July 3rd, 2012
For a quick ride to the shops or a short hop to a friend’s, you can pretty much wear anything (and it’s no fun turning up to a party across town dressed in full Lycra). But if you’re planning to put some decent miles in on your bike, you’ll want to kit yourself out in some cycle-specific clothing. Cycle clothing has come a long way. Whether you’re into natural, organic fibres or high-tech, figure-hugging kit, these days you’re sure to find clothing to suit you, your riding style and your pocket.
This guide gives you our top tips to help you choose the right garments for your riding. If you’re looking for a complete guide to cycle clothing, see our head-to-toe guide to cycle clothing: what to wear where on a bike.
Tip one: Layer up
Layering clothing is important for keeping dry and warm in winter months and dry and cool in the summer. As the word ‘layers’ implies, it means wearing one garment on top of the other to achieve the desired effect. In all but the extremes of hot and cold weather, you’ll likely be wearing up to three layers: a base layer, mid layer and outer layer or shell. Depending on the season and conditions on the day, any combination of these three layers should work to give you a comfortable ride. And if you’re spending a good chunk of the day out riding, you’ll probably find you need to layer up and down during your ride, so lightweight, easy-to-stash garments are key.
- Base Layer This is the layer in direct contact with your skin. Your base layer’s job is to keep you dry, and stop you getting cold. It does this via ‘wicking.’ Wicking works like this: as your garment becomes wet (ok, sweaty), moisture evaporates from the outside of the garment, causing more moisture to be pulled through and evaporated until no more moisture remains. Base layers come with short and long sleeves, in two main varieties – synthetic and woollen:
Synthetic base layers don’t absorb water, so they move moisture at a faster rate. If you plan to commute or go cycle touring (or just need to get your kit washed and dried in a hurry), you’ll quickly appreciate the benefits of quick-dry synthetic layers.
Woollen base layers are usually made from Merino wool. Merino is excellent at providing warmth, due to fine fibres that trap air and provide insulation, even when wet. This makes it a good choice for winter; but Merino can also be worn during the summer to regulate temperature and keep the body cool. More ‘fragrant’ riders will also appreciate Merino’s anti-bacterial properties, which prevent it developing an odour.
- Mid Layer This is an insulation layer, used to trap air between itself and your base layer. This air gets warm with exercise and
provides a cosy buffer against the outside temperature. A mid layer can have short or long sleeves and is typically synthetic, but may contain small traces of natural fibres such as Merino wool. It also wicks moisture away from your body, working as an extension of your base layer. Riders typically wear one or two mid layers, depending on outside temperatures.
- Arm and leg warmers These tubular lengths of material combine perfectly with short-sleeved inner layers and can be put on for the early mornings and late evenings. They are easily removed and stashed in a jersey pocket when the day warms up.
- Outer Layer This layer directly faces the outside world and is generally used in cold/wet conditions. There are two types of outer layer: hardshell and softshell.
- Softshell: this is a lightweight, breathable, windproof, showerproof jacket, with or without sleeves (the sleeveless kind is called a ‘gilet’). A good softshell will be made from Goretex-type material that allows very small drops of water (sweat wicked away from the body by the base and mid layer) out, while keeping large drops of water (rain) from penetrating. Many also have venting options such as pit zips, vented backs and even removable sleeves to help you maintain a comfortable temperature during a ride.
Pros: easy to carry in your back pocket, more breathable and more affordable
Cons: you may need to take shelter from a torrential downpour!
Hardshell or waterproof layer: when the weather gets really grim, a fully waterproof outer layer does the business. If you plan to keep riding all year round, investing in a decent hardshell will go a long way towards keeping you comfortable, whatever the weather throws at you.
Pros: better protection from rain, wind and cold – a great all-weather choice
Cons: more bulky, less breathable and more expensive
Take our advice: If you’re going riding in what looks to be weather too wet for an outer layer to stand up to, make sure you’re wearing inner layers that retain warmth when wet (Merino wool garments are ideal).
