cycle performance: dressing for bike touring

For anything beyond casual rides around town, you'll appreciate cycling-specific clothing. Bike clothing makes for a comfortable ride—whether you're on the road, hitting the trail or commuting to and from work. These styles can help you perform better and ride longer. Here's what to consider.

Cycling Jerseys, Shorts and Tights

You don't need to squeeze into skin-tight spandex covered with corporate logos just for a trip to the grocery store. But cycling clothing makes sense the more miles you ride.Bike Jerseys

A bike jersey of Lycra spandex or other form–fitting material reduces drag when you ride. Many brands also offer cycling jerseys that look and feel very much like regular tops, but include a few strategically placed pockets and zippers. Their technical fabrics enhance performance by wicking away sweat to keep you drier.

Cycling–specific features:

  • Stand–up collar to shade your neck in summer.
  • Front zipper for ventilation when your temperature rises.
  • Shoulders cut wider for arms–forward comfort.
  • Sleeves specially shaped for forward lean.
  • Back pockets for easy on–the–go access.
  • Longer cut in the back for coverage when riding.
  • Reflective trim or highlights for the night riding.

Additional features for winter riding:

Long sleeves for more warmth and coverage.
Denser, heavier fabric weaves and a brushed lining to add insulation.

Bike Shorts

These are distinguished from street clothing primarily by 1) added stretch for full freedom of movement, and 2) a padded crotch liner to reduce friction and wick moisture. If possible, try several on to determine what style best fits your anatomy and your typical seat position while riding.

Road-bike short features:

  • Panel construction: In the past, a greater number of panels (typically 6 or 8) correlated to a more comfortable fit. While this is still generally true, fabric technology has progressed to the point that the number of panels doesn't necessarily mean "better" for everyone.
  • Padded liner: A smooth, soft pad of "chamois" (these days, all are synthetic and not leather) minimizes friction, wicks moisture, prevents bacterial growth and helps cushion bumps. It's the most complex part of a bike short. There are a multitude of shapes, thicknesses and materials among brands and genders.

Some general guidelines:

Short liner: Multi-density, open-cell foam liners deliver high-end performance and comfort for long rides.
Gel/open-cell foam liners offer greater recreational or mountain-bike cushioning but tend to be less breathable on long, hot rides.
Closed-cell foam liners offer good performance at a lower cost.

Legs: Longer-cut legs and leg grippers prevent saddle chafing and keep shorts in place.

Waist style: Most road shorts feature stretchy but non-adjustable spandex. A yoga-style cut offers less-restrictive comfort and is available in some women's shorts.

Tip: All of the bike-short padding in the world will not make up for an uncomfortable or poorly adjusted bike seat.

Other styles of bike shorts include:

Mountain bike shorts: Sometimes called "baggies," these have a loose outer short in addition to the spandex chamois liner. The waist is fastened by a button or hook-and-look patch for a loose fitting comfort. Pockets are also common. Choose these by their features and quality of construction, but also make sure the cut of the outer shorts feels comfortable and allows for full leg rotation and flexibility.
Bib shorts: Popular with cycling enthusiasts but a comfortable option for any rider, these don't have an elastic waistband that can restrict breathing. Worn with a jersey, they look like any other bike shorts.
Shorts: For women, some brands make cycling shorts, where the spandex short is covered by a skirt. Skorts can be worn on the road, mountain or even around town.

Bike Tights, Knickers and Leg Warmers

For cooler temperatures, you may opt for cycling tights, which cover the entire leg, or knickers, which cover the knee and above. Just like shorts, many tights and knickers come with a built-in chamois and should be chosen using the same guidelines for fit and comfort. Tights often include weather-resistant front panels and reflective detailing for dark, winter rides.

For layering purposes, some tights and knickers come without a chamois liner so they will fit over a pair of cycling shorts with no problem. Additionally, leg warmers are a handy cycling accessory that can be used on the fly to make a pair of cycling shorts into tights or knickers.

