by Stan Purdum
Because cycling is a popular activity, there are many bicycle-related items available to tempt enthusiasts, and some of them are expensive. But which cycling gear is the most essential? Here’s some guidance.
What Cycling Clothing Do I Need?
While is it always possible to cycle in regular clothing, most cyclists who ride regularly eventually adopt at least some specialized garb — mostly because it makes riding more comfortable. But assuming you don’t want to purchase them all at once, here’s a list of cycling clothing in a suggested order to acquire them.
1. Helmet. This can be considered a clothing item, but more importantly, it’s a safety item, and the reason for getting it before other specialized items is practical: Sooner or later, most cyclists fall from their bikes, and a proper helmet will help prevent head injuries. So regardless of what form of cycling you prefer — road, mountain, gravel, competitive or even neighborhood recreational — wear a helmet.
In the United States, all bicycle helmets are required to meet established safety standards, so any bike helmet currently on the market that fits you properly is acceptable. However, some have better fit systems and better ventilation. and some have additional safety technology. Bike shops offer a range of choices and their staff can explain the differences.
Here are our top helmet picks for safety at the best price.
2. Shorts. Generally speaking, bike shorts come in two styles: body hugging and baggy, though even the baggy ones may have some of the body hugging features under their looser exterior layer. Both types also have padding (called a chamois) to protect the region of your body that is in contact with the bike saddle and absorb moisture. (Bike shorts are intended to be worn, sans underwear, which can bunch up and cause chafing.)
For the most part, the close-fitting shorts are the preferred wear of road-bike and other riders who remain in the saddle for extended periods. The body-hugging material is spandex (the generic name, but also may be identified by brand names, such as Lycra), which is a synthetic fiber known for its elasticity The close fit eliminates excess fabric between you and the seat that can lead to friction burns and saddle sores and also leaves no fabric to flap and create wind resistance. The elasticity keeps the material from riding up during activity and provides support for that area of your body, which helps battle overall fatigue.
Riders on off-road trails and in the back country stand out of the saddle more often and so generally prefer the looser shorts, which offer more range of motion. But beyond those differences, the body hugging shorts have come to be associated with road-bike culture and the baggies with mountain bike culture. But you can, of course, wear either type for any form of cycling.
Many cyclists, but particularly wearers of the close-fitting shorts, use a lubricant such as petroleum jelly on the parts of their nether region where there is any rub or friction between themselves and the chamois.
3. Gloves. These are fingerless and have padding in the palms to cushion your hands and absorb jarring from road bumps. They also help protect your hands if you crash and extend them to break your fall. See our article on the best road cycling gloves.
4. Shoes. Most of us started cycling in tennis shoes, which are fine for short rides (assuming you have flat pedals) but on longer rides, you may find your feet cramping or hurting from the repetitive flex of your feet. Cycling shoes have rigid soles that keep your feet from flexing as much, reducing the likelihood of cramping and pain, and optimizing the transfer of energy to the pedals.
Bicycle shoes come in two types: road bike and mountain bike (MTB) shoes. The two kinds have features for those two types of riding, with the biggest difference being that it’s easier to walk in MTB shoes, which have a lugged sole and aren’t as rigid as road shoes. That’s important to MTB riders who are on and off the bike frequently, depending on terrain, but MTB shoes are still stiff enough to provide the benefit.
Road bike shoes are stiffer yet and are fitted with a cleat on the bottom that clicks into a pedal designed for that purpose. Their soles are smooth to aid quick entry into the pedal, which is important if you are racing, but road shoes are impractical for walking very far, especially with the protruding cleat making it feel like you have a stone glued to the bottom of the shoe.
MTB shoes can also use cleats, but don’t have to, and even if they do, the cleat fits into a recessed area in the sole. While off-road riders will almost always choose MTB shoes, many road riders who aren’t racing often do as well.
5. Jersey. If you ride on the road, bright-colored jerseys help to make you more visible to drivers, but they don’t have to have to be bike-specific tops. But bike jerseys are made of synthetic fabrics that don’t get soggy if you get caught in the rain. They’re close-fitting to minimize wind resistance and the pockets on the back keep your stuff from interfering with the pumping movement of your legs. Some mountain bikers, who may have pockets in their baggy shorts, will instead choose T-shirt style tops made of synthetic material.
In terms of bike culture, many riders like to wear jerseys imprinted with images and text about cycling events they have attended.
6. Cold-weather additions. The shorts and jersey described above are great for warm-weather riding, but they can also serve as the base layer for pedaling in the cold. If you invest in only one bike-specific item for cold weather, get a pair of tights, as they won’t snag in your chain the way regular jeans or trousers will.
A skullcap for under your helmet is a good idea, but it doesn’t have to be bike specific. If your shoes are roomy enough, add a second pair of socks, or you can purchase shoe covers made to go over bike shoes. Otherwise, you can get away with non-bike winter clothing, but if you’re going to ride on the road, opt for bright colors. Or get one of the inexpensive neon-green vests highway workers wear and use it over the top of your jacket or windbreaker.
What Gear Do I Need?
While there are many choices, only few items are essential, or nearly so. They include:
Water bottle. Staying hydrated while riding is important. Carry a filled water bottle. One good way to do that is to use a frame-mounted cage made for such bottles.
Blinking lights. These are less critical if you are riding only on bike paths and always in daylight, but these days many road riders use running lights — a front white-flashing light and a rear red-flashing light — even in bright daylight to increase their visibility to motorists.
Spare tube. Make sure the tube is the correct size for the wheels and tires on your bike. You can also carry a patch kit, but when your tire flats on the road, you’ll find it easier to just replace the tube and then patch the punctured tube later at home.
Tool to remove wheel. When fixing flats, most modern bike wheels can be removed from the bike without tools. But if your wheel axles have nuts on the ends, carry an adjustable wrench or other tool to loosen them.
Tire levers. These are small tools to get the tire off the rim so you can remove the punctured tube and install the new one.
Mini pump. What you’ll need to inflate the new tube. These pumps usually come with a cage that can be mounted to the bike frame. Make sure the pump you buy matches the type of valve you have on your tires (there are two types).
Seat bag. A small under-the-seat bag or other arrangement for carrying the spare tube, tire irons, tools and personal items.
Other possibilities. Depending on how comfortable you feel working on your bike, you may want a multitool that enables you perform some repairs out on the road. A bike computer lets you track how far and at what speed you ride. Many riders find a rearview mirror helpful in traffic. A bike lock is a good idea if you are leaving your bike while eating or running errands.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.