Your Matching Game is Strong: Fashion Forward Mountain Biking

There is an unspoken rule in the mountain biking community that all things on a bike, including the person riding it, must match.

There are few things as exciting to a biker as a new, high-end mountain bike. The bike in front of me was a beauty, The powdery, “Carolina” blue colored frame was a scheme that our riding group had been drooling over for more than a year, and now, Brian owned it. The years of jokes, always at his expense, regarding his seemingly perpetually broken former bike were over; a new era had begun. We stared at the new bike in quiet awe, broken only by occasional complimentary mutterings until one of the on-lookers broke the complimentary silence:

“Well Brian, now you gotta get rid of all your old red gear, bud.”

He said it with the utmost certainty, as if simply re-stating a well-known rule that all riders acknowledged must be obeyed. 

Brian nodded in the affirmative: he was no rule breaker. He held up his phone screen to show an order confirmation e-mail. “Already ordered the blues.” 

Apparently, there is a widely accepted by-law in the mountain biking community, stolen, perhaps from the fashion runways of Paris, that all things on a bike, including the person riding it, must match. Brian’s old red jerseys, and shorts, and accented shoes, all of which matched his former ride, were useless now, far too much clash with the new blue bike. There was no question that such a color clash would lead to poor riding.

I was well aware, by that point, of the “matching campaign,” and the strange effects it had on my otherwise somewhat normal riding companions. Two years earlier another long-time friend had proudly focused my attention on the valve stem caps on his wheels.

“They match!” Which they did — the teal valve stems were an identical shade of aqua/blue to the frame color on his bike. I smiled along with him, outwardly marveling at such a remarkable color match. Yet, within the occasionally reasonable confines of my brain, my inner dialogue could not help but wonder what the hell had happened to my buddy. I had never been inside his home. Did the wallpaper match the carpets? Did his window treatments frame the room in splashes of meticulously complimentary color schemes? Was that also something he was proud of? Was this who he secretly had been all along?  

Photo: Matt Miller

In retrospect, though, I really should have seen this coming. The trail of clues had been accumulating for some time. I can’t recall exactly which component started this process towards “total teal-itude,” but the transition was now virtually complete. The pedals: teal-ish blue. The water bottle cage: teal-ish blue. The water bottle: teal-ish blue. The steer-tube, stem cap: you guessed it, teal. The grips, simply put: “yes.” Nor had it had stopped there. The riding shorts, the print on the jersey, the socks, and now the helmet, all a remarkable match to the color of the bike. I was blissfully unaware that so much teal existed within the aftermarket bike component and apparel world. 

“Well,” I thought to myself, “I’m never going to lose him in the woods.” Nor would I be forced to risk having my best friend mistaken for big game by a hunter with a half liter of Wild Turkey and a .30-06. Sometimes you have to key-in on the positives. 

David Bowie famously sang: “fashion, it’s loud and tasteless.” If Major Tom set the standard, the mountain biking community has certainly embraced and run with it. I don’t make this comment as some kind of judgmental outsider. I admit that I include myself within this bold and brightly attired association; I will happily wear color schemes while riding my bike that would fit perfectly in a vintage 1980’s workout video. We wear “garish” like a merit badge. Loud and proud. 

“Yea,” my clothing informs you, “I shred.” Despite being on the downslope side of 45 years of age, I leave my house for rides attired in my finest North Shore, British Columbia style polyester. I look ready to “knarl,” but feel ready for the foam roller and a painful stretch that never gets within range of approaching my toes. My shoes, shorts, and shirt suggest that there will be gap jumps and hucks in the afternoon. There will absolutely not be. I assure you that any such occurrence is purely accidental, and will likely require aero-medical evacuation. But, I will certainly “wick” sweat, and there is ample possibility that I will repel water. 

My top half is the cloth equivalent of a 30-minute paid advertising infomercial. I am happy to provide advertising free of charge for my chosen manufacturers, and it is true that I am actually happy to pay for that opportunity, as long as the jerseys are on sale and wick sweat. I’m not sponsored. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where to even seek out sponsors looking for sort-of-old-guys who don’t ride particularly fast, race in the novice division, and try to avoid non-accidental gap jumps. I am patient and hopeful, though. In the meantime, I continue to lace up my Vans, throw on my “baggies,” and wear bright man-made fibers emblazoned with manufacturer’s emblems that I currently favor and that were available on the clearance rack.

Back to the point though, one thing is certain: I do not match. I inherently work not to match. The lack of “match,” is a badge of honor to me. “Match” is not an aspiration of mine. Frankly, matching reminds me too much of skiing in the 1980’s, with the kings and queens of the mountain adorned in one color, bright, “powder suits” from ankle to neck. Think about that. I am not enamored with the metric system, but that has got to be a lot of meters of one color neon, no? Just the memory of it makes me squeamish. Yet, this has not stopped my friends from heading down this rabbit hole. 

