There is no bad weather—only inappropriate clothing. (Old saying)
You’re just an adult playing outside in your underwear. (Cyclists’ reminder not to get too serious)
Dress the Part
Everybody is reluctant to wear that silly cyclist’s outfit when they’re starting out. It’s alien, it’s gaudy, it’s revealing, but most of all it implies you’re serious. “I just ride, I’m not a pro or anything,” you say. Then you come around in little steps, as predictable as the lunar cycle: first, you buy some cycling shorts; then you get a jersey (something plain, in a solid color—don’t want to call attention to yourself); then you get cycling shoes (that’s a big one); and eventually you own the entire kit and kaboodle.
If you want to ride in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts for a while, that’s OK. But embrace dedicated cycling clothing as quickly as possible, for two, equally vital, reasons:
1) It will help you ride better. Every bit of that gear exists and is worn by experienced cyclists for a reason: it works.
2) It’s good for your head—it announces to the world and to you that you’ve joined the culture, as we discussed in Your First Ride. Every time you put on a real cycling jersey, you declare your membership in the Club of Cyclists.
How Much Should You Spend?
I am not one of those cyclists who gripes about how expensive the gear is—almost always, you get what you pay for and few people in the industry are getting rich off you. But cycling clothing can be insanely expensive, and I don’t see the huge sums buying you anything. This is especially true of jerseys and bibs, but it’s also true of outer layers and under layers. There are $400 raincoats and $250 jerseys in this world. My advice is, buy stuff that’s above cheap and below top-of-the-line. As a rule of thumb, European origin doubles the price, to no benefit except the coolness factor.
Six Places to Shop for Clothing
The local bike shop (LBS). The advantages of the LBS are you get professional advice, you can try the item on, you can exchange it easily if you don’t like it, you can assume the item has some degree of integrity if you trust the shop, and you keep the LBS in business—no small thing, since they keep you rolling and are your primary source for cycling wisdom. The disadvantages are you may pay a bit more and the selection will probably be small.
The Internet mega-store. The best-known ones are Performance, Price Point, Cambria, Chain Reaction, Colorado Cycling, and Nashbar. These sites are the cycling equivalent of Amazon. The advantages are the selection is large and the prices are low, especially because all such stores have constant sales. The disadvantages are you can’t try it on, you can’t always get reliable info on what you’re buying, and returning it is awkward. These stores all have impeccable reputations and you can buy from them with assurance that you won’t be cheated, they usually have good return policies, and they often have excellent phone or email links for answering questions. Sign up for their email list and they’ll alert you about their sales, which are constant.
Company websites. Clothing manufacturers often sell their products out of their own websites. Voler and Primal are the two biggest. The prices are ordinary (unless they’re having a sale), but the one huge advantage is their stock is vast, beyond anything any other source can match. Primal, which makes primarily jerseys, sells hundreds of styles, whereas your LBS will stock just a few (and usually the most generic and boring) and the online megastore perhaps a couple of dozen. Sign up for their email list and they’ll alert you about their sales. If you know the reputation of the company, you can buy from them without fear of the scam.
eBay. You know about that. You either love it or you don’t. I have friends who buy almost everything they use in their riding from eBay, beginning with their bike. The selection is inconceivably vast—at any one time there are about 20,000 cycling jerseys for sale on eBay. And of course they sell used stuff, which the internet stores don’t do. I almost never use it, because I hate auctions, I hate having to sort through mountains of crap to find what I want, I can never find exactly what I want and end up buying something that isn’t really right, and I rarely find that the prices (for new gear) are much better there than elsewhere. The safety factor is zero—caveat emptor, baby. It’s hard to get information on your item before buying. Shop eBay if you’re willing to take a risk and know exactly what you want. I buy used jerseys on eBay when the price is great and I know the manufacturer. I did get a vintage High Road team jersey on eBay once for $10, and I’m still glowing, so sometimes the system works.
Individuals: Craig’s List, friends, cycling club members. About the only article of clothing riders sell before it wears out is a jersey, and the deal on that jersey will probably be unbeatable.
Bike festivals and expos—events where cyclists, cycling teams, and cycling garment vendors gather. I buy a lot of my jerseys at the Sea Otter Festival in Monterey, where jersey manufacturers sell off the leftovers from the year’s run (for c. $20) and teams sell their team jerseys (for full price).
The Cyclist’s Kit
The cyclist’s clothes closet has a lot in it:
What you need:
- Shorts or bibs
What you want:
- Vests, windbreakers, and jackets
- Base layers
- Arm Warmers
- Cold-weather gear
We’ll talk about how to buy and use each in turn.
Jerseys are the jewels of the bike wardrobe. They’re art, they’re visual music, they’re your primary means of personal expression on the bike. If you’re male, they’re your one chance in this culture to strut your inner peacock. And they come in an endless variety. Jerseys are the only bike-related items where I give you permission to choose one on the basis of how it looks. Cyclists usually begin saying “I’ll never wear one of those stupid things,” then buy one, then another, and end up collecting them by the dozens, the way fashion-conscious women collect shoes.
Jersey falls into definite categories:
The generic jersey: it’s one or two solid colors, contains no message, can be had for $20 on sale (though in LBS’s they can be pricy), and tells the world “I don’t want to be noticed.” All Internet stores and most brick and mortar shops stock them. Most of us start there, to advertise our timidity. Graduate to the others as soon as possible. This is often the only kind of jersey the LBS stocks, which is why the LBS is a poor place to buy jerseys.
The club jersey: if you join a cycling club, they will probably design their own jersey and have it made up for them by a company like Voler. You’re expected to buy one and wear it on club rides, often with matching shorts. You buy it directly from the club.
The brand jersey: many bike shops, gear manufacturers, and bike companies do what the clubs do—design and have made up for them a distinctive jersey. Wear it if you love the store, the component, or the bike brand so much you want to do their advertising for them. The Campagnolo company probably makes more money selling branded clothing than it does selling its famous components. Buy brand jerseys from the company website, from eBay, or at cycling events (like pro races) where there’s an expo of industry vendors.
The event jersey: Almost all centuries and other significant cycling events—gran fondos, big stage races, festivals—augment their income by selling commemorative jerseys. Many centuries redesign their jerseys every year. You do the century, you buy the jersey to remember the experience and tell other riders you were there. Don’t wear jerseys from centuries you haven’t ridden, but it’s perfectly OK to wear a jersey from a pro race without riding in the race. Buy these jerseys at the event or at the event’s website.
The theme jersey: this advertises some object, product, locale, or act you just like for some reason. Beer labels are popular themes. Also states, nations, landmarks, cartoon characters, Bob Marley, the Rolling Stones, Mt. Ventoux, and so on. The Primal company has made an industry of this approach. They have an entire line of beer company jerseys. I have a Star Trek jersey I’m very fond of, and a Walt Disney Studios Animation Department jersey (eat your heart out). You can find your icon jersey by googling it. There’s a Wallace and Gromit jersey out there, for god’s sake. How cool is that?
The pro team jersey: This is for many riders the pinnacle of jersey art. This jersey is (if you’re lucky) the actual jersey worn by a pro cycling team, or (more likely) a facsimile made by the same company. This is the cycling equivalent of wearing a Lebron James basketball jersey or an Aaron Rogers football jersey. Putting it on, you assume the mantel and the aura of that particular Power Animal. Men are much more drawn to these than women, for reasons I don’t have to explain that have to do with testosterone. An unwritten rule says, Don’t wear a team jersey in a race if you aren’t a member of the team—the spectators get confused. Buy team jerseys on the jersey manufacturer’s web site, at races and bicycle events, and on eBay.
