What to wear for winter cycling - dress for success with advice from the experts
Your next few months of cycling shouldn’t be solely about the virtual indoors. Instead, arm yourself with the knowledge to choose the best cycling apparel to keep on riding outdoors…
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
It’s an adage that’s attributed to fell-walker and guidebook author Alfred Wainwright. Arguably, even the bravest cyclist might dispute that hardened notion with some of the downpours we’ve endured in the UK recently but you get the point – dress appropriately and you can continue doing what you love through the winter months.
Yes, an indoor trainer and virtual riding apps like Rouvy and Zwift have their place, but you can’t beat real-world riding to, well, improve real-world riding. Here’s an overview of what you should look for in your winter clothing wardrobe including an insight into the world of the professionals…
Layering is key
During the winter of 2019/2020, the average temperature in the UK was a relatively balmy 5.3°C – around 1.5°C above the average – while experiencing its wettest February on record – 359% of the 1981-2010 February long-term average. So, mild and wet. Swing forward to February 2021 and minus 20°C was recorded at three different weather stations. The UK winter is unpredictable, making clothing choice a labyrinth. But one you can navigate with confidence via layering.
“Layering is important to all riders including ours at AG2R Citroën Team,” says Stephen Barrett, trainer and performance scientist at the French WorldTour team. “That’s key to benefitting from the advances in material technology. Clothing manufacturers are clever in how they create materials and where they place materials on the garment. In fact, cycling clothing’s been one of the major innovations of the past few years.”
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At the heart of layering and material technology is balancing waterproofing with breathability and insulation. Layering’s vital here because it gives you the option of cooling or warming depending on the situation. This is important because a 1°C drop in ‘localised’ temperature (for instance, at the quadriceps of the thigs) can result in a 10% drop in performance. On the flipside, when you exercise, you create heat. Lots of it. The human body’s only 20-25% efficient, meaning that of the 100% energy you generate, 75-80% of it is heat. Nearly 85% of this heat is produced by muscle contraction. All in all, you need clothing that can breathe easy and still warm the cockles.
Ace of base
That’s where the humble base layer comes in. One of its key roles is to transfer sweat (wicking) from your body to the open air. It’s also there to insulate. Manmade fabrics like polyester or naturally wicking fabrics like merino wool do the job, with thickness guided by ambient temperature. Just be aware that the thicker the garment, the less flexible it is. Securing the right thickness and fit’s important for various reasons.
“Clothing is measured in yarns per square centimetre,” explains Dr Simon Hodder, senior lecturer in ergonomics at Loughborough University. “When it’s stretched, you decrease that number. That provides greater space for the sweat to leave but also reduces its insulation properties because the material’s spread over a much wider area. You have bigger gaps for airflow to hit your skin, too, which is particularly detrimental on the bike where windchill can be much greater.”
So, like Goldilocks, your base layer shouldn’t be too tight or too loose. And not only for wicking and insulation reasons. “There’s a positional aspect to this, too,” says Barrett. “As an example, the thicker and greater layers you pile on, the more it changes your position on the bike. And if you’re riding for four or five hours in the winter and you’ve got a big base layer beneath a big jersey along with a big jersey, it can make the riding experience quite different. So as lightweight and less bulky clothing the better with sensible layering.” In short, like all clothing, the ideal is to try before you buy.
Next up is a mid-layer or jersey, which may or may not be needed depending on temperature. Ultimately, this could well be decided by exertion levels. If it’s cold outside but you’re planning hill repeats of Bamford Clough in the Peak District (a not inconsiderable 664m long at an average gradient of 21% that peaks at 36.5%), remain mid-layer free. If it’s cold and your heart rate will barely rise above walking bpm, your best bet could be a mid-layer.
When it comes to jackets, despite advances in material technology, Hodder suggests it’s near impossible to have a completely waterproof jacket that lets the exercising body breathe efficiently. “When it comes to waterproofing, complete protection comes from something completely impermeable like a fisherman’s jacket,” says Hodder. “But it’s neither flexible or breathable.”
