Whether you're brand new to cycling or returning after some time away, you might be wondering what to wear on a bike ride. You don't have to run out and buy a bunch of cycle clothing to enjoy riding, or even to look cool. (Feeling cool, however, is OK, especially in the summer.)
Bicycle-specific clothing can certainly make riding more comfortable. It can also improve your visibility to motorists. However, not all bike clothing is designed to attract attention. Because the "spandex look" isn't for everyone, many brands are designing bike clothes that can be worn on the street as well.
Repurpose Other Outdoor or Athletic Clothing
While you can save money on bike clothing by wearing almost any comfortable outdoor or athletic clothing when you ride, you'll want to add some reflective elements or wear reflective clothing. There is less of a problem when there are no vehicles around, such as on a mountain-bike trail.
It's particularly important to have reflective material on jackets and pants, which you'll wear in colder, darker weather. How reflective should they be? A driver approaching from any direction should encounter a reflective element or a bike light. More visibility is always better.
Helmets are not exactly bicycle clothing, but every cyclist needs to wear one. Any bike helmet can be used for any type of riding, regardless of the type of riding you do. The most important thing is finding one that fits well. See How to Choose a Bike Helmet for more information. (Helmet designs have also evolved, so you now have more stylish options, though none address the issue of helmet hair.)
Make sure you have good eye protection, both from windblown debris and UV rays. For cycling, wraparound sunglasses are best. Find out how to choose sunglasses. Wear goggles with a mountain bike helmet if you have one.
For ease of movement while pedaling, bike shorts typically feature stretch fabrics. Bike shorts tend to be longer than casual shorts, and some bike shorts may come with gripper elastic at the leg openings to keep them in place as you pedal.
Chamois: The most important–and most complex–part of bike shorts is the synthetic “chamois,” (pronounced “sha-mee”), a crotch piece that also reduces friction and keeps you dry. Chamois come in many shapes, thicknesses, and materials. Gel chamois, which are more common in mountain biking shorts, cushion well but are less breathable than non-gel styles. There are a few riders who don't like chamois, so you can try riding with or without one to find out which is more comfortable for you.
Underwear (liner shorts):
Cycling underwear features wicking materials that dry quickly, like underwear for other high-exertion activities. Most cycling underwear has a built-in chamois to make your ride more comfortable. Wearing liner shorts under your pants or shorts will make them cycle-ready, saving you money.
Other styles of bike shorts:
- Skorts: A mashup of shorts and skirt, “skorts” are an alternative style that pairs stretch shorts with an outer skirt. Cycling skirts can also be worn over your own cycling shorts or cycling underwear.
- Bib shorts: Bibs are popular with racers because, unlike with shorts, there’s no waistband that can restrict breathing. There is no rule saying that a casual rider can't wear bibs to be more comfortable.
- Mountain bike shorts: Sometimes called “baggies” or “double shorts,” they have loose outer shorts paired with stretch liner shorts that have built-in chamois. Some liner shorts can also be detached and worn separately or with other bike shorts. Mountain bike shorts usually have a durable outer fabric and many pockets and, if any, reflectivity.
Bike Pants, Tights and Warmers
As an alternative to bike shorts in cooler temperatures, many bike pants and tights come with built-in chamois. In some pants, the front panels might offer wind protection, while others might be fully waterproof and windproof. Tights provide less weather protection but are more aerodynamic.
Commuter/casual pants: Some cycling pants look like streetwear so riders can instantly blend in at any urban destination. These pants have cycling features such as stretch fabric and a cuff on the chain-side leg that rolls up to reveal reflective trim-and to prevent the cuff from getting caught in the chain. Nevertheless, they're stylish enough to wear off the bike.
The majority of bike jerseys are stretchy (especially road jerseys), breathable, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying. In contrast to mountain bike jerseys, most road jerseys will have a form-fitting (aerodynamic) cut. You can also find many casual shirt styles that look nothing like traditional bike jerseys.
Other jersey features include:
- To protect your neck from UV rays, you should wear a collar that is tall or flip-up.
- Front zipper for ventilation as your exertion levels rise.
- Wider shoulders for a more comfortable fit.
- Back pockets for convenience.
- Longer cut in the back for coverage when leaning forward on the bike.
- Nighttime reflective trim or material.
Additional jersey features for cold weather:
- Warmth and coverage are provided by long sleeves.
- Denser, heavier fabric weaves and brushed linings provide warmth.
Cycling Arm and Leg Warmers
With these versatile tweener-weather cycling accessories, legs and arms can be kept warm on the go. You can also use lightweight arm and leg warmers to protect your arms and legs from UV rays on hot days.
Cycling jackets should be able to block wind and keep you dry. Almost all jackets fulfill both functions to some degree, so think about rain first when choosing a jacket. In addition, some jackets offer more warmth than others, which is a concern if you ride in a colder climate or during the winter.
How much rain do you anticipate? For serious rain protection, a jacket that is waterproof will offer more protection than a water-resistant one. Note, too, that you’ll likely need waterproof and breathable technologies for a high-exertion activity like riding.
If light rain, especially light rain, is only an occasional concern, then a water-resistant jacket is a good choice; it provides as much breathability as more expensive waterproof/breathable jackets.
Hoods: Some jackets have none, while others have a detachable or stowable hood. When choosing a jacket with a "helmet-compatible" hood, try it on with your helmet to ensure it fits and does not restrict your vision.
Zip-off sleeves: Convertible bike jackets offer this handy feature that lets you change your jacket into a vest if the weather eases up.
How cold will it be? Winter riding in Chicago requires a different jacket than winter riding in Phoenix. Warmer jackets will have thicker material and often feature a brushed lining for additional insulation. You will warm up from exertion as you ride, so don't overdress. You can also wear a warm layer underneath your jacket.
You need different types of bike shoes depending on the pedals on your bike. You could wear pretty much any shoe if it has basic platform pedals. Cycling shoes, even a basic pair, have stiffer soles than street shoes or even hiking boots. The stiffer sole allows you to pedal more efficiently.
You will definitely need bike shoes with soles that can engage with clipless pedals if your bike has them. Therefore, it is crucial that your shoes are compatible with your pedals. Read How to Choose Bike Shoes and How to Choose Bike Pedals for more information.
Toe covers (which cover the shoe from arch to toe) or shoe covers (which cover the entire shoe and part of the ankle) are great for wet or rainy rides. If it's really stormy, consider a pair of waterproof cycling socks.
When you pedal, your feet sweat a lot. This can lead to cold feet in cold weather. In hot weather, this can lead to blisters. Therefore, it's best to wear socks made from synthetic materials like polyesters or nylons that help wick away perspiration. Merino wool is a natural material that has similar properties. Stay away from cotton socks for all but light workouts.
The only difference between cycling socks and performance socks is the thinner material, which allows a bike shoe to fit more snugly (assisting power transfer to the pedals).
Caps and skullcaps add insulation to your winter rides; a headband is another choice for keeping your ears warm.
Cycle gloves feature padding that helps absorb road and trail vibrations, so they are a better option than repurposing other gloves. In most bike gloves, there is a leather or synthetic-leather palm and terry cloth patch for dabbing sweat or a runny nose.
In the summer, fingerless bike gloves are popular. A pair of full-finger, wicking, breathable bike gloves is essential for cold weather rides. Such gloves are often waterproof and windproof. Consider wearing thin liner gloves inside your other gloves for even greater warmth. Pogies, which let you slide your hand inside to grip the handlebar, are another option for severe cold.