There is a grave danger in buying any team jersey on eBay: Chinese knock-offs. Chinese manufacturers copy the designs of team jerseys exactly using stiff, suffocating fabrics you can’t bear to wear. You’ll know them by their price: anything that’s new and selling for less than $60 is suspect, especially if it’s sold with matching bib shorts. Most official team jerseys sell for $90 or more new. There are no bargains in cycling clothing except for sales—otherwise, if it’s cheap, it’s junk. Learn the names of the reputable companies—among them Voler, Primal, Pearl Izumi, Nike, Santini, Descente, Giordana, Nalini, Moa, Pactimo, and Castelli (the acknowledged finest). Anything with their label can be bought with confidence. If there’s a team jersey you like on eBay, query the seller and ask who the maker is. If you don’t get a reply, it’s a knock-off.
The art jersey: Jersey makers employ artists to design jerseys whose only merit is they’re beautiful. Voler and Primal both do this, but no one takes it more seriously than Pactimo, who has a stable of jersey designers and sells their work under their names, like paintings in a gallery—check out the Artist Series on their website. Buy these jerseys if you have no particular message to send or subculture to join but just want to look stunning. Find them in shops or by going to the company websites. I have a jersey with Japanese koi on it I bought in this way. Women are much more drawn to these than men, for reasons I don’t have to explain that have to do with estrogen. Buy art jerseys directly from the makers’ websites.
The custom jersey: Most jersey makers will make jerseys to your own personal design. They usually have minimums (6 is typical) but the cost isn’t astronomical. Just draw up the jersey you’ve always dreamed of wearing and send it off to one of the many makers who do this.
In addition to looks, consider quality of material, sizing, gender, cut, design, weight, zipper quality, zipper length, zipper style, and color.
Quality: jerseys vary greatly in the quality of the cloth. Some material is lighter, or more breathable, or just feels better than others. Unfortunately I know of no way to tell the quality of a jersey material other than feeling the cloth between your fingers and holding it up to the light (the most permeable, the better it will breathe). You might think that price would tell you. The basic jersey costs about $90. There are jerseys that cost as much as $250. But I’ve tried some of those expensive jerseys and can’t say that I can tell the difference. So I am reluctant to buy a jersey I can’t hold in my hand.
Sizing: Jersey sizing is tricky. Jerseys made for the American market come XS, S, M, L, XL, and XXL, just like shirts—if you’re a medium T shirt you’re probably a medium jersey. The sizes run pretty true from jersey to jersey and maker to maker, so if you’re usually a medium you can buy a medium jersey blind and trust that it will fit, with the inevitable occasional surprise. Jerseys made for the European market are sized by number—usually 4 equals American medium and 5 equals American large, and so on. If European jerseys use words, their “grand/grande” is America’s “medium.” If you’re buying a jersey on eBay, its size will be in words, and you’ll always have to ask the seller “Is that American or European sizing?” unless you know the nationality of the maker (Voler is American, Castelli is Italian, e.g.)
If you’re shopping for a jersey you can’t try on—via Craig’s List or eBay or manufacturers’ websites—you may get referred to a size chart, where you can use your measurements to determine which size you are. These instruments are hopelessly misguided. They almost always work with your chest measurement or your waist, both of which are useless. The only measurement that matters is armpit-to-armpit distance. Don’t measure your body—measure a jersey you already have that fits you perfectly. Lay it out flat and measure from one armpit to the other (I’m 20”). Then you can ask the seller to measure the jersey and give you the number. I’ve called jersey manufacturers and asked them to measure a particular size of a particular jersey, and they’ve been OK with it. One even sent me a photograph of the jersey laid out with the tape measure across it.
Gender: Jerseys come in men’s and women’s styles, the only bit of cycling clothing besides shorts, shoes, and gloves that does that I know of. The differences between men’s and women’s jerseys is major, and most men simply cannot wear women’s jerseys—they’re shorter in the torso and arms, tighter in the armpits, taken in at the waist and flared at the bottom. If you’re male and there’s a women’s team jersey you’re determined to wear, expect to go up a couple of sizes—if you’re a man’s medium, try a woman’s XL. And find yourself a tailor.
Cut: Jerseys come in two “cuts” (shapes): the club cut and the racer cut. The club cut is bigger, looser, for the rider who’s interested in comfort. The racer cut, as the name implies, is meant to fit like a sausage casing, all in pursuit of speed, and thus can be pretty uncomfortable. If you aren’t thin and you aren’t willing to be slightly strangled, a racer cut in “your size” may well be uncomfortably tight, especially in the armpits. I’m a classic medium (5’10”, 150 lbs), and, not being a racer, I would never buy a racer-cut medium without trying it on. And you can’t just buy a racer-cut jersey one size larger, because it will hang on you oddly.
Design: Jerseys come in sleeveless (like Dago T’s), short-sleeve, and long-sleeve models, and they come in summer and winter weights. Winter jerseys are often wool, and wool is nice because it never smells—you can literally wear it all winter long without washing it. Of course when you do wash it it’s a headache, as is any wool sweater (you have to wash it in cold water by hand, wring it out, block it, and dry it for a couple of days). It’s nice to have jerseys in all designs, but the short-sleeve is all you need, assuming you have long-sleeved underwear, arm warmers, wind-breakers, and raincoats. Women like sleeveless jerseys because they don’t give you a tan line partway down your arm.
Zipper quality: the most likely reason you’ll throw a jersey away, other than crashing in it, is because the zipper fails. In my experience a zipper’s worth is apparent with one zip—if it feels high-quality, it is.
Zipper length: Jersey zippers vary in length from very short (7”) to the full length of the garment. Standard is to just above your navel. The longer the better, because you get better ventilation. I frankly don’t know why any jersey is made with a short zipper. If you know, drop me a line and explain it to me. Full-length zippers are the best air-conditioning, and they’re wonderfully convenient for dressing and undressing, but some people avoid them because they tend to bunch up around the belly button and make you look chunky.
Zipper style: There are two kinds of zipper, invisible and visible. An invisible zipper can’t be seen when it’s closed. The visible zipper shows the white binding that attaches the zipper to the jersey, so you see a prominent white stripe down the middle of your chest when it’s zipped. Why anyone would make a jersey with a visible zipper stripe is beyond me, but they do.
Color: Light cloth is cooler than dark—significantly. It’s also eye-pleasing. But the lighter a jersey is, the more it shows dirt, and cycling can be a dirty sport. If you wear light colors, you’ll pay for it come laundry time.
Jerseys don’t wear out. Unlike bibs, gloves, socks, and tights, they have no wear points, so they essentially last forever (unless you crash). I’ve been collecting jerseys for 20 years, and each one still looks brand new.
Cycling Shorts and Bibs
All cyclists move from street shorts to cycling shorts to bibs. A fundamental rite of passage is the day a cyclist breaks down and decides to buy real cycling shorts. It’s the day, more than any other, when you say, “I am a cyclist.” And it’s essential—it’s impossible to do long rides on a road riding saddle without cycling shorts. Cycling shorts are stretchy, so they fit tight and reduce chafing, and they contain a pad (officially a chamois, pronounced and sometimes written “shammy”) that makes the road saddle tolerable.
Bibs (called bib shorts by clothing companies) are cycling shorts with shoulder straps. The move to bibs takes longer, but make it as soon as you can because bibs are just better. They have no elastic around the waist, so they’re much more comfortable for long rides, and they stay up better so you chafe even less than with shorts. Wear bibs for a few weeks and you’ll wonder how you ever tolerated shorts. I still wear my old shorts for one-hour rides but switch to bibs for anything longer. Bibs are a little more expensive than shorts, but worth it.
Much as I love bibs, they have one huge disadvantage compared to shorts: you have to take off all your tops to use the toilet. This may seem trivial until you have to go to the bathroom for the second time before a century on a cold day when you’re wearing four top layers. The only way to minimize the inconvenience is to put as many layers under the bib straps as you can.
