If you are new to cycling and do not know where to start, this series may help you. In the coming weeks, WomensCycling.net will provide basic information and facts to give you an insight into the world of cycling and more importantly, how to become an active cyclist.
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Cycling, even when leisurely or social, is affected by the temperature of the air around you. If there is a breeze or wind when you cycle into it, you will work harder, but you will also feel the cooling effects more than when the wind is at your back. The key to be comfortably clothed on your bike is to avoid overcooling and to avoid overheating and to avoid clothing which is bulky or baggy - easy to say!
Many cyclists find that if they are slightly chilly in their kit before they start a ride, they achieve a comfortable temperature during their ride.....
Whatever your budget, the choice of cycling fashion is wide. You can choose to make a statement with vivid colours or designs, or you can be more moderate. Bright colours, flashy designs, primary colours, neon colours are all part of the cycling scene. The main thing is try garments on and feel comfortable in them. If something feels tight in the fitting room, it will probably feel worse an hour from home - making sure that cycle clothes fit is important to your enjoyment of the sport.
Safety is another aspect. You may feel a bit foolish wearing a fluorescent yellow top, but it will certainly help other road users to see you. If you are going to be riding at night, you should definitely try to buy a top which is made from a light colour - to improve your chances of being spotted from the greatest distance. Rain jackets too, should be made from lighter colours as rain usually means poorer visibility in general. Clothing which has seams or piping which are made from reflective materials are an excellent idea and the good news is that most cycle-clothing manufacturers include "high-vis" reflective strips and piping in their outerwear as a matter of course.
Just as mountaineers and other 'outdoorspeople' use 'layering', so too do cyclists. An under vest and then a short sleeved shirt is the minimum you should ever wear up top. Never only wear a cycling shirt - 2 layers minimum - always. There are 2 reasons for this - an under layer provides an insulating and also a (sweat) 'wicking' layer to take moisture away from your skin and thereby keep you comfortable. Secondly, if you are unfortunate enough to fall off, 2 layers will slide over each other and may tear, but you are less likely to cut or graze your skin. The movement of the layers of clothing absorbs the friction instead of your skin. (This may seem crazy, but it absolutely definitely works - I have a long-sleeved jersey with a 15cm x 4cm hole in the lower forearm and an armwarmer with a surface graze to its otherwise unaffected shiny appearance thanks to a slide along the road at about 25km/hr where my arm took the brunt of the impact. But, there was no damage to my skin at all! )
If it seems strange that a second layer can keep you cool, then you will just have to try it. Don't wear cotton, but buy an undergarment which is especially designed (and for the crash-test reason above it is best to avoid sleeveless in order to protect your shoulders from 'road-rash' should the worst occur) to wick sweat away from your body. This way, you don't get wet through as quickly as you otherwise would and if you get a really good undershirt, you will be comfortable all day.
As it becomes cooler, you will want to add layers, so it is also desirable to have a long sleeved cycling jersey and / or a full-length zip top with long sleeves. One or both of these will help to keep you warm and if they are cycling specific, they will be cut long enough at the back to keep your lower back warm and free of injury or strains. (This is an important point, actually, you should never expose your lower back to the elements - not only can you get sunburnt at one extreme, you can suffer from muscle pain or kidney-chill at the other). In very cool climates, it is possible to add a cycling tracksuit top or even a thermal outerlayer to your cycling wardrobe. Available and everlasting are tops made from similar material to that worn by downhill ski-racers. A thick, fleece-lined and incredibly close knit lycra / polyester material which is slightly shiny. These tops feel a bit constricting at first, but are a great idea if you are going to be doing long, cold rides.
Another useful addition to the cycling wardrobe is a sleeveless vest top, possibly one which is windproof. These usually fold up small enough to fit in a pocket if not needed, but are so effective if it suddenly becomes chilly, or you if you turn into a headwind or if you come across a long descent (which can be chilly as your speed increases). You can make a short sleeved jersey into an acceptable warm jacket for spring or autumn use by adding a pair of armwarmers (sleeves - which usually have elasticated cuffs at either end and which are tapered to fit the shape of your arm) and a sleeveless vest. You can set out in the cool morning in the vest and armwarmers and shed these later in the day if it warms up. Both the armwarmers and vest will fit into a jersey pocket whilst you're not wearing them. (Vice versa for evening rides home).
