Why do People Make Fun of Spandex Bike Clothes?

Steven Herrick at the Guardian wonders: Why do people make fun of spandex bike clothing? It is a peculiar phenomenon for cyclists. When people find out that I’m “a cyclist” (which is often how I get introduced in social settings by friends), I routinely get asked, “You’re not one of those people who wears tight bike shorts, are you?” When I reply in the affirmative, I get variations on perplexed or even disgusted looks.

I’ll answer the question with a provocation: People who make fun of spandex are often homophobic and/or sexist.

I’ve encountered this on numerous occasions, firsthand. Now, it’s hard to distinguish between general homophobic bigotry aimed at cyclists (because riding bikes is “gay,” get it?) and that specifically directed at the adornment of tight spandex cycling garments, but as evidence for the latter I submit the following anecdotal evidence: Once, apropos of nothing, a person in a car leaned out of their window and yelled, “Nice tights, f****t!”

(I’ve actually being called, “f**,” “f****t,” and “gay,” on numerous occasions by people in cars while riding my bike (seriously!), but they hadn’t made any specific comments about my extremely functional, comfortable, aerodynamic spandex clothing).

Even in the “cycling community” (if this is a thing) there are those who make fun of spandex. And this too is often tinged by homophobia or sexism (bigots typically aren’t narrow in their shittiness). Anecdotally, it appears that the split between pro- and anti-spandex cyclists falls along disciplinary lines. Downhill mountain bikers, for example, virtually never wear spandex. And some will make fun of road cyclists for being “spandex wearing pussies” (actual quote from a message board). Amongst messengers you will also find a sharp divide between those who wear performance biking attire and those who steadfastly refuse (as evidence I offer the documentary film, Premium Rush).

This issue isn’t unique to cycling attire. In a classic Simpsons episode, Bart ends up in a ballet class. He’s embarrassed at the idea of wearing ballet tights, because “ballet is for sissies,” and “dancing is for girls.” And as trite as that reference is, that’s a large part of why people – even cyclists – make fun of spandex bike clothes. And this is inevitably gendered. A man wearing tight shorts? That’s “girl’s clothing.” It’s “gay.” (The same kind of attitude revolved around tight jeans until somehow shitheads too decided that Levi’s 511s were cool.) And of course, women are much less reluctant to wear tight cycling clothing, because it looks pretty similar to the clothes they already typically wear.

Latent homophobia and sexism emerges even more conspicuously when it comes to the issue of shaved legs. Here I don’t want to enter into the debate about the functional benefits of shaved legs for bike racing, but undoubtedly one of the reasons that male cyclists are so reluctant or refuse to shave their legs is because it is something that “men don’t do.” When people find out I shave my legs (Wait, what? You shave your legs?), some are noticeably weirded out. I’ve met men who spend thousands of dollars on aero wheels and helmets, though when the issue of shaved legs arises (which is arguably the cheapest aerodynamic advantage one can obtain), it’s met with looks of disgust. This issue would be better addressed in a separate post (e.g. one exploring questions of masculinity and body hair), but since I’ve started shaving my legs for cycling, I’ve become intrigued by this sexist double-standard. Women are expected to shave their legs just as a matter of course, and in the few cases where it is “acceptable” for men to shave their legs, it’s justified in some instrumental way that can be reverted to other tropes of masculinity (e.g. shaved legs help you win races).

Of course, most people who ride bikes don’t have any reason to wear spandex (or shave their legs). Spandex bike clothing is obviously designed, and most functional, for certain kinds of riding. I don’t wear a skinsuit when I’m taking my beater to the bar or a friend’s party. Sitting around in a chamois is extremely comfortable when actually riding a bike, but when one sits down on an actual chair for extended periods of time, not so much (one might describe it as a “diaperish” feeling.) And besides comfort, in most social situations you don’t really want to be wearing bike shorts, any more than you would want to be wearing swim shorts. It’s just a matter of fashion.

There are also less bigoted reasons for making fun of or refusing to wear spandex. There’s the perceived coolness (or lack thereof) of spandex. It wreaks of trying too hard. If you’re not a competitive cyclist, the argument goes, do you really need to be wearing performance clothing? And much spandex-hating is better understood as body-shaming. There are people who look like they’re supposed to be wearing performance bike clothing, and those who allegedly don’t. Brits have a pejorative acronym capturing this: MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra). Finally, undeniably, there’s a modesty issue. It’s the reason why white bike shorts are a faux-pas. Bike shorts are revealing. (But even in this case, there might be a bit of homophobia at play? “What if I look down and see the outline of male genitals?!?”).

This post isn’t a bit of spandex advocacy (ok, it kind of is, spandex is awesome). People can wear whatever they like. It’s just a shame that people are missing out on wearing extremely comfortable, functional cycling clothing because of latent sexism and homophobia. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement. The real shame is the latent sexism and homophobia, which creeps up in all walks of life.