Shorts are easy to buy. If they’re American, they’re sized XS through XXL, and the fit is predictable—I’m a medium and every medium pair of shorts I’ve ever tried has fit me fine. If you’re buying European shorts, I wouldn’t unless they’re on deep discount—they’re very expensive and you don’t get anything for your money.
Color is not an issue: all American shorts are black unless you’re buying part of a team kit. (If you ever ride in Europe, this is one way the Euros will know you’re American—nobody in Europe wears black shorts.) You want black anyway, because shorts get dirty.
Shorts range in price from $50 (super cheap) to $250 (super expensive). The difference in price reflects the quality of the chamois and the quality of the material. Avoid the super-cheap ones, because the chamois is thin and doesn’t conform to your body. Once you get into the $70 range, the chamois becomes acceptable. Once you get into the $90 range, the chamois is about as good as it’s going to get and from there on up you’re just paying for better material. I’ve bought shorts into the $140 range, just as an experiment and on deep discount, and I can’t tell the difference beyond about $90. Why anyone would pay $250 for a pair of bibs I don’t know, especially since they don’t last forever (the chamois goes flat and the leg hem ceases to grip). Chamois (or chamoises if you prefer) differ subtly in shape from brand to brand and model to model, so, if you’re particular about such things, when you find a short with a chamois that fits you well, buy several pairs right away before it’s redesigned.
Chamois used to be made up of panels, and a shorthand way of estimating the quality of a short asw by counting the panels—good chamois have more panels, the better to conform to your body. A good chamois had at least six. But now they seem to be one molded piece of foam.
Since sizing, fit, and color are easy, you can buy shorts online from the Internet megastores or clothing company websites with confidence, and I always do. Makers like Voler routinely have their shorts on sale, and the megastores routinely mark selected shorts down 40% (sign up on their email lists and they’ll tell you when it’s happening), so I never pay more than $80 for shorts (that is, $130 shorts on deep mark-down).
As with jerseys, manufacturers are making shorts with “space-age” materials and selling them for astronomical amounts, and I can’t imagine why anyone would buy them—especially considering that you can destroy a pair of shorts by hitting the ground on a ride.
Shorts are one of the few articles of clothing you’ll need several of, because they wear out and because you have to wash shorts after riding in them once, to keep the bacterial growth to a minimum—wearing a pair of shorts twice without laundering is an absolute no-no that invites saddle sores. So, unless you do laundry every couple of days, you’ll need at least 4-5 pairs. Which is another reason to buy several when you find the shorts you like on sale.
The longer the ride, the better chamois you need. And, since chamois go flat with use, better means newer. You can buy expensive shorts and reserve them for long rides and bike vacations, but I prefer to separate my shorts by age: newest for long rides and vacations, somewhat used for medium rides, and well-used by one-hour training rides. I write the purchase date on the chamois in permanent marker.
Shorts don’t come in weights. There are no insulated or winter-weight shorts. If it gets cold, you just put clothing over them.
There are things called bib tights, where the bib and the tights are one. They have no advantage over separate bibs and tights, and there is the disadvantage that you can’t take the tights off no matter how hot it gets. Remember, in dressing for a ride seek flexibility above all else.
The legendary Allison Dunlap, when asked what the most important piece of advice she ever received as a professional bike rider was, said, “Don’t wear underwear under your shorts.” Allison knows. The chamois goes against your skin. See laundering after every ride, above.
Bib shoulder straps get a little uncomfortable when you aren’t riding, so hip riders slide them off their shoulders. You can always spot the cool riders before and after the century by the bib straps hanging down their thighs.
Shorts wear out first in the thigh-band elastic. You can prolong the short’s life by rolling the elastic band up your leg a turn or two.
You will never ride without your helmet. You will not say, “I don’t need a helmet because I’m just going to the store/just going to demo this bike around the block/I don’t ride fast/there isn’t much traffic.” It is impossible to predict when you are going to crash. My worst crash was at 10 mph on a deserted road, when I hit a patch of ice. A friend of mine had his worst crash when he was riding at 11 mph down a deserted municipal bike path far from traffic—some construction workers had strung a cable across the path at neck height. Another friend was put in a wheelchair for life from a crash that happened while he was rolling through our municipal park at 10 mph, riding a route he had ridden perhaps 200 times before (he was in a group of riders and hit a bollard he couldn’t see). You will certainly crash at least once in your cycling life, and when you crash your helmet will save your life. Reread that last sentence until you get it.
European cyclists tend not to wear helmets, which is why there are so few Europeans. It’s another way they will know you’re American if you ride there.
The law requires that all helmets, however cheap, meet safety standards, so you know that any helmet sold in a store will do its job. There is a relatively new safety technology called MIPS that increases crash protection and is worth the increased price. Helmet technology is going through a growth spurt (in 2020), and there are a number of helmet technologies that claim protection beyond even MIPS standards, most notably Wavecel, which is a kind of honeycomb. They’re worth considering, but make sure before you buy that there are no penalties in the form of lost breathability. Beyond safety, all that remains to consider is fit, looks, ventilation, weight, and aero-ness.
Fit: Fit is vital—if it doesn’t fit, you’ll never get used to it. Helmets are sized XS, S, M, L, and XL, but those letters mean little—I have a huge head, and some Medium helmets fit me while some Large helmets are too small. What matters is shape. There are two basic helmet shapes, round and oval, and start by figuring out which one your head is—if you have an oval head, a round helmet will crush the front and back of your head and leave space on the sides for the helmet to wobble. Fit varies considerably from model to model, so the only way to find the right fit is to try helmets on. So I wouldn’t buy any helmet online unless I knew I liked it—unless I was replacing a helmet I had already owned, for instance. You’ll need room under the helmet for headbands, skullcaps, and the like, so take along those items when you’re trying helmets on.
Helmets also have a retention adjuster at the nape of your neck that allows you to snug the helmet to your head. Some adjusters work better than others, which is another reason to try before you buy. The adjuster strap is the frailest part of the helmet, so it’s the most likely to break. Some are replaceable; some aren’t. I only buy helmets with replaceable adjuster straps, and when I buy the helmet I buy a couple of extra straps (they’re cheap), since if they discontinue the helmet design you won’t be able to get them later and you’ll have to throw the helmet away when the strap breaks.
Helmets have pads inside, and you can tinker with fit somewhat by moving them or adding padding to them. Don’t expect miracles, however.
Looks: Looks matter as much as you decide they matter. Wear your shades when you model the helmet in the mirror, because that’s how you’ll usually look. I look like a dork in my helmet without my shades, but I look cool in it with them.
Ventilation: It matters a lot if you ride where it’s hot. The temperature is commonly around 100 in the summer where I ride, so ventilation trumps everything but fit. It’s objectively hard to measure, so you’re probably going to have to rely on a) eyeballing the helmet and judging how many and how large the vent holes are and b) reading reviews online.
Weight: It’s like looks—it matters as much as you think it matters. A heavy helmet weighs about 280 g. A superlight helmet weighs about 200 g. You won’t be able to tell the difference when they’re in your hand or on your head—all quality helmets feel light.
Light is expensive, of course. A perfectly good stock helmet can be had for $70, an ultralight one for $200 or more. I like light—I figure, why carry dead weight up the hill if you don’t have to, especially on your head? But I’ll understand if you don’t care. Light helmets tend to ventilate well, since you get light by removing material, which usually makes the vents bigger.
Aero: Some helmets are designed to make them more aero. I’m not a fan, for a number of reasons: 1) the aero gains are small, 2) you get aero by having a smooth surface, and that adds weight and inhibits ventilation. I wouldn’t get one unless you’re going to be doing a lot of riding at high speeds on flat roads in cool weather.
