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Bicycle Clothes

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You'll see two types of riders on the road - those wearing regular street clothes when riding, and those wearing specialized bicycle clothes. (The latter include a subspecies that looks like a moving billboard.) I started in the first category but have been completely converted to the second. This chapter considers each piece in turn.

The fundamental principle for bicycle clothing is layering. If the weather gets colder or wetter, one does not choose a thicker material but adds more layers. The advantage is that this makes it easier to adjust to changing temperatures without having to carry a complete set for every temperature range, and it is faster to adjust by opening or taking off just one layer. Bicycle riding requires much more attention to just the right clothing - too warm is just as bad as too cold.

Another principle is tight fitting. A baggy jacket not only acts like a braking parachute but also lets cold air get closer to the skin, which makes the wind feel much colder because sweat evaporates directly on the skin. One function of bicycle clothing is to keep the skin dry by transporting sweat to the outside, where it can evaporate without cooling the body too much and without soaking the clothing.




  • Shorts are made from flexible lycra material sewn together from multiple panels, sometimes with different colours. The seat and front is padded with leather (hard to find and not useful) or synthetic chamois. Sometimes the padding contains gel cushions, but this is a bad idea because they do not let sweat evaporate to the outside, and they do not even improve comfort noticeably. Shorts come in male and female versions that are cut differently, and have different padding. Bicycle shorts are not used with underwear because that would defeat the advantages.

    The advantages of bicycle shorts are that they are flexible, padded, and seamless. Regular pants may constrict your thighs (which expand when you ride), and they will chafe the inside of your thighs where they rub against the saddle, especially if they are loose-fitting because they bunch up. I never ride anywhere without bicycle shorts. If you are concerned about looking geeky, there are versions with an outer part that looks like regular shorts, with invisible inner lycra shorts.

    Make sure that the waist and leg hole size fits. Shorts must fit tightly but may not constrict the waist or the thighs (sometimes leg holes are far too small). Waist straps are useful but not necessary. The legs should have rubber threads sewn in at the leg ends. It usually looks like multiple thin white rings stitched into the inside. Do not buy pants that just have a single rubber ring sewn into a fold, they slip.


  • Long pants come with and without padding. The ones with padding are like shorts with long legs, and the ones without are worn over regular shorts. I prefer the latter because I don't need as many of them, because I can take them off when it gets warmer, and because I have found the padded variant to slip easily. Pants must be close fitting, and must be long enough to pull up at least over your navel (you don't do that normally but if you can't they will slip). I prefer pants with a cord at the waist that keeps them up better. (I have found such cords to be unnecessary in shorts.)

    Long pants have the same advantages over street clothing as shorts, with an additional one: in wet weather street clothing becomes heavy, inflexible, and clings to the skin. Bicycle pants remain flexible, and although they get wet they don't soak up water, and the reduced evaporation and the fact that there is no air between skin and pants make them feel much warmer despite the fact that they are made from much thinner material.

    Long pants come in various thicknesses, from the thin lycra material used in shorts to thicker lycra with a fuzzy inside, and as fleece. I have them all: the thin ones for warm weather down to about 10 degrees C, the thick and fuzzy ones for temperatures above freezing, and the thick fleece ones for anything lower than that. (Fleece does not work well in rain.) Some of them have zippers in the lowest part that makes them easier to get over the feet (or even shoes); the material is flexible but pulling too strongly will tear the seams.


  • Rain pants go over long pants and are made from waterproof material. They are very uncomfortable on skin because they are basically sturdy plastic bags. All the ones I have tried begin to leak after a few minutes, and they get in the way when riding. I recommend against them. The only marginal advantage is that the spray from rear wheels without mudguards does not soak the back of your pants but I have found it to be almost as effective to stuff a plastic bag between shorts and long pants.



