Is Cycling To Work Unprofessional?

A couple of news items have appeared in the last few weeks that caught our attention, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on them. Both concern the fear of appearing “unprofessional” by riding a bike to work.

First, a site called Corporette (self-described as a “a fashion and lifestyle blog for overachieving chicks”) responded to a reader’s question about showing up to work on a bike. Take a look at the question (and response) by visiting Corporette’s page. Hat tip to Richard of Cyclelicious for posting about this a few days ago.

Second, the news source Guardian Jobs (via Digital Journal) posted a similar article in press release format, focusing on London’s bike-to-work force and their appearance at their jobs. You can get the full skinny on that by clicking here.

My personal experience is this: there is nothing preventing a bike commuter from being fully presentable at work…for those of us who have to wear more formal business attire, there may be more hoops to jump through than for someone who works in a place where jeans and tshirts are acceptable. Nevertheless, these hoops are easily navigated by a bit of advance planning; perhaps a set of panniers or a once-a-week clothing delivery is in order. And, based on my experiences, workers who commute by bike tend to be more alert in the morning (and ultimately more healthy overall) than our car-bound counterparts. We also tend to be earlier to work…provided there are no mechanical issues along the way. Still, I can see how a short-sighted employer may look down upon our two-wheeled proclivities; after all, people who ride a bike for transportation seem to be those who are willing to think (and act) outside the box, and that may scare some traditionalists.

I’m curious to hear what YOU think, however…please leave your comments below so we can get a good conversation going.


44 Comments

  1. Steve A December 19, 2011 5:05 am 

    You gotta be kidding!

  2. Graham December 19, 2011 5:26 am 

    As a teacher, I’m asked to adhere to what some might call “business casual” attire. That is, I’m not required to wear a tie to work.

    Having said that, a tie is just a silly bit of silk one straps around their neck and it wouldn’t affect my preparation for work. It’s just a matter of either 1) going slowly enough not to sweat or 2) packing up your dress clothes and changing in the restroom or staff locker room.

    I’m a big sweaty guy (sweating a bit today and there was frost on the ground… obviously I go with option 2), but I’ve never had any complaints.

    I think that this is just another case of people trying to find fault with something they don’t like.

  3. Brian Ogilvie December 19, 2011 5:35 am 

    I think there are two problems. One is that some people just don’t like cycling and will think that a cyclist is unprofessional regardless of how they look at work.

    The other, though, is that Americans who think of themselves as serious cyclists often find it hard to go slowly: in particular, to go slowly enough not to sweat.

    I see that in myself: I commute to work on my bike about half to three-quarters of the time, wearing jacket and tie, on an upright bike with an IGH and a full chaincase. I have to remind myself to go slowly, especially up the hill near the end of my commute, where I tend to want to speed up and attack. (Note: my “attacks” would make a racing cyclist laugh.)

    And I’m not terribly competitive. Someone who rides sub-5-hour centuries for fun, and whose time on the bike is almost all about training or competition, might indeed find it hard to limit his or her speed to the 8-10 mph required in order not to start sweating.

  4. Ghost Rider December 19, 2011 5:36 am 

    @Graham, that’s my feeling too. In both articles, it is assumed that someone who rides a bike to work arrives as a sweaty, lycra-encased mess, when we all know that’s simply not the case! I’ve commuted in a tie too many times to count, and I have to wear semi-professional attire (nice pants, pressed shirt, sometimes a tie).

  5. Karl McCracken (@KarlOnSea) December 19, 2011 5:38 am 

    I think to a large extent, this is down to peoples’ perceptions of what riding a bike is. So one day I had client tell me that when she saw me riding a bike to her office, she thought it was a bit unprofessional of me. When I pointed out that I’d always ridden to her office, she seemed totally baffled – I think she had no idea up until the morning that she overtook me in her BMW! Of course, it probably helps that I’m often a sharp dressed man on a bike!

  6. strattonp December 19, 2011 6:50 am 

    in DC with a dry cleaners at every corner, keeping fresh cloths in the office is pretty easy. I did see a girl biking with high heels on – she called it urban chic – I have to agree.

  7. Ghost Rider December 19, 2011 7:24 am 

    @Karl…sharp-dressed indeed! LOVE IT!

