Gloves may be optional items in the summer but come winter, they’re absolutely vital. The best cycling gloves for winter riding depend on a number of factors including how wet and cold it is, what kind of riding you do, whether you want to use a smartphone, and more.
Unlike your legs, which get to keep warm by working, your hands just sit out there in the biting wind, occasionally pulling a brake or changing gear, and getting colder by the second. As such they need more protection than just a thin layer of Lycra.
Without full-finger gloves your hands will go numb in minutes and if you’re lucky enough to have any sensation left in them by then, it’ll just be a tight stinging feeling.
It’s at moments like these that you find yourself doing silly — if not dangerous — things in a desperate bid to get some heat into your hands. Things such as riding with your hands tucked into your armpits or stopping behind idling vehicles to try and warm your mitts in their exhaust fumes.
Protecting your paws from the elements isn’t just a matter of comfort, it’s also important for keeping your bike under control. Without full feeling in your fingers and hands, braking and shifting turn into something of a lottery.
The trouble is, selecting the correct gloves can often be a double-edged sword. For warmth, gloves are often made with thick insulation but this can restrict movement and reduce feedback at the controls. Too light a glove, though, and the cold and wet will find its way through the inadequate protection.
The trick is getting the mix just right and dressing for the occasion. So what sort of gloves should you be seeking out? The following guide will point you in the right direction.
What to look for in winter cycling gloves
Gloves that keep your hands warm are obviously the priority but they need to do that while still allowing you all the movement and dexterity required to steer, stop and shift gears.
In other words they need to fit properly. Too small and you won’t be able to extend your fingers enough to get them around the brake levers; too big and they’ll bunch up under your palms and get in between you and the bars.
Fingers or claw?
This should be simple, right? If you have 10 fingers your gloves need to have 10 as well, surely. For the most part, yes. But, if you’re going to be riding in the coldest conditions you might want to opt to for ‘claw’ gloves rather than the traditional style.
A claw glove — often referred to as either a lobster or crab claw — has a thumb but instead of having four fingers uses a pair of two-finger pouches on each hand. The thinking behind this design is that your fingers share warmth by being grouped together and that with fewer fingers the gloves have less surface area through which to lose heat.
But it’s not all good news. For one thing, the claw design provides less dexterity than a traditional four-fingered glove — not too much of a problem for braking but it will cause some problems shifting, especially with dual-control road levers. The other issue is you end up looking like a reject from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie.
Adding a layer or two of insulation around your hands will help keep them warm but there’s more you can do. A windproof material on the exterior — particularly on the backs of your hands — will help keep the chill from getting through.
The thing is, it’s not just the cold you have to worry about in the winter; rain, sleet and snow can be thrown into the bargain too. On those occasions you’ll be grateful for gloves with water-resistant or waterproof properties.
Some will use various coatings to keep the water out for as long as possible, while others use neoprene and work on the same principle as a wetsuit — they’ll trap a small amount of water in the material that gets warmed by your body heat and works as insulation. Neoprene gloves won’t keep your hands dry but they’ll help to keep them warm.
Bear in mind, however, that the more insulation your gloves have, the thicker they’ll be. And with more material between your hands and your bars, it can become harder to control your bike.
Palms and padding
Your palms are one of the main contact points between you and your bike, so they have a tough job to do. Not only do they have to help hold your bars, they also have to absorb any vibrations and impacts that come through them. So the palms of any gloves you decide to wear need to be grippy and padded. And since they’re going to be in almost constant contact with the bars, they also need to be highly durable.
Suede — whether real or synthetic — is a good choice for palm material. It’s grippy, pliable, hard wearing and manages to be all these things without being excessively thick so you can still get your hands around the bars and brake levers.
The palms are also where you’ll find any padding, and this needs to be chosen with care because more isn’t necessarily better. Light padding in key spots often works better than slapping a thick layer of it over a wider area.
Pad material is also worth paying attention to. An extra layer of suede might suffice but if not there are dense foam or gel options to choose from. If you’re buying gloves with gel pads for the first time, however, it’s well worth trying them on first. The gel’s squishiness combined with your particular bar grips and/or hand position may cause the pad to squelch into an odd position, making them awkward, possibly even uncomfortable, to use.
Backs that are absorbent yet hardy
The palms are going to take a lot of punishment, but that doesn’t mean the backs of your gloves have what you’d call an easy life. Not only are the backs exposed to the elements, they’re also the parts of the gloves that you tend to use to wipe your face. So besides the wind, rain and snow, they also have snot and sweat to deal with.
As such, aside from the weather proofing mentioned above, you’ll also want a well positioned panel of softer, absorbent material — usually towelling, and usually placed around the bottom of the thumbs.
If you’re heading off road you might also want some form of padding/armour on the backs of the gloves too.
Cuffs with a decent overlap
The debate about whether cuffs should overlap your sleeves or your sleeves should overlap your cuffs may never be resolved conclusively (cuffs overlapping sleeves keeps out the draughts; sleeves overlapping cuffs stops rain running down into your gloves).
But whichever method you prefer, you’re going to need a decent-sized cuff to provide enough material to create that overlap. Cuffs that extend a few centimetres beyond your wrist are desirable when it comes to winter gloves.
Smartphones and bike computers that rely on touchscreen can cause problems if you’re wearing full-finger gloves. Performing even the simplest task, such as switching modes or starting a timer, means stopping, removing your gloves and poking away at your device before you can put your gloves back on and set off again.
If this process is likely to spoil your fun but you can’t bear to ride without your gadgets, then seek out gloves with fingertips that allow you to use touchscreens. A growing number are available and cost a little more than normal gloves but may be worth the extra expense if it means fewer ride interruptions for you and your mates.
While some women with larger hands can easily wear men's gloves, the smallest sizes just aren't little enough for many female riders. Properly fitting gloves boost confidence more than you'd think because hands are directly responsible for controlling the bike.
Too big a glove leads to excess material at the tips, which can get in the way of braking. Likewise, a loose palm section can cause hands to slide around on the bar. Women-specific gloves address these fit issues with smaller, thinner shaped fingers and palms.