Your helmet is perhaps the only piece of cycling equipment you need to replace even if you don’t use it. The compressible foam inside that keeps you safe has two interesting properties: 1) it only compresses once, so replace any helmet that has been through a hard impact, even if it looks fine; 2) it loses its resilience over time, so replace it every few years, even if it looks fine and has been sitting on a shelf. Helmet makers say buy a new helmet every year or two, but of course they would. I would give your helmet 5 years, but no more.
As many as half the cyclists who wear helmets wear them incorrectly and thus endanger their lives. The correct way to wear a helmet is discussed in the chapter on Your First Ride.
If you’re wondering, you can wear a mountain bike helmet on the road. MB helmets are a bit beefier, are a bit heavier, usually have a (removable) visor, and are built up in the back, where mountain bikers often land when they fall and roadies don’t. I think most people looking at you couldn’t tell the difference.
Cycling helmets need no maintenance, but it’s a kindness to others in your vicinity if you launder the inside pads now and then.
Gloves are necessary. They provide padding to cushion the vibration of the handlebar, they allow you to clean road debris from your tires while you roll, and, most important, they keep the skin from being scraped off your hands if you fall.
Cycling gloves are the hardest clothing item to shop for. I know that seems counter-intuitive but it’s true. For one thing, glove sizing is completely unpredictable—the concept of “medium” varies wildly from maker to maker and even model to model within a company. I have totally “medium” hands, and I own a pair of gloves by a respected company that are XXL and they fit fine. For another, glove makers play strange games with the location of the padding, so one model of gloves out of ten will have padding where you want it. For a third, gloves disagree about how much padding is enough—some gloves have none, some so much you can’t curl your hands around the bar. And for a fourth, with glove sizing there is no room for error—the difference between too small and too big is minute.
All this means, you must try on gloves before buying. And I wouldn’t limit myself to one store, unless it’s huge, because stores tend to stock only one line of gloves.
First, you’re looking for gloves that fit. That means, they’re as snug as possible without being uncomfortably tight. Any looseness is bad, because it will translate into lack of control on the bike. But obviously too small is, well, too small. There is very little room for error here. Don’t settle for just a bit too large or a bit too small, and don’t buy them small and expect them to stretch—modern fabrics don’t stretch. Remember, they need to fit when your hands are curled around a bar, not when you hold your hands flat, which turns out to mean you want them a little smaller than you think if you just wear them around the room.
Second, you’re looking for padding in the right amount and in the right place. Amount is up to you. I like a fair amount of padding; others like none. But there is little argument about where the padding should sit: under the lower half of your palm and under the ball of your thumb and your ulnar nerve (the lower corner of your palm catty corner to your first finger). Despite this consensus, glove makers keep putting bulky padding under the upper palm, right below the fingers, where it does no good and interferes with gripping the handlebar. If you like the glove in all other respects but it has too much padding, you can actually slit the pocket holding the padding, slide the padding out, and glue the pocket shut. If you like the glove in all other respects but it has too little padding, you can actually add padding yourself: just cut pads the shape and size you want out of Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts and glue them into the gloves with contact cement or other waterproof, flexible glue.
Gloves have a snot-wiping patch on the back, and some of them are rough or inadequately small. You’re going to run that across your nose a few thousand times, so wait until the salesperson isn’t looking and do a trial swipe in the store. Does it do its job?
Gloves come cheap and expensive, but I can see no correlation between cost and effectiveness, life span, or anything else. I buy whatever fits.
Gloves wear out quickly, especially if you clean your tires regularly with them, so I’ve gotten good at patching the wear spots (invariably, the crook of the thumb and first finger, the fingertips, and your palm’s lifeline). Buy Sunbrella or other outdoor awning material (a yard is all you’ll ever need), cut it to fit the worn spot, and glue it down with contact cement. You can extend the life of a pair of gloves almost indefinitely this way.
Gloves come short-fingered (with the flesh of your fingers exposed) and full-fingered (like regular dress gloves). Mountain bikers always wear full-fingered gloves because they’re always at risk for hitting the ground. Road riders almost never use full-fingered gloves unless they do so for warmth in cold weather. I’ll talk about cold-weather gloves later.
Most gloves come with some sort of Velcro strap across the wrist. A few don’t have it. If you buy the kind without, be prepared to work hard to get them off.
Gloves come in men’s and women’s models. I don’t know what the difference is other than that women’s sizing is a size smaller than men’s sizing and the colors seem a bit brighter on women’s gloves.
Moving from street shoes to cycling shoes is another milestone in your cycling history, another acknowledgement of your commitment to the sport. Cycling shoes are necessary for serious riding. What you’re buying is the ability to affix to the shoe a cleat, the mechanism that lets you “clip in” to your pedals, thus allowing you to transfer energy to the road more efficiently and pedal in circles instead of simply pushing down. Cleats are discussed in the Components chapter, since they’re strictly speaking “hardware,” but you’ll probably be buying the shoes, cleats, and pedals together.
Cycling shoes, like other shoes, range in price from cheap ($80) to very expensive ($500+). You’re buying fit, the tightening mechanism, durability, ventilation, stiffness of sole, quality of insole, and weight (lack of).
Fit: Fit is everything in shoes and it’s worth your time to shop until you find perfection, since you’re going to be feeling the effects of your choice on your feet every time you turn the pedals for the next several years. Every brand of cycling shoe is shaped a bit differently, and you’ll have to try on a few brands to find the one that shares your opinion about how a human foot is shaped. Reviews by others are worthless here—when some journalist or blogger tells you the shoe “fits perfectly” or “offers maximal comfort,” it means nothing to you because you don’t have their feet.
Cycling shoe fit is the same as street shoe fit, with the following qualifiers: 1) make sure you have plenty of room in the toe box—you should be able to wiggle and curl your toes some; 2) make sure there’s zero slippage in the heel, since you’re trying to pull your heel out of the shoe on the upstroke of every pedal rotation—Sidi actually makes a sort of heel clamp to guarantee this; 3) a trifle tight is better than a trifle loose—loose is a big problem when you start pedaling in circles. The only drawback to snug is that in the winter you’re going to want to stuff thick winter socks in those shoes. Many cyclists buy a larger pair of shoes for winter. Don’t buy shoes that are uncomfortably tight assuming they’ll stretch—they won’t.
As with all shoes, if you have a normally wide foot you can wear lots of brands, but if you have an exceptionally wide foot (like me) you have few options. The brand famous for making shoes in wide is Sidi (also the most popular brand in cycling and famous for its slipper-like comfort)—ask for the “Mega” version of any Sidi shoe. A few other brands also make shoes in wide widths—Bont, Shimano, Bontrager, Lake—but some of those brands don’t make wide versions of every size. Some brands naturally run wider than others—a good salesperson will know which ones. To judge the width of a shoe, put it on and look at the tongue—if the flaps where lace holes would be if the shoe had laces are almost touching (i.e. you see little tongue), the shoe is too large or too narrow; if they’re far apart (you see a lot of tongue) or the gap is noticeably wider at the top than at the bottom, the shoe is too small or too wide. Don’t assume a shoe is wide because it says it is—lots of manufacturers just don’t get how wide wide really is.
LBS’s rarely stock wide sizes, and internet stores never seem to have them, so if you’re a Mega you’re probably going to have to go through your LBS and order them—make sure the store has a generous return policy. Luckily, everybody understands that shoes take some trying out, so several shoe companies and many stores let you try shoes for a week or more, then return them for something else without penalty.
Cycling shoes almost all use European sizing, where size 42 equals America’s 9. Many brands only come in whole sizes, so focus on the brands, like Sidi and Bontrager, that have half-sizes (like 42.5), because you’ll be able to dial in your fit that much better.
