Daylight hours are getting shorter and the weather can be unpredictable, with wind, rain and even sometimes snow to contend with. But what is the best cycling kit to keep you cycling through the colder months? Here's Wiggle Content Manager Nassrin's essential guide to what to wear on the bike during winter.
Do cycling clothes make a difference?
OK. You can wear whatever you like to ride a bike. Even professional cyclists aren't going to pull on the lycra every time they swing a leg over a top tube.
If you're riding a short distance, and you're keeping a moderate pace where you don't expect to break a sweat, there's no need to wear any specialist cycling kit (except maybe a helmet - more on that later). The one golden rule is to secure anything that might get caught in wheels or chains - tucking trouser legs into socks or using trouser clips are both entirely valid methods.
However, once you start to ride for longer, or you want to start riding faster, cycling clothes start to make much more sense. There are four main reasons why cycling-specific clothing will make a difference to your ride.
1. Clothes made for cycling feel good in the riding position (and protect your modesty!)
There are very few occasions in life where you'll spend any significant time perched on a tiny saddle, leaning forwards so it shouldn't be a shock that most of the clothes you own aren't cut out for this sort of thing. Cycling kit is designed to be comfortable on the saddle and give you coverage where you need it (no risk of showing anybody behind you more than they wanted to see!).
2. Cycling kit lets you move freely
Hours of pedal-pushing can give you sore spots in places we'd rather not mention.
Cycling kit is designed so that seams are thoughtfully placed where they won't irritate. It's also common to see different fabrics used to give you stretch, reinforcement, ventilation, or even weatherproofing exactly where you need it.
3. You'll stay feeling fresh
Even in the winter, your best gym t-shirt and joggers are going to feel like a sauna suit if you're picking up the pace.
Clothes designed for cycling tend to be made from fabrics that magically wick the sweat away from your skin, keeping you cool and comfortable on the uphills, but keeping the chill at bay on the downhills.
4. You'll look awesome
That MAMIL stereotype? So outdated. Top-to-toe dayglow team kit? Well, it's your choice.
Forget your preconceptions about cycling style. Whether you like a classic block of colour, subtle prints, or look-at-me brights, there's a cycling kit that matches your vibe.
What are the essentials for cycling?
There's no need to bankrupt yourself straight away. If you're totally new to cycling, building your cycling wardrobe from scratch can feel daunting.
It's fine to take your time and mix-and-match your new cycling kit with things you already own.
Here are the essentials you should consider (as well as some 'nice to haves') in order of priority so you can start building your cycling stash from the ground up.
Protection & visibility
Before you think about buying anything else, your first consideration should be safety. Think about where you'll be riding, as well as the light and weather conditions, and make sure you're prepared.
Do I need to wear a helmet for cycling?
Depending on where in the world you are, it might be illegal to ride without one. Even if it's not mandatory, a cycling helmet will protect your head from impacts in the event of a crash and might even save your life.
Don't be put off by all the different helmet technologies. We put a guide together to explain the main ones which you can find here. All helmets sold on Wiggle are certified, labelled with a European CE EN1078 standard sticker, and comply with a range of international standards, so you can be reassured you're getting a quality lid at any budget.
What should I wear to boost my visibility on the bike?
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to dress like a highlighter on wheels to get noticed on the bike. Fluro hues work well in daylight hours because the UV rays of the sun cause them to glow, making them appear brighter than conventional colours. However, they become less effective in duller conditions or under artificial light.
A more effective strategy is to combine bright colours with retro-reflective elements. Retro-reflective materials look silver or grey in natural light but glow in headlights or street lighting, making it easy for others to spot you when it's dark.
Placement of colour, as well as contrast and even the choice of colour itself, can help other road users immediately recognise you as a human (and therefore best avoided). For example, fluro colours and reflective decals on the lower legs are hard to miss because your legs are constantly moving.