  8. Jesse December 19, 2011 7:26 am 

    I think Graham hit it with this line:

    “I think that this is just another case of people trying to find fault with something they don’t like.”

    That said, I also think there’s some level of general misunderstanding of what bike commuting means to a lot of us. For example, as of right now, I don’t own any lycra. I own one bike and don’t own a car, so that classifies me as a transportational cyclist. This also means that I ride wearing my work khakis and button downs and don’t have any issues at all (not counting the morning I wiped out on the ice on the top level of the parking garage. That led to a scuffed boot and road grime on my left pant leg all day, not to mention a badly bruised hip and skinned knee…)

    I think the more people we can get riding along with us, and the more of them who ride sans lycra, the more acceptance there will inevitably be…if nothing else the sheer power of numbers will rule!

    Hey, a guy can hope can’t he?

  9. Westculvermonicaside December 19, 2011 7:32 am 

    I must admit 10 years ago I had a very smart younger man working for me who would commute to the job by bike & I thought him to be odd for doing so. He kept a pair of shoes and socks at the job and carried his daily clothes with him and was just fine, but somewhat out of place given the LA car culture.

    Fast forward to three years ago when I began to commute to the same location by bike regularly and finally “got it”. Or maybe now I’m the one viewed as odd by my colleagues?

  10. JohnnyK December 19, 2011 7:38 am 

    Well I think it depends on the distance you live from work. If you are close enough I would just wear my normal work attire. If one lives more than a few miles and/or sweats a lot then I would say bring a change of clothes or keep a change of clothes at work. In this persons case I think she is just embarrassed of the fact that she commutes by bike or her legs are really ugly not sure. Also they do sell clothing for the professional that commutes by bike. Honestly I think women should have it easy after all they can wear a skirt without drawing to much attention and just bring a change of stockings or pantyhose. Also the after work meetings or dinner she should be able to just wear her work clothes since she is going home afterwards. From what I can tell from the article she needs a rear rack and a nice bag like a Garment bag which there are several companies that sell them just google it. Again I think it depends on distances and time allotted for the commute. I find that if you plan well you can get to work without breaking a sweat.

  11. Andy December 19, 2011 7:40 am 

    I think the opposite. Driving a $20k machine by yourself to work everyday shows that you are selfish and flaunt your money. It also shows that you are lazy, and lack any willingness to use your own power.

  12. MelissatheRagamuffin December 19, 2011 7:51 am 

    I’m too devoted to the cause of sleep and enjoy trying to ride fast too much to ride to work slowly. More often than not I am really pounding pedal in the morning to make it to work on time. I have panniers. I carry whatever shirt/blouse I’ll be wearing and a fresh bra in my panniers, and change when I get to work. My boss’ biggest complaint about me bike commuting would probably be the big collection under my desk of high heeled shoes. I keep forgetting to take them home. I wear sneakers or flats on the bike and change into my dress shoes at work.

  13. Ghost Rider December 19, 2011 7:53 am 

    @Andy — ha ha, YES! I try to be a bit more diplomatic towards the cagers, but you’ve stated what was in my thoughts!!!

    @Jesse — I agree. I think the more we unwrap the mystical BS from transportational cycling, the more mainstream acceptance it will receive. We’ve long believed (and tried to convey here) that there is no special equipment or bicycle needed…merely two wheels and a willingness to use them instead of a car.

  14. Iron_Man December 19, 2011 8:13 am 

    Any bike commuter that works in wrinkled clothes, remains sweaty, or smells bad, was most likely already an unprofessional employee. The bike may shed new light on that, but it’s the employee himself that is unprofessional. There’s no reason for any bike commuter, particularly in a major city, to ever appear unprofessional. You may have to jump through some extra hoops, but then again professionals do what is necessary to get the job done.

  15. Andy December 19, 2011 8:21 am 

    Maybe when modeshare of biking increases over the coming years, people will also realize that unpractical and expensive fashion just isn’t necessary. I do keep a change of “nice” clothes at work for those occasions, but I’m currently sitting here in long johns, knickers, a long sleeve shirt, and wearing my spd touring shoes. My choice of apparel in no way affects my work, so I wear what works to get me here. It helps that most employees here bike or bus most of the time. Yay for progressive businesses in progressive cities!

