Layering for Cyclists: From the Base Layer to the Helmet
Cycling apparel has come a long way since the tucked-in trousers (breeks) of the early 1900s. This article covers the basics of cycling clothes, from base layer to shoes and helmets, and accessorizing to feel good in cold- or wet-weather riding.
Bike-specific clothing is typically constructed of a combination of synthetic materials, such as spandex, Lycra or nylon. Some higher-end versions also incorporate natural materials, such as merino wool. Cycling clothing is designed to blend aerodynamics, moisture and heat management, and comfort. Most brands market both a “performance” line targeted toward competitive cyclists and an “endurance” or recreational line. Both provide all the benefits listed above but performance clothing is generally lighter and more aerodynamic while endurance lines tend to be more comfortable, versatile, and long lasting. One material you will not often see in cycling apparel is cotton. Cotton gets heavy when wet, doesn’t wick moisture very well and doesn’t dry very easily in cool temperatures.
Backroads Pro TipWhile cotton is great for many reasons and is super comfortable for general wear, it is not the best choice for cycling apparel!
We all occasionally ride in less than perfect weather. Proper layering can keep you warm (but not too warm) and dry while still having fun on your ride. For optimal layering, you should wear a cycling base layer to wick away sweat, an insulating second layer to help keep you warm, and an outer waterproof or windproof layer to keep you protected from wind, rain or snow. It is not always necessary to dress in this many layers while riding, but this is the basic concept of layering for comfort while active. This applies to biking and nearly any outdoor activity.
Biking-specific jerseys are built with form and function in mind. Cycling jerseys feature wicking material, form-fitting design, pockets for stashing snacks or tools, and quarter-length to full-length zippers for ventilation. Many also have reflective material woven into the fabric for added visibility Short-sleeve jerseys are best for warm-weather riding. When the temperature drops, long-sleeve jerseys are feature a heavier woven fabric to allow for good insulation while still retaining sweat-wicking properties.
Cycling Shorts, Bibs, Skorts and More
Cycling shorts are designed to comfortably stretch while you move. They often have gripping material on the legs to prevent shorts from riding up and regularly feature a padded seat to increase comfort during long periods on the saddle.
The padding, also known as a “chamois”, is typically constructed out of multidensity synthetic foam or gel padding. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on manufacturer and gender. Gel liners, often found in mountain bike specific shorts, offer great comfort on longer rides but less breathability.
Backroads Pro TipHigh-performance open-cell liners are expensive but very comfortable on long rides. Closed-cell foam liners also offer comfort and are a good choice for the budget-conscious consumer.
Cycling bibs are popular among biking enthusiasts. They feature straps that run over the shoulder and are usually worn under a jersey, which makes them look like any other shorts. Many cyclists, however, find them more comfortable because they lack the waistband found on typical bike shorts.
Skorts are essentially bike shorts with a skirt built in. They often have the same wicking materials and padded seats found in regular bike shorts, but they are designed for riders who like to be more conservative or fashionable in their bike wear.
Mountain bike shorts are designed to be baggier than typical cycling shorts, but they often feature a padded spandex liner or bib liner to allow for increased comfort. The outer shorts often include pockets and durable fabric material that can stand up to the rigors of mountain riding.
Cycling tights are a great option when the temperature drops. These are essentially long-pant versions of bike shorts. They feature tight ankles for an unobstructed ride near the bike gears.
Backroads Pro TipThink you’ll struggle with getting in or out of cycling tights? Many feature zippered ankles to allow for ease of dressing and undressing.
Before selecting a jacket to wear, it is important to consider where and in what season you will be riding. Winter riding in Maine is going to require a different kind of jacket than wet spring riding conditions in Oregon. With this in mind, do you need a jacket that is going to keep you warm, dry or both? Soft shell jackets keep the wind out, are packable and usually offer a degree of water protection but will soak through in heavier rain. A fully waterproof jacket with taped seams will keep you dry but not warm unless it is also insulated. There are jackets that do both, but they can carry a hefty price tag and added bulk. Do some research or visit a local shop to find the jacket that best suits your needs.
Backroads Pro TipSome cycling jackets even have arms that zip off, turning the jacket into a vest. This is a good option if you want a versatile jacket that can be worn during more than one season.
Socks are important for keeping your feet warm, dry and blister free. Synthetic wicking bike socks are a good choice, but merino wool socks, while more expensive, do an excellent job at wicking sweat, drying fast and keeping feet warm even when wet. As with other types of biking clothing, cotton socks should be avoided.
One of the most important pieces of gear is your bike helmet. This is good for not only keeping you safe but also keeping you warm or cool, depending on the riding conditions. Generally you will choose from multiuse, road bike–style and mountain bike–style helmets. Multiuse helmets will be the least expensive models on the market, and they work well for all-around riders or commuters. Road biking helmets are designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic, and they have good ventilation. All those features mean a higher price tag, though. Mountain biking helmets are typically designed with built-in visors and more rear head coverage than other helmets, but they also offer less ventilation than road helmets.
Gloves can be great for all seasons—not just cold weather. Short-fingered gloves are an excellent choice for warm-weather rides, while long-fingered gloves are a good choice for cooler weather or mountain biking. Most gloves are made from some combination of leather and synthetic materials, and they typically feature padding in the palms for a more comfortable ride.
Backroads Pro TipGloves with a soft pad on the outer thumb knuckle are great for wiping a runny nose. And there’s no need to worry. Most gloves are machine washable!
Arm and leg warmers are great for those shoulder season rides when you are not sure how the weather is going to turn. Typically these are made of fleece, wool or synthetic material, and they can fold to fit in a jersey pocket or bike bag. Leg warmers are worn over the lower legs and knees, while arm warmers cover the wrist to upper arm. Both arm and leg warmers are designed to cover exposed skin where the bike shorts or jerseys end and are a great accessory if the weather changes unexpectedly.
Helmet covers are a good choice for cooler weather or times when not as much ventilation is needed. They are usually made of a synthetic material that will stretch over most helmets.
Shoe and toe covers are great accessories for cold, wet or rainy rides. Most are made of neoprene or another synthetic material that easily slides over a bike shoe. This leaves room for cleats to pop through and gives your feet a little extra insulation and protection from the elements.