Tearing Up the Streets, and Pants

A bicyclist in Amsterdam: "Dignified, civilized, unhurried and even elegant…"

The ragged, angry tear on the woman’s jeans at ankle level was matched by her angry expression on her face as she looked in vain for some sort of consolation or advice from the bike shop attendant, to whom she explained how the front sprocket on her new bicycle had repeatedly caught and tore her pants leg.

No dice. The attendant at the bike store at 5th Avenue and St. Johns looked at her as she were complaining about aliens visiting from the moon.

I approached them and offered my perspective that it was absurd that most bikes lacked chain guards, and that one could not even buy a simple chain guard for most bicycles, and thus one was condemned to spoil one’s clothes.

"Thank you, thank you," the young woman said to me repeatedly, as if I had actually helped her in some way. She was apparently deeply grateful that someone was taking her complaint seriously. "I saved up money to buy this bicycle, and now I find that it tears my clothes. It has caused me to fall when my pants legs gets tangled. He tells me there is nothing I can do" .

I sympathized. A wise bike shop attendant in Cambridge, Mass once succinctly said to me some years ago that bike design and manufacturing in this country is "overly influenced by the sports market." How right that is. First it was the rage for 10-speed style racing bicycles that shaped casual bicycling; then it was mountain biking. Neither has much to do with simple bicycling for transportation, particularly in towns and cities.

I have a love/hate affair with my own bike, a mountain bike with an absurdly large frame and long seat post to fit my 6’7” body. The big tires and springy suspension really help riding in the city, particularly one like ours that has standard-grade American-style infrastructure, which means lots of pot holes and dangerous bumps to jump over or roll across.

But I’ve long loved the ideal of urban cycling being actually urbane, which in my book means dignified, civilized, unhurried and even elegant. One should not appear as if one were either in the Olympics or bouncing down a cliff-face when one is pedaling along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or Brooklyn. One of my favorite memories of Amsterdam is seeing an older gentleman cycling down the street, wearing not only a suit and hat, but puffing on a pipe as well. He looked like a steamboat gently chugging along the street.

That’s what makes the recent trends of young woman riding in dresses and with long hair flowing, often on bikes where they sit upright and with dainty wicker baskets attached, such a good thing. These intrepid females are actually civilizing the street. What driver could be quite as aggressive after passing one of these delicate denizens of the street?

I myself would like to join this trend and trade in my hybridized mountain bike for a true urban bicycle, something gentle and civilized. But I hesitate. For one thing, I now keep my bicycle on the street, which makes hopping on it very convenient. I wouldn’t risk doing that with a new bicycle. Still, I would like to encourage the growing trend of bicycles being designed for in-town riding, as opposed to racing or off-road riding. My first choice right now is a "Dynamic Bicycle," which don’t even have chains and use a "shaft drive" instead.

But until that day, I rely on my rusty metal pants clip to keep my trousers from being snagged. It doesn’t work very well. Most of my pants now sport tears and stains on the lower right leg. It’s simply too much to remember and do every time you hop on a bicycle to take on and off this little metal clip, which is also quite uncomfortable as well as dorky looking.

I suspect I will eventually move on to a more civilized bicycle, as will many others. We have nothing to lose but our stained, ripped clothes.

Photo: Amsterdam Bicyclists 

  • Charlie D.

    I always use velcro ankle straps to prevent my pants from getting caught in the chain. They work quite well, and they’re cheap.


  • Rich Conroy

    Condemned to stained & ripped clothes? That’s overly fatalistic. There are actually lots of options.
    -roll up the pant legs.
    -use a velcro pantstrap; there are lots of reflective ones out there. Or use the strap from a toe clip.
    -use pants that don’t have loose or flared bottoms.
    -wear lycra running or biking tights(for all those who like to condemn the lyrcra “roadie” look, it’s actually quite comfortable & functional, and you can get it in basic colors if you don’t like overly logo’ed bike duds.

    Some of us have long commutes and want to keep the bike weight down, so chainguards may not be an attractive option for everyone.