  16. elisa m December 19, 2011 8:24 am 

    When I first started bike commuting to work, I got nothing but trouble from my employer. I WAS working at a place where every. single. person besides me was overweight or obese. They simply could not understand why I would do it and were VERY against my selling my car. They even called me in for a meeting about it, asking what I would do if it rained or was cold. I told them I would ride and change when I got to work just like everyday; if I was required to have a car, it should have been in my job description or I should be given a company car! It was a difference of culture and was especially hard because no one else in the entire company felt the same way I did.

    Strangely, the day I sold my car I was let go because of the recession. I hated to think so, but I couldn’t help wonder if it was my car free lifestyle that had something to do with it.

    The good news is that I am much happier out of that job. Good riddance to bad rubbish! Every job I have had since (2) have embraced my car free lifestyle.

  17. Chris (@PavementsEdge) December 19, 2011 8:34 am 

    I have access to a locker room with showers in the building where I work so I am fortunate to be able to shower after my ride. I truly appreciated this when it was closed the entire month of October for remodeling. I think on site showers are key to a seamless presentation for cycling commuters.

    I have great sympathy and admiration for those who commute year round in absence of shower facilities at their place of employ. To me that seems to be a major obstacle for most people.

    The other factor is work space: I am terribly self-conscious about the clothes, towels and paraphernalia cluttering my cube (I do everything possible to minimize any smells), but no one has ever complained and my workplace is very tolerant of my behavior.

    The last snowy day we had I was the first of four (and only bike commuter) in my area to make it to work. The other three live 2, 10 and 20 miles from work. I live 10.

    From the public viewpoint there is no difference between me and my co-workers, other than the occasional late arrival on my part due to a flat or mechanical issue. In four years and thousands of miles that has only happened half a dozen times .

    As far as being perceived “unprofessional” I think that when that happens it may partly be because the perception is that if you ride a bike all the time you must be too poor to own and drive a car. Employers may not like the image this creates for their business or organization and customers may actually hold that flawed perception.

    While this (being too poor to own a car) is partly true in my case, I could have taken on the additional debt of a car and made it work, but I chose not to burden my family with that expense and we are much more financially resilient because of it.

  18. Mike Myers December 19, 2011 8:42 am 

    A lot depends on the length of the commute, the type of job which is being done, and the person who’s commuting.

    Before I was “between jobs”, my commute was 22 miles each way. I worked in a dental office, so I wore scrubs. I also shave my head. When I arrived at work, I walked around for 10 minutes to stop sweating, then towelled off, washed my face, wiped down with baby wipes, reapplied deodorant and body spray, and changed into scrubs.

    A woman who has to be presentable for work will have much more prepping do do if she does my commute. If she has long hair that’s even more to do. Applying makeup, etc.

    If the commute is short, I can see a woman riding a Dutch bike to work in her business wear.

    It’s tougher for women than men. Not every woman is Miriam. :-)

  19. Scott Clark December 19, 2011 8:55 am 

    I inherited very efficient cooling (e.g. sweating) from my father. So wicking technical wear is essential.

    Normally my attire is casual and I can easily pack it in a pannier and shake out the minimal wrinkles upon arrival. I keep a dress shirt, slacks and coat at work in case I’m surprised by a meeting or presentation (I’m a consultant.) Luckily Lexington (KY) is in a “bowl” geologically, so my morning ride to work is downhill. Going home I can go all out in a climbing workout.

    The only time I dress up and ride in street clothes is to get to meetings downtown. In that case I arrive 5 minutes early and stop a block away for a few minutes to “cool down” before finally heading to the meeting. I wear a clean, white wicking t-shirt in all cases, and carry a zip lock with baby wipes for cooling down. Woolrich makes some really nice ones.

    I find that being a cycle commuter who is also a respected professional is a good icebreaker. It also gives me credibility when I discuss making our downtown better.

  20. Doug December 19, 2011 9:10 am 

    I’m a college professor, so there’s not much of an issue about how “professional” one appears in my line of work. Thus, my bike commuting has never really raised an issue.