It’s hard to tell in the store how shoes are going to perform on the road. I remember once buying a new brand of shoe, going for my first ride, feeling great at first, then being in such pain after an hour that I didn’t think I was going to make it home. So once again, shop for shoes where there’s a try-and-return policy. You’d be mad to buy shoes online unless the return policy is bullet-proof or you’re replacing a brand, model, and size you’ve already worn and you know works for you.
The Adjusting Mechanism: You need a mechanism that lets you tighten or loosen your shoes while riding. You rarely do this while walking, which is why laces on a street shoe work fine, but you do it every ride, so laces on cycling shoes don’t work. Most bike shoes have three closing straps, but you’ll only be adjusting the top one (furthest from the toe), so that’s the only one where we care about the adjusting mechanism.
Adjusting mechanisms come in three forms: Velcro, ratchets, and the Boa system of wires and dials. Velcro, despite its popularity on low-end shoes, doesn’t work because it can’t be adjusted with precision on the fly. Velcro must be completely released and reattached, which means there is no way to make it a little tighter or a little looser. Ratchets work fine. Boa seems to be the best—it allows for precise, minute adjustment in either direction and it’s designed to be rebuilt easily. But it seems to only be spec’d on high-end shoes, so you’ll have to pay for it.
Durability: Durability in a cycling shoe comes down to replaceability of parts. Long before the leather fails, you’re going to wear out the hardware: the heel pads (most quickly), the toe pad, the tightening mechanism, and the Velcro. Some shoes (like Sidi) make it easy to replace these parts; other brands make it impossible. Before you buy, ask which parts of the shoe are replaceable. The Velcro in the straps tends to lose its grip, but all Velcro is easily replaceable. Just remove the old Velcro (it’s usually sewn on and comes off if you cut the threads), then use contact cement to glue new Velcro in its place.
A well-made pair of cycling shoes with replaceable parts will last you well-nigh forever—I had a pair of Sidi’s that were at least 20 years old, had been through countless heel pad replacements, and were doing fine when they were stolen out of my car on a bike trip. I really wanted to see how long those suckers were going to last.
Ventilation: Ventilation is important, as it is with helmets. You’re going to seal up your feet in leather or plastic bags and go generate heat for a couple of hours, and you need your feet to breathe. Breathability isn’t easy to measure by eye. All you can do is ask the salesperson, look for ventilation panels (usually mesh), read reviews, and use the return policy if the shoes don’t breathe.
Stiffness: Shoes differ in how stiff the sole is. One of the things you’re buying in a cycling shoe is a sole much stiffer than anything you’d wear on the street, the better to transfer power from the shoe to the pedal, so don’t expect your bike shoes to be tennis-shoe comfy when you’re walking around. Still, there’s a range, from board-stiff carbon soles which are designed for racing and which make walking next to impossible, to flexy mountain bike shoes designed for the occasional hike-a-bike (and which are perfectly acceptable shoes for road riding if you plan to do a lot of walking). It’s a simple trade-off between riding performance and off-the-bike comfort. Ask the salesperson how stiff the sole is. My Bontragers even come with a sole stiffness rating number. Almost everyone ends up with shoes that are about in the middle or upper middle of the range. Keep in mind that the cleat will make walking difficult however flexy the sole is, unless you get mountain biking cleats.
There are cycling shoes designed for touring cyclists and trekkers and commuters, people who are going to be off the bike a lot and want more walkability than even a mountain bike shoe can provide. Such shoes are built like tennis shoes or sandals (think Birkenstocks) with a conventional cleat attached. I gather they work well. I’ve done centuries with riders wearing sandals and those riders were happy and fast.
Insoles: Perhaps the most important feature of your shoe is the insole (aka footbed), the pad that rests between your foot and the hard sole. I’ve saved it for last because it’s complicated.
Your shoes will come with insoles, and they will almost certainly be inadequate—feeble slabs of foam with little shape and offering a fraction of the comfort and support you can get from an upgrade. A few shoe brands pride themselves on offering you a stock insole that’s a cut above the others (most notably Specialized), and they’re not lying, but you can still do much better, so assume you will replace your shoe’s insoles even if the shoes cost $500.
Replacement insoles come in several forms:
- The Dr. Scholl’s-type drugstore universal insole, which presumes that your feet are pretty much like everyone else’s. These will probably give you some cush without providing much in the way of arch support or shaping. Some universal insoles come with movable instep pads to give you a modicum of personalized fine-tuning.
- A sophisticated version of the one-size-fits-most approach is made by Specialized, which has done a lot of heady clinical research into insoles and produced one they swear works for the vast majority of riders, the Body Geometry footbed. It’s about $35.
- The cheapest customized insole is the heat-molded insole, which you can have made for you while you wait at most large cycling stores. The insoles are heated to softness and you stand on them while they cool and conform to your feet. These usually cost about $80 and work well. Some shoe companies go the whole nine yards and heat-mold the entire shoe, thus (they claim) getting a perfect fit all around.
- The best insole I know outside a chiropodist’s office is made by Aetrex. It’s as good as custom orthotics and fairly cheap (c. $70). I wear them in my shoes, and I wear their sandals after the ride to restore my sore feet. When I found these, I tossed my heat-molded insoles.
- The Lamborghini of insoles is the custom orthotic, which you get from your chiropodist, for which you pay several hundred dollars, and which really work. If you amortize that expense over time, you’re paying pennies-per-ride to be free of pain on the bike.
Closely related to insoles are wedges some bike fitters put under your insole or between your shoe sole and your cleat to change the angle at which your feet/shoes rest on the pedals. If you know you stand on the inside or the outside edge of your foot, you can try them on your own—if they help, you’ll know it quickly.
And what do you get with your insole upgrade? More comfort, so you can ride longer; reduced riding effort, so you tire later; more power, because your feet are meeting your shoes more solidly; less strain on your knees, ankles, and hips. Obviously that’s a lot of pay-off whoever you are, but people tend to spend in proportion to how troublesome their feet and knees are. My feet are problematic, so for me, quality insoles are a necessity. For you, they may be just a good idea.
Whatever solutions you try, don’t tolerate foot pain—if your feet hurt from riding, experiment with brands, sizes, models, insoles, and wedges, and finally see your chiropodist, until the problem is solved.
Weight: How much you care about weight is always up to you, with the qualifier that shoe weight matters more than static weight because you’re pushing it around in a circle. The difference between a heavy shoe and a light one is about 70 g a shoe, which in the world of road riding is a lot. Some people feel that light shoes are less comfortable and less durable. There may be some truth to this, since Sidi shoes are universally agreed to be the most comfortable and longest-lasting shoes in the business, and they’re heavy. Comfort trumps weight, so never ride in uncomfortable shoes to save grams—that’s why those heavy Sidi’s are the most popular shoes in the pro peloton.
Shoes come in colors, but you usually don’t get a choice—most models come in whatever one color they come in. Most shoes are black until you get into the expensive models, which is probably a good thing since shoes get dirty and are hard to clean.
Keep your shoes snug when you ride—keep tightening the ratchet until your feet obviously don’t want it tighter.
After a wet ride, dry shoes by toweling them off, stuffing them with crumpled newspaper, then storing them in a warm (not hot) place .
Cyclists wear cycling socks, but they’re not significantly different from any other sport sock—any thin, synthetic (non-cotton) sock will do. You’ll need three thicknesses: thin for regular weather, medium weight for temps below 60, and heavy for cold weather. Medium and heavy socks should be made of wool (modern Merino doesn’t itch, if you’re worried), because wool is warm when wet, it almost never needs washing because it’s naturally anti-microbial, and it has an incredible temperature range—you’ll be comfortable up to 70 degrees or so. As soon as summer is over I switch to my lightweight wool socks and wear them every day until summer returns or there’s a cold snap and I need something thicker.