  • Andrew

    It’s amazing that chain covers aren’t standard equipment around here. It’s like not having a hood on a car – it’s pretty damn basic.

  • Delicate denizen

    One of these days a “delicate denizen” with “long hair flowing” and “dainty basket” is liable to throw her bike at you for the patronizing attitude!

  • wirc

    Clamps and things are only so useful, and spandex is useless for those who are using bikes to commute to work, especially in a city as fashion-conscious as this. Chain guards are a great idea.

  • I roll up my pants legs (both of them for symmetry) 365 days a year. When its cold, long socks or thermal underwear do the trick. The great thing about this is I never to remember to carry a pants clip…just roll’em up, it works.

    I do agree that there is a severe lack of commuter bikes readily available and equipped with chain covers, racks, fenders and lights.

  • Rich Conroy

    Wirc, Thanks for telling me that spandex/lycra is useless for commuting to work, since I’ve been using it pretty successfully for several years now on my 20-25 mile daily RT commute! One of the uses, of course, is that it doesn’t get snagged in my bike parts. Oh, it also wicks sweat, doesn’t chafe moving body parts, and flexes with my riding position. But hey, better to be fashionable than comfortable!
    Being fashion conscious is a choice. If you choose to be fashionable (whatever that means), then why spend time & energy complaining about the consequences of that choice? And if the problem (as it was defined in Alex’s post) is pants caught in the chain, the strap idea (or rolling up the pant leg) is about as useful as you are going to get if you don’t like lycra / spandex, or don’t want the extra weight of a chain guard on your bike. Also, chainguards will be less useful on bikes that use front and rear derailleurs, because the chain changes position a lot. So that would be the majority of bikes out there.

  • gecko

    Rubber bands work great for pants legs.

    DGW’s “Bicycling Science” (ISBN 0-262-232237-5) Page 333, Figure 9.20 has a picture of a “Pierce shaft-drive bicycle, 1900. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.)”

    Chain drives can be very efficient, but slight losses in other transmission methods can often be justified by improved convenience.

    Recumbents with real seats seem to offer the most comfort.

  • ddartley

    I share Alex’s sentiments about a vision for a more civilized, cycling city.

    I enjoyed and appreciated “Delicate Denizen’s” comment about the tone, but it’s worth noting–remember that British study about how motorists get closer to cyclists WITH helmets? It also suggested that motorists are less aggressive around cyclists with long hair…

  • Mario

    Just a couple of notes on bicycles, since I have quite a bit of mechanic experience:

    1) Shaft-drive bicycles are incredibly problematic mechanically;

    1b) and necessitate the use of internally geared hubs, which by and large are much less serviceable–and ergo much more likely to be thrown away rather than rehabilitated–than the current, user-serviceable design. Essentially the only internally geared hub worth having is a Rohloff, which is $1300(!).

    2) For most commuters, shocks are a bad, bad idea. They’re usually not worth servicing when they wear; they’re actually not really made for city riding; and they cause a huge amount of mechanically inefficiency. Additionally, most less-expensive shock have pretty shoddy o-rings, and aren’t very good for snow and icy conditions. That they’re on bikes is part of the prevalence of car-culture–cars have shocks, why not bikes?

    3) Yes, chain guards should be common. However, as many posters have noted, rolling your pants up isn’t too hard.

    4) Many of the bikes you’re thinking of as designed for racing are in fact well-suited for city riding. Different riders have different needs, and indeed there are lots of people who are suited to a more ‘aggressive’–i.e., bent over–position. I know because I’m one. A racing bike distributes you weight differently, putting more weight on your arms and less on your lower back, and that’s more comfortable for some people and less comfortable for others.

    My professional opinion is that early 90s mountain bikes–especially Bridgestones (which have a cult) and Specializeds (which don’t)–are often the perfect city bikes. The ‘city biking’ trend, unfortunately, is often aimed at less-savvy consumers.