Tip two: Avoid cotton
If you’ve ever had the miserable, teeth-chattering experience of pedalling through a rain shower in your T-shirt, you’ll already know why cotton and cycling don’t mix. Cotton is very poor at retaining warmth when wet – so if you’re wearing cotton, you get wet, stay wet and get (very) cold. In cold conditions this can lower body temperatures and even contribute to hypothermia.
Tip three: Invest in padded shorts
You may not find the idea of wearing tight-fitting shorts and a nappy an exciting one. Or maybe you do. Either way, they play a serious
role in cycling. In fact, we’d say they’re an essential investment. Over longer distances, cycling will make you sweat. Loose clothing will move and rub your skin as your legs drive the pedals. Sweat and chafing can lead to serious problems down below. We repeat: you need padded shorts! A good-quality pad in a cycling short pad is designed to perform two important functions: firstly, it fits around the area that makes contact with your saddle, providing extra comfort. Secondly, the pad extends into the crease of the groin to help wick away sweat, keeping the area dry. Meanwhile, the stretchy material clings to your skin, stopping it rubbing and chafing as you move. The result is a problem-free ride.
If you’re riding in the colder months, you can opt for thermal tights to keep your legs toasty. Tights are available with or without a pad, so you can layer them over your padded shorts, or wear alone. Another option is leg warmers: they’re a great way to beat the early spring/autumn chill and can be stashed in your pocket when the weather warms later in the day.
Take our advice: Before putting on your shorts, we recommend applying a chamois cream to your…ahem…nether regions. More specifically, anywhere that makes contact with the saddle. This further reduces friction and the problems associated with it. If you’ve ever endured the pain of a saddle sore (and they can take a loooong time to heal!), you’ll consider the humble chamois cream a very wise investment.
Tip four: Fitted or baggy?
Road cycling clothing tends to be snug fitting. This improves aerodynamics and reduces sore areas of skin from friction rub. A road cyclist’s body does not tend to move as much as other cyclists’, meaning it is not a huge concern if more tightly-fitted clothing restricts movement slightly.
For off-road riding (mountain biking, trail riding, cross country, downhill, bmx, etc) it is important to be able to move the entire body easily. Shifting weight for approaching corners and hanging off the back for fast, steep descents requires free movement of the body, so if this sounds like your style, then look for baggy shorts and looser-fitting top layers.
What if I’m a casual cyclist?
If you’re new to cycling, or aren’t sure what type of riding you’ll be doing (or if you plan to do a mixture of road and off-road riding), then don’t over-think it – browse (and try on if you can) a selection of different styles, and remember, your most important rule of thumb is a really simple one: always be comfortable when riding.
Tip five: wear proper cycling shoes
Unlike trainers, cycling shoes have a rigid sole, which barely flexes while you pedal. This makes your pedalling more efficient and more comfortable, increasing your power transfer to the drivetrain (your bike’s chain, crank and gear system) and reducing pressure and tension in your feet, knees and hips. There are cycling shoes to suit all types of riding and whether you go for a standard cycling shoe or one with an in-built clipless pedal system, a good pair of cycling shoes, correctly fitted, will make your ride a whole lot more enjoyable. As a rule of thumb, if you’re a beginner/casual cyclist or commuter, a basic pair of mountain bike or touring shoes are a good bet: they have a little bit of flex in the sole, and some grip, so you can hop off the bike and run a quick errand with ease.
Tip six: be safe, be seen
High-visibility (hi-vis) clothing is made with fluorescent fabrics and often features reflective banding, which ‘glows’ in car headlights. Its aim is to make you more visible to other road users. “Be safe, be seen” is a sensible mantra to adopt as a cyclist, and wearing hi-vis clothing is especially important if you’re riding on roads or busy, multi-use cycle paths.
Still want more cycling clothing advice?
If you’re looking for a head-to-toe guide to cycle clothing, see our complete guide to what to wear where on a bike.