Air DH at Crankworx Whistler in 2018. Photo: Matt Miller

“New bike?” 

“Sweet color!”

“I know, right!”

“But, damn, dude, now you have to get a new helmet. That one doesn’t go with your frame at all.”

“I know, right?” 

Another riding companion of mine has recently moved in an altogether different direction. It is a far less concerning direction, although it does still involve neon, and sometimes, pastels (if they were on sale). He will not ride in anything but ¾ length sleeved jerseys. I confess that I don’t understand that trend at all. Was that last ¼ sleeve, from the mid-forearm to the wrist somehow holding riders back? I have never actually heard someone exclaim, “thank god! They finally got rid of that 3” section of fabric!” I tend to doubt I ever will hear such a statement, but one never knows.

Our local ecosystem would seem not to favor the ¾ sleeve. We ride in Florida. It is hot. It is really hot, and it stays that way virtually year round. 

This is not to say that we don’t own long-sleeved biking shirts. I have several over-sized, long-sleeved bike shirts that could easily have been worn in British Columbia, and yes, they are indeed splashed in garish colors with manufacturer’s emblems printed on them in the largest font possible. And, no they do not match my bike or the rest of my riding ensemble. Long sleeves come in handy when riding on a “chilly” 60° Florida winter day. They come in handy when riding exposed trail without tree cover, to keep the blazing tropical sun from burning your arms to a crisp. They come in especially handy when riding trails that are shaded by trees of an invasive species known as “Brazilian pepper,” which will make your exposed arms itch with the power of 100 mosquitos if contact is made. I know the power of the 100-mosquito-itch. Do not ask how, or why, simply understand there was a purchase of long-sleeved jerseys (on sale) mere days later.

Where does a ¾ sleeve fit into this calculation? If it is hot, wouldn’t you want short sleeves? If it is cold, wouldn’t you want long-sleeves? Is there some distinct temperature range that demands a slightly shorter than long sleeve length? I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I know that my buddy loves the way those sleeves look. These semi-long, partially short sleeves make him happy, and if riding in a shirt that makes him look as though he has T-Rex arms makes him happy, I fully support it. Sheryl Crow sang, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” I think she nailed it with that one, but there may be exceptions: she has never met my buddy, “Johnny.” 

Johnny also prefers shorter inseams on his shorts. He actually purchases shorts that don’t clash with his bike frame and has a tailor shorten them. I object to this lack of thigh coverage, which borders upon lack of sufficient groin coverage. He would likely love nothing more than the return of Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts, and their 4” inseams. I borrowed a pair of shorts from him on a recent biking trip, and the sun angrily feasted on parts of my legs that have never seen daylight before. I was biking in the mountain bike equivalent of a speedo. Thankfully the borrowed shorts clashed in the most extreme way with my own bike frame, though there was little on his bike that I did not blend perfectly with.

Photo: Matt Miller

My own son has fallen victim to the matching game. I stumbled upon him removing decals from his fork with the aforementioned Johnny, so as to replace them with a set that matched the black and red color scheme on his new bike. Red pedals followed, along with a black handlebar. He refuses new grips until he can find a set that matches. The hardtail I built from spare parts horrifies him. I made every possible effort to use anything that absolutely did not match. Our crew calls it the “franken-bike.” We refer to the anti-match as “smatching.” I fancy myself a pro.

This mountain biking world is far more fashion aware than any of us may care to admit, and we are dug in on all sides. The “matchers” vs. the “smatchers” is only one tiny corner of the fashion wars. There is, however, a fashion battle far more intense than ours in the MTB world, and it is a cause that unifies our otherwise disparate crew: spandex.

Spandex carries a message. I would refer to that message as: “I feel the need for speed.” It is really very easy to explain: anyone willing to encase themselves in a “biking wetsuit” to go faster — unflattering-body-shapes-be-damned — qualifies in my book as “hard core.” They have my respect, but also my dubious questioning of the correlation between said speed and their body-hugging clothing. People: it’s Florida, it’s hot out there. Squeezing into body casing doesn’t seem to me to be a great solution.

Nonetheless, I’m cool with it. I have friends, and even a family member who wears spandex, so how could I be called anti-body-casing-bike-wear? I recall my initial days dipping my toes in the MTB pool, during an era when hiking boots were acceptable footwear, and cotton cargos were mandatory. New England granola mixed with Seattle grunge. It is amazing that I survived the lack of “wick” in cotton. Match or not, loose fit or tightly cased, the simple, age old concept is in play: look good, feel good. Feel good, ride good. And, if the North Shore runways feature tight lycra and polyester in the spring, 2021 line, let’s hope it is available in powder blue, and teal, and black and red, or, for those of us on the smatching side, opposing colors.