    My wife, however, is a corporate marketing director with an office downtown. Nobody at her company thinks it’s unprofessional of her to commute by bike (several senior people are avid cyclists). I expect it has a lot to do with the local corporate culture. If the workplace is out in some remote suburban office park where everyone just assumes that automobiles are the only mode of transportation, commuting by bike would likely be seen as deviant behavior.

  21. BluesCat December 19, 2011 9:13 am 

    I’m in total agreement with Iron_Man and Andy.

    In Phoenix, you MUST have access to a shower after your ride to work, especially in the summer. Heck, SOME people in Phoenix should shower after they DRIVE into work in the morning!

    People who look down on transportation cyclists fall into one, or two, or ALL of three categories: (1) They’re snobs, (2) they’re fat and lazy, or (3) they’re stupid and out-of-touch.

  22. Kevin December 19, 2011 9:24 am 

    I commute 3 to 4 days a week, 10 mile one way and several large hills. I struggle to keep it slow even on the most bitter days, so I arrive sweating and puffin… I am fortunate enough to have a shower at the office. So I’m a bit luckier than most… The office place has aprox 20 daily commuters and all of us look and dress the part required by each of our own jobs; from suit and tie to jeans and button downs.
    I have to agree with Iron_Man… we have several employees where they smell worse than any of us riders. The only clue we ride is the bike in the office or our walk out to bike rack.

  23. Nick Hussey December 19, 2011 9:26 am 

    Give us until March and we’ll have cycling apparel that help solve these problems. We think there’s a lot of need for casual cycling gear. Stuff that works on and off the bike. Not a lot of places have showers, and carrying rucksacks or using panniers can be a pain.
    Be interested to see you what you think.
    Nick.

  24. Elizabeth December 19, 2011 9:54 am 

    I have to agree with Doug in that “it has a lot to do with the local corporate culture”. I help organize the bike to work week team at my employment – a University – so I think some folks expect to see me looking the part of a bike commuter (if there is such a look). Mostly I describe my dress style as office casual and versatile. :-)

  25. RL Policar! December 19, 2011 9:56 am 

    My boss thinks its cool that I ride to work.

  26. JazzyJ December 19, 2011 10:08 am 

    Great topic – this was the biggest barrier that I had to overcome when considering the transition to biking. I have long thick super curly hair (read: a pain in the ass to style) and I wear business casual clothes to work – heels, skirts blouses, etc. I also live in a climate that is hot year round, so getting to work looking “fresh” is a problem no matter what kind of transportation you’re taking.

    When I started reading articles online about how to stay presentable while bike commuting I found a lot of writing by cycling enthusiasts who were really flip about the specific needs women have in terms of their work appearance. Comments like “Oh please, what’s a little helmet head?! Or “If you’re so concerned about your looks you shouldn’t ride.” Eff that noise!

    I mostly can’t bike in my work clothes – my low waisted work slacks dip too low on my bum in that position and my skirts are too revealing or impossible to ride in (I split one work skirt entirely in half once throwing a leg over my bike). Plus most of the time it’s just too damn hot here. I also tried biking in my heels and scuffed the top of a very expensive pair so I’m done with that experiment as well. So I use panniers and change at work. It’s much less of a deal than I anticipated. Although getting naked at work was a really weird experience for me.

    But I was really anxious about people seeing me in workout type clothes at work because I like people to see me “on” when I arrive. I had to accept that my coworkers would see me differently – for better or worse. I also had to abandon wearing makeup and diffusing my hair on an occasional basis. That’s a lot of adjustment for some women, for me it was well worth the sacrifice. But I do miss being able to do those touches for meetings and such – because the people in front of me at work are usually members of the public. They don’t know I bike to work, they only know what they see in front of them.

    So while of course I don’t think biking is unprofessional, I personally had to adjust my expectations about how I wanted to appear to others. And initially some of my coworkers reacted with confusion and concern. But now that people are accustomed to it, it’s no longer a thing. I had to get over myself a bit, and so did my colleagues. It also helps, as others mentioned, that people see me often with my helmet or they see me with my bike – it being common knowledge that I’m a bike commuter has gone a long way towards correcting any possible judgments.

    I think mostly people are just curious and I’ve been really happy to be an example. If a high femme lady like myself can make it happen every day so can most people in my work environment. In fact, I just converted another female coworker to start biking in – hooray!