Then again, Gore-Tex’s ShakeDry technology, seen in Gore’s own products plus hard-shell jackets from the likes of Rapha (Pro Team Lightweight) and Castelli (Idro Pro), would dispute this, marketing itself as completely waterproof. How ShakeDry works, says Gore’s website, is down to “eliminating the face fabric, making the Gore-Tex membrane the outer surface. Famously hydrophobic – or ‘water hating’ – that innovative membrane creates persistent repellency: water simply beads up and rolls off the jacket. Plus a layer less also makes jackets as light and packable as it gets”.
It's also mooted as being highly breathable. It’s impressive stuff with Castelli’s Idro 3 coming in at over £300. But what price comfort?! Though, you may ask, how do you determine the waterproofing and breathability of a garment? There are standards albeit not necessarily cycling-specific. To ascertain the waterproofing quality of a garment, one protocol involves placing a 1in x 1in square tube over the fabric and determining how high (in millimetres) a column of water you can channel over it before it starts leaking. Around 0-5,000mm offers little resistance; 6-10,000mm is rainproof and waterproof under light pressure… right up to 20,000mm-plus, which is rainproof and waterproof under very high pressure.
Then again, that’s no good if the jacket’s not breathable. The industry test here involves taking a 1m2 piece of fabric and seeing how much water passes through it in a 24-hour period. The higher the number, the more breathable a material is.
The higher the number of both usually equates to a higher RRP. More affordable fabrics tend to feature seams that are likely to be bonded with a heat gun and taped rather than stitched. Zips are frequently sealed and backed with a waterproof fabric. And if you go for a relatively cheap waterproof, it’s more likely to use a material that’s not actually waterproof but has been treated with a coating like DWR (Durable Water Repellent). Yes, top-end jackets will often use this treatment but to complement the waterproof material, not as the sole defence. Just note that DWR treated garments last around 100 washes before retreatment is required.
As for windproof jackets, you’re looking for a softer-shell version where waterproofing isn’t its primary aim. “To be windproof, you can have a slightly larger pore in the material and a more open weave,” says Hodder. “Something like Gore’s Windstopper material comprises layers that are slightly offset, so instead of the wind coming straight through, it hits and diverts.”
Longs and extremities
Down below you’re looking at bib longs or bib shorts. But arguably keeping your legs totally dry isn’t the most important thing. Stretch is key. You also need warmth so a brushed lining is the first thing you should look for in a bib tight.
Instead, says Hodder, you should pay greater focus on the extremities. “Because your hands and feet have a low mass-to-surface area, they lose heat very quickly,” says Hodder. “And because they contain numerous thermo-receptors, they’re a significant driver of how hot and cold we feel.” So arm yourself with a good-quality pair of thermal booties and cycling gloves. They’re impact shouldn’t be underestimated, adds Barrett. “There’s nothing worse than hearing a rider telling me they were frozen and, for instance, they couldn’t pull their brakes. That’s certainly happened in the past on long descents at a race like the Giro d’Italia. They then lose the break, which can affect race results.
“Look back to last year and Ben O’Connor’s stage win at the Tour de France [the rainy stage nine into Tignes]. It was a horrible day in the Alps and there was one point where he nearly got dropped by [Sergio] Higuita when he was changing gloves. Thankfully, the gloves from [AG2R Citroën Team’s clothing sponsor Rosti] have a little zipper to make it really easy to slip on and off. A different pair and he might have lost that break.”
Arm and leg warmers are also a useful addition to your winter wardrobe, as they’re also easy to slip on and off for temperature regulation, while a neck warmer and potentially a skull should complete your winter wardrobe.
Enjoying a memorable 2023 starts now. And that starts with dressing for the elements. We’d encourage you to spend what your budget can cope with as, when it comes to cycling apparel, you really do notice the difference the more you spend. Then again, we know many riders who rave about more affordable brands like dhb. However long your purse strings, look for comfort, waterproofing, windproofing, breathability, insulation and comfort.
Now, get out there and ride…
Cover image by Getty Images