What kind of clothing is suitable for everyday cycling? You don’t have to wear lycra and hi-viz to cycle for transport, but certain materials and designs can make a cycle journey much more comfortable.
Cotton jersey (a.k.a. t-shirt material) isn’t that good for cycling long distances, because it absorbs large amounts of water and becomes cold when wet. A shirt makes a better ‘base layer’ because the material is thinner and dries quickly. It’s also slightly tougher, so it’s good for wearing if you have a bag on your back (but, speaking of bags, cycle luggage will make the journey much more comfortable).
The word ‘wool’ might conjure up images of the hand-knitted cable knit sweater, but there has been considerable development in wool-based textiles in recent years, to produce fabrics which are warm, hard-wearing and quick drying.
Merino wool is an excellent material because it is breathable; it is naturally anti-bacterial, so it doesn’t hold odours. The first time I tried a merino base layer, I was amazed at how warm it kept me, despite it being thinner than a t-shirt. Notable manufacturers of merino clothing include SmartWool and Icebreaker. Their base layers (long sleeved t-shirts) are priced at £50 and upwards.
Zip-fronted wool tops be easily put on and taken off and stuffed into a pannier, which is convenient if you get too warm while cycling, or if your journey to work is likely to be colder than your journey home.
A waterproof jacket can be worn on top of wool in heavy rain, and carried in a bag the rest of the time. The wool mid layer will manage perspiration relatively well, holding a certain amount of water in the fabric whilst still allowing a small amount of air to circulate between your skin and the waterproof outer garment. (A cotton midlayer on the other hand would get saturated relatively quickly.)
A gilet can be useful in colder weather, either as a midlayer or top layer. Those with external pockets with press stud fastening allow you to keep your valuables on you, which can be convenient. It’s fairly to regulate your temperature while wearing in a gilet as a top layer, just by unzipping it if you get too warm. Down-filled gilets compress very readily to fit inside cycle luggage. Polyester-wadding-filled gilets are less useful as they tend to get stuffy when you warm up.
Gloves protect the hands from wind chill and stop the fingers from becoming numb – essential for operating the controls (gear levers and brake levers). They also protect against vibrations from the handlebars, from soreness and from carpal tunnel syndrome (pins and needles) in the fingers or palms.
Gloves made for cycling are a relatively inexpensive investment and larger bike shops have a wide range of them. Look for padded palms and material that allows a good grip on the handlebar and controls (i.e. brake levers and gear shifters). Full length gloves should be thin enough at the fingers for you to operate the controls without looking at them.
For cycling when it’s not cold, take a look at track mitts. These are fingerless gloves with padded palms designed specifically for cycling. Traditional track mitts have a leather palm and string mesh back. The string back is absorbent, which is convenient for wiping perspiration from the face while riding. Traditional mitts are available in plain black or white and have an understated look that goes better with non-cycling clothing.
Shoes are better than boots because they allow the ankle to move.
Stiff soles are better than soft ones because they allow more energy to be transmitted to the drive train per pedal stroke.
If the bike is fitted with flat pedals (i.e. normal pedals), a slight heel is useful, especially when cycling in wet weather, as it can stop the shoe from sliding forward.
Long shoelaces can get trapped in the chain (or on some other part of the bike when mounting or dismounting). Double or triple bows can take up the excess.
Cotton socks hold water when wet, trapping it next to the skin. There are better materials out there, including merino blends such as SmartWool. These fabrics are ‘wicking’, so they pull moisture away from the skin. They also have anti-bacterial properties and, unlike knitted wool, are fine enough not to chafe. SmartWool socks are available in a variety of thicknesses and can be found at camping stores.
Long hair is best tied back in a pony tail so it does not blow around in the wind or obscure the riders vision when s/he looks behind. A cycle helmet can keep mid-length hair from obscuring the cyclist’s vision, because the straps keep the hair away from the face. There are images showing how to correctly adjust a cycle helmet here.
A peaked cap offers some protection from rain and bright sunlight. This is particularly valuable for wearers of prescription glasses. While a baseball cap will keep the rain off, it’s unsuitable on windy days because a gust could blow it off. A cycling cap has elasticated sides to prevent this, and it folds to fit in a pocket.
Waterproof jackets can be useful for wearing when off the bike, if it rains at the destination. The most useful kind are those that can be packed into their own pocket, as they take up far less space.
While a waterproof jacket is near-essential when you’re a pedestrian, it’s not as important when you’re a cyclist (except perhaps in the coldest months of winter). This is because the body generates more heat during moderate exercise such as cycling, and as a result, rain that falls on the upper body does not usually feel as cold. Another argument against waterproof jackets is that many of them are not sufficiently breathable to allow the evaporation of water leaving the skin during moderate exercise. This can lead to water droplets forming on the inside of the jacket, which then wet the next layer of clothing. Modern, breathable materials, such as Goretex, are better at managing the evaporation of water. While cycling jackets made from breathable materials are relatively expensive, some of the jackets sold for walking are better made for a given price point, because production runs are larger so the manufacturers are able to make economies of scale.
For utility cycling, waterproof trousers can be very useful. Not only can they protect the thighs from rainwater dripping from a jacket, they can keep chain oil off your trousers. They can also protect the crotch of normal trousers from getting worn by being in contact with the saddle (meaning your smart Levi’s will last a bit longer).
Waterproof trousers for cycling need to be removable with shoes on. Look for designs with zips along the outsides of the legs. These allow the trousers to be removed without you pulling your feet through the trouser legs, which is useful when shoes are dirty. If the legs are too baggy when fastened down, as may be the case with walking trousers, trouser clips can be used to secure the excess material and keep it away from the chain. Waterproof trousers designed for cycling should have a reinforced crotch, as this is where they tend to wear out.
When walking, it is convenient to have items like keys, phone and wallet in hip pockets, but this is uncomfortable for cycling. It is better to keep valuables in a jacket pocket, and better still to use a frame bag. Keys in a key purse, rather than loose, are less likely to damage a phone.
A heavy wristwatch can bounce around as the vibrations from the road surface are transmitted through the forks to the handlebar. It’s surprising how these vibrations, not normally noticeable, become really annoying when they make a watch bob around on the wrist. Lightweight watches are far more comfortable and Swatch watches made of plastic are ideal.
If you think you’d want to check the time while riding, but it might be inconvenient to look at your watch or your phone, you could fit a bike computer to the handlebar and just use it for the clock. Entry level bike computers are available for less than £10.