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Glow with flow: why bike safety starts with hi-vis leggings

Helen Pidd test-drives the Rapha leggings.
Helen Pidd test-drives the Rapha leggings. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Good news for cyclists who refuse to wear a hideous fluorescent yellow jacket: an academic study has shown that you would be no more visible to drivers than if you were clad in black. Bad news for self-conscious cyclists who are allergic to lurid Lycra: the study found that the best way to be visible on your bike is to wear loud leggings.

The paper, An Open-Road Study of the Daytime Conspicuity Benefits of Fluorescent Bicyclist Apparel, found that people in cars could see cyclists wearing fluorescent yellow leggings at more than three times the distance of those in fluorescent yellow jackets.

It sounded like a fun experiment. The researchers, from South Carolina, positioned volunteers wearing various luminous-and-black clothing combinations pedalling stationary bicycles on the pavement, with their backs to traffic. They then drove healthy young volunteers with good eyesight towards the people on exercise bikes, without warning them what they were about to encounter.

Participants were instructed to press a button on a numeric keypad each time they were confident that they recognised any person “on or with” a bicycle, who was “stopped or moving” and who was “in or near the roadway”. The results showed that a fluorescent yellow jersey did not significantly improve the cyclist’s conspicuity relative to a black jersey. But when the cyclist paired the fluorescent top with fluorescent yellow leggings, participants responded from a distance 3.3 times farther than an identical outfit with black leggings.

“The rhythmic up-down movements of a cyclist’s lower legs uniquely specify a pedalling motion that is visually distinct from, for example, a pedestrian walking or jogging,” the researchers concluded.

The experiment was carried out in the daytime, but it seems reasonable to assume that the same principle would apply in the dark to high-visibility gear, so we have put a range of reflective leggings to the test.

Altura, Women’s Nightvision 2 Commuter Waist Tight, £41.99 (on sale, usually £59.99)

Altura reflective cycling tights

This Scottish brand makes well-regarded, well-priced utilitarian cycle gear. These leggings were the cosiest of the four on test and offered the best visibility. They were sufficiently high-waisted to protect the kidneys, but the lack of zips on the ankles makes them a bit of a pain to get off if you’re chunky of calf. I found the chamois pad as uncomfortable as a retro sanitary towel.

Flatterability: 4/5
Comfort: 3/5
Visibility: 5/5
Price: 5/5

Fat Lad at the Back, Women’s Reflective Thermal Cycling Britches, £79.99

Reflective cycling tights from Fat Lad at the Back

The duo behind this controversially named brand were laughed out of Dragon’s Den, but it has gone from strength to strength and is now stocked at Evans Cycles. Its women’s range goes up to size 26. I tried the 10-12 and found it more like a generous 10 (think M&S not Topshop), with a tendency towards Nora Batty wrinkles at the knees. The dotty pixel panels on the ankle don’t show up as well in the dark as solid stripes, but I liked the fact they went all the way round.

Flatterability: 3/5
Comfort: 4/5
Visibility: 2/5
Price: 4/5

Rapha, Souplesse Winter Tights with Pad, £155 (on sale, usually £195)

Raphs reflective cycling tights

Typically well-made, with very bold stripes on the back of the calves, which dazzled in car headlights. Thicker material than the rest, with a shrink-fit look of compression tights. Very comfy pad, but they were significantly too long for 1.63m (5ft 4in) me, leading to uncomfortable ruching behind my knees. And do you really want to pay nearly 200 quid for some leggings?

Flatterability: 3/5
Comfort: 3/5
Visibility: 5/5
Price: 1/5

Le Col, Women’s Pro Bib Tights, £180

Le Col reflective cycling gear

Another pricey one, this time from former pro Yanto Barker’s upmarket brand. These bibs look and feel great – the perfect length for little old me, so maybe avoid if you’re tall. But the reflective panels are tiny and in the wrong place: they’re on the shins rather than the calves, which makes you vulnerable to drivers from behind.

Flatterability: 4/5
Comfort: 4/5
Visibility: 1/5
Price: 2/5

DHB Aeron, £63.75 (on sale – usually £85)

DHB reflective cycle gear

DHB, the own brand of online retailer Wiggle, offers consistently good quality cycling gear at sensible prices. I love the halterneck on these bib tights, which make it possible to go to the loo as a lady cyclist without taking your jersey and jacket off. The advantage of bibs over waist tights is that there’s no chance of getting a cold back if your jacket rises up. These look and feel great, but could have done with more reflective details, particularly on the back.

Flatterability: 5/5
Comfort: 4/5
Visibility: 2/5
Price: 4/5

This article titled "Glow with flow: why bike safety starts with hi-vis leggings" was written by Helen Pidd, for The Guardian on Monday 8 January 2018 06.00am

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