  • Jerseys are special shirts made from lycra or other synthetic material. They come in long-sleeved, short-sleeved, and sleeveless variants. Most have three pockets in the back that are very convenient for spare tubes, bananas, keys, and other small items (but not paper, because it gets sweaty, or large plastic items that block sweat evaporation).

    Although it may sound unpleasant to wear a plastic shirt, the big advantage of jerseys over T shirts is the fact that they transport sweat from the skin to the outside very efficiently. It takes very hard effort (or a backpack) to get a jersey sweaty, while a T shirt would be soaked very quickly. This is especially important in wet weather because a soaked shirt feels much colder than a jersey. The sweat transport is less effective for very thick jerseys, so it is important to choose the right one and not ``overdress''.

    To some degree temperature can be regulated by stuffing the jersey into the pants (which is not normally done) or adjusting the zippers. I prefer jerseys with long zippers. All jerseys have a rather high collar in the back to prevent a sunburned neck, and some can be zipped up the neck in front to protect against cold headwinds.


  • Undershirts such as the ones made by Odlo are a very effective addition to jerseys. They can be worn underneath the jersey in cold weather, which works better than choosing a thicker jersey. The material is amazingly thin, which means they can be rolled up to a very small bundle and carried in a jersey pocket. They do not work so well if worn without a jersey over them, and they need more frequent washing because they soak more easily.


  • Fleece jackets work well in cold weather. I have never found a combination of undershirts, long-sleeved jerseys, and a fleece jacket to be too cold even below -20 degrees C. Bicycle fleece jackets have water-repellent panels in front where one is exposed to wet headwind, and are more close-fitting than non-bicycle fleece jackets. As always, air pockets reduce the effectiveness. I am very happy with my Cannondale fleece jacket.


  • Rain jackets come in cheap plastic bag versions that seem to get as wet inside as outside because of sweat, and expensive ones from Goretex that allow some degree of sweat transport from the inside to the outside. The Goretex version is worth its price because it keeps one dry if one does not ride too hard. The cheap plastic bag jackets work better when they have slits in the back, and if they are smoothly rubberized inside and not just tightly woven because otherwise they only last for a few minutes in the rain. Good rain jackets reach very low in the back so you can sit on them to protect from spray from the rear wheel.



  • Shoes are mostly chosen to work with the pedals (more about this in the Drive chapter). Things to look out for are tighter than normal fit (the foot should not shift), compatibility with the pedal system, and a thick and moulded (not flat) sole. Make sure they are not too tight though, or your feet go numb after a long ride. Avoid excessive padding that can take forever to dry after riding in the rain. I prefer long velcro straps because they are easier to open and close, and if they are long enough and tied through a buckle they are no less stable than laces.

    One problem with bicycle riding is that the feet get no exercise, which means that it's easy to get cold feet in cold weather. Thin inner socks help somewhat, Goretex outer socks help more (and also keep the feet dry). Boots work best.


  • Boots that are pulled over the shoes have two functions: they keep the feet warm, and in wet weather they keep them dry (not completely, especially if holes for pedal cleats are cut into the soles, but dry enough to stay warm). They come in many variants. I have found Carnac and other sewn plastic and lycra types to perform poorly because water gets in through the seams. In my experience Adidas neoprene boots are best by a wide margin, they are tight, have a thick sole to walk on, and stretch somewhat. They'll make your feet go nova when worn in warm places though. Boots work better in the rain if long pant legs are pulled over them because the pant leg otherwise acts like a wick.


  • Socks must be close-fitting and have a shaped sewn sole. Don't use sixpack-type socks that can bunch up when riding. As usual, in cold weather it works better to wear an inner and an outer sock; the inner one should be thin and made of cotton, and the outer may be cotton or Goretex. Wool doesn't work as well as cotton or Goretex, and is usually so thick that the shoes are too tight.



  • Gloves are important because riding can cause sore hands, no matter how softly padded the handlebars are. Riding too long without gloves can even be dangerous because it can damage the median nerve that runs in the webbing between index finger and thumb, which causes numbness that can take extremely long (weeks or months) to recover. Bicycle gloves have special padding that protects the hands.