For years I bought conventional cycling socks, which come in snazzy colors and designs, and struggled to match them to my jersey colors. Finally I just bought a bunch of white socks and black socks—white for summer, black for winter—and now my life is easier. Socks also come in hi-viz yellow, which may or may not make you more visible to cars but is certainly joyful.
You need glasses when you ride, to protect your eyes from wind, glare, and flying debris. Wear them all the time, for safety, like woodworkers do, even when the sun isn’t out.
If you already wear glasses, you can wear your street glasses when you ride, with some compromise. Cycling glasses have two advantages: they wrap around your head, so they shield your eyes from wind much better than street glasses, so your eyes don’t tear up and blind you on fast descents, and they often have interchangeable lenses so you can match the lens to the light conditions. If you wear prescription lenses, you can have proprietary cycling glasses made up with your prescription ground in, but it tends to be a bit more expensive than glasses from your optometrist and few cyclists seem to do it. If you don’t get interchangeable lenses, you’ll need two pairs, a dark one for sun and a clear one for shady/cloudy.
If you get interchangeable lenses, make sure you get three sets, one clear for cloudy days, one like conventional dark glasses for sun, and a third one that’s light red, for…what? It turns out that that one is the most useful of all. Use it on any ride that isn’t in constant full sun or permanently overcast—in other words, almost all of them. It allows you to see in shadow while saving you from glare. When I bought my cycling glasses, the red was the one set of lenses I never used, until I tried them, and I’ve never used the other two since.
Many cycling glasses have lenses that adjust to the light—when you ride from shade into bright light they quickly darken. It sounds wonderful, but the lenses take a long time to go from dark to clear, so when you ride from sunshine into shade you’re blind for a while. I consider this a deal-breaker.
Like all eyewear, cycling glasses can be expensive but the expense doesn’t seem to get you much. Tifosi makes nice inexpensive cycling glasses (around $90).
Cycling glasses look dorky on your bare head, but they’re designed to look good when you’re wearing your helmet, so demo them with helmet in place. Cool riders stick their glasses in their helmet vents when they’re off their face, but I always find they eventually fall on the ground if I do that.
Riding with glasses in rain or cold is tricky because the lenses fog up or get covered with raindrops. There are anti-fog and/or anti-rain products—liquids, wax sticks, creams, sprays—you can apply before the ride to minimize the problem, and they work well. There are also hydrophobic (“water-fearing”) lenses that shed water, and they also work well. Drying lenses in the rain is tricky because cycling clothing is all synthetic, so it won’t absorb water—you need to carry a dedicated cotton cloth, and the drying is temporary at best anyway.
Make sure your glasses have 100% UVA and UVB (ultraviolet ray) protection. But all quality cycling glasses do, so that’s easy. UV protection has nothing to do with the darkness or lightness of a lens, so your clear lenses should have it too. Polarized lenses cut down on glare, and some people love them, but they’re not common in cycling glasses and have some real drawbacks for riders, so I wouldn’t get them unless I knew I wanted them.
In addition to the basic jersey and bibs, cyclists wear layers that go under or over them—lots of layers.
The primary goal when dressing for a ride is flexibility. Weather conditions during a ride will change. It will get hotter, or colder, or winder, or rainier, or cloudier, or something. Even if the weather doesn’t change, you will—your temperature will vary as your effort varies (you boil working hard on the climbs and freeze coasting on the descents) or you freeze for the first 15 minutes, then your body heat soars (hence the motto, “Dress for the second half-hour”). The goal is to wear clothing so adaptable that you can be comfortable whatever the day throws at you. You do this by layering—wearing lots of thin, lightweight pieces of clothing instead of one thick garment. I routinely do cold-weather rides wearing five layers on my chest, all thin: a short-sleeve undershirt, a long-sleeved undershirt, a long-sleeved jersey, a vest, and a windbreaker.
Cycling is a minimalist sport, and part of its beauty is that you’re making do with only the bare minimum of what you need. But many cyclists take this to an extreme of macho masochism when it comes to clothing, and wear as little as they possibly can. On any century you’ll see hardmen who are freezing while riding with bare fingers, head, arms, and legs. Don’t do this. Riding while cold is hard on your joints, particularly your knees, and it actually robs you of power, because part of your energy has to be diverted to keeping your body warm. Think of clothing the way you think of gears: the macho masochist prides himself on using as few as possible; the healthy rider uses the full range.
Cycling layers include
- base layers
- arm warmers
We’ll talk about each in turn.
Vests and Windbreakers
Beyond the shorts and the jersey, the only clothing sine qua non is a vest and a windbreaker. These you wear any time the weather is cool or windy. They’re like real-world vests and raincoats, except they’re plastic, light, and breathable. Get used to just stuffing a vest or light windbreaker into a pocket for most rides, unless the weather is warm and sure to stay that way. The weight/space penalty is minimal, and the comfort gain is enormous if you run into even one windy spell or long descent.
Windbreakers are not raincoats, which you will also need and which we will discuss under Raingear below. If you wear a windbreaker in the rain, you will get soaked.
The vest is a sleeveless windbreaker, and it’s more useful than a windbreaker, because it’s lighter and easier to store so you can take it on any ride without weight penalty or packing problems. Most vests will roll up and store in a jersey pocket easily. A vest does ¾ of the work of a windbreaker, because there is little heat loss through your arms. Some windbreakers come with zip-off sleeves, which sounds like a great idea until you realize you’re carrying the entire windbreaker down the road whether you’re wearing it or not, or until you try to zip the arms back on, which is a challenge.
Vests and windbreakers come in various weights from feather-light to heavy, and the lighter the garment the less well it protects you and the easier it is to carry around. I like having a very light windbreaker for taking on rides on a “might need it” basis, but the loss in wind protection is significant. Another disadvantage to ultralight windbreakers is they’re noisy—they flutter at high speeds, so you have an annoying flapping sound in your ear on descents. It’s more obnoxious than you’d think.
Vests and windbreakers provide a little warmth, but their real job is to protect you from the wind, which is a bigger factor in your comfort than temperature when you’re descending at 30 mph. It’s so much about the wind and not about the temperature that many vests are mesh in the back, where the wind isn’t a factor. There are brand names like Gore Wind-Stopper that advertise great wind protection and deliver on that promise—they’re worth the money they charge.
Breathability isn’t a big factor in vests, because if a vest becomes too hot you can just unzip it, but it’s crucial in a windbreaker. Luckily, manufacturers know this, so any designated cycling windbreaker by a reputable maker will be breathable. Avoid cheap windbreakers like the plague for this reason.
Windbreaker sizing is random, so try before you buy. Make sure it fits when you’re bending over, and leave enough room for a few cold-weather layers. Vest sizing is far less crucial, because a vest doesn’t have to fit under your arms—if you’re a medium person, any medium vest will fit.
Vests and windbreakers have a fundamental design flaw. They have no back pockets, which means you have to store everything in your jersey pockets and reach under the vest or windbreaker or unzip every time you want to reach your gel or your energy bar. This is madness. I have found one (one!) vest and windbreaker that have the conventional 3-pocket jersey set-up, and they’re the only ones I wear as a result.
One drawback to vests and windbreakers is, they cover up your beautiful jerseys. So you end up looking exactly the same ride after ride, all fall and winter long. Many riders like this. If you don’t, you can actually wear light vests or windbreakers under your jersey. This actually has three advantages: you’re beautiful, the jersey pockets are available for your use, and the jersey is tight and elastic so it secures the windbreaker and minimizes that annoying fluttering we talked about. The only drawback is, you have to take off your jersey to remove the vest.
There are cycling jackets, which are basically light, minimally lined outdoor jackets with cycling pockets. I don’t own one and can’t see their use. Jackets put all your weather protection in one layer, so they’re too hot if the weather warms at all. And they’re hard to store when you take them off. I prefer to do the same thing a jacket does with a raincoat and multiple layers underneath.