Fluro green might stand out in the concrete jungle, but if you're zipping down undulating country roads through dappled tunnels of greenery, it could have the opposite effect. Consider where and when you'll be riding so you can tailor your look for maximum contrast and maximum impact.
Do I need bicycle lights in the daytime?
If you live in the UK and you cycle after dark, you are required by law to use a white front light and a red rear light with a minimum output of 4 candelas (around 50 lumens). Depending on the quality of your local roads and street lighting, many riders need something a bit more powerful than 50 lumens to help them to see as well as be seen.
Although there is no legal requirement to run lights in the daytime, more and more riders are choosing to and for good reason. Inclement weather and even bright sunlight, as well as cover from trees and buildings, can all reduce visibility.
A study in Denmark revealed that the accident rate for cyclists permanently running lights was 19% less than those not always running lights.* Additional studies suggest that a flashing light is more effective in getting you noticed than a static one. According to one American study,** a flashing tail light is significantly more conspicuous than a static tail light at a distance of 200 meters.
What to wear on the bike
What you wear, as mentioned above, depends on where you're riding and for how long. For example, off-road clothing will have a looser fit than road clothing because the riding position is significantly different and a snug, aerodynamic fit isn't as important for mountain bikers as it is for roadies.
Here are the main bits of kit you should look for as you pull your cycling wardrobe together.
Cycling bib shorts and tights
When you're perched on a bike saddle with your legs pumping up and down, you might find sore spots developing where you really don't want them. Stitching can rub, waistbands can dig in and if you develop saddle sores, you could be off the bike for a long time.
If you're cycling regularly, a chamois pad will make a world of difference to your comfort. It's a squishy, foamy insert sown into the seat of the shorts which provides a bit of cushioning. Although big, squishy saddles are also available and are great for short journeys in 'normal' clothes, over longer distances they can feel uncomfortable as they don't offer enough support for an efficient pedalling motion.
Chamois pads have different levels of padding placed where it will offer the most benefit and there are different options to suit men and women over a variety of riding styles and disciplines.
You'll find a pad in bib shorts, bib tights, waist shorts, waist tights and liners.
- Bib shorts and tights - Cycling shorts and tights (full-leg length) are made from a close-fitting, stretchy fabric with straps that go over the shoulders, or sometimes a 'body' section. These are the preferred option for road cyclists because there's no waistband to dig in on long days in the saddle and the straps keep your shorts or tights up so you don't give other road users an eye-full. The one major disadvantage is that the straps prevent difficulties for 'nature breaks,' although some brands have thought around this for their women's bib shorts - look for features like clips, zips and drop seats.
- Waist shorts and tights - Close-fitting and stretchy like bib shorts but with no strap. The waistband is generally higher than you'd find on non-cycling shorts, protecting your modesty, and often features a lower section at the front, possibly in a softer fabric, for comfort in the riding position. Some riders prefer waist shorts because they make 'nature breaks' a lot easier.
- Liners - Mountain bikers, or in fact any riders who don't love the full lycra look, can still have a comfortable pad to sit on in a 'liner' short, hidden away under baggy shorts. Some baggy shorts come with a liner which often looks similar to road cycling shorts, only a bit thinner so you stay cool.
The golden rule for padded cycling shorts, tights and liners - Never, never EVER wear underwear with padded cycling shorts. Trust us on this. The additional seams you'll add will rub and chafe like you wouldn't imagine.
In addition to the padded, lycra shorts favoured by roadies and cross-country mountain bikers, another option is baggy mountain bike shorts. As mentioned above, it's common to still pair them up with a padded liner, especially for longer rides.
Cycling jerseys are generally made from high-tech, sweat-wicking fabrics to keep you fresh and dry. Some feature different fabrics strategically placed to help to regulate your temperature. For example, winter jerseys might feature more weather-resistant panels at the front and lighter fabric in the underarms or on the back.
The design of cycling jerseys can vary widely, from sleek, aero jerseys to baggy t-shirt styles and everything in-between. However, they generally fall into two main categories.
