GT: What’s the deal with cycling clothing?
“It’s as easy as riding a bike,” they say. Well “they” never had to pay for cycling clothing. To the uninitiated, cycling clothing seems like a bunch of overpriced spandex—and sometimes, it is! (This is why we at Geartrade always buy UnNew.)
But, if you look a bit beneath the (aerodynamic, stretchy) surface of cycling clothing, there’s a lot of method to the madness. Here, we’ll chat about what makes biking clothing different and what actually matters—other than saving cash by buying it on Geartrade, of course.
You don’t have to go all-in—especially at first.
First of all, what you’re wearing isn’t a huge deal if you’re a beginner or casual rider. If you’re just dipping your toes in the sport, or if you’re slim on cash, there’s no need to throw down for a head-to-toe cycling outfit with all the fixins. Regular exercise clothes will do just fine if you’re just tooling around. In fact, around the world, work-commute bikers simply wear their regular clothing for the ride. Most of the time, you can avoid getting your clothes too sweaty by just pedaling slowly, and by carrying your belongings in a basket or bike bag (called a “pannier”) so you don’t get a sweaty back under a backpack. (Avoiding sweat is easier to do if you live in a flat-ish place, though.)
There are a few items that even the very, very casual beginner should invest in. The biggest thing is a helmet. It’s fine to buy a bike helmet used if it hasn’t been dinged up. Padded bike gloves also really make a difference between sore, cold hands and comfortable hands—especially if the ride is bumpy or it’s chilly out. And, if you’re spending any significant amount of time in the saddle, padded shorts make a mega difference in bum preservation.
Next, what’s the difference between road cycling clothing and mountain bike clothing?
We know, we know, it seems like bike clothing should just be bike clothing. But there are some key differences. Clothing intended for road cycling is typically form-fitting, which is both comfortable and also leaves nothing loose to flap around at higher speeds. (If you ride baggy shorts down a long hill on a road bike, you will swiftly notice that they not only fill up with air like parachutes, but also they flap furiously in the wind, riding up and leaving very little to the spectator’s imagination.)
You don’t go nearly as fast while mountain biking, and on downhills you’re likely to be standing up, which holds your shorts down nicely. This means you can get away with comfy, baggy (even stylish!) shorts.
Both road cycling and mountain bike clothing have padding inside the shorts, which saves your lower regions from the ache of prolonged saddle time as well as the aggressive jostling of a mountain bike trail.
All bike clothing should be wicking, quick-dry fabric, as cotton is never fun to exercise in. And, the clothes will be cut for comfort when you’re in a leaning-forward position. This means the hems on bike shirts will drop lower in the back, and the waists of bike shorts typically go higher in the back. This ensures that neither low-back sunburn nor plumber’s crack enter into the equation.
What to look for in cycling jerseys and jackets
Cycling jerseys are, as we mentioned, always made of a quick-dry performance fabric. Brands nerd out on exactly what blend of synthetic quick-dry fabrics to use to keep you dry and cool, and some even use merino or incorporate some merino for the best of both worlds. In addition to performance fabric, you may find grippy silicone on the inside of the top’s sleeves or hem, which keep everything in place as you lean forward and move.
You’ll often see a front zipper, which offers much-appreciated ventilation on warm days. The deeper the front zipper, the more you can crank up the A/C on a hot ride. You can also take your pick between short sleeves, sleeveless, and long sleeves. You can even add arm warmers to make a short-sleeve into a long-sleeve for part of the day. They’re easy to peel off and stow in a pocket once you’re warm.
You’ll often also notice that jerseys have pockets on the low backs. That’s a great spot to stash an extra water, energy goo, phone, or any other small item. Sometimes these back pockets have zippers, which is super nice if you don’t like your stuff falling out and getting lost.
Bike jackets come in all varieties, and it’s a really good idea to always carry at least a light one. You can also pick up a vest made of the same material if you simply want to protect your core from the windchill. Windchill really adds up when you’re moving at speed, and a day that felt balmy standing still suddenly feels uncomfortably brisk when you’re pedaling. Most biking windbreakers pack down super small and stash in a pocket or pouch for when you need them. If there’s any chance of rain on the horizon, get a jacket that’s waterproof or highly water resistant, and go with full-fingered gloves for the extra warmth and coverage you’ll need. Fingers swiftly go numb when you’re pedaling on a cold or rainy day—making shifting hard and generally sucking away your joy.
What to look for in cycling shorts and tights
As we mentioned above, the biggest differentiator for biking shorts, whether you’re riding the road or trail, is padding. Without padding, your bottom will get painfully sore pretty quickly, whether you’re on the road or dirt. Fitted road-cycling shorts come with padding built in, while most looser-cut mountain bike shorts have an inner padded liner short that you wear under the outer short. Not only does this padding protect you from bumps and the hard saddle, but it offers a smooth fabric surface to interface with your, eh, most tender parts. This prevents chafing, which would leave you walking like a cowboy for some days after your ride.
Some shorts only have thin padding, while others are reinforced for the long haul.It’s something worth looking into before you throw down for a pair, depending on the type of riding you want to do.
You can also find long tights for road cycling or to wear under your mountain bike baggies if the weather may be cold or wet. You may notice bib shorts on the market, too—they might look kinda funny, but they’re hella comfortable because they don’t have a waistband cutting into your midsection as you lean forward. They’re held up by suspender-style shoulders that keep the shorts comfortably in place. The only real downside is that it’s harder to take a pee break in these shorts—especially if you’re a lady.
From there, it’s mostly aesthetics
Once you know what features matter most to you in your cycling clothing, you can have some fun. What brands offer colors, patterns, and styles that appeal to you most? Do you dig bright and flashy, minimalist Euro, or playful looks? Do you like more of an urban or mountain aesthetic? Once you start shopping, you’ll notice a huge range of styles and patterns across brands—and mountain bike brands in particular have had a heyday incorporating fun surf/skate-inspired style elements.
Let us know what you’re digging and what questions you have—and tag us in your bike photos wearing UnNew kits! We love to see it!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
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