“When you don’t race, almost every shirt, sweater, jacket or coat you own is a cycling garment.” — Grant Petersen, founder Rivendell Bicycle Works. Rivendell is a good source for bikes and gear for normal riders, not racers.
Any Active Clothing
To start riding all you need are clothes you’d wear for anything active: shorts, shirt and shoes.
Shorts. Any shorts you have will work ranging from running shorts to cutoffs. If you have a pair without a seam in the crotch, they’ll be more comfortable as your rides get longer. Underwear may bunch up in the crotch so experiment riding with and without underwear. Pockets are handy for carrying keys and ID or you could use a fanny pack or seat bag or cycling jersey with pockets on the back.
Shirt. A t-shirt is fine, preferably a bright one so you’ll be visible. One friend wears a long sleeved dress-style shirt.
Shoes: There are two different kinds of pedals: flat pedals and clip-in pedals and you use different types of shoes for each.
- Flat pedal shoes. Any flat-soled shoes are fine as long as they attach firmly to your feet. Some riders wear sandals. Footwear with tread is easier to keep on the pedals.
- Clip-in pedal shoes. All cycling specific shoes have somewhat stiffer shoes so they’re more efficient in transferring power from your legs to the pedals. Road cycling shoes are very stiff and have no tread. The cleat that clips into the pedal protrudes from the sole so they’re difficult to walk in.
- Mountain bike shoes are designed for riding and walking. They have more flexible soles, a waffle-type tread for traction and the cleat is recessed so they’re easier to walk in. Mountain bike shoes also work well on flat pedals.
- How to tie your shoes. Tie the laces in your right shoe in enough knots that the laces don’t get caught in the chain.
Cycling Specific Clothing
Cycling shorts. I was helping a new rider Anna to prepare for an event. She started riding wearing running shorts and a t-shirt. When we had built up to riding for a couple of hours her butt hurt so she borrowed a pair of cycling shorts from her sister, which solved the problem.
Cycling shorts come in two basic styles:
- Fitness (aka mountain bike) shorts are similar to walking shorts and have pockets.
- Road bike shorts fit snugly and don’t have pockets. Some road shorts have integral wide fabric straps that go over the shoulders. These are similar to bib overalls and the shorts are called bibs. The advantages are that they always stay up and are snug in the crotch. The disadvantage is you have to take off anything on your upper body to get the shorts down, e.g., to go to the bathroom. Start with a regular pair of shorts and if they don’t stay up then try bibs.
Both fitness (mountain bike) shorts and road shorts are good for all around riding. Road bike shorts are more comfortable for rides of a half-day or longer.
- Fit you correctly. Butts are as individual as faces so in the store try different pairs from the same and different manufacturers. Shorts that fit correctly shouldn’t chafe. Road shorts are cut so they still cover your upper buttocks when you are leaning forward on the bike. When you try on a pair of shorts bend forward in your normal riding position to check the fit. Then walk around lifting your knees so the hip and knee bend about the same as pedaling. The shorts should slide smoothly in the groin, not rub or bunch up.
- No chafing seams. Fitness shorts should have taped seams. Road shorts are made without seams in the crotch.
- Sweat absorbing. Shorts that are damp from sweat will chafe and cause a rash. Good fitness shorts have a sweat absorbing inner liner. Road shorts have an inner layer of real or artificial chamois to absorb sweat and reduce friction.
- Light padding. Although more padding might seem to be a good idea, too much padding will bunch up and chafe.
- Good value. High quality shorts will last for years.Inexpensive shorts aren’t designed and made as well so they don’t last.
Cycling jersey. Anna carried her food in her seat bag. We stopped for a snack every hour or so and she unzipped her seat bag, got a snack, and rezipped the bag. She noticed how easy it was for me to get my snack out of one of the pockets on the back of my jersey so I got her a jersey.
Jerseys also come in two general styles:
- Fitness / mountain bike jerseys are cut similar to t-shirts and fit loosely. They may or may not have pockets.
- Road jerseys have pockets and are cut more snugly. They are either a very snug racing cut or a looser cut, sometimes called club cut. The snug racing cut is more aerodynamic but unless you’re trying to go as fast as possible that doesn’t matter.
Both styles share common characteristics:
- Bright colors are best for safety.
- Pockets. Many jerseys have two or three deep pockets on the back and with practice you can get a snack while riding. Pockets are also handy for carrying a phone, money and an ID, keys, etc. You can also stuff a windbreaker in a pocket when it warms up or in case it cools down. When you try on a jersey bend forward like you’re riding and see if you can reach a pocket.
- Wicking fabrics. Sweat cools you by evaporation so your jersey shouldn’t absorb the sweat. Many man-made fibers work quite well as does Merino wool; however, it’s better to wash the wool on a cold gentle cycle. Cotton isn’t good because it retains sweat.
- Longer in the back for full coverage while riding.
- Zippers. Because fitness / mountain bike jerseys are looser cut you just pull them over your head like a t-shirt. Road jerseys are a little snugger and have a zipper. Jerseys with full and 3/4 length zippers are easier to put on and you can unzip the jersey more if it’s hot.