  27. Emika_B December 19, 2011 10:10 am 

    I commute about 8 miles one way and live in Hawaii. In the morning (read, 4:30 AM) it’s not so bad. My afternoon ride, though, is very sweat inducing. I’m fortunate that my office is rather laid back and has no strict dress code. Still, as office manager I do have be presentable. I’ve never been a make-up wearer and if doing my hair takes more than 5 minutes it’s too fussy. Pantyhose can be tricky to put on when still a bit damp from sweat but it’s doable.

    My routine is: shower the night before, pack my clothes for the work day, prep my lunchbox and lay out my riding clothes. In the morning all I have to do is toss my lunchbox in my saddlebags and put on my riding clothes. When I get to work (I ride as fast and hard as safety will allow) I’m hot and sweaty. At the office I keep basic toiletries and hair stuff (helmet head isn’t presentable). Baby wipes, a wet wash cloth and a bit of baby power do wonders to help alleviate the sweat. After about 15 minutes my fair skin is no longer flushed with exertion and the only way you’d know I rode was if you chanced to see my shirt and bike leggings hanging in the computer room to dry.

    I honestly don’t see how biking to work is any less professional than going to the gym first thing in the morning. You still get hot and sweaty, you still do what you can to clean up and you still have to wear the same work clothes.

  28. Bryan B December 19, 2011 10:34 am 

    I agree with @Iron_Man. Plan ahead. I keep a weeks worth of cloths, deodorant, athletic wipes, shoes at work. I get all sorts of looks and comments (to hot, wet, cold…). They seem to be never happy. I, on the other hand, smile a lot and look forward to my ride both ways. It has taken a while but what another person thinks of me is none of my business. Any day on a bike, beats driving a car.

  29. Ghost Rider December 19, 2011 10:45 am 

    Good stuff, everyone…thanks!

    @Jazzy — yes, you’re right on the money. I think if more women realized that yes, it takes a little bit of personal adjustment in attitude/behavior/appearance but ultimately those adjustments are simply not a big deal, more would try riding.

    And always great to hear that one of us has inspired another to leave the car behind and get on a bike…I know and love that feeling!

  30. Danielle December 19, 2011 11:04 am 

    When I was biking to work, in the San Fernando Valley (very hot!!) I’d ride in regular ‘business casual’ clothes and shoes when it wasn’t so hot, but in the middle of summer I’d bring a change of clothes and make sure I had some scented lotion and other toiletries at work. It wasn’t so much because I was biking per se, but because when it’s over 100F even just standing outside makes you hot & sweaty! I found a little bit of trial-and-error was in order to find out what made me most comfortable.

    Since starting to read the Cycle Chic blog I want to get a job where I must dress up every day just so I can ride to work in heels!!

  31. Danielle December 19, 2011 11:06 am 

    @Jazzy, Yaay on the conversion of someone else in your office!

  32. PushingWind December 19, 2011 11:39 am 

    Frankly, I’m not sure how you get to work matters in how the work you do is perceived. I do know that riding my bike or taking the train, when that was an option before moving, makes me work better and more creatively.

  33. Fat Guy On A Bike Seattle December 19, 2011 12:35 pm 

    I think a lot of the perception also has to do with the local culture in general.I work for a major corporation just outside of Seattle. My commute is a 40 mile round trip bike/bus commute. I’m sure there must be hundreds of us that ride to work. Each building has bike parking in the parking garage and locker rooms with showers. There is a bike shop located on the corporate campus, and another located at the transit center. We even have a mobile bike mechanic available that will drive out and tune your bike while you’re at work (for a fee of course). Here in Seattle, a lot of local businesses give you discounts if you show up on bike (restaurants, retailers chocolatiers!!).
    One thing I have made great use of is this clothes folder http://www.rei.com/product/796369/eagle-creek-pack-it-folder-18. It keeps my work clothes neatly folded and unwrinkled, plus it helps keep everything compact in my backpack. Luckily for me, I can wear jeans and polo shirts in the office. I keep a pair of dress shoes in my office and just swap them out when I arrive in the morning.
    However, when I lived about 40 miles south, in Tacoma, when people saw you on a bike, they assumed you were either a college kid or homeless. I guess at age 35, being mistaken for a college kid ain’t so bad. LOL.

