I don’t remember where I found the tinsel, but since I already had glue, it made sense to stick it to my bike helmet. There are many reasons to carry super glue in your bike repair kit, and helmet decoration is one of them. When I got back on my bike, my head twinkling like a magical silver orb, I felt like a million bucks. Sure, I had giardia, altitude sickness, and no clear direction in life. But I looked AWESOME.
Other people must have thought I looked awesome too, because once my helmet was decorated, I got a lot more honks and waves. People rolled down their windows to give me thumbs up. Passersby stared and smiled when they saw me. At some point in mid-December, I also convinced my partner Scott to glue a Santa hat on top of his helmet. We became a disheveled, mobile holiday circus.
One day in southern Ecuador we stopped next to a field and asked a man and a woman if it was okay for us to camp at the far edge. The woman picked up the large bag she had been carrying, slung it over her shoulder, and told us to follow her to the best place. The bag writhed behind her. I’ll never forget the sight of this woman trotting across the field with a sack of live guinea pigs, Scott following close behind in his spandex and Santa helmet. It was like being in a lucid dream.
Over the years, I’ve glued sequins and tinsel to my helmet, worn a tiger balaclava, and covered myself and my bike with full rainbows of swirling, mismatched colors. Really, you can’t miss me. And that’s the point. For me, helmet decoration and colorful bike gear are part performance art and part practical strategy. It’s a way of saying, “Life is short, so let’s have fun with this!” It also increases visibility on the road, helps you make new friends, and improves morale.
The average American drives 13,500 miles per year, and a lot of those miles are spent in a haze. Not only do drivers have to drive, but they also have to do their online shopping, post to Instagram, take selfies, text emojis to strangers, spill coffee, and yell at their GPS. So they’ve got a lot on their plate! The more colorful, bright, and strange you look when you’re cycling, the more likely it is that drivers will snap out of their haze and avoid you. And if you’re really successful with your bike costume, drivers will actually slow down next to you to see what you are. (“Honey, I think I see a disheveled holiday circus on the side of the road!” “Well slow down, Frank, let’s take a look!”)
A stranger is a person you don’t know, and when you’re on a long bike tour, most people you meet are strangers. But can those strangers become friends? And how? These are important questions for any adventure cyclist to consider.
When my friend Juan rode across South America, he hauled a trailer full of puppets behind him. Each time he arrived in a new town, he’d break out the puppets and do a show. This scored him friends across a half-dozen countries. I’ve also personally noticed a large increase in friendly interactions when I’m pedaling in my goofy helmet vs. riding in “regular” gear. People are more likely to smile, wave, and say hello. And sometimes we become friends!
As a long-distance cyclist, you have an opportunity to bring the party with you. In a lot of areas of the world, as soon as you pedal into town, you’re already an instant source of entertainment. So you might as well roll with it!
Let’s face it, long bike tours have ups and downs, and sometimes you really do have giardia and altitude sickness and no clear direction in life. But it’s hard to stay sad when you’re covered in tinsel. That’s why I always pack a small mirror in my gear, so whenever I’m sad I can just look at myself and laugh.
It’s also hard to be upset when you’re cycling with someone dressed like Santa Claus. At one point when Scott and I rode across Colombia, he parked his bike on the edge of a very steep hill. As soon as he turned around, the bike toppled over the side and slid downward. We stood and peered over the edge. For anyone else, it would have been a disaster. But for a disheveled holiday circus, it was just normal. Scott climbed down the hill and pushed his bike back up, while I did him the favor of photographing the entire saga. Then we rode away into the sunset.
Bike gear is already goofy looking, so in many cases you only have to make small adjustments to become instantly fabulous. Super glue and recycled tinsel garlands are a standby. I’m also a fan of choosing brightly colored, highly patterned clothes, and only packing the ones that don’t match. (A friend refers to this as “pattern pile-up”). Even just one article of clothing, like an animal hat, a balaclava, or a strange set of mittens, can give you some extra flair.
Don’t forget that costumes should always increase safety, not detract from it! Flashy clothes should come in addition to normal safety gear like bike lights and reflectors. Make sure all your garlands and goofballs are firmly attached and don’t block your vision or your lights. On bike tours, I always use front and back lights and carry a solar panel and external battery pack to charge them. Other folks swear by pedal-powered options like dynamo lights.
Whatever costume you choose, remember that life is short, so just have fun with it!
Do you have any special strategies or experiences with dazzling bike gear? If so, please let us know in the comments below!