Finally, a waterproof jacket is invaluable. It should be cycling-specific, otherwise you will find that it "balloons" behind you, even at low speed and makes everything so much more difficult. Breathable fabrics are widely available now and a better bet than non-breathable fabrics. Cycling is an intense activity, though and so do not expect even the most expensive breathable jacket to be able to transmit all your sweat away - you will inevitably be damp on the inside...... Additional features such as ventilation-zippered slots under the arms and fleece-lining on the collar help with comfort. So too, do adjustable cuffs on the sleeve (rather than tight-fitting elastic) and a drawstring around the back which allow you to pull the jacket in around your hips. Look for a jacket which has a longer back - when you lean forward on the handlebars, it will not ride up and leave you unprotected.
Shorts are a matter of personal choice. You will probably find one or two brands which are comfortable to you and stick with your favourite's). When making your initial choice, there are a couple of things to bear in mind:
In addition, you should avoid wearing garments with more than one insert. That is, do not wear shorts and long cycling bottoms, both with inserts, in cooler weather. The additional padding will affect your relative position on the bike and could cause problems. If you wish to wear long bottoms over your shorts, choose a pair which do not have an insert. There is a benefit to making the choice this way around - you could ride more than once in a pair of long bottoms between washes if you change the shorts underneath after each ride.
The length of shorts and also long bottoms is also personal. Some riders prefer to wear shorts which are well above the knee, others prefer them to reach further down. Just ensure that the shorts do not allow your skin to chafe on the saddle if you choose shorter shorts..... With respect to longer bottoms, you can choose between 3/4 length or full length. If you choose 3/4 length, you will need to decide how much of your calf you wish to cover. 3/4 length provides protection for knees from the cold, but not the lower leg. Full length bottoms will provide warmth to your whole leg, it is up to you whether you choose a pair with a zipper at the bottom, or an underfoot loop. The latter stops the bottoms from riding up - which can be useful if you're wearing overshoes (see below). However, without a zip, putting bottoms on and off without removing shoes is impossible.
Knee and leg warmers can be a cost effective way of keeping your legs warm if the climate is good. They are not a real alternative in the winter, though, to long bottoms. Knee warmers are particularly useful in the late spring, summer and early autumn. You can wear them when you set out in the morning, but remove them, roll them up and put them in your pocket when the temperature rises. Knee warmers and leg warmers in their simplest forms are simply tubes of lycra material with lightly elasticated top and bottom 'cuffs'. The cuffs are important - more expensive varieties have 'grippers' - exposed elastic which grips your legs and helps keep the top up and the bottom down. Higher quality shorts will have grippers at the bottom of the legs - to prevent them from riding up.
Choice of fabric is important. Lycra, it probably goes without saying is the fabric of choice for shorts. Even then, you can choose 'Coolmax' or other types which will keep you more comfortable in different seasons. Inserts are progressively more scientific as you pay more for shorts. A small increase in price will buy you shorts with antibacterial inserts. Greater outlay will provide gel padding in sensitive areas, which may help when you ride longer distances. Fabric for outer layers varies with season. You may only need a pair of lycra 3/4's for cooler summer days, or lightweight longs in the spring or autumn. However, as the thermometer drops, you might consider purchasing heavier-weight materials. In Europe, a popular description of fleecy-lined heavyweight material is "Roubaix" - garments made from this are warm enough for most climates for most riders. In addition, lined garments are shower-proofed and windproofed assist the weather-protection of cycling clothing.
The biggest choice to make will be whether you wear shorts or 'bibshorts'. The former are waist-height, the latter have kind-of braces which go over your shoulder and stop the shorts from falling down. Bibshorts are more inconvenient when you need to go to the bathroom, but apart from that, are probably the better bet. In cool weather, they will keep your kidneys and lower back warm and in the summer, they can wick sweat away. Before bibshorts were widely available, riders would wear shorts and keep them up with braces (suspenders). Long bottoms and 3/4 length bottoms are also available in waist or bib-versions. Again, the choice is personal, but it is worth bearing in mind that if you wish to keep your knees or legs warm, you probably want to keep your lower back warm too - go for bibs as a recommendation.
Shoes - crucial for cycling comfort. Although you do not pound the streets when you are cycling, your feet are a point of contact with the bike and can be uncomfortable if not of the correct design. Cycling shoes come in a variety of designs, brands and models, including boots and sandals. The common denominator for all shoes is that the sole will be stiffer than other types of shoes - especially sports shoes (trainers / runners). You may get away with riding in sports shoes for a while, but the contact made with the pedals will not be as good as with cycling shoes and the softer sole will absorb rather than transmit some of your power on each pedal revolution. On longer rides, softer soled shoes will give rise to pressure points where the pedals dig-in to your feet.