“Base layers” are what non-cyclists call “underwear”—thin layers of clothing that go under your jersey and differ from street underwear in that they’re synthetic, so they breathe and they don’t give you hypothermia the way cotton does when they get wet. You’ll want at least one layer on any ride where the weather isn’t warm. Almost any lightweight athletic “technical” undergarment will do—it doesn’t have to be cycling-specific. I often buy my undershirts on sales at places like sporting goods stores or running shops. The fine cycling undergarments made by dedicated cycling companies like Craft are sweet, but five minutes after I put the undershirt on I can’t tell whether it cost $5 or $50.
Your basic base layer is a technical T-shirt, since most of your temperature loss is through your torso. (Some people say it’s your head. This is a well-intentioned myth. Heat loss through the head is important, but not primary.) You’ll also want a long-sleeve T, and probably a thermal (athletic code for “thick”) T for colder weather.
There are no cycling underpants. The cycling shorts go against your skin, always.
A lot of riders never or almost never wear leggings. There is little blood flow near the surface of your legs, thus little heat loss and little cold sensitivity. In fact, you don’t need much, but wearing nothing is a bad idea in cold weather because your knees don’t work well in cold. The rule of thumb is, cover your knees in 60 degrees or less temperature. It’s rare to need more than one layer here—only on rides nearly freezing temperatures do I double up, with light tights under heavy tights.
You have three choices: leg warmers, tights, and knickers. They all come only in black, which keeps the fashion thing easy.
Leg warmers are by far the most popular, because they’re the easiest to take off and store when you or the weather warms up. They’re just tubes that go from ankle to upper thigh, and they tuck under your bib legs. They seem to only come in one weight.
Leg warmers love to work their way down your leg. To help prevent this, pull them up absolutely as far up your leg as you can, right up to your crotch, and make sure your bib’s thigh bands haven’t lost their elasticity.
Tights are just like real-world tights. They’re a little warmer than leg warmers, since they cover your butt, and they’re a little harder to take off mid-ride and bulkier to store. They do come in weights, from light to warm fleece-lined, so go to tights when the temperature gets cold. But heavy tights are a serious commitment, since they’re too hot if the weather warms at all and hard to store mid-ride. I love lightweight tights. I wear them on those rides (and there are many) where bare leg skin seems just a little too chilly. They can be hard to find in stores.
There are shorts/tights combinations, where the chamois is built right into the tights, and they look like a nifty idea at first, but they have no benefit over regular shorts and tights, and you can’t take the tights off when it gets warm, so I wouldn’t use them.
Knickers are like tights only they stop just below the knee, so there’s a nifty expanse of skin between knee and sock. They seem to be popular, perhaps because they’re cycling-specific and thus say, “I am a cyclist” loudly, but I can’t see the point. Why would your thigh and knee be cold but your calf not? Tights can bind at the knee, and perhaps knickers help with that problem.
There is nothing for the legs that is the equivalent of the windbreaker.
An arm warmer is a leg warmer for your arm, a tube that covers you from wrist to armpit. It does what the sleeve of a long-sleeve jersey or long-sleeve undershirt does, but the advantages are 1) they’re removable—even while riding, you can just shove them down around your wrists (and look cool when you do)—so you aren’t committed to covered arms for the entire ride; and 2) they allow you to wear all your short-sleeve jerseys and thus vary your wardrobe. They’re typically black, but they also come in hi-viz yellow, a color which magically goes well with almost any jersey and adds snap to any cycling kit.
The one drawback to arm warmers is, they love to work their way down your arm. The only cure for this is to buy them tight, and marked size is completely unreliable. I own arm warmers marked small and arm warmers marked XL, and they both fit snug. Try before you buy, and go with the tightest fit you can tolerate. They’re worn under your jersey sleeve, but I find they stay up better if they go over.
Some arm and leg coverings look exactly like arm-warmers and leg-warmers, except they’re white and designed to do the opposite—they’re sun-protection only, and are designed to keep you cool, not warm. If you’re sun-sensitive and have something against sunblock, they seem to work pretty well.
For a while underlayers were all about “compression.” Undershirts, socks, and leggings all touted their ability to gently squeeze your body, purportedly to speed recovery off the bike and even improve your power output. Compression socks were even declared illegal in pro racing. Now it seems to be helpful if you’re a runner, but there is no evidence that it helps cyclists. It won’t hurt you, so there’s no reason to avoid it, but no reason to spend money to get it either, and it’s usually expensive.
As soon as you start layering, you have a problem with storing the layers when you take them off. You can get a vest or a lightweight windbreaker in your jersey pockets, but that’s about it. So you need some sort of storage system. A large seat pack will store at best one garment, but many riders think it’s uncool. Some riders put a tennis ball can in their water bottle cage, which turns out to be the perfect size to hold a windbreaker, but then you’ve given up one water bottle. I advocate the Curly Lace system, discussed in the Accessories chapter. But you need some storage system, or you’ll be reluctant to layer up.
Your head is the second-most temperature-sensitive area of your body (after your torso) and taking care of it—shielding it from heat, protecting it from cold, and controlling sweat—is a major factor in your comfort level.
In hot weather, you need something to absorb sweat and keep it from running into your eyes. You’re talking a lot of liquid here, so you need something that absorbs liquid superbly and dries quickly, and you may need two of them, one to wear and the other to wrap around your handlebar to dry. Most riders wear a headband. There are several companies who focus on high-tech cycling headbands—Headsweats, Sweathogs, Sweat Gutr, and Halo are four, though most of the big clothing manufacturers make headbands too. None of them is perfect but they all work well. An alternative to the headband is the lightweight skullcap, which will probably soak up sweat a bit less well than a headband but has two advantages: it covers your skull from the sun, which is no small thing, and it stays wet for a while when you soak your head at a mid-ride water stop, which is a big part of bodily air-conditioning.
Lightweight skullcaps are hard to find, so you may want to make your own. Buy a Buff, a tube-shaped head covering made out of wonder material and sold in most outdoorsy stores. You can wear it as intended, but to make sure it covers the top of my head I cut it in half crosswise (making two shorter tubes) and sew each tube across one end—voila, you now have two lightweight skullcaps.
I find that all headbands obstruct air flow through the helmet. So, until sweat is running into your eyes, they actually make you hotter than nothing. So I carry one but don’t put it on until I need it.
In cold weather, you need a warm headband designed to cover your ears or a cold-weather skullcap. The skullcap is the biggest bang for the cold cyclist’s buck there is—for its size and weight, it provides many times more cold protection than other garments. Get used to stuffing it in a seatpack or jersey pocket on any ride that threatens to turn chilly.
Don’t get a thick skullcap intended for hiking or other outdoor activities—you’ll overheat in five minutes. Despite the fact that you’re trying to keep your head warm, cycling generates so much body heat that you’ll want the thinnest skullcap you can find, even if you’re riding in freezing temperatures.
None of the clothing we’ve discussed so far is intended to keep you dry in the rain. Except for the raincoat, raingear is a rare thing among cyclists, which is odd because riding while wet is miserable. You may decide not to ride in the rain (good luck with that, weather being the variable thing it is). But if you want to ride in all weathers, I strongly encourage you to invest in raingear. Any raingear must breathe, or you’ll be riding in a pool of sweat, so cheap generic raingear won’t work.
The one rain garment all cyclists have is a raincoat. Windbreakers aren’t raincoats, and you’ll get soaked if you ride in the rain with one. A raincoat looks just like a windbreaker, but it’s waterproof (or, “water resistant,” as the labels are required by law to say), and thus heavier, so that riding in a raincoat when it isn’t raining is uncomfortable unless it’s cold. Rainproofing plus breathability is asking a lot of a material, so good raincoats are expensive. I’d spend the money and go with a trusted brand like Pearl Izumi or a trusted store like Performance. A raincoat will last you a lifetime, so you can amortize the expense.
