Why cycling clothing is the new travel clothing

Over the years, I’ve never had as many options for high-quality travel clothing as I would have liked, and most of the time, it’s because there weren’t any. “Travel clothing” barely exists at all, which is why so many travelers find themselves frequenting outdoor stores, stocking up on ridiculous-looking safari expedition gear that’ll look silly during a night out, and let everyone know how incredibly foreign you are.

Mission Workshop Division Chino
Mission Workshop’s Division Chino is built to go anywhere, outdoorsy or not.

It isn’t all hopeless, though. A few outdoorsy companies have realized that ugliness is not a performance feature, nor is it required for building high-tech gear that’ll handle whatever situation you might encounter. It’s the fabric that makes it high-tech, not the ugliness.

If something looks just as good as it feels, you don’t need to carry extra gear just to look decent for special occasions, meaning that when it comes to travel, beauty is actually a performance advantage. And the people who don’t realize this are making your life heavier and uglier at the same time, for no reason.

Why cycling clothing can be better (for travel) than hiking clothing

So although it’s not impossible finding decent-looking travel clothing from an outdoor store, lately I’ve been realizing that it’s occasionally easier finding decent looking travel-clothing from cycling companies, and commuter cycling in particular.

I don’t mean the biking gear you’ve seen on the Tour de France, with all the crazy logos and endorsement embroidery and fluorescent racing stripes. I’m talking about the biking clothing that’s built for wearing on the ride to work, and still wearing at work.

This sort of gear will always, always have an objective advantage over the hiking-clothing-as-travel-clothing alternative, because presentable aesthetics are part of the functionality. As they should be!

Makers and Riders 3 Season Commuter Weatherproof Jean
Makers and Riders’ 3 Season Weatherproof Jean looks downright classy.

Here’s what hiking clothing has to accomplish:

  • It has to be comfortable.
  • It has to be weather resistant.
  • It has to be quick-drying.
  • It has to be breathable.
  • It has to be durable.

Here’s what commuter cycling clothing has to accomplish:

  • All of the above,
  • …and it has to look good after you get to work.

That last one will never, ever be intrinsically built into the design philosophy of the hiking world. They’ll do it occasionally, sure; but if they’re only ever thinking about performance on the trail, they’ll rarely bother going out of their way to make it not look ridiculous.

Isn’t cycling clothing ridiculous-looking too?

Outlier Air Forged Oxford
Outlier’s Air Forged Oxford is utterly indistinguishable from fancy office clothing, but works just like high-tech gear.

Sometimes, yes. Specialized cycling features include reflective panels, gusseted crotches, articulated knees, and bike lock straps, all of which can look silly if they’re not done correctly. The good ones will try to minimize these features, or hide them as best they can.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s “cycling” clothing with none of these features at all, which seems like it would defeat the purpose of cycling clothing to begin with, but these are actually the type best suited for traveling, which means they’re often my favorite. Besides, you don’t need built-in reflective panels if you have a bike light.

Aren’t they missing useful travel features?

Kind of. As far as I’m concerned, the only prerequisites of travel clothing are the high-tech fabric, the utterly normal appearance, and a few (hidden) zippered pockets.

Swrve Cordura Jeans
Swrve’s Cordura Jeans will last a zillion times longer than regular denim.

Cycling gear usually doesn’t include zippered security pockets. It’s a little unfortunate if you prefer to keep cash and credit cards zippered securely away somewhere, but utterly irrelevant if you have a money belt anyway. It just depends how you want to handle things, but it’s worth taking into consideration.

All in all, cycling-clothing-as-travel-clothing will certainly bring a mix of pros and cons when compared to hiking-clothing-as-travel-clothing, and the specific set of features in whichever item may or may not be ideally suited for travel; I’m merely here to present it as an alternative, and one which generally handles the needs of fashion-conscious backpackers better than hiking gear.

Okay! I’m sold. Where do I go?!?

This list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, and merely represents a few places I think are worth looking into if you’re getting tired of looking like a mountain climber all the time. Biking gear is still new to me, so suggestions are welcome!

For a somewhat more casual look, sometimes with biking-specific features:

  • Chrome Industries has been a longtime heavyweight in the world of city cycling gear, and have expanded into clothing as well. Currently they’re leaning quite heavily toward black, but maybe they’ll throw in some more color eventually as well.
  • Swrve has a wide range of gear intended to cover all sorts of situations, rain or shine, hot or cold (including quick-dry jeans!).
  • Club Ride has some nice items, though occasionally with a few too many reflective panels than I’d like, but maybe you won’t mind.
  • Makers and Riders has some rather nice-looking pants, among other gear.