  34. Richard Masoner December 19, 2011 1:21 pm 

    Every place I’ve worked has always been, at best, “business casual,” and many of us in high tech are downright slobs, so professional appearance has never been an issue for me and my peers.

    I work at a Fortune 500, and it’s not unusual to see managers attend early morning meetings still in their bike shorts and jerseys. I ran into one of our Directors last week and didn’t recognize her because she was wearing ‘professional’ attire, instead of the bike clothes I usually see her in.. We have an executive vice president who’s an avid cyclist. and commuter.

  35. karen December 19, 2011 2:44 pm 

    I bike to work all the time and have given up worrying about whether or not I’m taken seriously as a professional.

    For the time being, I can look professional even on my ride to work. The climate is on the cooler side (quite frigid in December – February) and has low humidity so perspiration is not a big issue.

    Were I still living in the very humid, potentially hot, midwest, I would have some struggles. I’d need close access to shower facilities. Wet wipes won’t help me at all with my hair, which is thin and stringy and can’t withstand helmet head without a complete redo. Like it or not, work appearance matters in many professions.

  36. Mir.I.Am December 19, 2011 3:53 pm 

    The second article starts out WHACK: “With so many of London’s commuters donning lycra, helmets and kneepads, Guardian Jobs considers whether cycling to work could cost cyclists their jobs.
    ” I have never heard of anyone urban commuting in kneepads.

  37. Ghost Rider December 19, 2011 4:14 pm 

    @Mir — the kneepads are for when you’re a subordinate working for The Man. 😉

  38. Mir.I.Am December 19, 2011 5:17 pm 

    @Ghostrider: OMG. don’t even get me started on kneepads at work jokes!

  39. Mikey December 20, 2011 12:09 am 

    It is usually the overweight people that think it is unprofessional. They hate to see healthy people. It reminds them of their lack of self control. Those that run, bike and exercise think it is cool to ride to work.

  40. Michael P. December 20, 2011 4:23 am 

    I’ve purposefully not read the comments thus far – I work on Wall Street and am reasonably senior and ride to work almost every non-morning-raining day. I don’t wear a tie normally but have to present wearing a nice shirt, nice pants and fancy shoes. I leverage the “bikes in building” law in NYC and I park my bike in the shared office of one of the guys that works for me. I’ve done over 3300 miles in two years and saved $675.00 in subway fares in that period. Unprofessional is ‘rubbish’.

  41. Bill Smith December 23, 2011 12:39 pm 

    I commute by bike every day and have never had a problem, and the attire at my job is also “business casusal.” I ride in a pair of bike shoes with cleats, so I keep a pair of ‘professional’ shoes (along with a clean shirt and pants should I need them) at work.

    If I need a full suit and tie, which I sometimes do, I take my bike on the train or bus going to work and carry a change of clothes for the ride home in my backpack. On rare occasions, I’ll drive to work one day and take a few days worth of dress clothing with me so I can ride in whatever I want. I’ve been commuting by bike for a couple of years and so far I’ve not found myself in a difficult position.

    Seems to me the bigger issue is secure bike parking than attire – at least here in Los Angeles.

  42. Rider January 19, 2012 8:31 am 

    I live in Florida. As Ghost Rider may recall, riding to work in Florida means arriving as a pile of sweat and steam. That’s just standard operating procedure down here.

    Nevertheless, when I commuted to work (a 10-mile ride, one way), I made sure I was one of the best-dressed dudes in the office, not some guy in wrinkled shirts and greasy pants.

    Lucky for me, I had a shower down in the building basement and a locker for suits, shirts, ties, etc.

    Could I have commuted without a shower? Perhaps, if I bought Baby Wipes by the case. Even so, there is no way I could have commuted in my work clothes, winter or summer. I rode in lycra, showered up, and strode into the office in suit and tie like everyone else — except I was thinner, more fit and often shining a glow from the ride in.

  43. Mike January 21, 2012 2:06 pm 

    I’ve been a carless bike commuter for 13 years, the last 5 being in a management position with an 8 mile commute in metro Phx. AZ. I have encountered only respect and envy. If I had bosses that hassled me about it, I wouldn’t work for them.

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