Riding in winter can be a clothing challenge but it's essential to get it right as this can make the difference between staying out all day and going home with the shivers. Base layers are designed to be worn next to the skin and help to stop you getting cold not by adding warmth, but by taking away moisture.
There's a base layer for every rider and every budget but the classic close-fit base with a killer fabric and immaculate construction is still hard to beat. Here's our pick of the best base layers we've tested this winter.
Best cycling base layers
1 Gore Bike Wear Base Layer Turtleneck
Verdict: The classic winter base layer with bike-perfect fit and outstanding performance
This is a classic base layer, designed to be worn tight, next to the skin. There are no bells and whistles and it feels suspiciously light, but don’t let that put you off – it’s all about the fabric and the fit. Knowing that it’s polypropylene, we were expecting a synthetic handle but the feel is actually more silky.
We were surprised too by how warm this top is, and although we pushed its wicking abilities to the limit on warmer autumn days, it never felt waterlogged. With just the right combination of fabric, fit and functionality, the Gore base layer is something of a revelation. It actually feels like you’re not wearing anything at all, which is why it’s our overall winner. www.gorebikewear.com / www.gorebikewear.co.uk
=2 Nike Pro Combat Hyperwarm Shield 1.2
Verdict: For general winter use we’ve found nothing better at the price
This super-fitting technical long-sleeve base uses Nike's compressive Dri-fit fabric complemented by mesh underarm panel detailing. All the seams are flatlock stitched and the high neck keeps chills at bay. The soft, fleecy material traps warm air very effectively so this top is best saved for the chilliest of days.
The panels are shaped to stay tight on your body without constricting your movements, and flat stitching prevents any chafing. The fabric isn’t only very supportive it’s also quick to transfer moisture away from the skin. It has the pleasing side-effect of making you look more toned than usual. store.nike.com
=2 Icebreaker LS Sprint Crewe
Verdict: Superb quality merino wool base that’s worth the investment
The Icebreaker Sprint may be the most expensive of the merino bases on test but it sets the gold standard through its combination of fabric, cut and construction. The merino wool is substantial but very fine, and even after multiple washings still looks new. The seams are finished to the very highest standard and so flat as to be unnoticeable – even though there are more of them than usual due to extra side panels.
It’s these panels that give the top a better shape than most. It sits close but not tight and moves without bunching up. We’re not huge fans of thumb loops but the ones on this top do actually work because the sleeves are long enough that you can wear them without them pulling. Our only gripe? Taller wearers might need a tad more body length. www.icebreaker.com
=2 Nalini Trail
Verdict: An unmatched-for-comfort seamless construction with outstanding performance
We found it hard to fault the Nalini Trail. The space-age looks might throw you at first but they come courtesy of a seamless construction that uses a variable knit technology to combine warmth, ventilation and fit in one smooth package. It’s amazing how much difference just removing side seams can make.
Where this top goes one step further is combining that with different knit weights and densities. The fit is very close, which means it moves with you with no feeling of restriction. We stayed warm, dry and hardly noticed we were wearing it. We’ll be relying on this one through the colder days of winter. www.nalini.com / www.chickencycles.co.uk
Value winner: Altura Thermocool Long Sleeve
Verdict: Well specified, well made base that delivers high level performance at a value price
Altura are doing a stunning job of producing kit that both looks and performs like it should cost a lot more, and the Thermocool is one such piece. It uses a variable knit, with different densities of fabric in different areas depending on the position on the body. The result is a top that’s very close fitting but doesn’t feel it, and one that moves with you.
The flexibility through the shoulders and arms is fantastic. The way it’s knitted also means there are no side seams, and the overall result is one of extreme comfort. Our only niggle is that even though overall length is good, the hem has a tendency to ride up, so you need to tuck it in well. www.altura.eu
Verdict: On the coldest frozen days you may well reach for something heavier but for the majority of riding this is ample
Capo's wool base layer combines full merino construction with minimal, flatlocked seams. The fabric is remarkably stretchy and form fitting, and very, very fine. The fit is like a second skin: incredibly comfortable and remarkably warming for its minimal weight. Its lightness means you could use the Pursuit year round without fuss. www.capocycling.com
Helly Hansen Warm Freeze 1/2 Zip
Verdict: A blend of polypropylene and merino wool that delivers great cold weather performance
Helly Hansen’s classic stripy-sleeved Lifa top is something most of us grew up with – hell, we have a sneaking suspicion that it was the original base layer. The Warm Freeze takes that original technology – a polypropylene yarn – and mixes it with merino. The polypropylene layer that sits next to the skin wicks moisture away very effectively and dries fast enough that we never felt soaked.