  • eric

    unhurried would be nice, I always feel like I have to hurry in order to justify taking a whole lane, don’t want to inconvenience those perpetually hurried motorists

  • ddartley

    eric! Free yourself of that fear! Take that lane!

    Seriously, taking a whole car lane is a time when ‘the only thing [you] have to fear is fear itself.’

    What bad happens? They honk. They honk anyway!! Only time I’ve ever been hurt was when I was riding on the edge of the road, like a good little cyclist.

    Take that lane!

  • Steve

    Even if you always remeber to roll up your pants, you get grease from the chain. Maybe while locking up your security chain rubs against your drive chain and then the grease tranfers to your hands. Yes, I know I can wear gloves, but I would really like a chain guard and I get the same story, that they don’t exist.

    I’ve been doing some amateur photography during my morning commute to try to see how bike commuters handle the fashion issues. The results are here:


  • Steve,

    Great collection of photos!
    I’ve seen that lady with the cargo trike a few times as my commute ends in the vicinity of 79th & Fifth. (2nd pic on your flickr page). I’d love to have one of those trikes. Too bad I see her riding on the sidewalk sometimes…but I guess she’s concerned about her kids.

  • Those are great photos Steve! Really worth looking at.And you’re totally right about relentness of chain grease. Even if you avoid getting it on your pants, you get it on your shirt as you put your lock on, or you get it on your hands from the lock, or . . and so on. My kingdom for a chain guard!

  • Steve

    Mike and Alex, thanks for your comments. Mike, It gets even worse with the lady on the cargo trike–I think she starts on the UWS and rides the pathways to 79th and 5th, then uses the crosswalks and sidewalks to get to school. And one of the kids definitely looks to be old enough for at least a tag-along, perhaps even to ride on her own. I think she rides so slowly and people are so charmed by her overall presentation that she gets a pass whatever she does. That doesn’t bother me, but I do wonder whether she will ever try to move the kids on to their own bikes, or if she’ll just give it up when they get older. We’ve said hello a few times, so maybe she won’t freak out if I ask her the next time I see her.

  • [We bikey folks all seem to have strong feelings about how to do things, but we rarely seem to agree.]

    We should make it so darn easy to ride a bike that there is no excuse not to do it. Reduce the barriers to expose the pure simplicity that makes bikes such a good solution to so many problems.

    If putting a chain-gaurd on a bike gets someone to ride for daily transportation, we should be putting chain-gaurds left and right. Shoot, we should be cutting sheet-steel from cars to make chain-gaurds.

    Fortunately, we needn’t. A chain-gaurd can be ordered from any number of suppliers by any bike shop in the U.S. You’ll have to choose one chainring, but that aint a big deal (pick the middle one).

    Also, I think internally geared hubs are great. Certainly not from a high-performance POV, but definitely from a “just fine” POV. The Breezer Freedom is a great practical bike.


  • Steve


    Let’s have link to the catalogue if you’ve got one. I have asked in two neighborhood bike shops and been given a flat “no.” And that’s on my son’s Trek and my Gary Fisher, neither of which are obscure or outdated models.

  • Andy B from Jersey


    Most of you just don’t get it. You are all so rapped up in the idea that your bike must be descended from a racing machine (whether road or mountain) that you have totally forgotten the pure joys of riding a bicycle that you can just through a leg over no matter what you have on; slacks, suit, skirt or dress. I once thought like that and would ride my high-end racing machines for my old 3 mile commute complete with spandex shorts, Sidi shoes and cycle jersey.

    Go to any city in the world that has has a 20% bike mode share and almost all of those people you will see are riding traditional town or “dutch” bikes like the one pictured at the beginning. For more on this go read the entry from the Clever Cycles blog (out of Portland of course!) titled “Dutchness.” http://clevercycles.com/?p=193
    They get it and the rest of Portland is coming around to their side.

    If you ride in Philly, tied for the most popular style of bike with single speeds and fixies are old 3-speed town bikes from the 60’s and 70’s with full fenders, racks, baskets and chainguards. They have become so popular that the shop ViaCycle sells these old bikes (fixed up of course) for $200 plus!! They are just damn plain practical for trips up to 4 or 5 miles (and even more). If you ride more than that, then maybe other style bikes start to become more appealing.

