They are instantly recognizable. In sleek black tights, splashed with bright color, they glide through the streets of Washington. Bicycle messengers dress in clothes that cut the air, in tight gear that is lightweight and eye-catching.

Practicality mixed with flair is the essence of the messenger chic. Black is the basic color: the street doesn't soil it, and it is the perfect backdrop to the multicolored hats, shoes, backpacks, gloves, jackets and headbands that a bike messenger needs to keep everything from hair to envelopes in place.

Though often unnoticed, a dash of Italian design comes into view with every pickup and delivery. Much of the bicycle clothing is made in Italy, from the Cl,ement headbands to the Detto Pietro shoes. The lettered jerseys read "Famcucine," "Atala," "Campangnolo," "Saronni" and "Vittoria," giving the messenger a race car look with promotions for bike parts, shoes and bicycles. These graphics are essential.

However, bike messengers often add an urban mix. Whistles placed around the neck, Vuarnet sunglasses, keys attached to the wrist blend with a variety of streamlined sweatpants, T-shirts and cutoffs. Bike messengers have been known to call themselves spacemen. They take a casual, personal approach to high technology -- NASA for the street.

Fit is important. One smooth line contours the clothes as they mold the body. The goal is to make the outfit impenetrable to wind and rain. Hats appear glued to the head. Stirrup tights slide into the shoes. Shoes fit onto the bicycle pedals. Each piece fits closely in a puzzlelike fashion.

This efficient style of dressing must have the adjustment ease of a thermostat. As the day changes, so must the messenger. Time is money, and a well-prepared outfit must have a vent that can be opened or closed, a layer that can be pulled back or put on as temperatures rise and fall. Accessories must be within easy reach, to be in use or put aside while the messenger is in motion. Glasses fit with a band around the hat, radios hook on to belts, both coming on and off with a quick hand pass over the head or the hip.

All gear in place, looking sharp, the bicycle messenger is ready to ride easy. CAPTION: Picture, MESSAGE WEAR: Bellwether wind tights, $39.95, striped Spenco bike gloves, $24.95, Detto Pietro black bike shoes, $44.95; Red Deeca jersey, $39.95, tan bike gloves, $15.95, Clement headband, $3.95, black shorts with red stripes, $39.95, Vittoria bike shoes, $54.95; Bellwether Lycra tights, $29.95, black bike gloves, $16.95, Saronni light blue bike shoes, $45.95. All at Proteus Bicycle shops. PHOTO BY SWANN/NIEMANN; STYLED BY JASON WOOD; SCOUTING BY STEPHEN KERN; BICYCLES COURTESY OF BIG WHEEL BIKES