Riders Get Little Room for Fashion at Tour de France

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Alex Howes wears retro-style shades to stand out in a sport where sponsors and rule books define much of a rider's attire. Credit Kim Ludbrook/European Pressphoto Agency

PONT ST. ESPRIT, France — While few people question mandatory helmets in professional cycling and sunglasses are unlikely to disappear any time soon, the combination has an unfortunate side effect. From a distance, most of the riders at the Tour de France have become as indistinguishable as the storm troopers commanded by Darth Vader.

"It's not easy to identify riders now that they're all wearing helmets," said Sean Yates, a British cyclist who rode for the long-defunct American Motorola team and who is now a team director with Tinkoff. "On the bike, they all look pretty much the same. So maybe that takes a little bit of the romanticism out of the cycling, but that's how it is."

Like many professional sports, cycling is an occupation best avoided by people whose preferred form of self-expression is fashion. To begin with, cycling's rule book imposes a number of limits. Jerseys, for example, cannot be sleeveless, to at least give riders' skin at the shoulder a fighting chance during crashes.

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Alex Howes is not a fan of the green and red argyle socks, but they offer aerodynamic benefits. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press

In the past, the rules went even further. Shorts had to be black, socks could be only white. But without helmets and, for the most part, glasses, riders were easily distinguished because the public could see their faces.

Today anything goes in clothing colors and styling, even the dubious white shorts, provided the team stays within designs that it registers with the cycling union. As a result, the fashion dictators of cycling are the sponsors who pay riders to be rolling billboards.

Some teams, like Tinkoff, impose a dress code that even the Marine Corps might admire.

Yates said that Tinkoff riders must be dressed identically at all times in every race. The edict is carried to some extreme limits. The team has two styles of shorts that, at a casual glance, appear identical. But one is made from a heavier fabric, which some riders find warmer and more comfortable in the rain.

Despite their similar appearance, Yates said, the team forbids mixing the two styles within a race. So the riders take a vote to make a selection.

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Tall socks and custom cycling shoes offer George Bennett a chance to express himself. Credit Ian Austen/The New York Times

One rider, however, gets to break the Tinkoff team mold, though only because the rules say he must. As the current world champion, Peter Sagan is required by the International Cycling Union to wear what is known as the rainbow jersey — a white jersey with a band of color — when competing in road races.

Because there is only one road champion at any given time, the rest of the field is left struggling to find ways, often subtle, to stand out.

For Alex Howes, a Denver native who rides for Cannondale-Drapac, the answer is sunglasses. Most riders favor sleek, aerodynamic sunglasses, a style introduced by Oakley. Howes's clunky frames, which come from POC, look like an all-white version of something a mechanical engineer might have worn during the 1950s.

They are, he said, "the most ridiculous glasses I can find."

As he checked inside the frame, which he alone wears at the Tour, for its model name (Require), Howes said there was no practical reason for his small bit of rebellion against conformity.

"Honestly, it's kind of a ridiculous sport in general," he said. "You have a bunch of emaciated Transformer characters out there, grown men who shave their legs and wear colorful spandex. So you've got to do something just to remind yourself and the rest of the world that it is kind of silly."

Cycling's most extreme fashion rebel was Mario Cipollini, an Italian sprinter who was at his peak during the 1990s. He generated as much attention for his sponsors with what he wore as he did with what he won. He once turned up for a Tour stage in a chariot wearing vaguely Roman-styled cycling clothes underneath a toga. Perhaps his most extreme sartorial selection was an aerodynamic skin suit that was patterned with a life-size, anatomical drawing of muscles.

Each of the episodes provoked fines from the cycling union.

Today's riders choose simpler ways to distinguish themselves.

Not surprisingly for a sport where everyone has hairless legs, most cyclists have avoided facial hair. But Simon Geschke, a German, sports a full beard. It is more common, however, to obsess over the length of socks and shorts. While perhaps lost on outsiders, it can be topic of some debate within the cycling community.

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Before helmets became standard safety equipment, riders were easier to recognize. Credit Associated Press

When Yates raced, he preferred unusually short shorts.

"When I look back, I did look like a right weirdo," he said. "I used to hate long shorts; now I like long shorts."

As shorts generally get longer in cycling, socks, which previously reached just above riders' ankles, now rise toward their knees.

Before Tuesday's start in Andorra, George Bennett, a rider from New Zealand, was riding around with very tall socks sporting the logo of his team's sponsor, Lotto Jumbo NL.

The team, he said, gives its ri ders the choice of several sock heights. He goes for the tallest.

"We have a rule: three fingers below the calf," he said. "That's how we roll in New Zealand."

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Mario Cipollini went to extreme lengths to be noticed, including wearing a skin suit fit for a biology textbook. Credit Grazia Neri/Getty Images

About an hour earlier, Bennett had slipped on a new custom-made pair of cycling shoes from his team's supplier, Shimano, for the first time. Special shoes are another form of distinction. In Bennett's case, the fresh footwear was electric blue, with a New Zealand flag and his name discreetly on the heels.

Howes's enthusiasm for distinction does not extend to shoes. He uses a standard Shimano model.

"I haven't done anything custom like that," he said. "I'll just stick with the glasses, something Grandma can see."

He was also less than enthusiastic about his socks, which were as tall as Bennett's. Their vivid green and red argyle pattern incongruously evoked Christmas.

Howes, who was part of an ultimately doomed four-man breakaway in Saturday's stage, said he would prefer shorter socks, but the team has found that tall ones offer aerodynamic benefits.

"Even the socks are performance-oriented now," he said.

Howes added: "But at the end of the day, you're getting paid to wear funny socks. That's not the worst thing."

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