Cycling shoes are also designed to be fitted with 'cleats' or 'shoeplates' - the metal or plastic fitting on the bottom of the shoe which clips onto the pedal frame or body. Broadly speaking, older pedals use toeclips and straps to keep the shoeplate secure on the pedal body. More modern pedals have binding mechanisms which lock onto the shoeplate and therefore secure the foot. Either way, it is simply a matter of practice to get your feet out of the pedals and use of clips & straps or bindings make your pedalling significantly more efficient.
Whether you choose 'road' shoes or 'touring' shoes or MTB (mountainbike) shoes is up to you. Although this is a section on clothing, it is worth mentioning that shoes and pedals need to be matched - it is no good buying MTB shoes if your bike has road pedals. Take advice from your bike shop if you're unsure, or change your pedals to match your choice of shoe. It can be relatively inexpensive to purchase a reasonable pair of MTB pedals for a road or touring bike. The advantage is that unlike road shoes, which are smooth-soled and not designed for walking), MTB shoes have more pronounced soles and can be walked in for great distances without causing damage to the shoeplate. If you're just starting out, it is worth considering MTB shoes and pedals. You can race successfully with these too, should you go in that direction and change to more specialised pedals later.
Whether shoes are lace-up or velcro fastening or a ratchet mechanism is usually determined by personal preference (and increasing price as the sophistication of the shoe increases). If you choose lace-ups, as a safety precaution, either ensure that the laces are cropped so as not to become entangled in the cranks / chainwheels on your bike, or buy a pair which have a an overlay / flap which goes over the laces and prevents longer laces from straying into machinery.
Cycling specific socks are available and have padded areas where required on the bike. In addition, they are somewhat less bulky than other sports socks - this is more comfortable for most people. Riders such as Lance Armstrong, wear their socks very long - halfway up their calf, whilst more traditional cyclists will wear short ankle socks. Its up to you! Colour of socks is also an item of historical cycling etiquette - in the 'good old days', real cyclists would only ever wear white socks. In the 1980's, colour became more prevalent, but mainly as stripes or logos. In the 1990's, professionals started wearing fully-coloured socks and this spread to all cyclists. It is all a matter of choice, but think carefully if you think you want to wear calf length black socks - to most cyclists, this would be considered to look out of place! Indeed, black socks are one of the great debates which you can have with new-found cycling friends at the coffee stop in the middle of a ride - guaranteed to provide conversation for at least 20 minutes.......
Sock materials vary by season - Coolmax for summer and Thermo for winter. Given that you should be comfortable in your cycling shoes, it would probably be best to wear overshoes to keep your feet warm than squeeze a foot with 2 pairs of socks into it. Anyway, the second sock will make the shoes tighter and cause constriction of the blood capillaries in your feet and give you cold feet - defeating the object of the second-sock exercise.
Overshoes are a good way of keeping your feet warm and also protecting your cycling shoes from the slush and salt which is inevitable if you live in a climate which has snow or icy roads. The choice of overshoes is vast. Make sure that they're comfortable in the shop (don't forget to take your cycling shoes with you when trying on overshoes), if they don't feel good in the shop, they're guaranteed to distract you at best, or feel too tight after some time on the bike. If you walk around a lot in your cycling shoes, make sure that the soles of the overshoes are made of rubber, or at least have protective patches on the points of contact with the ground. There should be cut-outs for shoeplates, or the possibility for you to do this for yourself, otherwise you will not be able to get your shoeplates into position on the pedals.
A zip or velcro fastening at the back of the overshoe is most common in overshoes. Ease of on-off is important for the longevity of the overshoe. Height of the boot is also important - make sure that your lower leg is not going to be rubbed by the top of the overshoe.
Neoprene is a common material for overshoes to be made from - warm, even when wet and flexible sand relatively robust. More expensive models include a windstopper layer. It is possible to buy waterproof overshoes, such as those made of Gore-Tex, or other breathable materials. Bear in mind, though, that it does not matter how dry your feet are being kept by the overshoes if your training bottoms, legs or socks are getting wet. Eventually, you will experience dampening of the feet thanks to the gradual spread downwards of the rain down your legs. That said, waterproof overshoes can be very comfortable on damp days and to protect your feet from spray. They will also protect your feet from the cooling effect of the wind and therefore help you stay warm. If you really want to stay warm on a cold, dry day then insulated, windproofed overshoes will be best, as neoprene is best in the wet and breathable waterproof fabrics such as Gore-text are not designed to retain heat.....