    I too had a 15 mile commute for a while and used my nice Italian road bike with spandex shorts, jersey and shoes for that. Those were simply the proper tools for that job. Since then I now have a 2 mile commute to my job and school and my 3-Speed Ross that I found for free at the curb is now my primary bike and I love it! It is simply quicker for me to just put on normal cloths when I get up and go, then it would be for me to put on the Lycra costume and then pack a change of cloths and then change once I get there. It’s MUCH QUICKER in fact. I even go for rides after work in my office cloths that can go for 10 miles plus. I just cruise around my town here in Jersey, upright, relaxed and dignified in my nice cloths. I even wear a jacket and tie once in a while riding my bike on occasions and that really gets people looking and I love it!

    Plus, I’ve put grocery baskets on my old Ross so the ability to carry things is a simple no brainer. No more logic problems of how I’m gonna’ pack all that stuff into my backpack and picking up a pizza on the bike simply requires two bungee cords.

    Now my custom made bikes worth thousands of dollars collect dust in the garage waiting for the weekends while my practical little Ross, that was headed for the scrapheap, gets ridden 30 plus miles a week.

    Andy B from Jersey

    PS – Lets make riding a bike the fashionable envy of auto the set! Riding a bike in bike nerd fashion (and I mean no offense to anyone) with your plants rolled up or rubber-bands around your ankles ain’t gonna make you the envy of anyone. Look sharp and relaxed while riding… Now were talking!

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Oh yeah!

    One other thing. Unfortunately most bike shop folk don’t get this idea either hence the look and flat “No” you get from most shop owners like the one from the story at top. Most are of the racer mind set and have a hard time thinking of a bike as a practical tool. Fortunately some are starting to come around.

    Andy B

  • Andy, B

    How do you propose I ride my 9 mile commute to work (or my 12 mile ride home from class) on one of those grandpa 3-speeds? They may be great for getting around your neighborhood, but I cover lots of ground in the city. It’s not that 3-speeds isn’t enough (it is), but it’s not comfortable for the distances I ride and slower to boot. My road touring bike allows me to ride longer distances much faster and more comfortably, and I can still wear regular clothes and carry all my stuff. The only “trade off” is that I have to roll up my jeans…the horror! I’m not really interested in wearing a suit on my bike to impress motorists.

  • Let it be known, despite my rant, I’m all for utility & commuter oriented 3-speed bikes…and there’s a serious shortage of options out there. However, it’s just not for the kind of utility & transportational riding that I do. To each his own.

  • Mario

    Actually Andy, most shop owners won’t repair your bike because the labor–generally computed at $60/hour–will cost more than your bicycle, or at least such a high percentage of its cost that it’s just not economical for you to repair it with them. And that’s * if * they have the very specialized knowledge to repair Sturmey Archer hubs. If you have a non-SA internally geared hub, I would be willing that there are less than 10 people in Philadelphia who could work on it, and none of them are still working on bikes.

    You should also try the Bike Church (on Locust in the basement of an Episcopal church on the Penn campus, iirc) for a very different shop experience.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    This is the best Alex Marshall post yet. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this – back in the ’90s people were posting about how they only went on group rides with a low “spandex quotient.” But it needs to be said.

    When I wear pants, I usually tuck the right side into my socks. It looks goofy, but I figured it couldn’t be helped. It didn’t even occur to me that that’s what those chain guard things are for! My next bike is definitely going to have fenders and chain guards.

    The thing I find striking about Steve’s pictures, and about cycling in New York in general, is how many backpacks there are, and how few racks. Spend $50 on a good rack, folks, and save your back the trouble! I just don’t get it.

  • Who’d have thunk it?

    Turns out there are a variety of uses for bicycles, a variety of bicycles for the uses, and a variety of outfits for the variety of bikes and uses.