  1. BasvV

    It’s not sexist or homophobic to dislike bike shorts, stop acting like you’re a victim in all this while you know god damn well that tight shorts are unappealing as hell, i dont want to see the outlines of your dick, i dont care who you are or what your sexual preference is; i do care about feeling comfortable and when im sitting at a terrace somewhere, the last thing i wanna see are those disgusting shorts.
    BTW i am from Holland, everyone has a bycicle, NO ONE wears bike shorts because it’s common courtesy, not wanting to gross others out, especially in public spaces.
    You’ve ever seen a guy bend over, showcasing his hairy crack? Same thing. Wear a damn belt, no one is interested in seeing that shit.


    • I acknowledge the issue of modesty. This is obviously culturally mediated (down to the level of local groups). I’m writing in a particular cultural context, where people literally yell homophobic slurs from cars if you are wearing bike shorts. Why different cultures have different standards of modesty is a fascinating sociological and moral question. Why some people, like yourself, are made extremely uncomfortable (to the point of anger and disgust) by the prospect of seeing the outline of male genitalia is part of this question (and also clearly has a psychological dimension – I wonder if your reaction is typical of the Dutch or idiosyncratic).

      Add the dimension of gender norms to this and it becomes even more complex. In most cultures there are double standards of female and male modesty (and the reciprocal, sexualization). In Western culture women are heavily sexualized in ways that men aren’t. Their clothes are much more revealing of their bodies. (But then, they are also expected to live up to Catch-22 modesty standards). On this note, you don’t hear the same ridicule or disgust about women in bike shorts. That’s kind of the point of the post: men get angry about men in tight clothes because it upsets gender norms, which also involve attitudes about sexuality. If anything, the disgust that you express just adds anecdotal support to this point. Clearly, there are all sorts of men who don’t get angry about other men in spandex. What accounts for this difference?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Breglia

    The issue I have with cyclist in spandex…is the majority of cyclist are just casual cyclist. They cruise for most of the ride….and let’s face it….they are not at a high enough level to warrant the clothing.
    If you are professional……That is different.
    But from what I have seen from 99% of the cyclist the clothing doesnt match the performance.
    So whether you were wearing spandex or not…..nothing or very little would change in terms of time.


    • You assume the reason that people wear bike specific clothing is for performance, specifically aerodynamics. But I’d estimate that the main reason is for comfort; loose fitting shorts cause a hindrance on a bike seat when you are riding intensely; they ride up your legs and reduce freedom of movement on the saddle. Moreover, one of the main if not the chief reason people wear bike shorts is for the chamois, the padded insert. It works the best when it makes direct contact with the saddle.

      You’re also wrong that it doesn’t make an aerodynamic difference. It does, even if you are a relatively novice cyclist. It will make headwinds easier, and descents far more fun. It’s also annoying and uncomfortable to have your clothing flapping violently in the wind.

      Side quip: you’re right that cycling is peculiar in that cyclists seem to have an obsession with (ever more expensive) gear with diminishing returns. There is a ever-present question of “do you really need this? What tangible difference does it actually make? A good aerodynamic kit, however, is the most effective dollar-to-wind resistance aero upgrade you can make (aero handlebars, less so). People seem more reticent to make this judgement about cars, however – rarely do I see someone drive by in a Ferrari and overhear one of my friends say, “That guys not a professional race-car driver, does he really need such a car?”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Piotr

    When I was teenager I would giggle at the backs of cyclists and runners in spandex ( but never insult anyone or bring their attention ).

    And than I started running. After some time I bought my first running tights. And I fell in love with them.
    Still was very shy at the beginning and embarrassed since I am a guy and I am running in those tight fitting lycra tights. It was a bit emasculating but then after time I found it manly. Since I wear what I want and I am confident in it. Maybe not super manly but heh manly. I heard I am Gay and Faggot behind my back. I had unwanted boners which caused quite of embarrassment too. I noticed people looking. Been even checked out by guys. I was even once mistaken as a woman. I have rather slim build…

    Well now I am soon going to become cyclist. Funny thing is that for me spandex on cyclists was always the good thing since I just know how comfortable it is. I am totally converted to lycra spandex cloths.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anon

    So sick of that stupidity . Those type are either jealous that you got the guts to wear spandex ,
    And they are to chicken themself.

    Or they dont realize some straight married men like myself love to wear spandex.

    At my age 42, i dont care anymore . I know why i like it and wear it. And it has nothing to do with ,crossdressing,exhibitionism, or being gay.

    I feel bad for people who havent braved and discovered the joys of lycra. I like it all ,even wetlook glossy. I literally wear it all the time since i bought my first pair at 10


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