- Road cycling jerseys - Most road jerseys will feature a full-length or half-zip on the front, allowing you to vent easily if you get too warm. Expect to see generous pockets at the rear so you can carry food that you want easy access to, your phone for impromptu selfies and even small tools and spares. Fit can range from casually baggy to clingy aero-pro, depending on the intended use. You can extend the life of summer jerseys into autumn with the addition of arm warmers, or long-sleeved jerseys are available for more wintery days. Be sure to check our detailed guide for more info on the options available.
- Mountain bike jerseys - Cross-country MTB jerseys generally look a lot like road cycling jerseys, albeit with a slightly more forgiving cut and reinforcements anywhere you're likely to get snagged on trees. Most other mountain bike jerseys have more in common with regular t-shirts to look at and for this reason, they are also popular for commuters and casual weekend rides when you might want to stop for a pub lunch without standing out too much. However, look closer and you'll notice a host of cool features, from integrated goggle wipes to durable shoulders that won't get worn down by your backpack. Some are even cut in an extra generous fit so they can be worn over body armour. Our guide explains more.
Cycling shoes are designed to feel stiffer than other shoes. Whilst this means most cycling shoes aren't great to walk in, they'll support your foot as you push the pedals and they will help you to make the most of the power you're putting through your legs.
The shoes you choose to wear depend not only on the type of riding you'll be doing but also on whether or not you want to clip in. Here's a brief explanation of the differences but you might also be interested in our article about whether clipping in is right for you.
- Flat shoes - Shoes that don't have any means to clip into the pedals are commonly known as 'flats' in cycling parlance. Understandably, when you're not attached to the pedal it's much easier to put a foot on the ground if you need to, making flats popular with mountain bikers, commuters and leisure cyclists. The sole is often constructed from a more grippy rubber than you might find on regular trainers so they're less likely to slip, especially in wet conditions.
- Clipless shoes - Confusingly, the shoes that allow you to clip into the pedals are known as 'clipless.' Systems for road cyclists include Shimano SPD-SL, Look and Keo whilst mountain bikers can choose from SPD, Crank Brothers, Time and Speedplay, amongst others. Road cycling systems prioritize power transfer and the cleat generally sticks out from the surface of the shoe's sole. Mountain bike systems are more recessed into the sole so it's easier to walk in them and some say easier to get out of, which means you often see commuters using mountain bike pedals even if they're riding a road bike.
Clipping in can take some practice, but riders who have mastered it will tell you that the gains in efficiency, handling, and power are worth risking a few embarrassing tumbles.
During the colder months, many riders struggle with cold feet. If this sounds familiar, there are a few things you can do to beat the chill:
- Tape up your vents - Cycling shoes often have vents in the soles. If you can remove the inner sole, you'll be able to use duct tape to keep the draft out.
- Wear thicker socks - Look for merino wool as this is great for wicking away moisture. Be cautious about double-layering socks though - if your shoes end up too tight you'll cut off circulation and your feet will feel even colder.
- Add overshoes - Overshoes are an effective and affordable way to keep your feet nice and dry. Plus, hi-viz and reflective overshoes are great for standing out in the dark as you're adding visibility to a body part that's always moving. Check our comprehensive guide for more info.
- Wear winter cycling shoes - If you're expecting to be riding a lot during the winter months, or you are really suffering with cold feet, winter cycling shoes could be a worthwhile investment. They feature the same technologies you might see on hiking boots to keep the cold and rain out and you can even get boot-style shoes with neoprene cuffs to limit the ingress of water through the top.
Cycling accessories to help you go further
Weather can be unpredictable, but a few additional accessories can help you to keep going in most weathers and help you to stretch a jersey and shorts to see you through most of the year.
Forget about the boil-in-the-bag, day-glow jackets of the old days. Modern fabric technologies have made it possible to create breathable, form-fitting jackets that still keep the elements at bay. For example, ultra-light fabrics like Gore's Shakedry mean that a fully waterproof jacket that fits into a jersey pocket is no longer a fantasy, whilst leading fabric technology from Polartech has allowed brands like dhb to produce jackets that are as comfortable as a cycling jersey but keep you as cozy as your best winter coat.
