Essential Guide: Layers for cycling - Bike Magic

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Essential Guide: Layers for cycling

Your guide to purchasing layers for cycling

The temperature is plummeting as we gradually inch ever closer to winter, and so it’s that time of year when extra layers of clothing are needed to keep warm, dry, or both.

But it’s not always as simple as just pulling on a big jacket. This being Britain the temperature can swing wildly from sub zero to really quite mild, and the rain can be frequent, a brief cloudburst or a prolonged downpour. These changeable conditions make the clothing decision before a ride a tricky thing, getting it right is a matter of trial and error.

But there is something you can do to improve your chance of keeping a comfortable temperature during a ride. It’s all about layering. Rather than a t-shirt and big jacket, wearing several appropriate layers for the conditions you expect to encounter on your ride, gives you better control over your temperature and means you can be versatile should the conditions change during your ride.

How many layers? Well, three seems to be the optimum number when it’s really cold, with two ideal for slightly warmer days and four reserved for near-Arctic conditions. But the number of layers does all depend on the type of clothing you have at your disposal.

Each thin layer traps air between it and the next, keeping you warmer, and high quality wicking garments will transport perspiration away from your skin to the next layer in turn to deal with.

Layering can be a fine art though; you can never be entirely sure how much you need to wear, what with the frequently changeable conditions only adding to the problem. Experience counts a lot, so getting out on your bike and trying different clothing combinations until you find the right balance is our top tip.

Layer one – next to the skin

Start with a base layer, short or long sleeve depending on the temperature or personal preference. The job of a base layer is to wick sweat away from your skin keeping you dry, which means you stay warm – a bad base layer will get progressively damper which will gradually make you colder. Choose from the Merino wool variety, good for softness next to the skin, or synthetic base layers which combine good performance and low prices.

For the legs there are several options, but we’ll pick our two preferred methods. Either full-length tights with a chamois built into them, three-quarter length bib knicks, or a pair of non-padded tights pulled over a pair of padded bib shorts. The later option has the advantage of costing less if you already have favourite bib shorts, and the tights

Layer two – the filling in the layer sandwich

The next layer is an important one. With the base layer wicking sweat from your skin keeping you dry, the mid layer is going to provide a great deal of your warmth. A medium weight fabric long sleeve jersey with a full-length zip and three pockets is a good choice. If you plan to head out with just two layers look for a top with windproof properties.

Layer three – it’s what’s on top that matters

This is perhaps the most essential item in your cycle clothing wardrobe, and perhaps the most expensive item you’ll purchase. There are many choices, from 100% waterproof jackets ideal for monsoon conditions to lightweight packable windproof tops ideal on breezy days, to those that combine the benefits of both.

A lightweight windproof shell is a useful jacket to have. It can be small enough to be packed away in a pocket when not needed, and when being worn it will keep the wind out, provide some water resistance should you get caught in a thunderstorm, and avoid overheating.

If you’re wanting to be kept dry in the heaviest downpours, there are many fully waterproof jackets, but the trade-off is that they can get very warm. So look for ventilation such as zippable ports under the arms and down the side panels.

Generally speaking, the more features a jacket has the more the price will be pushed up. But remember, you’ll be relying on the jacket in a multitude of conditions and if you want to be kept dry and warm throughout the winter, don’t skimp.

Layer four – keeping your feet, hands and noggin warm

Let’s not forget your feet and hands, which are always the first to feel the cold as the body diverts blood away from the extremities. Full-finger gloves are a must when it’s cold, and the more padded the better insulated your digits will be, but too thickly padded on warm days and the hotter your fingers will get. A couple of different pairs of gloves, though costly, is the perfect way to address different temperature ranges and conditions.

With modern helmets being so well ventilated, a head-warmer can be a necessary addition to your attire, if you want to keep your ears from falling off. A thin skull cap or peaked cap is good for cool conditions, but on colder days a thicker ear-covering hat is a must.

Finally, a good pair of woolen socks is our tip for warm feet. A pair of thin windproof oversocks or thicker overshoes are a must for keeping the wind and rain out of your shoes, and your feet warm and dry. When it’s really cold, we’ve been known to wear two pairs of socks and two pairs of overshoes in an effort to keep the cold out!


Remember the importance of layering, there’s no right or wrong, but you’ll find the right combination after a couple of rides. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Everyone finds a different solution that works for them.

And don’t forget, enjoy your riding, and think of next Spring as inspiration to keep you riding.

What do you wear to combat the cold? Let us know in this forum thread.


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