Getting your layering right for cycling is a tricky business. And getting it wrong can be the difference between a miserable slog and pedal-powered bliss. Lucky for you, we’ve learnt the hard way so you don’t have to! Here’s how to layer for the bike, year-round.
The key to getting your clothing right in winter is layers: lots of thin layers. Every thin layer you wear traps pockets of insulating air, without adding bulk. It’s important that these layers are wicking and breathable, working together to transport your body moisture out. Without the breathability, you’ll stay wet and could soon get dangerously cold.
Choose a breathable and wicking base layer. Keeping your core warm is absolutely essential so you’ll want a base layer that transports body moisture away as quickly as possible. Your core acts like a stove in a small room, spreading warmth to the edges. A soggy base layer is a fast track to cold extremities and a thoroughly miserable schlep home.
For winter months we prefer merino wool as a base layer material due its incredible warmth to weight ratio. Merino wool is also naturally breathable and can absorb around 35% of its weight in moisture before it starts to feel wet and clammy. When it absorbs moisture, a chemical reaction in the fibres releases heat. These properties mean you rarely get that damp, shivery feeling after a period of intense effort.
As with your base layer, your jersey needs to be breathable to stop you getting cold. Long sleeves provide additional warmth and many winter jerseys are often fleece lined for extra insulation. Jerseys with a dense-knit outer material block out more wind, trapping more insulating air.
A windproof jacket locks vital body heat away against high winds and low temperatures. A simple, breathable windshell keeps the wind at bay and will also brush off light showers it’s treated with a water repellent. Heavier (but warmer) soft shell fabrics aren’t as packable and are designed to be left on all day. Waterproof jackets can double up as windproofs but aren’t as breathable for high intensity cycling. More on this further down.
For longer rides we often carry a light and packable insulation layer in our bar bag or seatpack. It’s always reassuring to have one more layer than you think you’ll need, especially for rest stops and unexpected punctures.
Only the hardiest cyclists go bare knee-ed in the depths of winter. We generally prefer bib tights for extra coverage – fleece-lined when it’s really cold. A pair of good-fitting bibs reduces chafing and avoids putting pressure on your stomach when you’re bent over the bars.
You’d have to be blessed with buttocks of steel to forgo a cushioned chamois pad on longer rides. A good ‘chammy’ makes a huge difference to your enjoyment, so look for a firm pad that bounces back into shape quickly.
You could also wear padded shorts underneath outer shorts if you find bib straps a faff. These are less aerodynamic but are harder wearing, which can be useful if you do a lot of rough off-road riding.
Keeping your core warm is the best way to keep your extremities warm, but covering up any exposed skin with insulating or windproof fabrics will make a big difference.
Your hands get blasted by a lot of cold air on the front of your bars, so warm, long fingered gloves are essential in winter. Some riders swear by neoprene gloves, but you may also want to consider waterproof gloves in extremely cold or damp weather. If you can squeeze them underneath, merino liner gloves add extra low-bulk warmth.
We generally opt for merino socks in winter or waterproof socks when the roads and trails are wet. Waterproof socks have the added benefit of blocking out any wind that gets through your cycling shoes – great if you don’t want to wrestle on overshoes. Beware of tight-fitting socks which can restrict circulation, resulting in frosty toes!
Head and neck
You will definitely need a highly breathable waterproof jacket for cycling in wet weather. This keeps you comfortable and dry by allowing sweat to escape. We measure breathability by ‘Moisture Vapour Transfer Rate’ – anything over 10,000g/m²/24h should be breathable enough for cycling, but the more breathable the better. Many jackets have covered vents to aid this process.
For lighter showers you can probably get by with a water-resistant windshell or soft shell. For cyclists riding at a high intensity, this is often the preferred option as jackets without a waterproof membrane are always more breathable.
Lighter, more open fabrics are your ally in summer, keeping your body temperature down and stopping you from dehydrating. But beware of fabrics that are too open. The photo of Chris Froome’s sunburn after wearing a mesh jersey still gives us the willies.
An ultralight, high-wicking base layer works in tandem with your jersey, transporting moisture away from your skin quickly to keep you cool and dry.
The lighter the better! Look for open-knit high-wicking fabrics with mesh underarm panels and full zips for additional ventilation. The closer fitting your jersey is, the quicker it will wick away sweat. High collars provide extra sun protection and pockets give you somewhere to stash arm warmers and a windproof.
As with winter bib tights, a good quality chamois pad is essential – especially for long days of summer riding. Making sure your bib shorts are a good fit: excess fabric cause movement and movement in hot weather can cause serious chafing. We’re talking about not-sitting-down-for-days kind of chafing.
Fingerless cycling mitts with mesh top fabric will give you a better grip on the bars when your hands get sweaty. You might want to wear a cotton cycling cap (or casquette) in summer to protect against UV. These also absorb sweat, stopping it from running into your eyes.
Spring and Autumn nearly always catch us out at least once. It’s usually the first/last warm-ish day of the year. We get carried away, head out in our summer kit and spend the bulk of the ride shivering. The key to spring and autumn layering is adaptability. If you’re going out with bare knees, make sure you’re carrying at least one extra top layer to throw on. Windproof gilets, three quarter length bib tights and arm and leg warmers are always handy for this time of year.
Fine-tune your System
It’s easy to get caught out on the bike, either by overheating or shivering uncontrollably many miles away from home. A little bit of knowledge always helps, but it takes time to fine-tune your own system. If in doubt, opt for multiple thin layers and breathable, wicking fabrics. You can always take layers off and stash them in your jersey pockets or bike luggage.