spending decisions, but it is from this position that so many of us do exactly that.

Once upon a time we railed sketchy trails in cutoffs and hiking boots. We rode shitty rigid bikes that were unreliable and heavy. We explored the deep recesses of empty places, without cell phones, without GPS, without Spot trackers, and we still managed to find our way home. We had adventures. We still do.
Try to focus on the adventure, rather than dwell on the fear. Spend less, ride more. And if you can, avoid crashing.