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Finding the right bike for your commute is often easier than deciding what clothes you’ll wear.
You need garments that protect you in all weathers.
This article looks at commuting bicycle clothing and tells you exactly what attire you should buy to ensure your commuting comfort.
Clothing You Need For A Better Bike Commute To Work
Let’s take a closer look at the clothes and headgear that are typically used on bike commutes.
Although there are cultures where bike helmets are seldom used (e.g., The Netherlands), anyone whose head has hit the asphalt doesn’t need much convincing: a bike helmet can be a lifesaver.
In the last few years, MIPS and similar proprietary technologies have been developed to protect against the shearing rotational injuries the brain can suffer as your head hits the ground. This is a feature worth having, though any protection is better than none.
Commuters probably encounter more traffic than the average leisure cyclist. Although a helmet can’t protect you from serious collisions, it will help you if you’re nudged off your bike by a careless road user.
Many people believe cycling gloves are only worn for keeping their hands warm and stop numbness. While that is a compelling reason for wearing them in the winter, cyclists also wear them to protect their hands in the event of a crash.
In fact, it’s worth owning different gloves for different purposes. A lightweight, thin pair of gloves is ideal for keeping a chill off your hands during moderately low temperatures. Once the temperature approaches freezing point (32 °F), you’ll need thicker gloves.
Popular amongst cycling gloves are lobster gloves because they keep your fingers together to preserve the warmth. Even more elaborate are cycling pogies. These winter handlebar mitts prevent wind chill and create a cozy micro-climate for your hands.
Read more: Cycling gloves for commuting
3. Rain Pants
To keep the rain off your legs and your work pants, a pair of rain pants is invaluable. Many people wear these over their normal work clothes, though this isn’t always necessary. The one thing you should always be wary of with anything rainproof is breathability.
If your bike commute is short, it’s wise to aim for a “water-resistant” product rather than a waterproof one. This type of clothing is more breathable and will keep you dry in all but the most ferocious or persistent of downpours.
For those that travel to work in cycling-specific attire, water-resistant bib tights are an alternative product to aim for. These will often be constructed with a special membrane that allows sweat vapor to escape whilst preventing rain droplets from permeating.
4. Ponchos & Rain Capes
Though they have a few drawbacks, rain capes and ponchos are great for keeping you dry on a commute. They’re like an umbrella for the bike.
The difference between a poncho and rain cape is that a poncho goes over your head while the cape goes around your shoulders.
An obvious benefit of this type of protection is that it keeps your legs and hands dry as well as your upper body and head. A cycling cape is easy to pack, easy to put on, and it’s economical. You’re getting several garments in one.
A significant benefit of a cape or poncho is that you get plenty of airflow beneath it, so it’s not so critical that the material is breathable.
During the summer, bike shorts are a standard part of cycling attire. As a commuter, you can either go for the casual look or you can stick on the close-fitting “Lycra” shorts. The latter are normally made from polyester and elastane.
If you’d prefer to stay casually dressed, MTB shorts are ideal.
The benefit of Lycra shorts is their practicality. They are inherently aerodynamic (some more than others), so they help you to maximize your speed on a road bike. Their stretchiness is well-suited to cycling, and they are breathable.
One thing worth considering is the pad used inside shorts. You may not need this on a short commute, in which case you could compensate with a padded saddle.
Video: Lycra vs MTB Shorts
6. Cycling Shoes
Your choice of cycling shoes will also differ depending on how much you want to look like a cyclist. You need shoes that will at least adhere to the pedals.
For the casual look, you can buy cycling-specific sneakers like those from the Adidas Five Ten range. These are designed with soles that adhere to flat pedals.
Other shoes you can look at are traditional touring shoes, which can often be used without cleats. Some MTB shoes have their cleat holes covered when new, too, so you can wear these without clipping your feet to the pedals.
You might decide you want to use clipless pedals on your commute, which require corresponding stiff-soled shoes with cleat holes. In that case, you buy the shoes that match your pedal system (e.g., SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Speedplay).
7. Base Layer
If you’re wearing a decent windproof jacket, you’ll get away with wearing only a base layer beneath it down to fairly low temperatures. This base layer is usually made from polyester or Merino wool and is designed to be close-fitting.
The extreme wicking properties of a good base layer help to keep your body warm by expelling sweat, keeping your skin dry and insulating you. A material that absorbs sweat, like cotton, keeps your skin wet and becomes a poor insulator when drenched.
On a commute, you could wear a base layer and put on a clean shirt when you arrive at work. The upper body sweats more than the lower body, so this top-half clothing strategy is a possibility if you need a fresh shirt for work.
