Looking in from the outside, cycling is quite a peculiar sport – its combatants clad head to toe in Lycra, drink champagne as they ride through Paris and argue all day long about socks. The debate is so fiery that even the governing body, the UCI, has recently weighed in with an effort to set the record straight.
With Christmas on the doorstep, we find ourselves at the perfect time to replenish the sock store. As stocking fillers, Secret Santa presents or a thoughtful gift for the cyclist who has everything, you can’t go wrong with a good pair of – preferably wacky – cycling socks.
Road, mountain bike or triathlon, what does a cyclist need to know about socks? Let’s step straight into it…
In the world of cycling there are two riders that carry the most gravitas. Not only were they the greatest riders of their generations, and arguably of all time, but they were also the first pioneers of cycling fashion.
Fausto Coppi, nicknamed ‘Il Campionissimo’ or the ‘Champion of Champions’, was no ordinary cyclist. As well as winning two Tours and three Giros, the Italian also introduced the cycling world to the importance of fashion. Going fast on the bike wins races but looking good while doing so – well, that wins hearts.
No one captured more hearts than Coppi and before long everyone was trying to copy his style, all the way down to his 7.5cm-long white socks – above the ankle but below the centre of the shin. Deciding what level to pull one’s socks up to was like navigating the three bears’ house in search of the perfect porridge.
Coppi’s fashion statement was then upheld by The Cannibal himself, Eddy Merckx. The two may have dominated different generations, but that didn’t stop them from sharing the same fashion sense. Like the famed Italian before him, Merckx also opted for the classic 7.5cm-long white sock.
The cycling world at that time shared one common belief – if Merckx does it then we need to do it too. Soon the peloton’s lower half was awash with white, the riders’ bodies bobbing as they effortlessly floated along on a makeshift cloud.
Breaking the mould
They’re a rare breed in the cycling world, but occasionally we’re treated to an eccentric that really wants to break the mould. To some, breaking the fashion mould is a cardinal sin and an insult to the former cycling greats. To others it’s just a simple breath of fresh air.
Both Lance Armstrong and Bradley Wiggins favoured black socks of varying lengths, contrasting a peloton that maintained the puritan fashion pioneered by Coppi and Merckx. Whether it was for performance gain, or just to make a statement, the black sock caught on a little with a selection of professional teams converting to the dark side.
The modern peloton is now flooded with a wide range of colours as teams try, often in vain, to win the unofficial award of ‘most glamorous kit’. From white to pink to fluorescent yellow, the peloton no longer resembles a floating cloud, but more a tacky ‘90s disco.
A new ruling
For too long the peloton has been able to run wild with their choice of socks. In the past few years we’ve seen everything from ankle warmers to socks that look more like stockings. Clearly this is a top priority for the UCI to tackle before the 2019 season rolls around. Forget the folding teams, the unpaid salaries and the increased professionalisation of women’s racing, we want an answer to the great sock debate!
With their new ruling, the UCI have clearly sided with the Merckx and Coppi camp, making it illegal to wear any socks that pass the shin’s halfway point. While it may sound a little draconian, they haven’t (yet) dictated a particular colour. Perhaps that’s something to roll out in 2020, but until then, team colours will reign.
Ticking the boxes
Since the majority of us aren’t governed by the UCI, we’re left free to choose whatever socks we want, as long as it appeases the local club’s fashion council that is.
Here are just a few things to consider the next time you dive into your drawers in search of the perfect pair of cycling socks:
As aforementioned, the classic height for a pair of cycling socks is 7.5cm, no more, no less. You could fool the untrained eye with anything from 6-9cm but pass that point and you’ll soon be labelled a disturber of the cycling peace.
Not only is classic cool, it’s also practical. Too low and your legs will be left quivering in the cold. Too high and you’ll be left sporting some pretty horrendous tan lines during the summer season. If there’s one thing that causes more of a heated debate in cycling than socks, then it’s tan lines – you really don’t want to get these wrong.
White may be the classic colour but it doesn’t always complement the kit we sport up top. As long as you pick a colour that matches the rest of your kit, you can’t really go wrong. Well, unless you choose fluorescent yellow that is – that’s the biggest fashion faux-pas you could ever possibly make.
While some of us pride fashion above all else, others just want a sock that’s practical. This is never more apparent than during the winter months when we’re forced to cover up just about every patch of bare skin.
However, just because it’s winter doesn’t mean we’re entirely exempt from fashion critique. Placement of the socks soon becomes an issue: do you wear them on top of or underneath your leg warmers/bib tights? We’d say it comes down to preference, but we can’t guarantee your riding mates will let you off that easily.
The type of riding you do will really dictate what kind of socks you can and can’t wear. As a rule of thumb, skimpy ankle socks are for mountain bikers, classic mid-shin socks are for roadies and long knee-high socks are for triathletes looking for every last scrap of aerodynamic advantage.
While socks may divide us, there is one thing that really does unite us all, regardless of fashion choice or cycling discipline, and that is simply the thrill of a life on two wheels. Cycling is all about freedom, the freedom to roam and the freedom to express oneself however they please. So feel free to ignore anything and everything we’ve said above! To quote Eddy Merckx, ‘it’s not about how far you ride (or what you wear), it’s only important that you ride.’
What are your opinions on the great sock debate? Let us know on our Facebook page.