Buyer's Guide to Winter Layers

By BikeRadar | Tuesday, November 1, 2011 9.40am

Cyclists ride in all weathers, from hot sun to freezing snow and a load of cold, wet days in between. We also ride at extreme intensities and speed; one minute we’re going as hard as we can up a steep, rocky trail at 5mph getting really hot and the next flying down a road at 40mph with no effort and getting cold.

The clothing you wear can make a massive difference to your ride experience. It’s important to wear the right kit for the job and that requires a bit of layering. You're looking to wear thin layers of clothing that are best suited to its position. The advantage of thin layers is that you can unzip, add or take away during the ride to keep you warm, cool or dry.

Death by T-shirt

If you only learn one thing from this guide, it's that riding in a T-shirt really could be lethal. The problem is that cotton feels nice but it sucks up sweat and then just holds onto it. This leaves your skin and the T-shirt wet, so body heat passes straight through, leaving you frozen and vulnerable to hypothermia. It doesn't matter what super-technical jacket you wear over the top – if it's over a T-shirt, it can't work properly.

Layering essentials

As well as standard jerseys and shorts there are additional items you need to help you layer up for winter:

Base layer

A breathable layer that’s worn next to the skin under a jersey and comes in a variety of thicknesses. On a warm day a thin version will help wick sweat away from your body, and when worn on a cool day will help keep warmth in. A lot of these have a longer back section that covers your lower back and stops the 'builder’s bum' look. Most use manmade fabrics, though merino wool is becoming popular. Check out our Guide To Base Layers for further details.

Mid layer

Jersey choice depends on conditions, with plenty of options for fabric type and thickness, not to mention sleeve length. Its main role is to work with your base layer to wick sweat and insulate your core. A full zip will give you the most options for ventilation while riding, and you'll need easy-to-access pockets for removed layers if you ride without a pack.

Outer shell

A thin waterproof jacket is a winner. On cold days you can start your ride wearing it and if you get too hot or start climbing you can whip it off. On warmer days, carry one in your jersey pocket or backpack. Then if the weather turns bad, you need to stop and fix a problem, or are facing a long descent, you can slip it on and feel the benefits. Check out our Buyer's Guide to Waterproof Jackets.

Tights and overshorts

If you're a mountain biker, adding an extra layer underneath your baggies in the form of roadie-style Lycra shorts, 3/4s or tights will make life a load warmer. On wet days waterproof overshorts could be the ticket. Road riders often wear shorts under their tights for extra warmth on particularly cold days.

Extremities

You lose a massive amount of body heat through your head. When it gets cold wearing a layer under your helmet can make a massive difference especially with the wind chill of travelling at speed downhill. Take your pick of a skull cap, a headband or a Buff-style tube. On a dodgy, cold day it’s worth throwing one of these in your backpack or pocket in case things turn nasty.

Hands and feet need protecting from heat loss too. The colder it gets, the better your gloves need to be. Check out our Buyer's Guide to Winter Gloves for some recommendations. Even the most flimsy overshoes will offer a huge step in cold comfort on the road; mountain bikers are better off with waterproof/insulated socks and/or winter shoes.

Features to look for in your winter layers

Construction

The more panels in a garment or the more the fabric stretches, the better you can make it fit – although that's not guaranteed. Boxier simple cuts give better casual style though.

Neck

High necks add an amazing amount of warmth to any garment, by stopping cold air flow over big exposed blood vessels. Make sure it's not so tight it'll strangle you though, and go zipped for easy venting.

Sleeves

Leaning forward on your bike pulls normal sleeves upwards, which leaves your wrists exposed, so look for riding-friendly long sleeves. Short sleeves are more versatile and you can add arm warmers if extra warmth is need. If you get cold easily then go for long sleeves for more warmth. Long sleeves should go all the way to the wrist and should be a tight fit to prevent them rolling, bunching, or billowing

Heat Control

Surface body temperature varies massively in different areas and riding conditions. Smart clobber puts thinner fabric over hotter areas and uses vents and zips for added air cooling where needed.

Fabric

Generally, the more windproof and thicker the garment, the warmer (but wetter) it'll be. It's worth noting that when it comes to base layers, merino wool is making a comeback against pure synthetics.

Related links

Jargon Buster

  • Body mapping: The latest clothing buzzword. It basically means working out which bits of the body are hot or which need more movement, and adjusting the cut and thermal properties of the garment to suit.
  • Breathability: Normally used in reference to shells and not base/mid layers. Describes the ability of the fabric to let sweat vapour breathe from inside to outside, keeping you and your layers dry and warm.
  • Coolmax: Lots of base layers use this breathable fibre to add a bit more comfort. Just check they haven't added cotton threads too.
  • Fleece: Fluffy synthetic fabric (made from recycled plastic bottles) that feels lovely against the skin and mops up sweat nicely. Thick fleece is very warm though, and can easily overheat you.
  • Meraklon: The first polyelfin fibre ever developed, winning its creator a Nobel prize! Now it's a brand name fibre that's common in base layers.
  • Merino: Particularly fine wool from merino sheep. Expensive but sumptuously comfy if you don't mind its occasionally itchy feel.
  • Storm flap: Strip or flap of fabric usually behind or in front of a zip designed to stop rain and wind penetrating.
  • Synthetic: Man-made fibre such as polyester, as opposed to natural fabric like wool or cotton.
  • Wicking: When a cloth's fibres suck the sweat off your skin and move it to the outer face of the fabric and then evaporate it into the air or next layer out.
  • Windstopper: Proprietary Gore fabric, similar to Gore-Tex but with increased breathability/wicking properties and a softer outer shell. This material comes with or without a fleecy inner face.

Reviews

For BikeRadar's latest reviews of winter layers, visit our winter clothing homepage. You can search for specific items using the clothing section of our Bikes & Gear browser.

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