The outer merino, meanwhile, is lovely to wear, feels very warm and stops things getting too up close and personal after extended wear. It’s the best of both worlds. The Warm Freeze is designed for sub-zero temperatures and we’d keep it for very cold days when the long back, high collar and close fitting cuffs contribute to excellent overall warmth. www.hellyhansen.com
Verdict: Expensive, but adaptable and high performing
With a full windproof front mated to a highly structured fit, the Vangard is one of the best cold weather base layers available. The fit through the shoulders, arms and midriff is close to compression wear.
The lighter ribbed fabric holds in plenty of warmth but is still light enough to draw away moisture. We’ve used the Windflex with just a softshell on milder days, and under a jersey on really cold rides. www.todayscyclist.co.uk
X-Bionic Energizer Round Neck
Verdict: Spooky science at work.
This might be the craziest-looking construction we’ve ever seen but it really works. The variable knit fabric gives a very close fit but unlike many base layers that are this tight, the X-Bionic doesn’t ride up. The science bit is the 3D-BionicSphere System, which looks like sections of small pleats and is designed to cool you down when you’re getting hot and keep you warm when you’re cold. Similar pleats are situated on the elbows for extra warmth.
The emphasis is very much on not cooling too fast. The Energizer feels reassuringly warm when you put it on and we weren’t aware of the pleats against our skin. You can feel the heat build as you work and then very quietly it just dissipates and you feel strangely serene and comfortable. www.x-bionic.com
Berghaus Active Thermal Long Sleeve Zip Neck Tee
Verdict: Easy-fitting base that’s substantial enough to double up as a jersey
This is another of the more substantial base layers that, for all but the coldest weather, doesn’t need a mid-layer to keep you warm underneath your jacket. It has classic ‘outdoor’ styling that looks much sharper once on than we’d expected. The shoulder line is excellent and gives good movement so that the back doesn’t hike up with every twitch of your arms.
The fabric has a grid pattern on the inside – this is something to look for as it usually means good wicking performance along with fast drying, and that proved to be the case here. It’s not sleekly sexy but there’s little wrong with this base layer and it’ll double up as a casual jersey come spring, making it excellent value. www.berghaus.com
Verdict: The Transmission comes with a great cut and excellent fabric at a real value-for-money price
Endura's Transmission is made using polypropylene – the old-fashioned stuff that worked great but tended to stink after ﬁve minutes’ wear and had a tendency to melt on radiators. It’s fallen out of favour, but those in the know have always rated its superior moisture transfer and fast drying.
It wasn’t just the fabric that cut it; the articulated design and its multi-panel construction is something you usually see in more expensive styles. It makes for an excellent ﬁt that moves with you without bunching or riding up. The ﬂatlocked seams, another more spendy touch, make this very comfortable. This isn’t just a good base layer for the money – it’s a good base layer full stop. www.endura.co.uk
Fox First Layer L/S Jersey
Verdict: Easy fitting base for underpinning baggy jerseys – and well priced
The first thing to say about the First Layer is that we’d expected something more flammably synthetic feeling at this price point but it’s surprisingly smooth and wearable. The fit is easier than a traditional base and there’s lots of movement through the shoulders which, combined with the longer length and stretchy fabric, makes it super-comfortable, with no cold spots.
Because it isn’t ultra close fitting the wicking isn’t as fiercely efficient as some but it dries fast and we like it in combination with baggier jerseys. There’s nothing fancy about this top but we found we just liked riding in it. Because it isn’t tight we’ve also worn it alone as more of a long-sleeve technical T-shirt, making it versatile and well priced. www.foxhead.com / www.foxeurope.com
Howies NBL Light LS
Verdict: Stylish base layer with an excellent cut and merino performance
Opinion on the feel of different qualities of merino can be fiercely divided – everyone has their favourite. But Howies’ base layer was universally liked, with an almost cottony handle that’s light to wear but hefty enough to feel instantly warm. Construction quality is good, with a heat-transfer neck label and flat-locked seams.
