From your fine Italian helmet to your brilliant white shoes, you are resplendent in your perfectly matched cycling kit. Your bulging quads taper upward to a trim waist and slim torso. Your arms are birdlike—lean, tanned and sinewy. Looking past your reflection, you see a table of café patrons looking back at you with amused expressions. They clearly do not see what you see. What they see staring at them through the glass is a tyrannosaurus rex dressed up like a rodeo clown.
Let's face it—cycling fashion is an acquired taste. While the general uniform hasn't changed much over the years, like all fashion, it has been subject to the whims and nuances of fickle trends. Oddly, one of the most notable and hotly debated topics is the length of our socks. In a sport riddled with cheating, scandals and controversy, apparently we are nothing if not sticklers for proper hosiery.
Of course what length of cycling socks you wear is your choice. You can base it on comfort, style or even the phase of the moon if you want. But if you prefer a more strategic approach, here is a rundown of five basic zones to help you make an informed choice.
Zone One—The Gymnast2 of 7
If your socks are not visible, people will assume you: a) forgot to put them on, b) are a triathlete who got lost or c) would prefer to play women's tennis. None of these things will score you very high points in the cycling ranks. Worse yet, if the only thing visible is a perky pink pom-pom poking out of your shoe like a horrible pastel growth on your achilles, you will be openly ridiculed—and you will deserve it, because you are a Cyclist, not a twelve-year-old gymnast.
Zone Two—Old School Pro3 of 7
For as long as there have been pros—those illustrious individuals who demonstrate abilities far superior to Jane and Joe Average—the delusion has existed that by adopting their style, we will also adopt their ability to kick butt. Back in 200 B.C., you can bet there were hoards of gladiator-wannabes who adopted the fashion stylings of their favorite champion until said champion was messily torn apart and devoured by lions.
In the golden days of cycling, filled with legends like Fausto Coppi and Eddie Merckx, it's unlikely that the discussion of what length one's socks should be ever came up. In fact, if socks were discussed at all, it probably went something like, "Fausto, put on these socks and get moving. That bike isn't going to ride itself." Of course this would sounds far sexier and exotic in Italian.
This era of cycling saw sock lengths just above the ankle bone—about two to three inches above the top of the shoe. Socks were always white and accompanied by shorts that would expose enough well-muscled leg to intimidate one's opponents into submission. In the absence of any lions to change things, purists of the sport will defend this traditional sock length to their graves.
Zone Three—The Modern Pro4 of 7
Believe it or not, Lance Armstrong's original sin did not involve drugs whatsoever—unless sock doping is considered a thing. After years of ankle-skimming whities and short-shorts, Armstrong scandalized the peloton in 2004 with his towering socks and near bloomer-length shorts. Five or six inches of sock came dangerously close to his knee-skimming shorts, offering a mere sliver of leg, which most certainly had the Old School Pros in a tizzy. Nevertheless, higher socks took off faster than you can say, "I'm ready for my transfusion, Dr. Ferrari".
In 2015 when Sir Bradley Wiggins smashed the Hour Record at the Lee Valley Velodrome in London, it's hard to know what people talked about more—his feat or his feet. Soaring higher than even the Armstrong-inspired trend, Wiggins' socks were reminiscent of the tall, black dress socks my dad would wear with suits in the winter and, to my horror, with sandals in the summer. I'd wager that both men cared equally little about people's opinion of their style choice, but regardless, sock heights have continued to climb dangerously close to the Schoolgirl Zone.
Zone 4—The Schoolgirl5 of 7
Unless you are a giant, and therefore more suited to basketball than cycling, anything over six inches puts you squarely in the Schoolgirl Zone. If your socks are snuggling up too close to your knees, it's time to trade in your bibs for a jaunty plaid skirt and a cardigan, my friend, because biology class starts at nine sharp. And don't try to pass them off as compression socks either; if you ride with compression socks, you may as well just take them off entirely and go do a triathlon (see Zone 1). Both the UCI and USA Cycling have banned the use of compression garments in competition. Outside of sanctioned races you can do what you like, and if you like to look like a dork, knee-high compression socks are just the ticket.
One of the best things about being a Cyclist is showing off the bronzed and sculpted gams you have worked so hard to achieve, and it is your duty to share them with the world at every possible opportunity. The only exception to this rule is if you are a mountain biker during poison ivy season because the only thing worse than schoolgirl socks on a grown man is an open, oozing rash.
Zone 5—The Stripper6 of 7
If your socks are over your knees, they better be your legwarmers, and they better be tucked under your shorts without so much as a sliver of skin showing in between. A gap between leg warmers and shorts (or arm warmers and jersey) is the cycling equivalent to plumber's crack—something that will both distract and horrify your fellow riders. Don't get me wrong, I love strippers as much as the next person, but I need my wits about me when riding, and the sudden distraction of naked booty would certainly be cause for concern. So please, leave the stripper socks for the boudoir. The only exception to this rule is during cyclocross season, when we will just assume you are either drunk, in costume or both.
A Note on Color7 of 7
The color of cycling socks is a subject as hotly debated as their length. Some say they should match your kit, some say they should match your shoes, but no matter your preference, for God's sake, make sure they match SOMETHING. To the rest of the world, you may still look ridiculous, but a well-curated kit will prove to your fellow cyclists that you have more panache and style than a T-Rex in spandex.