    People on these new-to-the-colonies regular-folk bikes wearing regular-folk clothes are a real advance for civilized society.

    But, so are the spandex-clad on fixies, and the middle-distance commuters wearing bike-geek chic.

    Yeah, let’s celebrate the lovelies with their flowing hair and baskets filled with fresh-cut flowers from the farmer’s market. But, let’s also celebrate the dorks with the rolled-up pant legs.

  • mfs

    cheap solution- get a two 50- or 100-page binder clip and use ’em to cinch your cuffs.

    doesn’t keep you from the grease all the time, but sure helps most of the time!

  • steve

    Angus, the rack is key. I can carry a second bike home on the rack with 2 bungees (handy when the kids don’t feel like riding home after getting there). I’m 5′ wide, but that’s what these new 5′ Class II’s are for! But the backpack does save a lot of fussing with bungees.

    Sean, I couldn’t agree more–the diversity, the good, the bad and the ugly–that’s the point. The best way to impress the motorists is to beat them in traffic, not sartorially.

  • mfs

    also anyone who has chain disc or chain guard procurement recommendations would be appreciated.

  • gecko

    fun stuff! obviously, it’s not an equipment thing, at least on a certain level. but, to go viral like cell phones, cycling needs a higher level of practicality and convenience.

    just like cells perhaps, a higher level of mobility.

    that is, to go beyond to copenhagen model of 50 percent which isn’t nearly enough.

  • gecko

    with 50 percent of transportation being cycling and cars doubling around mid century, nothing is really accomplished. though, car use will probably decline dramatically more than that before then.

  • In the end, I guess I don’t understand what the point of this entry is.

    There are all sorts of new bikes out now that are designed to be ridden by normal people wearing normal clothes:
    Trek Lime
    Giant Tran Send
    Giant Suede
    Giant Suede
    Raleigh Cruisers
    Specialized Globe City
    Dutch Bikes (for the authentic experience)

    And there are plenty of strategies, outlined above, for saving sock and cuff from damage.

    Is it simply a lament that mountain bikes–which are designed to be ridden in dirt–don’t adequately protect pants from dirt and can’t be retrofitted to do city duty?

  • Zvi

    I certainly agree that North American bicycles are not overly adapted to commuter needs. I tend to use rubber bands on my pants and change clothes when I get to work.

    Steve, thanks for the wonderful set on NYC bicycle commuters. I didn’t notice anyone with kids in those pictures! Is that really such a rare sight in NYC? I often travel with TWO kids (plus bags) on my bike in Montreal. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zvileve/1802336208/

  • george

    Rich Conroy (#2): How much do you weigh? How much does your bike weigh? How much does a chain guard weigh? You sure that adding a

  • george

    Andy (#19): You say, “Go to any city in the world that has has a 20% bike mode share and almost all of those people you will see are riding traditional town or ‘dutch’ bikes like the one pictured at the beginning.”

    And in almost all of those cities you will see separated, protected bike facilities, which I have seen you vociferously attack in the past. Why the double-standard? Don’t you think part of the reason those cities have such a high bike share, with such casual biking, is because bikers feel safer and more comfortable due to not having to share the road with high-speed, 2,000+ lb vehicles?

  • Zvi

    George (#34) I am new to this forum so I have no idea who thinks what about bike lanes, but I can share my own opinions on the subject. Bike facilities in Europe have evolved over more than two decades and are considered an integral part of the ‘transportation network’. In North America, bike lanes tend to be added as an afterthought to existing roads, and they are often very poorly implemented relative to ‘urban bicyclists’ needs. Sadly I often find that the “separated, protected bike facilities” which are provided in North America are actually a step backwards in terms of providing safe and convenient bicycle mobility!

    On the other hand, the only way that we are going to reach the European standard of integrated bicycle design, is to experiment for ourselves…. As for the 20+ percent bike mode share, raise the price of fuel another few dollars per gallon and leave it at those high levels permanently (like it has been in Europe for decades) and I think that you will find the bicycle mode share rising here too!