    Short gloves (with the finger ends cut off) should be made of a thin lycra top and a soft leather (or similar material) palm. The area between index finger and thumb must be padded with extra layers or pads. The palm has extra padding consisting of foam sewn between leather layers. There are also gloves padded with gel pads but I do not think the extra expense is justified.

    Long gloves come as five-fingered gloves and ``lobster claws'' that are split between middle and ring finger only (this reduces surface area while still allowing two fingers to reach the brakes while the other two hold the handlebars). Long bicycle gloves have extra antislip padding, but in a pinch ski gloves work too. My favourite vendor is Roeckl.



  • Helmets must protect the head against impacts, so the primary concern is stability and close fit. Most helmets now have a thin hard shell that protects the foam against the sun and cuts. Good helmets also have a web moulded into the foam that keeps the helmet from disintegrating on impact (I once had a bunch of styrofoam fragments held together by this web after a crash, it really works). There should be plenty of air holes and thin padding strips. Avoid helmets with padding strips in front, where they can get soaked with sweat and cause sweat to run into your eyes. Different vendors sell different shapes; if one doesn't fit well and needs the thickest set of pads to stay in place buy from another vendor. For example, Bell helmets seem to be wider than Giro helmets.

    Always tighten the strap until you can just barely open your mouth all the way. It needs readjustment every once in a while. Helmets that slip due to loose straps are no protection! Make sure that you can't pull the helmet back when the strap is closed.

    Some people attach mirrors to their helmets and swear they won't punch through their eyeballs in a crash. They don't work for me because I ride road bikes, and all I can see in the mirror is my shoulder. It may work better for more upright riding positions.



  • Glasses protect the eyes against the wind, sun glare, and small objects such as bugs, and sand and gravel kicked up by other riders or cars. Always use plastic lenses that cannot shatter on impact. I used to recommend Oakleys, and the glass is still very good, but the frames are cheap and break easily and it is impossible to buy replacements; they have some ridiculous mail-in policy. The often-repaired Oakleys I have now will be my last ones. (Note: with great satisfaction I have thrown them away now, and replaced them with $14.95 glasses from Performance. What an improvement!)

    Cheap glasses are sometimes not be perfectly planar and distort light, or are not perfectly clear. This is very hard to judge in the shop because when they are new they are polished perfectly. Try to get some where you can attach different glasses to the same frame, you may need both grey shades and clear ones. I do not like orange or yellow ones; they are supposed to increase contrast but I have a hard time judging whether that is oil or water on the road in front of me. I now favour brownish grey ones; the brown colour filters the bright blue sky somewhat.

    Do not buy lenses coated with ceramics, like Alpina ones. True, they have no static electricity problems, but they scratch easily, are very hard to clean because they grab the cloth, and they become less clear with age.

    If you wear prescription glasses, your options are severely limited.


So, do the advantages justify the expense and peculiar look of specialized bicycle clothing? If you ride more than a couple of kilometres a day, and have a high-performance bicycle (as opposed to a gas pipe clunker), definitely. I find riding in regular street clothes uncomfortable, and even painful, and it would take away much of the fun of riding a bicycle. If you want to buy just a single piece to try it out, get padded shorts. It doesn't have to be Pearl Izumi, a $30 sale will do nicely as long as you get the right size.

A word about prices: I haven't found significant price differences for bicycle components in different European countries and the US, except that locally made components are sometimes (Specialized) but not always (Campagnolo) somewhat cheaper. Clothing is an exception, it seems that end-of-summer sales go down to half as much in the US than here in Germany. At standard retail prices though, at an approximate US$/Euro parity, the USA tend to be more expensive than Europe.

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Published courtesy of Thomas Driemeyer.  To see more of his work please go to http://www.bitrot.de/dintro.html.