For a somewhat more upscale look, with little-to-no indication that you’re wearing high-tech clothing:

  • Proof NY makes classy clothing that’ll still work nicely outdoors (including quick-dry jeans!).
  • Outlier offers quite a nice selection of office-appropriate clothing that’ll go from the bike to a board meeting with no one noticing.
  • Mission Workshop is known for its weatherproof backpacks and other bags, but also offers some classy performance clothing as well.
  • Outerboro makes classy office clothing that’ll handle inclement weather as well.

I also think Huckberry is helpful, since it has several of these brands in the same place, and runs sales on them, too.

I certainly can’t make any promises as to whether or not you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for (and the prices may shock you, but at least they’ll last a long time), but I like having these sorts of alternatives to hiking gear, and I expect the options coming from this category will continue to expand. Sadly, it’s because the economy is collapsing all around us and people are therefore biking to work more often, but hey, at least it’s something.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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25 Comments on “Why cycling clothing is the new travel clothing”

  1. I always prefer jeans while traveling because the fabric is much stronger and comfortable in all weather. I buy the jeans from normal stores and create the custom secret pocket for keeping my money and cards.

  2. You sold me on the underwear (now own 5 pair with more on the way), sold me on the bluffworks pants (order 3 more), and sold me on the Rohan jeans plus (should arrive today)…so here is the question.

    I am looking for a nice button down oxford shirt I can wear to the office, travel, be active in, that have all the same qualities that the bluffworks pants have….

    I appreciate the links above, but frankly I trust you to do the dirty work and tell me what the illusive travel shirt is (like you did with underwear and pants)…I need a frickn’ traveling wardrobe and I am counting on you!

    Thanks in advance…pressures on…

    1. Two options: For casual button-down shirts, I’ve found plenty of nice-looking plaid shirts from Columbia, Marmot, and Rohan; anything made of nylon or polyester will dry quickly, and resist wrinkles (though folding them nicely is still important). If you Google “nylon plaid shirt” you’ll have plenty of options.

      For fancy office-appropriate clothing that would go perfectly with a suit, options have actually expanded quite a bit in the last few years. Take a look at the aforementioned companies like Outlier, Ministry of Supply, Outerboro, and Proof NY. Each of these will have great options for high-end, dressy clothing with performance properties. Some offer shirts made of treated cotton for faster drying times and wrinkle resistance, as well as synthetic options for serious performance. I think either way would work just fine; I still have something of an aversion to pure cotton, but since I wear t-shirts most of the time, button-downs only come out of the pack when necessary, which means they only get worn for a few hours during fancy evenings, and thus don’t need to be washed immediately after use (especially if you’re wearing an undershirt). If you really need to hand wash and hang dry overnight, go with synthetic, but I doubt too many people will run into that sort of thing. But definitely make sure it has some sort of treatment that will handle wrinkles better than normal cotton.

      I’ll say that I haven’t tried them yet, but as long as it looks like a regular button-down shirt and is made out of a performance fabric, it’s going to be great.

      1. Thanks for the very detailed and timely response. I will take a shot and buy one for some of those companies you suggested.

        I will let you know my thoughts after I get them and run them through the mill.

  3. great post and i agree its not easy to find a good pair of travel pants. but how about something reasonable? I’ve never paid > $80 for pants and can’t stomach the $200 average of all the links you suggested.

    1. Yeah, these are out of reach for a lot of people, though in terms of pants specifically, these are a little more affordable.

      Part of the problem is that these companies are still fairly new, and aren’t in a position to mass produce, and might not have the same quality standards if they chose to do so; so although I certainly like seeing them cropping up, the eventual consequence of their success will mean that more companies choose to do this sort of thing, many of which will be cheaper than the originals. Hopefully, anyway.

      I’m eventually going to do a post on cheap alternatives to high-end travel gear, with specific selections for each item, but it’s still somewhat challenging to complete the list affordably.

    2. If you are lucky enough to live near a city where some of the shops are (Mission Workshop is in San Fran and LA, Swrve is in LA, Ministry of Supply is in Boston, etc) you can sign up for emails and they will let you know when they are having a sale. MW supposedly has big discounts once in a while when they are clearing out “last year’s” products (but just SF store) and Swrve does it once a year. I just went to Swrve’s and they had the cordura jeans for $25, and a selection of their other stuff at 50% off, or more. They were even giving away some of their DWR cotton/lycra pants for free, one pair for every $50 spent! Some had slight blemishes (mine had a stain that came out in the wash) but still great. Also, some of the stores might offer discounts for teachers, police, students, etc, so it doesn’t hurt to ask if you might fall into one of those categories. The worst they can do is say no, but it could lessen the pain a bit because, I agree, $200 is a lot for a pair of pants!

  4. Great article, as always.

    This article deserves an update to include Levi’s new line of jeans, the commuter. I think these will be my choice for my next four months trip round the world, mainly because of the reasonable price and the choices of cut.