  • Andy B from Jersey

    A quote from my original post #19:

    “I too had a 15 mile commute for a while and used my nice Italian road bike with spandex shorts, jersey and shoes for that. Those were simply the proper tools for that job.”

    Yes, sometimes a 3-speed bike is not the best option. I acknowledge that. But more often than not it is exactly the PERFECT TOOL FOR THE JOB particularly for most “non-cyclist” who just want to go a couple of miles. Most people in Copenhagen and Amsterdam who ride bikes to work DO NOT consider themselves cyclists!

    Also my 3-speed hubs on the four bikes (all garbage finds but one) that have them, have never broken down and only require the minimal amount of adjustment. I can’t tell you how many derailleurs I’ve gone through in my 20 years of cycling. If it were to blow up I’d just replace it. I think most shops could do that and since you can’t even buy a bike as practical as my Ross in the US, I think its worth it.

    I’m also not convinced that a bike shop mechanic making $10 an hour is worth $60. I’ve never been charged that much but then again I do most my own wrenching.

    As to George’s comment in #34, I’m not against separate bike facilities I just have a real problem of how they are being implemented in NYC in particular, at least from what I’ve seen. I still can’t get over the idea of the lanes in NYC all being on the left(WRONG) side of the road. The 9th Avenue project would be perfect design in my eyes if the lane was on the right side but lets not go down that argumentative path again.

    Also European roads have very narrow travel lanes and are built WITHOUT shoulders often necessitating the need for a separate bike facility. Also, as a vehicular cyclist I do not like that many European urban cycle tracks are not intended for speeds above 10 mph. But even this is becoming mute in many European cities as they move away from segregated ped/bike/car lanes and move towards a shared street concept. Otherwise I’m not totally satisfied with many European designs and think there is plenty of room for improvement which they in Europe are trying to make.

    I know I’m simplifying the argument a bit but that’s all that I got time for right now.


    Andy B

  • eric

    ddartley: I didn’t say I was scared to take the lane, I always do, it’s just that I feel I need to keep the pace up when I do, which most of the time is not a problem since I like to go fast, but once in a while I like to slow down and check out my surroundings, there are so many interesting little shops and cafes that are hard to notice when you’re pedaling fast and watching out for pot holes and driver’s who aren’t paying attention

  • tps12

    I can’t believe how impossible it is to find an aftermarket chainguard. I think a bike without a chainguard — especially a single-speed where you don’t have the decoration provided by dérailleurs — just looks absurd and naked, as bad as riding with bare handlebars without grips or tape.

  • paulb

    The rider with the torn pants was, I think, in the wrong bike shop. That shop tends to cater to the high-performance segment of the bike market, the one that likes its equipment exotic and expensive. They will sell a humble bike but the customer may not feel highly welcomed during followup visits.

    One drawback to a completely enclosed chain is it is much more tedious to remove the rear wheel in order to fix a flat. And full chainguards don’t work on derailleur bikes. The folding bike maker Dahon has a couple of urban bikes in its lineup with protected chains. The way bike commuting is developing momentum, surely there will be more from other makers.

    Meanwhile, trouser clips and velcro straps usually do the job. Didn’t Leonard Rossiter as Reginald Perrin (from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin 70s tv show) wear trouser clips? Good enough for me.

  • Mark

    I had the same exact problem and invented the Leg Shield.

  • Anonymous

    My bike has front and rear derailleurs and has a chainguard that works perfectly well. I bought it in Germany, where practically all the bikes in the shop came with chainguard, fenders, rack, bell, and lights. Everything you need on a practical urban bike right out of the shop. Even the more “urban” bikes you can sometimes find the US still often lack some of these things (for example, they might have fenders and chainguard, but still lack the lights, bell, or rack).

    You could argue that you can choose all these components separately and have them installed (or install them yourself), but why should you be forced to do that? I think most people want something they can use right away with a minimum of fuss and without having to make a dozen choices; not everyone needs or wants to be a tinkerer and customize everything.


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