Vibrant prints and colors work in tandem with retro-reflective details to help riders to stay visible in changing light conditions. If you'll be doing most of your riding after dark, you can even find jackets that are fully retro-reflective, which means they're a nice and sedate dark grey in daylight and ambient light, but glow brilliantly in streetlights and headlights.
As you spend longer on the bike, you might experience soreness or fatigue from gripping the handlebars, especially if you're riding on rough surfaces. Cycling mitts or gloves have padded palms to absorb the bumps and are often slightly rubbery to help you to grip. There's also an added bonus that if you have a fall, there's something between your delicate palms and the rough road.
In the winter, gloves are even more essential as you'll lose dexterity and control over the bike if your fingers start to freeze. Full-fingered gloves for the winter feature a variety of fabric technologies to cover all conditions. Some brands even produce layering systems so, on milder days you might get away with a lighter liner glove but you can bolt on a heavier wind and water-proof layer if you need to.
It's not just about the gloves though - if you suffer from frosty fingers you should check out our guide to keeping those digits nice and toasty.
A base layer is an extra layer you can wear under your jersey and under your bib short straps if you're wearing them. Summer base layers are designed to help to wick sweat away from your body and many come in a mesh or waffle-effect fabric which helps to keep the moisture away. Merino wool is great for cooler days as it will keep you warm even if it gets wet. Furthermore, if you need to remove your jersey for a cafe stop or loo stop, you've got an extra layer so you're not revealing too much or letting too much warmth out.
Call it a gilet, a body warmer, a vest, we don't mind. This sleeveless spare layer is an often overlooked but nevertheless valuable piece to add to your cycling outfit for changeable days. Available in a multitude of options, many will pack away into a pocket so you can keep it to hand to maintain your core temperature on long descents or if the weather comes in.
Arm and leg warmers are little wonders that can make a big difference to your comfort on those cold starts and chilly evenings. It's also a low-cost way to extend the life of your cycling kit into the cooler months - pop on a pair of arm warmers and hey presto - your short-sleeved jersey now has long sleeves. Magic!
We all know that sunglasses are generally a good idea. Not only do they block out UV rays, they also help us to look cool (we hope!). If you're spending more time on the bike, you might want to look at cycling-specific shades which come in wrap-around styles to keep the bugs, wind and debris out of your eyes. Some brands have even developed special lens tints which enhance contrast, helping you to recognize imperfections and winter debris in the road surface as you whizz along at speed.
Made famous by the brand Buff®, this simple tube of fabric can be worn in a multitude of ways. Wear it around your neck to keep wind chill out, use it as a headband, wear it like a skullcap under your helmet to protect your head from the sun's scorching rays, wrap it around your wrist to use as a sweat wipe.... Various brands call them a neck tube, head thingy, neck thingy, neck foil. Don't be confused by the branding - try one and never look back.
OK, so you can wear any socks you like on the bike. However, delve a bit deeper into the cycling rabbit hole and you'll discover that socks are actually incredibly important. So important that the sport governing body the UCI has rules about how long your socks can be - break the rules and you could get ejected from the race!
For most of us amateurs, socks are a great way to inject a bit of color and personality into an outfit and can be any length you like. Socks designed for cycling also feature cushioning and compression in the right places to support your foot through the pedalling motion and minimize rubbing in stiff cycling shoes.
Overshoes or shoe covers
If you've invested in cycling shoes, add a pair of weather-proof overshoes for a bit of added protection from the elements - it's a much cheaper way to keep your feet warm and dry as the seasons change than buying a pair of winter boots. They're also handy for summer downpours, keeping the water out and your shoes clean.
Racing cyclists might also be interested in sleek oversocks which are designed to smooth over all the bumpy bits on your shoes, reducing drag and saving precious watts.