    My only concern with jeans is how hot and humid your crotch can get when it’s hot outside. I can’t imagine I’m gonna wear those a lot in India…

    1. Erm, now India, what time of year are you going? If you want a really hot, humid and rainy time, well a northern summer is for you; though this is the best time for the very north of the country and Himalayas etc. However, if you want to be from Delhi south, then I think a northern winter the best time. I had been working as a volunteer teacher in Sri Lanka for 18 months when I went to India with a friend for three weeks (that’s all the time off work we had over late Dec/early Jan). It was sooooo nice to enjoy the cooler weather there. Jeans were fine, in fact we had to buy some warmer gear for Delhi as we only had tropical clothes.

      Anyway, always think about the seasons in countries like India and China, as they are solo vast they have more than one climate. Oh, I’ve lived and worked in ten countries, usually for two years in a place, so my only tip is – WORK IN PLACES, live there, you will get so much more out of your travels. Safe travelling from Oz. :)

  5. I recently came across BetaBrand, whose links I’ve posted as my “website”, that seems to make very interesting cycling clothing. All of their stuff is designed with a slim fit in mind, though, which is a bit hit-or-miss for me. Also check out their “Japants”, which has an interesting take on the hidden pocket.

    1. Yeah, they have some fun stuff, though I mostly avoid cotton, since I’m looking for travel gear, rather than neat gear for home. But for people with easy access to laundry machines, it’ll work just fine.

      1. Do you steer completely clear of cotton, or do you find that blends, such as the 59% cotton and 40% polyester blend of the Bike to Work Pants (linked in my name, and in Navy, noless) to perform well?

        1. Yeah, those can work quite nicely. It gives you a nice mix of benefits, and even the slightest amount of polyester will make a button-up shirt pretty much wrinkle-free. It’s not all the way to high-tech, but it’s partway there, and sometimes the familiar feel of natural fibers is more comforting anyway.

  6. I purchased a pair of Rapha ‘Touring Trousers’ a couple of years ago. They are excellent smart-casual pants that were comfortable enough to wear while cycling to work on cold mornings, and still smart enough to wear around the office (our dress code was fairly relaxed – dress shoes, trousers and a tucked in long sleeve button up shirt was all we needed.. no ties or jackets!). I found that the trousers were a bit too warm for anything more than a gentle bike ride less than 5km, unless it was a very cold morning. BUT I did find out, through wearing them at work during the day, that they were very comfortable (not too hot when walking, wouldn’t recommend tough climbs wearing them though), packed with hike/backpacker friendly features, and still looked good. Many of my colleagues were stunned when I told them they were made by a bike clothing company and designed for bike riding. So these are now my go-to trousers for travelling when I know I’ll need a pair of smart pants on hand. Main downside is that they are a bit heavy (not as bad a denim though) and not quite breathable enough on warmer/humid days.

  7. This kind of reminds of the tactical clothing trend that went on in the late 2000s. The durability and price matched on many things like bags and jeans and gear; approaching bespoke levels. But yeah, wish I had the cash, this stuff you picked out is nice. Bonus for much of it being made in USA, too!

    1. Being made in the USA is also great for people who don’t want to support sweatshops overseas. So much of our clothing is made in unpleasant conditions, but that’s what drives down the price, and then people get used to low prices, which is why suggesting a pair of pants for $200 seems insane. But if you’re supporting fair wages, sustainable business practices, and long-term durability, you’re reducing all sorts of impacts on humans and the environment. Besides, getting it just right means I won’t have to look for something better, and that’s just going to be better for everyone. The prices aren’t for everyone, but I’m happy to spend a bit more for these advantages, along with the performance.

  8. While putting your minimal packing tips into practice in preparation for some traveling, I stumbled upon golf pants. It seems that golf clothing has to accomplish all those things you listed, including looking good! So I thought I’d mention it, in case it wasn’t on your radar yet. Some major brands (like Adidas, Nike) sell (some) golf clothing, for pretty decent prices. There are also the lesser known brands, like the ones I bought for only 30 euros. The link is to the UK site, as I’m not sure if you can read Dutch ;)

    1. Yeah, they’re a good budget option for quick-dry clothing, and they work pretty well. The pants are usually pretty normal-looking, even more so than shirts, usually.

  9. What is the status of women’s performance clothing? With the recent closing of Outlier’s women’s shop it seems that one of the few brands out there offering women’s designs is gone. Would you be interested in writing a post on women’s clothes too?

    1. Try Pivotte and Betabrand, and read Travel Fashion Girl and Her Packing List. I try to pay at least a bit of attention to it, but I won’t be able to become a real expert anyway.

  10. Interesting way to look at cycling gear – I certainly never saw it that way before. I usually pack jeans and tennis-style shorts, plus a couple of t-shirts, for outdoors stuff when I travel.

    1. Yup. It’s a weird combination, but I think it works, given their focus on work-friendly style that still works on a bike.

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