Bright vest. A bright yellow or lime vest like road workers wear will increase your visibility. These vests are made of Lycra or nylon and may fit snugly or a little more loosely. Several companies make cycling vests with a breathable back and pockets in the back.
Cycling gloves. Gloves soak up sweat, keep your hands dry and help you to maintain a safe grip on the handlebars. Some gloves have padded palms to cushion your hands from the vibrations and road shocks passed through to the handlebars. However, many cyclists don’t bother with gloves.
Sun protection clothing. Several companies make jerseys as well separate arm and leg sleeves rated UPF 28-50. The jerseys may be colored or white. The arm and leg sleeves are white. The arm and leg sleeves and white jerseys are a very breathable fabric. The white fabric reduces direct heat from the sun’s rays arm and leg sleeves are still a little warmer than bare skin. I wear them all the time and they’re also warmers when it’s a little cooler.
Cool weather basic clothing
Torso. A bright long sleeve shirt and perhaps a colorful sweatshirt or a bright jacket are fine for your upper body. Or you could get a bright cycling vest to wear over darker clothing.
Knees. Your knees have very poor circulation and because of this are prone to injury if they get cold. If it’s below 60F (15F) wear something that covers your knees.
Legs. Any kind of long pants is okay for your legs: tights, sweat pants, jeans, etc. Or you could wear long underwear bottoms under your shorts. If the pants are baggy use a rubber band to pull together the bottom of the right leg so it isn’t caught in the chain.
Head and hands. Any kind of hat that covers your scalp and fits under your helmet is fine. You may need to loosen the chin strap a little. If it’s colder wear a stocking cap under your helmet. Similarly any gloves you have are fine.
Cycling specific clothing for cool weather
The kinds of clothes you need depend on the range of weather where you live and the conditions you’ll ride in. Some riders won’t ride if it’s raining or below 50F (10C). For other riders there’s no such thing as bad weather just bad gear.
Versatility and layering. You want a versatile set of cool to cold weather so you can choose the right combination for a ride and can shed or add clothing as conditions change. Layering includes 1) a base layer to wick away the sweat; 2) one or more insulating layers like a jersey perhaps with a thermal vest; and 3) a wind-resistant layer. With a layered set of clothing you’ll stay warmer and you can shed layers as the day warms up.
Shorts and jersey. For most conditions these are fine as a base layer and can easily be supplemented for cooler weather.
Undershirt. If it’s a little chillier you may want to wear a wool, silk or polypro undershirt to provide added insulation and wick away sweat. Do not wear cotton, which retains moisture and will make you feel colder!
Arm warmers. Arm warmers are sleeves you pull up your arms to convert a short sleeve jersey to a long sleeve jersey. They have elastic at the top to keep them up. They’re very easy to put on and take off and can be rolled up and put in a jersey pocket.
Long sleeve jersey. This combines a jersey and arm warmers and is a good choice instead of wearing a short sleeved jersey plus arm warmers for an entire ride.
Knee warmers. Knee warmers are tubes you pull up your legs to convert a pair of shorts to knickers. They also have elastic and are tucked under the legs of your shorts. Good ones are designed with a front and back to continue to fit as you bend your knees. They’re very easy to put on and take off and can be rolled up and put in a jersey pocket.
Knickers. These combine shorts and knee warmers and are a good choice if it’s cool enough you’d need knee warmers for the entire ride.
Leg warmers. These are similar to knee warmers but start at your ankles.
Tights. If it’s a little colder cycling tights are better than knee warmers. They’re designed to fit snugly they don’t catch in the chain. Most tights are made to be worn over your shorts and don’t have a sweat-absorbing pad like shorts. Some tights do have a sweat-absorbing pad and are made to be worn with out shorts. Tights also come in varying weights. If you live in a cool climate then use thinner tights. If you live in a cold climate get heavier tights made for winter.
Rain pants. These are made to be worn over shorts or shorts with tights. If it rains frequently where you live then these are useful. Some models are loose around the ankles so use a rubber band on the right ankle to keep it from getting caught in your chain.
Vest. A bright vest as described above is a good addition for cooler parts of rides. For colder conditions get a thermal vest with insulation and perhaps wind-resistant fabric on the front. With either style vest, as the day warms up you can peel off your warmers and put them in the vest pockets.
Windbreaker. When you are riding you’re generating your own wind. Cycling-specific windbreakers have several advantages. They have bright colors and are tailored so they don’t flap in the wind. A few have two-way zippers. If you zip up from the bottom it’s easier to reach a jersey pocket. If you zip up from the bottom and down from the top you also get better ventilation.
Head. You may also want a pair of thin glove liners to wear under your regular gloves and a thin skull cap or balaclava.
- How Should a Beginning Cyclist Train
- How Can a Beginning Cyclist Improve
- What Should a Beginning Cyclist Eat and Drink, pt. 1
- What Should a Beginning Cyclist Eat and Drink, pt. 2
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- Specific goals
- Effective training
- Sound nutrition
- Proper equipment
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- Mental techniques
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.