Cycling Jackets

The top 2 considerations when selecting a cycling jacket: Will it keep me warm? Will it keep me dry? Some cycling jackets will do both, but it is good to keep the following in mind:

How warm is "warm"? The jacket you use for winter riding in Ft Wayne, Indiana, will probably be different than the one you'd use for winter riding in the Tuscany, but could come in handy in the Italian Dolomite's. The level of warmth you are seeking depends on the extremity of the conditions. But don't overdress; you'll warm up from exertion during your ride. Jackets for maximum warmth will protect you against the wind and offer some insulation, mostly in the front and arms of the garment.

Is rain in the forecast? For rainy days, you'll want a waterproof cycling jacket. These provide a longer back and sleeves cut for a forward lean; some offer an oversized hood that fits over a helmet. While these often offer less insulation (which can be offset by layering) and are less breathable than other jackets, they will keep you dry if you're caught on a long, wet ride.

Not sure what to expect? For milder winter conditions, go with a highly breathable waterproof or water-resistant jacket. These are lightweight and offer wind and water protection; they can be easily stowed in a pocket or pack when not in use. Additionally, some cycling jackets can be converted into a vest via zip-off long sleeves. This feature makes for a particularly versatile jacket that can be used year-round.

Layering Your Clothing

For cool-season rides, long-sleeve jerseys, tights or warmers can all increase your comfort. Layering your clothing offers another good option.

The goal of layering is to keep your core body temperature consistent as you ride. Being too warm can be just as bad as being too cold because your body wastes energy at both extremes trying to regulate itself.

The 3 traditional components of layering:

A next-to-skin layer (e.g., long underwear) that wicks away moisture.
An insulating middle layer.
A weatherproof or windproof outer shell.

Bike Shoes

Road cyclists use seek a lightweight, aerodynamic model with slick soles.
Mountain bikers need shoes with durable soles that offer ample tread to grip the trail if needed.
For the commuter or casual rider, consider a hybrid style that acts like a cycling shoe but looks like a casual "street shoe," perfect for the office or coffee shop.

For wet or rainy rides, toe covers (which cover the shoe from arch to toe) or shoe covers (which cover the entire shoe and part of the ankle) are a great way to ensure your toes stay toasty. Both offer some wind protection or insulation, and many shoe covers will offer water protection, too.

Bike Socks

Your feet can produce as much as a cup of perspiration when you're pedaling hard. In winter, this can lead to cold feet. In summer, it can mean blisters unless you wear synthetic or merino wool socks that help wick the perspiration away. Avoid cotton socks for all but light workouts.

Wool is a popular alternative to socks made out of synthetic materials (such as polyester or polypropylene) for summer or winter riding. It is not only wicking, quick-drying (for summer) and insulating (for winter), but it does an exceptional job of insulating while wet, which is perfect for those who enjoy the occasional stream crossing or unexpected rainstorm.

Accessory Items

Helmet: Don't ride a bike without one. In addition to saving your skull, a helmet provides warmth in winter and shade in summer. Some models come with as many as 21 vents to channel air through the helmet for excellent heat control.

Caps: These add insulation to your winter rides, while a headband or a thinner skullcap can serve as a sweat barrier and help wick moisture for a cooler head during summer riding.

Sunglasses: Protect your eyes against wind, sun glare, bugs and sand or grit kicked up by other riders or cars. Always use plastic lenses that cannot shatter on impact. Many sunglass manufacturers also offer styles with interchangeable lenses, featuring different colorations to match the light conditions.

Gloves

Gloves: In summer, gloves with short-cut fingers are the popular choice. Most have a padded leather or synthetic-leather palm and moisture-absorbing terry cloth for dabbing sweat or a runny nose.

For cold-weather rides, a pair of wicking, breathable, full-finger bike gloves are a must. Most also offer some protection against the wind. For maximum warmth, consider using a thin liner inside the glove.

Arm/leg warmers: These provide a little extra warmth while taking up minimal space in a shirt pocket or pack. Each is essentially a fleece or wool sleeve that fits over your arms or legs to cover exposed skin. Warmers should be slid on under your jersey and shorts and fit snugly to avoid slippage during a ride. When temperatures rise, they can be easily slipped off without having to unbutton, unzip or change anything.

Always make sure you ride a few days in your kit to ensure everything fits well.  You do not want to be in the middle of a long tour and find you are getting hot spots from your bike clothes or that your new shoes do not fit as well with a ticker pair of socks.

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