Not every cyclist wears a base layer but they should. Because they are worn directly against the skin, they serve as the first layer of defence to keep skin dry and comfortable as you sweat. Yes, cycling jerseys are supposed to do the same thing but base layers provide additional surface area to absorb any moisture.
Base layers should be snug but comfortable, like a second skin, with no extra material. They should move with you and essentially disappear from your thoughts when wearing them. They come in many fabrics and styles, including seamless construction, tall necks for winter, and a panel of wind protection up front.
Cycling jerseys and jackets
Your choice of cycling jersey is a matter of body type and personal fit preference. Most brands offer different cuts of exactly how much or little a jersey hugs the body, so it’s important to read the garment description. Common cut names are club, race, and pro/aerodynamic, each with their distinctive characteristics.
• Club: Typically the most relaxed fit, meaning it will hug the body the least. It is the common choice for new cyclists, occasional riders and the type of giveaway souvenir jersey from a local grand fondo, sportive or other special events.
• Race: Defined as the athletic cut, often associated with a slim build and only a small amount of play in the fit.
• Pro/Aerodynamic: The closest fitting, ultra-tight jersey of the three designed for the maximum amount of aerodynamic gains, designed for riders who are slim throughout the chest, waist and arms.
Put your jersey on and get into a riding position, ideally on your bicycle poised on an indoor trainer and get pedalling. The jersey should be long enough to cover the waist of your bottoms. Even when you turn to look behind you, no skin should peek out. Long-sleeve jerseys should cover the wrists and have a cuff that prevents air from getting in. Jackets should fit as close to the body as possible to avoid excess material flapping about in the wind.
Trying reaching back as if getting a gel during a ride. The pockets should land on your low back. Is it easy to do or a struggle? Pockets you can’t access are of no use, and even if you love how the jersey looks, you probably won’t reach for it in the future (pun intended).
Move around a bit on the saddle and think about how the chest and shoulders feel. Is it tight or restrictive in any way? And how about those short sleeves? Elastic sleeve bands can vary but ideally should be made of a wide and supple material with a light amount of grip that doesn’t restrict or cut into your upper arm.
Cycling shorts or tights
Cycling shorts should be very form fitting to avoid chafing and have a chamois pad for added comfort in the saddle. (N.B. a larger saddle is not the automatic solution for discomfort! Any saddle causing discomfort is not suited for your anatomy or you are poorly positioned on a bicycle that does not fit you properly.)
Shorts are made from panels sewn together to follow a body’s anatomical shape. Typically the more panels are used, the better the fit. Hold up a pair of shorts by the waist. If their shape is undefined, it is likely made with fewer panels. A more tailored fit means more panels and sewing go into the garment, which also makes them more expensive.
Shorts (and tights) are classified as either with or without bibs (suspender straps). The choice is very personal. More experienced riders go with bibs as they provide a better fit, more comfort, improved range of motion and stay up! Yes, bibs can be a pain for the ladies when nature calls but there are several brands that have eliminated that inconvenience by creating drop seats.
Put on the shorts, get back on your bike and start pedalling. Is the short length to your liking? Different brands have different lengths, so trial and error may be in store for you. The waist should be comfortable with no restriction to your breathing or movement. The same principles apply to tights. Do they cover your ankles and follow the contours of your leg?
Stand up as you pedal and then try to sit down. Does any material catch on the saddle? If so, pull up your bottoms a touch more and try again, go down a size or, worst case, try another brand. You do not want any additional material, anywhere, that can cause chafing.
Leg band comfort on shorts is also important. It should be wide and made of soft and extendible material with sufficient grip. Road cycling shorts should stay fixed on your thigh, never slide around or ride up. The amount of leg band compression is a bigger issue for women who don’t want the sausage leg look. Leg bands that are too tight on anyone are unattractive and affect the enjoyment of your ride. Once you find your brand, treat yourself to several pairs.
The chamois is the soft pad sewn into shorts (and tights) with an overlying material that wicks moisture away from your skin. They are designed to provide comfort by dampening road vibrations that pass through the saddle. Chamois come in different thicknesses, densities and shapes, including women’s specific. Some brands rate theirs by the number of riding hours, so check those product description tags.
Online shopping has become standard, and many quality brands sell directly to consumers besides being available in your local bike shop. Similar to your civilian clothing, it really just depends on the brand. Use sizing charts as your guide but until you have dialled in your favourite label and cut, you won’t know until you’ve tried it on.
Don’t let that deter you from buying online but read the fine print regarding the source’s return policy. Consumer-focused brands won’t charge their customers return postage for clothing that didn’t fit or suit but minimum values probably apply. And if purchasing custom clothing for a team or special event, ask prospective providers to send a fit kit first. This is standard practice, as there are never any returns on custom clothing.
Women’s vs men’s
When I started riding, women’s clothing didn’t exist, and I managed just fine. That said, I try women’s specific shorts first but if you look at men’s and women’s chamois side by side these days, the differences are minimal at best. I own pairs of both but we each have different needs. Cyclists shouldn’t feel pigeonholed into purchasing clothing based on gender alone. The important thing is the fit.
The same goes for jerseys. I almost always purchase men’s jerseys as the chest size is ideal for me. I fall between two standard women’s sizes and the extra material flaps around in the wind; very unbecoming. Some women’s jerseys only have two pockets vs always three with men. Do women cyclists not need as many pockets? (I’ve never understood that). Anyway, don’t let the gender on the garment tag dictate your choices; the fit and your comfort are the priority.
Caring for your clothes
Now that you have potentially spent a small fortune on your cycling clothes, you’ll want to protect your investment by caring for them properly. The technical fabrics used in cycling clothing are designed to wick moisture away from your skin as you work up a sweat. High-tech fabrics have pores similar to your skin to achieve this effect. Softeners block those pores and render the fabric’s technical capabilities completely ineffective.
Therefore, avoid fabric softener at all costs to preserve your cycling wardrobe. The same goes for putting your cycling clothes in a dryer or on a hot radiator to dry. Just set them out in the air. They are made to dry quickly and will be wearable before you know it, certainly in time for tomorrow’s ride.