Also, if you just want to stay warm on a bright day, or unusually cool morning, knowing that you will be warm enough later, consider a pair of overshoes which are really just toe-protectors - they slip over the front of your shoes and keep you toasty, but are small enough to stow away later on when you warm up.
The other extremities to your feet - head and hands. In some places, your head must, by law, be protected by a helmet. Where this is not the case, you may decide to wear a helmet anyway. If you choose to race, then you will find the officiating body will require you to wear a protective helmet.
Without entering the 'helmet debate' (whether to wear one or not), it is worth pointing that helmets will protect you from a fall, although they are not guaranteed to save you from all head injuries, chances are that such injuries will be minimised if you are wearing a properly fitting and fitted helmet at the time. Although you may feel safer wearing a helmet, you should not take greater risks than if you weren't wearing one. Finally, after any accident in which the helmet receives an impact, or after dropping a helmet, or anyway after 2 years of (salt-stained, sweaty, rained-on, sunburnt service), a helmet should be replaced - it may not be as protective after such instances.
When buying a helmet, as with everything else, you need to feel comfortable in it. Try it on in the shop. Get assistance in fitting it correctly and take note of the manufacturer's guidelines. Briefly, the helmet should be comfortably snug. It should sit squarely on your head, tilted neither too far upwards or downwards. Also, the straps should be adjusted so that your helmet does not 'rattle' on head when you shake it or when you nod vigorously. Professional cyclists can sometimes be observed in magazines and on TV with straps which flop around beneath their chins - this is no correct. The strap should sit comfortably beneath your chin, although it should be loose enough to allow you to talk and eat. If you can see a centimetre or two of air between chin and strap, you may look like a pro', but in the case of an accident, the helmet might actually contribute to injury by sliding around and cutting into your neck before it stops moving backwards on your head, thus leaving your forehead exposed......
Helmets these days are reasonably well ventilated and lightweight. A hardshell helmet is a good idea, as the shell provides some protection to the real protective layer beneath (expanded polystyrene - which is good in an impact situation as it absorbs the energy of the blow, but which can easily be damaged by fingernails, keys and other narrow edges). Some helmets have additional mechanisms which allow for micro-positioning on your head - these help with the comfort factor and are useful for making small adjustments without having to play around with strap adjustment and so on. The lighter the better, as this reduces neck strain on longer rides. Also, it is better to get a well-ventilated helmet for the summer and to wear a thin hat underneath, or a helmet cover over the top in the winter than to dehydrate due to an ill-ventilated helmet.
Hats - there may be times that you will feel more comfortable with a cotton, peaked cap (racing cap / team cap) under your helmet. Maybe to absorb sweat, help with sun protection or a layer of protection when its chilly. In such cases, you will need to slightly adjust your helmet to accommodate the additional bulk. Instead of a racing cap, some riders prefer to wear a bandana - there are special, cycling bandanas available which have long tails to tie them with and which come in plain, or trade team colours. Of course, both a racing cap and a bandana are easily put into a pocket if you decide to take them off during the ride.
As the weather gets cooler, greater protection and warmth will be required. If you are riding socially , or in particularly cool climates, you could choose a helmet cover - made from breathable fabrics, these fit over the helmet and prevent the wind and rain (or snow) seeping in. Alternatively, many riders wear a thin hat beneath their helmet. Of course the helmet will have to be readjusted, but it is possible to buy cycling=specific hats which are designed for under-helmet wear and are thin, but include a wind-stopping layer. Extra protection around the ears is also available, although the extra protection can be off-putting initially as it can restrict noise too.
Sunglasses are not just for sunny days. Sports glasses and cycling-specific glasses will protect your eyes from damaging UV rays and also insects, grit which is kicked up from the road by passing cars or the rider in front of you. For cycling, fashion / style and protection is all very possible. There are many manufacturers, the most popular are Oakley and Rudy Project, these are also the most expensive. Things to consider are whether you wish to change lenses or not to meet the conditions you will be cycling in. Most people will prefer to buy several lenses for one frame, rather than several different pairs of glasses for different conditions. Size of lens is also important and the extent to which they wrap-around your face. More wraparound provides greater protection and this is emphasised if you ride in extreme sun or heat. Fixed or adjustable nosepieces are another comfort factor. Try on different brands and see which feels best. Oakleys tend to have fixed nosepieces, whilst Rudy Project's are adjustable, both have interchangeable lenses for certain models in their ranges. That's another point, be careful if buying last year's model of sunglasses - check availability of spare lenses. You are unlikely you get caught out, but it can be time consuming and expensive to get spares if last year's model was a flop and is discontinued.
