Cycling has perhaps the most options for specialized wearing apparel of any sport in existence! It can be extremely intimidating, trying to figure out what exactly to wear and when. The basics are easy – you’ll need a jersey, cycling shorts, gloves and a helmet for protection and, of course, shoes. But beyond that it gets really complicated really quickly. See the Clothing and Accessories links for information on each individual item. See the Intermediate section below for more advice on what to wear, when…
On an average, warm, sunny day in the summer, the choice of what to wear is obvious. A nice pair of shorts or bibs with a simple short-sleeve (or sleeveless) jersey will do you just fine. (Bibs, FYI, are the weird shorts with built-in suspenders – more on those later…) Fingerless gloves are fine, and hats are completely unnecessary. If it’s particularly hot you should consider a headband to keep the sweat out of your eyes. Sunglasses are highly recommended as well, both for glare and safety.
When things get cold, however, it gets more complicated. In Tucson, we can wear basic shorts and short-sleeve jerseys pretty much year round, as long as we’re willing to wait until the day warms up. But for those of us who ride before work, before the sun comes up, things can get a bit chilly, and we need other clothing options.
Dressing in layers is the key for cold-weather riding. The colder it gets, the more layers you put on. In the summer I’ll typically wear only one layer. Spring and Fall I move up to two layers. In the winter it’s three layers! (You can even to go four on the top!)
The first thing you put on (after your heart-rate monitor), is the base-layer. This ranges from a sophisticated version of a tight tee-shirt to a complete set of high-tech long underwear. Of course, like most things in cycling, these are highly specialized garments. They’re not your father’s cotton tee-shirt or long underwear, these are technical clothes made of synthetic fabric designed to keep the heat in while wicking sweat away from your skin, up to the top layers. In reasonably cool weather (under 60°F), I’ll put on a short-sleeve base-layer, typically made by Under Armour. (Some swear by these even in the summer, but I’m not yet convinced.) When things start to get downright cold (i.e. under around 45°F), my layers will typically include a long-sleeve top and long pants base-layer.
I’ll typically wear standard bib shorts with a short-sleeve base-layer down to about 58-60°F. Below that I move to what are called “knickers”. These are just like shorts, only they cover your knees as well. They’re also made of a thicker, more insulated material, so they’re warmer overall. (This material is typically called “Super Roubaix”, by the way – it’s kind of a thicker, “roughed up” version of the Lycra you’re used to. Very warm and extremely comfortable!) Another option is to wear knee warmers with your regular shorts. They serve the same purpose as knickers, but they allow you to take them off if you’re riding in a situation where the temperature will go up and you’ll no longer need any additional insulation. (That’s one key about layers – you can add or remove them as the weather changes during your ride.)
When things really get chilly, you’ll need tights instead of knickers. These are, just like the name implies, full-length pants that go right down to your socks. No part of your leg is left exposed with tights. Like knickers, they are typically made from Super Roubaix and often come in different grades of insulation. Choose the ones that fit your riding environment. And, like knickers, there is also a temporary option for rides when things will get warmer: leg warmers. Just like knee warmers these go on with your normal shorts, but cover your entire leg. They are removable so you can take them off during a long ride that gets warmer along the way. The only drawback from this approach is that typically you’ll still be wearing your summer shorts, which are not well insulated and not made of Super Roubaix. So, things can get a bit chilly “down there” if you know what I mean! …One other option is to choose tights with no chamois insert. That way you can put them on over your normal shorts/bibs, to double up on layers on your legs. (I, however, typically just wear a long-leg base-layer under my tights in order to get the second layer on my lower body. (This holds me to about 32°F, which is about as cold as I like to ride anyway!)
Knee warmers, leg warmers and bib tights
As for your upper body layers, you simply continue the layered approach as the temperatures go down. After a short-sleeve base-layer and short-sleeve jersey I’ll switch to short-sleeve base-layer underneath and a long-sleeve jersey on top. A little cooler out and I switch to a long base-layer and long jersey. The next step up is a lightweight jacket over the long base-layer and long jersey. These jackets are typically designed to keep out rain and wind more than the cold, but they are very effective as part of a layering system. Plus, they are very “compact-able” (i.e. the can be scrunched up in a small ball), so you can shove them in your jersey pocket if things warm up. Beyond the lightweight jacket layer is the more traditional jacket. This is still a cycling-specific item, mind you, but it’s got a lot more insulation. With this combination, plus the tights and long-pants base-layer on the bottom, I’m good to about 32°F. Things just don’t get much colder than that in Tucson, so that will pretty much hold me year round. If it gets any colder than that, I simply stay inside! (We “Zonies” are scared of ice and snow, you know!) …Note: many shells/windbreakers and insulated jackets are not water resistant. Make sure you get a jacket designed for rain if you intend to ever ride in wet weather!
Windbreaker shell, insulated jacket and rain jacket
Okay, so what about my hands, feet and head, you’re asking? Good question, and let’s get to those next! …For your hands, fingerless gloves will hold you down to around 55°-60°F. Less than that and I like to go with full-finger gloves, but the thinner kind, that look more like work gloves than ski gloves. This holds me down to 45°F or so. Below that I put on my thicker, full-fingered gloves. These look very much like ski gloves, but they’re designed to allow better movement of your fingers so you can still shift and brake. These hold me down to 35-40°F. For even lower temperatures, I go back to the layering theme. I wear full-fingered “glove liners” (a hand base-layer, if you will) under my thick gloves. That takes me down to 32°F or even lower if necessary.
Cycling full-fingered gloves, insulated gloves and glove liners
Next, for my head, I use a similar approach. Hot and warm days only require a helmet, but I also wear a headband to keep sweat and salt out of my eyes. For temperatures below about 55°F I wear a specialized headband that also goes over my ears. While not exactly attractive, it does the job well! (For whatever reason my ears get cold easily, so I like to make sure they’re covered!) For temperatures below about 40° I’ll switch to a specialized hat that fits under my helmet. (you might have to loosen your helmet for cold-weather riding) This also covers my ears, but adds a layer of insulation to the top of my head. This holds me fine to about 32°F. For certain climates or even colder weather riding, you should consider wearing a balaclava. These look remarkably like the masks people wear when robbing a bank. Startling, yet effective. (Just remember to remove it if you ride over to deposit a check!)
Cycling ear band, thermal hat with ear flaps and balaclava
Finally, we’re down to the feet. Obviously warm socks are in order as the temperature drops. As you might expect, there are many cycling-specific socks made out of wool and other fancy fibers. Your shoes are a problem, though. Typically they’re designed for maximum ventilation up through the toes and insoles. In the summer that’s great. In the winter it can be downright nasty! Don’t worry, however – once again cycling-specific apparel to the rescue! You can either buy toe warmer that just cover the tips of your feet, or full shoe covers that look kind of like giant socks. Which option is for you depends a lot on your riding conditions. If it tends to get very wet and sloshy, I’d opt for the full shoe covers. If it’s dry like Tucson, you can get away with just the toe covers or nothing at all. (I rode all winter last year with just warm socks. But this year I will try some toe covers, just to see how they work. And, I will admit that my tootsies did get a bit chilly last
Toe and whole shoe covers
Coming soon is a matrix to give you a quick, “at-a-glance” guide for what to wear. Please also enjoy Bicycling Magazine’s excellent guide on what to wear, when: