Posted by Richard Sault on 1st Sep 2014
The summer is almost over and, as we approach the autumn months, it is essential that we protect ourselves against the elements when cycling. There is a wide variety of clothing available to suit all needs and weather conditions. Get your clothing right and you’ll be more comfortable and improve your performance; get it wrong and you could get too hot, even dehydrated, or too cold and moisture and cold air can seep in.
The wrong clothing has found out the best of cyclists; typically at the start of a ride everything feels just right, only to climb a few hundred feet and the weather conditions change drastically. The same for descending; getting caught resting your legs on a downhill section is another easy mistake, cold legs can bring on severe cramps and adversely affect your ride.
For optimal performance, you need to maintain the right amount of heat, keep out moisture and stop wind while still having breathable layers. Cycling clothing is highly engineered, from the cycling specific cut to give the best comfort and cut down wind resistance, to the amazing high-tech materials designed for specific riding conditions.
Layering is key, especially in the colder seasons, as it allows you to add or remove clothing to help regulate body temperature - air is trapped between the layers and therefore helps to keep you warm.
The mainstay of UK riding in the winter is made up of 4 layers; a good base layer, a high quality jersey, cycling bib shorts, and a wind stopping or water proof jacket. You typically couple this with warm neoprene gloves, wool socks, waterproof overshoes or winter cycling shoes.
Let’s start our winter road cycling clothing guide by looking at these four core layers in more depth:
This is the layer that is against your skin. The main purpose of the base layer is to keep you dry and comfortable by drawing moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry. Materials such as cotton used in t-shirts absorb sweat and become damp, rapidly cooling down. You therefore need a material that will pull the moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry - the two main categories of base layers are wool and synthetic.
Both wool and synthetic fabrics wick moisture away from your skin. Wool base layers are primarily made out of merino wool, as they insulate better than synthetic base layers and they don't retain odour in the same way as synthetic fabrics. Merino wool is lightweight, and doesn't itch like traditional wool.
Your Jersey, worn over the base layer, is sometimes known as the mid layer; the main purpose is to capture warmth through trapped air; it is important that the material is breathable to try and prevent too much sweating. As with the base layer, cotton fabrics are not recommended as they will get wet and then cold. Jerseys are made from either synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester or merino wool.
A long sleeved jersey is ideal, with a full length zip making it easier to regulate heat. If you want more adaptability you could go for a short sleeve jersey and take along some arm warmers.
Cycling shorts come in two varieties; waist cut and bib shorts. Most seasoned cyclists prefer bib shorts due to the extra comfort they provide. They have braces to hold them in place, and a snug skin-like fit, with no annoying elasticated band around your waist.
Bib shorts have a under padding for comfort, often with antibacterial properties.
When conditions get even colder switching to a full length bib can help keep the heat in further.
If riding conditions change suddenly on a ride you could add leg warmers over your bib shorts.
Your jacket is your outer layer, the main purpose of the outer layer is to protect against the weather. The jacket should be breathable to help get rid of your sweat - this is usually achieved through strategically placed vents and sometimes meshing. The most common material for a lightweight jacket is nylon, heavier jackets tend to be made from hydrophobic materials that draw moisture away from the body and through the fabric. A good quality cycling jacket is breathable and can be waterproof, windproof or both, and, unlike synthetic materials such as nylon, quality materials stop the rain getting in and let the perspiration out. You’ll also want to look out for taped seams, often a weak point in cheaper jackets, that can let water in.
Getting your core layer combo’s right is key to ensuring your comfortable, warm and cycling at your best and riding through the roughest of Winter conditions in comfort. Of course theres no point wrapping up your torso to perfection and leaving your fingers and toes to freeze, so investing in the right socks, shoes, and gloves will finish your ensemble. Use your head and add a cycling cap when the cool wind hits.
Good winter socks are thin enough to fit into your tight fitted cycling shoes and warm enough to stop your feet and toes from going numb. The best winter socks are made from high grade Merino wool, which offers high levels of comfort and amazing thermal properties, they also do a great job of wicking moisture, some socks offer an antibacterial layer too.
Winter cycling shoes are a mixture of aerodynamic sheek and weatherproof know-how,; they need to have a snug fit, but allow for a little give as your feet warm up and expand. As with most cycling clothing, breathable layers are important as are comfort and protection however you also want them to be durable and last through a few long winters.
Typically they are made up of a patchwork of materials including leather and high tech membranes on the uppers and rubber and lightweight carbon fibre materials on the soles. Winter shoes can also have ankle gussets to keep warmth in.
Some ranges like the Lake brand offer wide fittings and an extreme winter cycling boot for extreme conditions.
Let’s not forget our hands, good quality winter gloves maintain high levels of insulation whilst maintaining windproofing and waterproof properties along with good grip.
Unfortunately the trade off is typically a lack of breathability, but most riders deem this a worthwhile compromise for toasty hands on a winter ride.
Neoprone is a popular material for winter gloves - they are constructed in the same way as wet suits with the idea being that they don’t keep your hands dry but rather keep them warm while they are wet. The neoprone traps a layer of water which your body warms as it’s kept against your skin.
Never underestimate the merits of wearing a hat; you lose a lot of body heat through your head. In winter conditions, a more insulated cap works best; traditional cotton caps slip under your lid and does a great job of keeping you warm. The peak is also good for keeping the sun out of your eyes and useful for keeping the rain off your face. You can get caps with ear warmers too, cutting out the wind and the wind noise.