As sports gear goes, biking paraphernalia is not particularly fashionable. This will be underscored when the 2005 Tour de France begins tomorrow from the town of Fromentine, starring Lance Armstrong. Unlike so many other sports, in which form has become as important as function, cycling clothes have mostly remained immune to the allure of ready-to-wear trendiness. Thus far, no one has witnessed a top cyclist in a time trial wearing a leather-look unitard. There do not appear to be any do-rags hanging from beneath riding helmets.
There is nothing particularly attractive about a pair of cycling shorts with their strategically placed panels of chamois, and the problem with bike jerseys -- with their moisture-wicking capabilities, aerodynamic fit and back pockets for storing water bottles or packets of Gu energy gel -- is that they function as billboards. There can be an unseemly number of brightly colored logos and garish scribblings on a relatively small piece of spandex.
The only time bike clothes entice the eye is when they are worn by actual cyclists engaged in their sport. As their powerful legs churn and their lean torsos bend low over the handlebars to cut better through the air, cyclists speed by in a rainbow-colored gust of wind. In those moments, they look like beautiful, graceful, high-velocity birds.
Then they stop, and they're just some sweaty folks in synthetic fabric with padding in the most unattractive places. Cycling clothes can't make the transition from the bike to the grocery store. A pair of soccer shorts, a baseball jersey or a tennis skirt looks just fine separated from its true calling. (The popularity of bike shorts as ready-to-wear during the 1980s is an example of how poorly cycling attire plays in a mall, at the dry cleaner or infamously on Demi Moore at the 1989 Academy Awards.) Even bowling shoes have a place away from the lanes.
But not cycling gear. It is what it is. No one looks good teetering through Whole Foods in a bike jersey with its inconveniently located pockets, tight bike shorts gripping the thighs and turning them into sausages, and shoe clips clattering across the floor and sending you skidding into a pile of organic strawberries.
There is an admirable purity to cycling clothes. They have a single purpose, and they are perfectly equipped for it. This poses a problem for Nike's new 10//2 Collection, which is a collaboration with cyclist Armstrong.
The name of the collection refers to the day in 1996 when Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After his diagnosis and treatment, he went on to win the Tour de France six times and is now attempting a seventh victory. He also created the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which provides support to cancer survivors and their families. A little more than a year ago, to raise money, the foundation and Nike introduced the LiveStrong yellow rubber bracelet. It sold for $1 and became a fundraising phenomenon. So far, it has helped to raise $50 million for the foundation and has inspired numerous imitators: pink for breast cancer, blue for "progressive values," red, white and blue to "support our troops," and so on.
While the bands continue to be sold, one can now also buy 10//2 sportswear to support the foundation. The collection is a mix of performance gear and casual clothes. The cycling shorts and jerseys were introduced quietly in March. The rest of the apparel -- running shorts, windbreaker, polo shirts, mini-skirt and various running shoes -- were unveiled with fanfare this week in New York. Armstrong appeared via video conference.
The clothes offer little in the way of aesthetics other than the 10//2 logo and a few distinctive yellow flourishes. There is more emphasis on leisure wear and running apparel than cycling-related items to attract a broader range of customers. For each 10//2 item purchased, Nike will donate $1 to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Because a pair of sneakers sells for $85 and even $100, and a Dri-Fit jacket sells for $65, that seems like an awfully tiny amount to donate. But when this was pointed out, a Nike spokesman noted that the bigger mission is to raise public awareness. Still, it seems that most people are already pretty aware of cancer, thanks in no small part to Armstrong. Donating the typical 10 percent of each sale probably wouldn't push Nike into the red.
Nike won't divulge sales information for its cycling division other than to acknowledge that it is profitable, and it is one of the smaller lines compared with basketball and running. For fiscal 2005, Nike reported $13.7 billion in revenue.
Before its ubiquity and its many knockoffs, the bracelet had an admirable simplicity. Anyone can wear it and it has a clear mission. With the introduction of clothing, one gets into the murkier waters of product endorsement, star power and style. Why buy a rather boring $20 T-shirt so that $1 will go to a charity, when you can spend $1 on a wristband and see the same amount donated? Why buy running shoes hawked by a cyclist? Why purchase a basic polo shirt based on the encouragement of a star athlete known for his determination but not his style? Why buy cycling shorts -- and submit your legs to their indignity -- if you don't ride bikes?
The collection may be compelling because of what it is intended to represent -- overcoming cancer. But in its attempt to reach a non-cycling audience and in its desire to tap into the overly hyped notion of lifestyle marketing, it involves itself with fashion. And by that measure, one can only judge it harshly.