If you are a prescription eyeglass wearer, again consider getting an insert for sports glasses, rather than getting a single pair of prescription glasses for sport. Prescription inserts mean that you can avail yourself of a broad range of popular models and still get interchangeable lenses and so on.
If you're going to be a helmet wearer, then take that along with you when trying sunglasses. You will need to make sure that the earpieces are comfortable around the straps of your helmet. The debate is on with respect to whether glasses' earpieces should be worn inside helmet straps or outside, for safety and comfort reasons, it may be best to wear them outside. Just remember to remove sunglasses before taking off your helmet or you may shoot them across the room / car park as you do so........
Protecting your hands is crucial. If you fall off, wearing fingerless "trackmitts" can save your palms from "roadrash" and that means you won't have to spend time off the bike simply because you can't put any weight through your grazed palms....... Trackmitts, as with every other cycling garment come in many types and brands. More expensive models include gel padding in the palms to prevent the effects of vibration and therefore make your rides more comfortable. Trackmitts used to be leather palms and crocheted tops. Nowadays, they tend to have at least some towelling on the tops, for wiping away sweat from your face and the palms are more likely you be synthetic leather / synthetic suede. These feature are a bonus - leather could not easily be washed and, if you ever wipe around your face, particularly around your mouth or nose, you should be washing trackmitts regularly - hygiene reasons require it. If you burn easily, even if you don't, buy trackmitts without a hole on the back of the hand, or apply sunscreen there. Otherwise, you will find that you will develop a coin-sized tanned spot on the back of your hand, or even a burnt spot if you forget the sunscreen.........
When temperatures drop, full-finger gloves provide protection from the cooling effect of moving through the cooler air. Again, it is possible to buy gloves with a gel pad on the palm for comfort. Greater protection from the cold and wet is available from a variety of manufacturers by adding fleece lining, windstopping layers and breathable fabrics to gloves. If you are buying these more expensive gloves, make sure that the cuff is adequate and that it can be tucked into your sleeves, or vice versa with ease. A full-fingered, fleece lined, waterproofed glove is pointless if your wrists are exposed. It is tempting, perhaps to wear ski gloves, or similar, for cycling. Such gloves are possibly adequate for protective purposes, but lack the design features which cycling specific gloves provide. Features such as thinner palm than backs - to allow you to feel the brake and gear levers as you ride and also, cycling specific gloves usually provide some kind of grip enhancer on the palms to stop your hands slipping off the handlebars when worn.
Perhaps the most important point to make is that if you are uncomfortable in something off the bike, you are likely to hate it on the bike. That's because its too tight or rides-up or some other problem, not just because you're not used to wearing it. So, as you try something on. think about whether it is unusual, or uncomfortable.
There is a huge choice of clothing available for cyclists - women specific included. You generally 'get what you pay for', but this season's professional trade team kit and styles are more expensive than last years. If you're on a budget, save money by buying older styles / colours and by browsing the bargain rail in your bike shop.
If cycling in cooler temperatures, layer your clothing. When its warmer, don't forget sunscreen. If mornings or evenings are significantly cooler than the day, consider armwarmers, legwarmers, sleeveless vests - all of which can be removed easily and are small enough to slip into a pocket during the warm part of the ride.
Personal choice is paramount, especially when comfort is involved. Don't be put off cycling just because something is uncomfortable - try a different style or brand. Above all, keep your kit clean and where possible, purchase more than one of everything sp that you can be laundering one item whilst wearing its counterpart. With respect to cleanliness, be sure to follow manufacturer's instructions and avoid fast 'spinning' clothes in the washing machine - especially lycra and never wash in a really hot wash. These things are not appreciate by the clothes. That said, if you look after your kit, wash it regularly and carefully and do not put a hole in it through carelessness or crash, it will last well and maintain its features. Never put velcro items and lycra together in the washing basket or machine - the two do not mix and your lycra items will at best be pulled out of shape and 'pilled'. A way to protect from velcro in the same wash is to put that item(s) in a cotton bag with a sealable top, so that the velcro cannot grab onto anything around it during the wash cycle.
Here's Hoping You Have Comfortable cycling!
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