Socks and gloves
If you know your extremities suffer from the cold when wet, there are waterproof socks and waterproof gloves. They’re a bit less comfortable than normal gear, but they work flawlessly—you will stay dry. Very few cyclists even know they exist and stores rarely stock them, which is one of those little mysteries of the sport. I wear mine about twice a year, but I love them on those occasions. There are even waterproof cycling shoes, but the socks cost $50 and the shoes cost $300 and the socks do the same thing, so it’s a no-brainer to go with the socks.
You can buy waterproof shells to go over your regular gloves. They’re light and relatively cheap, but they’re rarely cycling-specific, so they can interfere with shifting and braking.
Very few cyclists have rain-specific leggings—they just ride with wet legs when it rains—which is another mystery to me, since rainproof leggings work great. There are two ways to go here. 1) Some manufacturers make tights or knickers out of water-resistant fabric using nanotechnology (Norain and Nanoflex are two such fabrics). They’re priced like any expensive pair of tights. I’ve never seen them in stores, so they’d probably be an Internet purchase. 2) You can wear rain pants over your cycling gear. Almost no cyclist has these, and in fact I don’t know of any made for cycling specifically, but luckily outdoor companies like Patagonia make lovely ones for about $100 for hikers and travelers that work great. You want something light, breathable, and roomy enough that you can pedal without the pants binding anywhere, especially around your seat and your knees. Make sure they have zippers on the lower legs so you can put them on and off over your shoes. $100 may seem like a lot, but you’ll be able to wear your rain pants on hikes, trips to the grocery store in downpours, and vacations, so you’ll get a lot of use out of them.
There is waterproof gear for the head, in the form of a plastic helmet cover—essentially a shower cap (a popular hack is to use an actual shower cap), but I’ve tried it and I cook. Even in a snowstorm, you need to vent huge amounts of heat from your head. So wear a wool or synthetic skullcap and let your head get wet, knowing that the alternative is worse.
Cold-Weather Cycling Clothing
There is thermal cycling clothing for temperatures near and below freezing. If you live in a warm clime, this is gear you may use once or twice a winter. But it’s nice to know it’s there.
Jerseys: There are winter-weight jerseys, which have a light layer of pile inside.
Vests: There are fleece versions of the basic cycling vest, no different than the lightweight fleece vest you can buy at REI.
Gloves: This is the one article of extreme-weather riding that cyclists are likely to own. Winter gloves come in every imaginable degree of thickness, up to the ludicrous extreme of lobster mitts (google it). Some combine insulation with wind-proofing and/or waterproofing, which is a very good thing. Mittens are warmer than gloves, science tells us, but full mittens rob you of the ability to use your individual fingers, which is a major problem.
Glove liners: You can beef up any cold-weather gloves by wearing liners inside them. Any thin glove liners will do. Running stores often carry nice ones. Defeet makes a nice, cheap fairly heavy liner you can find in any bike store. Sometimes liners inside standard fingerless gloves is all you need. I have some slightly large gloves dedicated to this purpose.
Thick gloves suck, for three reasons:
1.they impair your dexterity. Think of all the things you do with your fingers on a bike: shifting, braking, pushing buttons on your computer, taking off your shades and putting them on, tightening your shoe ratchet, reaching into your pockets for goo. The thicker the glove, the harder it is to do all these things. I’ve worn gloves that literally made it impossible to distinguish between up-shifting and down-shifting, or next to impossible to brake. One of the great advantages of glove liners under standard gloves is you can still use your hands.
Obviously not being able to shift or brake is a drag, but not being able to use your phone is almost as bad, if you’re a photographer. Stopping, taking off your gloves, taking off your glove liners, taking the photo, then reversing the process gets very old. There are gloves that claim to not impair your use of a smart-phone touch screen, though I’ve never tried them.
2. Cold-weather gloves rarely have ulnar nerve padding, so riding with them alone can lead to hand fatigue. The only solution is to wear cycling cloves inside the thermal gloves, and for this you’ll need room, so plan that in when you go winter glove shopping.
3. Bulky gloves also pose a storage problem when it’s time to take them off, since they don’t compress. You also need to carry regular gloves to put on when you take the bulky gloves off.
Needless to say, cyclists only wear heavy gloves when they have to.
Cold-weather tights: There are thermal tights, which have a fleece lining.
Shoe Covers: Shoe covers are neoprene socks that go over your shoes. They come in two forms. The most convenient are toe covers, which cover the front half of your feet to the back of the cleat. They offer more cold-weather protection than they look like they would. Since you walk on them, the rubber wears out quickly, but you can make them last almost forever by gluing patches cut from old inner tubes on the soles. Warmer still are full booties, like wetsuit booties, which cover your entire shoe and ankle.
There are winter-specific shoes, but again you’ll pay $300 for them, and the booties cost $50.
The balaclava: When it gets cold enough that your nose starts to ache, the balaclava, a sock with holes for your eyes and mouth that you pull over your head as if you were about to rob a bank, is a cheap, light, and incredibly powerful way to keep our face and nose from freezing. It costs about $10 and on an icy ride is worth a million bucks.
Jackets: jackets, and all their drawbacks, are discussed above. Even when it’s freezing, I don’t wear one.
So, given all this gear, what does my normal day’s kit look like? On a generic 60-degree fall or spring day, neither hot nor cold, I’m probably wearing bibs, a short-sleeve jersey, a short-sleeve undershirt, leg warmers or tights, arm warmers, a vest, a Buff skullcap, and light wool socks. I’m carrying a warm skullcap (for warmth) and a headband (for sweat) in my seatpack, and I have a windbreaker or light raincoat rolled and tied in my Curly Laces.
Laundering Bike Clothing
Cycling clothing is delicate, so it should be laundered in the machine on gentle cycle in cold water and air-dried (on hangers or racks). Jersey material loves to snag, so hand wash your jerseys unless you have a modern clothes washer with the new, gentler, agitation mechanism. If you do use a machine, close all zippers and velcros beforehand or your jerseys will be covered with tiny tears. Jersey colors seem to be fade-proof , so you can dry them in the sun.
Shorts require special care. Launder a pair of shorts after riding in it once, to prevent saddle sores, and wash it inside out so the chamois gets the attention—that’s where the bacteria are. Hang it up to dry indoors or in the shade—direct sunlight degrades Lycra.
Most quality shorts advertise themselves as “anti-microbial” or “anti-bacterial,” which anywhere else means you could wear the garment for days without it smelling. Not so here. All that means in shorts-speak is that bacteria won’t continue to grow inside the chamois after you wash it. You still need to launder after every ride.
Launder your gloves along with the rest of your cycling clothing, after every few rides. They get dirty fast, and you transfer that dirt everywhere—to your jersey pockets every time you reach for something, for instance. Be careful to close the Velcro completely before washing or they’ll rip your jerseys to pieces.
I wash all my cycling clothes together, whites with darks. Cycling clothes are color-fast (the term of art is “sublimated”), so they don’t bleed. I’ve got white undershirts that have been washed with black bibs a hundred times, and they’re still snowy.
Some people think that synthetic materials hold odors, so ordinary laundry detergents leave them smelly. I’ve never noticed this, but if you do there are dedicated detergents for athletes that claim to solve the problem.
Cycling clothes get dirt spots, especially chain tattoos on socks and glove dirt at the opening to jersey pockets. Machine laundering only dents these. I’ve had good luck with full-strength liquid detergent, laundry spot remover, or bike degreaser (really) applied directly and brushed vigorously with a vegetable brush, or any brush with natural, moderately stiff bristles.