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Bike Clothing 101 - What the Pros Know

By Molly Hurford | June 4, 2018 | Rally Health

Getting dressed for a bike ride can feel like an impossible task: How many layers is too many? Do you really need that heavy pair of gloves? Are you supposed to wear underwear under your bike shorts? Only that last question has a definitive answer — no underwear with your bike shorts — but the rest are open for debate. Thankfully, Rally CyclingSM pro riders have some tips to keep you comfortable on any ride, no matter the weather, your riding style, or skill level.

Make Sure Your Helmet Fits

Start from the top: Your helmet is the most important piece of cycling clothing that you own, and making sure you have one that fits properly and is positioned correctly is key.

“An ill-fitting helmet, one that rides too far back like a bonnet, isn't just a bad look, it’s unsafe,” says Sara Bergen, a 29-year-old Rally Cycling racer from Vancouver.

Sara-Bergen-Helmet.jpg#asset:71774A properly fitted helmet is key, says Rally Cycling's Sara Bergen.

Bergen  says that when she started riding, her helmet was often crooked, and she still sees cyclists wearing helmets that are clearly the wrong size — or even put on backwards! Your local bike shop can help you find one that fits properly. It should feel snug, come down on your forehead so it sits parallel with your eyebrows, and shouldn’t move around on your head easily. Most helmets have adjustable straps that should snap snugly under your chin, plus a dial in the back to tighten it around your head.

Don’t Overdress. Don’t Underdress. Dress Right.

This is a tall order, obviously. But with some pre-planning, it is possible.

“People don’t check the weather for their whole ride, they just check what it looks like when they’re heading out the door,” says Danny Pate, who’s been racing for two decades and has ridden in just about every condition. "You want to look at the whole forecast.”

Use an app like Weather Underground to get a better idea of the conditions you’ll be riding in. Most clothing, especially cold-weather gear, has temperature ratings listed on it, so use that as a starting point.

Bike-Clothing-101-Ryan-Anderson.jpg#asset:66392Ryan Anderson, dressed just right.

“You have to plan. Consider how long you’re going to be out there,” says Alberta-based racer Ryan Anderson. "Even on a quick ride, you want to be prepared in case you get a flat and get stuck on the side of the road, but the planned long rides really require strategy.”

This may require expanding your closet: For example, Anderson has a few different go-to jackets. “If it’s raining, I wear a rain jacket; I have a more breathable, warmer one for when it’s cold,” he says.

As you ride more, you’ll most likely start to build your cycling wardrobe with more specialized pieces of gear. A good way to keep track is to start a spreadsheet of what the weather was and the temperature, how long your ride went, what you wore, and how well it worked. You’ll start to see patterns emerge and figure out what combination of gear works for each set of conditions.

Protect Your Knees

The biggest mistake first-year Rally Cycling racer Nigel Ellsay sees is when it’s 45 degrees Fahrenheit and someone shows up for the group ride with nothing covering their legs. Leg warmers are some of the least expensive pieces of cycling gear available and can completely change your riding comfort level. Getting a pair to pull on with shorts (wear them under your shorts, not over!) can make a major difference and save you knee aches and pains post-ride.

“Your knees are the lifeblood of every ride, and if you don’t take care of them, you’ll be suffering,” says veteran racer and former Criterium National Champion Brad Huff. "You only have a couple millimeters of skin between the cold and your kneecap and you need to protect them. I always wear leg warmers when it’s under 60 degrees out.”

Bike-clothing-leg-warmers.jpg#asset:66390Jesse Anthony and Kyle Murphy understand the importance of keeping your knees warm.

Invest in Well-Fitting Cold Weather Layers

Summer is simple: shorts and a jersey will do the trick on hot rides. Cold weather gets trickier, since adding more and more layers can make moving more difficult and actually reduce blood flow in your arms if layers are too tight or constrictive. Anderson adds a thin base layer under a long-sleeve jersey (for extra pockets) before layering his jacket.

Pro tip: Keep the heaviest layers on the outside to make movement easier, and when getting dressed, put yourself in a cycling position, bent at the hips with your hands out like you’re gripping the handlebars to ensure that nothing is pulled too tight and you still can breathe easily.

Don’t forget, as 20-year-old Canadian pro Gillian Anderson says, “Opt to dress warmer more often — you can always take layers off!”

Warm Up Any Outfit with a Buff

Still cold? Consider U23 Cyclocross National Champion and Rally Cycling racer Emma White’s favorite piece of cycling clothing: the buff. It's essentially just a cylinder of material, but a buff is one of the most versatile, climate-controlling pieces of gear that you’ll ever buy, since it can act as a neck warmer, be pushed up to create a hood, or smushed tightly to serve as a headband. It’s small enough to ball up in your pocket if the day warms up, and typically costs under $25. There’s no excuse not to add one to your wardrobe — especially if you spend a lot of time out in the cold.

Bring a Rainproof Windbreaker

Think like the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. A sunny day can turn windy or rainy, and a temperature that feels great while pedaling can quickly feel chilly if you’ve stopped to fix a flat. Thankfully, there are plenty of wind- and waterproof options for jackets small enough to stash in your jersey pocket. Carrying one of these will almost certainly come in handy sometime.

Bike-clothing-101-hero.jpg#asset:67074Don't leave home without a windbreaker.

“A windbreaker-type jacket that you can smash into a small ball to fit in your jersey is key,” says Pate. He and Brad Huff have spent nearly 20 years each racing and riding, and both are emphatic on this point.

“Always, always bring a waterproof compressible windbreaker,” Huff says. "You never know when you’ll need it."

And About Those Bike Shorts…

Bike-clothing-bike-shorts.jpg#asset:66395No underwear required.

In case you were still wondering about why underwear is definitely not part of a cyclist’s ensemble, remember that a cycling chamois (the padding in the shorts) is designed to be worn in direct contact with the skin to protect and pad your sensitive areas and avoid things like chafing and saddle sores. Need more persuasion? Two words: Massive. Wedgie.


Molly Hurford is the author of “Fuel Your Ride,” “Saddle, Sore,” and the upcoming “Shred Girls” series. She also writes for Bicycling magazine, and co-hosts “The Consummate Athlete” podcast.

Molly Hurford
Rally Health