8. Cycling Jersey
A good cycling jersey is breathable and has wicking properties, which enable it to actively expel and evaporate sweat (much like a base layer). It can be used as a mid-layer in the winter or a single layer in the summer.
Casual commuters don’t often wear cycling-specific jerseys, which tend to be close-fitting. However, they’re a good way to preserve the condition of your work shirt.
The fit of a cycling jersey is often described as being “loose”, “performance” or “race” fit. The first will usually allow some breathing space in the belly, chest and arms, while the last elastically hugs the body in all areas.
Among the most vital pieces of commuter cycling equipment are jackets. As with other garments, you can choose casual cycling jackets or closer-fitting ones for faster riding. The most important aspect, apart from style and fit, is the weather resistance.
If you choose a windproof cycling jacket, you can expect it to be water-resistant to some extent as well as breathable. It’ll still let some water in if you ride in hard or sustained rainfall. For commuting, this type of jacket is often a well-balanced choice.
A jacket that is 100% waterproof will nearly always be less breathable unless it’s very expensive and made with a technical membrane fabric. Even then, you’ll find some dissent regarding breathability.
10. Socks & Overshoes
Many cyclists suffer from cold feet during the winter. The temptation is to put on the thickest socks you can find, or even double up with two pairs of socks. But this type of solution often creates circulation problems, because your shoes become tighter.
One way to keep your feet warm is to buy some thermal overshoes, which slip on over regular cycling shoes, leaving the toe and cleat exposed. These are very effective in insulating your feet and keeping the chill off of them.
You can also try old cycling tricks like wrapping tin foil around the toes of your stockinged feet.
Are There Times To Wear Certain Clothes?
Deciding what clothes to put on before a bike commute isn’t as simple as it may seem, but there are certain pointers that can help.
Winter plays tricks on commuting cyclists. You’ll walk to the garage to collect your bike and decide you’re not dressed warmly enough for the ride. You might feel a slight chill in your legs or arms. You should resist adding more clothes based on this feeling, or you’ll overheat.
The main priority in winter should be protecting your core temperature and staying warm. Take extra care to cover your pulse points. These are areas where blood vessels run close to the surface of the skin, so they are short-cuts to your core temperature.
Wear a neck buff in extreme cold, and treat yourself to gloves that have long cuffs to keep your wrists warm.
When temperatures dip towards freezing, cycling changes. That’s when you need thermal protection in all areas and extra wrapping on your extremities (feet, hands).
Video: Layering For A Bike Ride
For many people, summer poses an even greater hazard than winter. As temperatures soar, it can be hard to keep your core temperature stable, and most people don’t know they’re too hot until they’re ill.
On a summer commute, make sure you are wearing breathable clothes. As an alternative to sunscreen, you might wear UPF 50+ arm or leg sleeves to shield your skin from UV radiation.
Resist the temptation to minimalize when cycling in the heat. A pair of cycling mitts is never a bad idea in case you fall off your bike. Buy a helmet with plenty of vents rather than not wear one.
In The Wet
The main priority when cycling is to maintain a healthy temperature, so if it’s cold and wet, you fight the cold first with good insulation. Expensive membrane garments give you insulation, waterproofing and breathability in one hit, or as close as you’ll get to it.
For relatively short commutes, you only need clothes that keep the rain out for a few minutes. Under those circumstances, “water-resistant” clothing will normally be more breathable and cheaper than many garments claiming to be waterproof.
Bike Commute Dressing: FAQs
These are some commonly asked questions about bike-commuting clothes:
Can I Wear My “Normal” Clothes When I Commute To Work By Bike?
Yes, but even casual bike clothes make movement on the bike easier. It also depends on your job a little and how fresh you need to smell and feel when you start work.
How To Ride To Work On A Bike And Still Look Good At The Other End
Keep your riding at low intensity and watch the road or trail carefully to dodge any puddles or grime. Install fenders to avoid being sprayed by your tires.
What If There Are No Showers At My Office?
No showers at work? You can improvise by cleaning yourself with baby wipes and dry shampoo, or join a nearby gym to use the shower facilities.
Why Do Cyclists Wear Tight Clothes And Do I Need To Wear Them?
They’re worn for ease of movement and because they’re breathable and fit for purpose. Tight clothes also reduce aerodynamic drag, but nobody has to wear them.
How Do You Carry Work Clothes On A Bike?
Should You Wear A Base Layer Under Your Cycling Top?
A base layer is often essential as a single layer under a winter jacket or jersey when temperatures approach freezing. You shouldn’t need it in milder weather (e.g., 50-60°F and above).
Read more: How to bike commute