Cycling has become more comfortable, and more fashion-conscious. Now you can relax knowing that even if you're sweating buckets, you'll stay dry and looking fabulous both during your ride and afterwards in the local café or pub.
Whether you are mountain biking or road riding, touring or competing, the law of layering will apply. Layering helps to create your own mini-environment that will keep you dry and warm (or cool in hot weather).
Layering helps to create your own mini-environment
As it lies against your skin, this is the most important layer. There are many varieties of technical fabrics nowadays, but look for something that wicks sweat away from your skin. Cotton is a poor choice as the material merely soaks up the sweat, holding it against your skin. When you descend or stop this wetness next to your body will have you feeling very cold.
Do wear an undervest, even in summer. In winter too, you will get sweaty (especially with more clothes on!) and staying dry next to your skin is important if you are to avoid chills. There is an added advantage of wearing a undervest at all times: should you fall, your outer layer will stick against the ground and you will slide over that - most likely leaving you a nasty case of road rash. If you wear an undervest, that will slide over the other garment and your skin will be saved a great deal of pain. Good sports vests cost £20-£30, but they are well worth the money. Try one and I guarantee you'll buy another so you're never riding without it!
Tip 1: if you want to be really warm in winter without looking like a Michelin Man, wear two undervests. Despite their thinness, they are remarkably effective at keeping you warm in cold conditions.
For summer, a regular cycling jersey is ideal. These days most are made of some sort of acrylic or polyester, with new fabrics continually entering the market, with properties such as better 'breathability', antibacterial finish, improved sun protection factors (SPF) or wicking. The classic cycling jersey has three pockets at the back, useful for an energy bar or your wallet (but don't carry tools or keys there - if you fall they won't do your back any good at all!) and a zip neck to adjust the ventilation.
Some like the logo-look
Some riders love to emulate their heroes and buy 'trade' tops with all the sponsors' logos, others prefer more subdued designs. All cycling clubs have their own colours, which vary from the simple to the bizarre. Most club or trade designs tend to be bright, which is an advantage for visibility and identification. You may also get a choice of length of zip, full-length is useful for very hot conditions, and it came make toilet stops a lot less troublesome too, Road jerseys tend to be quite close fitting. There's no rule about this, but most mountain bikers and leisure riders usually prefer something with a slightly looser cut.
Alternatively, you could wear a lightweight fleece. Made from polyester, these are very easy to look after - most will dry in a couple of hours and will manage to keep you warm even when wet. Look in outdoor shops for a wider range of microfleeces if the choice at your local bike shop is limited. You do however, need to find a garment with an anatomical cut - longer at the back is always useful for cycling (and often slightly longer in the arms). With the growth of adventure racing and technical 'travel' garments, the choice is widening all the time.
Cycling jerseys range from about £25 to around £50. More money usually buys a better anatomical fit, and more technical fabrics. Long sleeves and long zips will add a few pounds. Expect to spend £40-£60 on a good microfleece. Some will have a wind blocking lining (usually only across the front to protect the chest).
Longer at the back is always useful for cycling, and slightly longer in the arms
As a cyclist you are usually generating heat through exercise, so having a windproof layer is more important than having a waterproof. However, if you are soaked through, you'll soon get chilled so it helps to have some degree of shower proofing even if you don't go the whole hog and invest in something like a Gore-Tex jacket.
Cycling specific jackets have a longer 'tail' for better protection in the riding position and to protect you from some of the elements that might get thrown up from the rear wheel. They can be fastened with Velcro or zips - but be very careful with Velcro, it has a nasty habit of eating Lycra shorts and tights!
If you ride at night - perhaps commuting, training or as a randonneur, do look for reflective features on your jacket.
Outer layers range greatly in price the race garments tend to be the simplest and lightest - the leisure riders get the more highly-designed products with extra pockets and fancy features!
Be warned - Velcro can eat Lycra shorts and tops
The range of women's clothing for cycling is has expanded dramatically in recent years, and women are well-advised to seek a woman's cut in garments whenever possible as the comfort factor will be greatly enhanced.
A 'gilet' (sleeveless top a bit like a waistcoat) can block the wind from your chest but allow air to escape from your arms so that you don't overheat. Many cycling gilets also have a mesh back to help keep you cool.
Layer up two jackets rather than wearing one thicker one - you'll get better insulation and you can adjust them both for the best ventilation or take one off if needed.