The cut is close, with a slim profile enhanced by a multi-panel design, but it isn’t boy band tight so it looks good worn alone. Shaped panels mean you should get good movement even though the cut is close and that’s the case with the NBL. It’s quietly good and we wore it for an embarrassing number of days both on and off the bike before it came close to needing a wash. www.howies.co.uk
Mavic Equipe LS
Verdict: Great combo of high performance fabric and cycle-specific cut
The Equipe owes something to Star Trek for its styling, but pack away your pointy ears because the cut is very definitely bike-specific. The high collar sits in just the right place when you’re in a forward riding position and the articulation of the shoulders and sleeves combined with the longer back means the fit just works. It’s not an obvious difference compared to other base layers but there’s a sense of it feeling immediately right when you put it on.
The honeycomb knit pattern is designed to disperse moisture more effectively so that the fabric dries faster – and it’s just as well that it does, because this top does wick well. Fortunately there’s an X-Static anti-bacterial treatment to make sure all those sweaty dealings don’t lose you friends – and it works. The only downside with the fabric is that it snags easily. www.mavic.com
Pearl Izumi Transfer LS
Verdict: Great fabric, great cut, great performance
The Transfer doesn’t have instant shelf appeal and the fabric has a hard edge that doesn’t feel like it will wear well. But once you put it on the inner surface is smooth and actually very comfortable. Wicking is brutally efficient and the Transfer dries out fast – probably because that textured exterior disperses moisture well.
It has the flat-locked seams you’d expect at this price – the contrast stitching on this otherwise blindingly white top makes it surprisingly wearable – plus the rear hem is dropped low to give great coverage at the back. This isn’t a shouty top but it’s one that, by virtue of an on-the-money cut and no-nonsense hard-working fabric, we find ourselves wearing time and time again. www.pearlizumi.com / www.madison.co.uk
How we tested the latest base layers
As well as trying to ride the same trails in the same weather conditions, we tried to replicate the same test conditions for each top by wearing the same waterproof jacket in order to give us an idea of how effectively they wicked, how fast they dried and how quickly we cooled after exertion. Once ridden we also employed the ‘chuck it in the washer’ test to see how well the fabrics stood up – high performance items are less lovely if a momentary slip of the programme dial renders something unwearable.
Wicking performance was obviously of key importance, but we also individually scored against fit, the quality of the construction and value for money. The latter isn’t just about the price but, for example, if an item is above average price but delivers superior quality, better-shaped construction detail and better fit, it'll still score well on value. Individual scores are then rolled up to provide one overall score – although that’s still not us done. We cross-check and benchmark key points to ensure that the scores make relative sense too.
What to look for
By wicking sweat from the surface of your skin, a good base layer prevents the cooling that occurs through evaporation. The moisture is held in the outer layer of the fabric where it can gradually disperse through your jersey and/or jacket. Some base layers are designed primarily for wicking, some will add warmth too. Look for the word ‘thermal’ in the description and run your hand over the inside. If it’s brushed (soft and fuzzy) then it'll be warmer (and feel comfortingly cosy on cold mornings).
Fit is crucial to the performance of a base layer – for it to work best it needs to touch your skin. There are some tops that are easier fitting, more like a jersey, but for the best functionality it needs to be close fitting. Designers can create that fit using either stretch fabric or articulated panels – or a combination of the two. In our experience the combo option works best to create a top you can’t feel, but in all cases check the arms move freely forward without bunching, there’s enough room across the shoulders and plenty of coverage at the back.
Merino wool is superb at regulating temperature – it warms you when you’re cold and cools you when you’re hot. It has a natural wicking ability and you can wear it for much longer before it takes on an evil pong. The downside? It takes longer to dry. Synthetics wick ferociously well and also dry fast. But even though you can now get anti-bacterial treatments that help the whiff factor, they do get smelly. We like both, and pick and mix depending on ride plans.