Apparel & Accessories

Kit Critic: Beware of cheap boots — and cheap cycling kit

How a bit of socioeconomic theory, fashion appreciation, good humor, and long-term comfort all relate. Welcome to Kit Critic.

Editor’s note: Kit Critic is a new biweekly column on cycling style by Aliya Barnwell, the founder of Ride Up Grades, a cycling instructor, and a longtime rider.  Barnwell will also be doing clothing reviews here on VeloNews.com.

On Instagram, I go by Kit Addiction. The handle is my attempt to balance my happiness when buying new bike gear with the sad reality of my bank account and share the ups and downs with other style-rich but cash-poor people. It’s also my way of facing the commodification of the pastime I love, in opposition to the pure enjoyment of being myself on the bike. “Kit Addiction” is a one-woman war against conventional kit.

Even when I was a noob commuter resisting conventional cycling gear, I knew I wasn’t entirely alone: I wasn’t the only rider seeking interesting gear, but daunted by the pricing. We all know cycling – road, mountain, ’cross, or any sport discipline – has a reputation for being expensive: one kit can cost more than a department store bike, not including the helmet or shoes. 

I went through a progression that’s common among riders – I started out in denial of the cost-value ratio, only to end up, several years later, choosing the best of the best kit. Initially, I rode without a chamois, and was more concerned about arriving to work and not being a sweaty mess, rain-soaked, or freezing. Riding a road bike to work 16 miles round trip daily, it wasn’t long before I started wearing cycling shorts under jeans, or kit outright. And, like many cyclists, I realized the difference in quality between solid common brands like Pearl Izumi or Rapha, and unfamiliar names from Amazon or AliExpress. 

My butt informed me immediately that cheap kit wouldn’t fly, and was actually more expensive in the long run. I almost fell prey to Pratchett’s “boots” socioeconomic theory:

A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars…But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

In this case, he’d still have saddle sores, or a burned backside (cheap kit usually isn’t SPF treated). In addition to the cheap kit’s lack of durability, like the boots, poor kit fit makes training a pain. I couldn’t afford to buy a range of kit at retail prices, and a cheap kit was like sitting on sandpaper and about as durable. Instead of giving in to the boots theory, I scoured the web for sales of the good brands and got lucky often enough that it was no longer luck.

By the time I picked the handle Kit Addiction, I was full-Lycra: I knew the Velominati rules well enough to make fun of them. Work, club, and event kit began to pile up. I had even less justification for new pieces – what’s the point of buying a commercially available kit, no matter how stylish, if I know I’m expected to wear kit specific to the group or event? 

Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to interesting kit like a moth to a flame, setting “new with tags” alerts on eBay, scrolling Instagram for new designs, and counting the days until the next bike jumble. 

Hence the addiction. But by now, I’ve more or less figured out what I like fit-wise, so when I shop, I’m looking for something special about the piece; some uncommon design feature. In particular, I always grab easy-off aka nature-break friendly bibs if I can, not only for the obvious reason, but innovation in that realm makes equipment that will keep people comfy on the bike accessible to all, and deserves a nod. 

And that’s really why my kit addiction led to kit critiques: everyone should be able to ride while looking and feeling good. Kit can be stylish, easy to wear, and within budget – the magical triangle. Yes, within budget – but I’ll get to that later. We can battle the urge to buy junky gear just because it looks cool together.