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Cycling Clothes Materials Under the Spotlight

By Megan Flottorp

As anyone who has had the pleasure of upgrading their cycling gear and slipping into a perfectly-fitted kit knows all too well—the right clothes can make a huge difference! To enjoy maximum comfort, safety, and get the most out of your athletic ability, proper garments are a must. Like many things when it comes to cycling, though, there is a considerable amount of variety (and an equally vast price range) to accompany your many choices.

You don’t have to go at it alone, though! Even if you just enjoy riding your bike for leisure and mostly avoid heading out in bad weather, having the right base layer and a trusty protector against the elements can go a long way. Without becoming cycling clothes material scientist, it helps to understand basic fabric technologies when selecting clothes for your own specific needs as a cyclist. Read on to understand some of the pros and cons of the most popular materials used. You’ll feel more confident investing in quality products and will know how to take care of them to keep them performing at their best!

Choosing a base layer: synthetic or Merino wool?

Deciding what to wear directly against your skin can be tricky. The two most popular options are Lycra/spandex/elastane or Merino wool. Here is an overview of what both have to offer.


Tommie Copper T-Shirt
Tommie Copper Women’s Pro-Grade Shirt Shoulder Support Short Sleeve. © Tommie Copper

Pros: Synthetic cycling clothes materials like Lycra offer top moisture-wicking performance. This means they get sweat away from your skin quickly and can bolster the breathability factor for any additional layers. They don’t hold on to moisture and will dry quickly. Synthetics also tend to be cheaper than natural materials, offer plenty of stretch to conform to your unique body shape, and are built to survive plenty of rough use. You can expect a reasonably long lifespan.

Cons: The most significant downsides when using a synthetic base layer are that synthetics aren’t environmentally friendly and tend to get a bit smelly. Although most synthetic base layers now have special treatments to counter this, bacteria simply thrive on synthetic fibres and that leads to smell.

Wear Lycra that fits! If you decide to go the synthetics route, don’t be fooled into thinking that squeezing into a smaller size will make you look sleeker or pedal faster. On or off the bike, too small clothes will only make you feel uncomfortable and insecure. Your stretchy bike clothes should never be a battle to get on.

Merino wool

Merino wool T-shirt
Rapha Women’s Merino base layer. © Rapha

Pros: Merino fibres absorb moisture well and release it into the atmosphere more slowly; this means more warmth stays with you even when you are wet. Overall, you get a warmer and cosier feel. As a natural material, Merino is also biodegradable and environmentally friendly. The natural fibres don’t provide such a fertile breeding ground for bacteria and can be worn for several days without generating any unwanted attention.

Cons: If you’re going to be working quite hard on the bike or have a tendency to sweat a lot, Merino may not be up to the task of desorbing moisture. This can result in a saturated, heavy base layer that takes longer to dry than a synthetic. It will become particularly problematic if you’re dealing with volatile temperatures. Natural fibres are also a bit more fragile than synthetics, so you need to be a bit more careful with them, especially when washing.

When washing natural materials, use a mild detergent, a gentle cycle, and a low temperature. If you don’t trust your washing machine’s most delicate setting, it is best to do it by hand. Avoid fabric softener and bright sunlight for drying—both will weaken the fibres.

Gore-Tex demystified

ARC’TERYX Alpha AR jacket. © ARC’TERYX

Even if you think of yourself as a fair-weather cyclist, you will encounter a drizzle or a downpour at one point or another. There are many waterproof jackets out there to choose from, most boasting Gore-Tex technology. Gore-Tex is a semi-breathable fabric, with a membrane that allows moisture to pass through it from the hot, humid side to the cooler, drier side. If conditions are super humid, for example, you’re going to get wet even if you keep your waterproof layer on.

What about good old cotton?

Of course, materials like cotton and bamboo can also do the trick when it comes to your cycling endeavours. They are soft, durable, breathable, versatile and easy to care for. That being said, they don’t absorb moisture very well. If you’re planning on putting in much effort on your bike, it does pay to invest in cycling clothes materials that will help keep you comfortable.

The final verdict

There has been a lot of careful development, analysis, design and testing to create fabrics that will allow you to perform to your highest level despite the conditions you may face while cycling. On the other hand, pricy cycling kits can be a barrier to many would-be riders—and that is not a good thing. Our advice? Take your time to identify your specific needs and style of riding. Chances are you’ll find that you don’t need as much gear as you initially thought and that you’ll manage just fine by investing in a few key items that you can come back to time and time again. You need not spend a fortune to be comfortable while enjoying the thrill of cycling!