Back in the day, Tour de France riders cresting a mountain pass would grab newspapers held out by eager fans and shove them down the front of their jerseys. The crumpled newsprint offered some protection from heat loss caused by the bracing Alpine winds on the way down.
Thankfully, with the range and flexibility of cycling clothing available these days, neither the modern pro-cyclist nor the keen amateur has to resort to stuffing the latest copy of Cycling World anywhere about their person. A relief.
But what should you be thinking about when planning what to wear on your next bike ride? Here are a few considerations.
Firstly, planning is essential. I’m not suggesting a full (clipboard-based) risk assessment, but a little thought in advance will go a long way to avoiding a misery-inducing clothing gaffe.
Every ride is different. What you wear should be driven (at least to an extent) by the nature of the ride:
How far will you be riding and how long will it take you?
Most people can deal with a bit of discomfort (an unexpected soaking, say) if the ride will be over in 20 minutes. Knowing that you have 50 miles left to ride, whilst soaked to the bone, is an entirely different prospect.
Staying on weather, have you checked the forecast?
If it *is* going to rain, you’ll probably want to wear (or take with you) some sort of jacket (whether that’s a simple rain cape or a more sophisticated breathable number). If it’s going to be hot, can I suggest that thermal underwear might not be appropriate?
Over what terrain will you be riding?
If it’s a muddy trail, then you’ll want to choose clothing that can withstand the grime being flung up at you by the wheels (even if you have mudguards). I’ve already alluded to the changeability of weather in the mountains.
The conditions in the valleys can be very different to what’s going on in the higher mountain (or hilltop) roads, even in the summer.
What are you going to do afterwards?
If you’re just going for a ride, and you plan to change afterwards (or not), then this is less of a concern. If you’re riding into town to meet a friend for lunch, then you might not like to dress in full Lycra warrior-mode (unless it’s one of those sorts of eateries)!
But what are the clothing essentials for any bike ride?
My recommendation is to start with the body parts that will touch the bike. These will tend to be the places where you most benefit from making some cyclo-specific choices.
Down to business (or the business end). If you’re looking to ride for any longer than an hour, or any distance if you’re on a road bike, consider wearing some padded clothing on your derriere. Most commonly, this will be a pair of padded cycling shorts.
Road cyclists will just wear padded shorts (with overtights or leg warmers if it is cold). When I’ve cyclo-commuted, I’ve worn a pair of (more flattering) shorts over the top of padded shorts. You can buy baggy, but nonetheless cycling-specific, shorts that come with a padded inner. There’s no reason why you can’t wear padded shorts under trousers.
And for the avoidance of doubt, no, you don’t wear underwear beneath your cycling shorts. They work best when the pad is against your skin.
An increasing number of companies are making trousers that have ride-specific features, aside from padding, whilst still looking smart off the bike. Some have reflective beading, making you more visible in car headlights, or turn-ups with large reflective panels underneath that serve the same purpose (whilst also keeping the trouser material out of the way of your chain).
Next contact point: hands.
Again, less of a concern on a shorter ride, but your hands will bear the brunt of riding into the wind and of any vibrations that come through the handlebars. I wear gloves on all but the sunniest of rides, because my hands get cold very easily. Your mileage may vary.
A key feature of most cycling gloves is padding around the palm, to protect your hands from rubbing and, in particular, to reduce overstimulation of the ulnar nerve, which can cause tingling in your finger(lings).
Your cycling-specific choices will be largely dictated by the type of pedals on your bike. If they’re flat (platform) pedals, any sort of footwear (chosen with a modicum of common sense) will work just fine.
Alternatively, if they are ‘clipless’ pedals (which, inexplicably, specifically *do* allow you to clip your feet to the pedal), there are a variety of shoe options available.
Aside from dedicated road biking shoes (that serve very little function off the bike), you can buy hybrid shoes or trainers that otherwise look normal (i.e. non-bike) but have a little space carved out of the sole for a cleat (the bit that clips into the ‘clipless’ pedal).
Hybrid shoes give you a solid connection to your pedals and a smooth pedal stroke whilst riding, but otherwise provide a normal, grippy walking experience when you’re off the bike.
Don’t forget your jacket
My last ‘essential’ category of cycle clothing is ‘inclement weather protection’. I’ve used this vague term intentionally. A shorter description might be ‘rain jacket’.
There are so many options available, depending on different types of weather, how much you have to spend, and your own fortitude in the face of the elements, that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer.
Cycling-specific jackets that are waterproof, windproof and breathable are certainly available, but tend to be very expensive (waterproof and breathable is a hard combination).
For my style of riding (road cycling for enjoyment and fitness), I don’t mind getting a bit damp as long my jacket or jersey provides good wind protection (avoiding the cold).
If staying dry is your priority and you ride at a non-sweaty pace, then a less breathable waterproof jacket would be a cost-effective option.
Whatever the flavour, a cycle-specific jacket (or jersey) will tend to:
- Be tailored for your riding position (longer at the back to cover your bum) and have less
- flappy material to catch the wind and slow you down.
- Have pockets around your lower back to avoid the discomfort of having bulky items in front pockets digging into your abdomen as you ride.
- Have features to make you more visible to other (motorised) road users, whether that’s bright (neon) fabric or reflective panels.
- And finally, but perhaps most critically, make sure you wear a helmet. Safety-first!
Right, c’est tout. We’ve had a short spin through the cycle clothing options that can make your next ride as enjoyable as possible, whatever the conditions.
The key is to take a few moments to consider your particular requirements, before you set off, to make sure you’re not caught out.
Now, where did I put that newspaper…
By Andrew Montgomery