Adventure Cycling - Guide on what to wear Part 1
Clothing for CycleTouring
Clothing is a very personal topic because it overlaps with the world of fashion which is a minefield into which we dare not tread!
So we're going to make it easy (and remove ourselves from the controversy of cycling-fashion) and divide clothing for cycle touring into two categories: on-the-bike clothing, sometimes called ‘technical wear’ and off the bike clothing – everything else.
Our key comment regarding off the bike clothing is that it’s amazing how little you really need. When you’ve got to carry every item on your bike, then every bit of weight and volume of space counts. Our suggestion is that you'll likely find that one pair of shoes and one set of clothes, be that jeans and jacket, dress or whatever, is enough.
Our friends over at Wiggle have some great gear to get you going; and at very affordable prices. Check it out here.
Of course you’ll need to pack according to the weather, so if it’s going to be cold you’ll need to take something warmer, even for the plane if you’re going on a long flight.
Technical wear on-the-bike is far more important. It can make a huge difference to the comfort and pleasure of your ride and your entire cycle vacation, especially when you’re going on a long, multi day ride.
There are two key elements to consider in terms of your cycling clothing: the contact points with your bicycle and your body comfort of which temperature, weatherproofing and breathability are key attributes to consider. In this blog we focus on the contact points and in the next blog on the other considerations.
Comfort at Your Contact Points
Your body is in almost constant contact with your bicycle via five points, your hands, feet and… well, let’s call just call it what everyone does anyway, your bum. To be slightly more delicate and specific, most of your weight actually rests upon two small points, your ischial tuberosity, commonly referred to as your 'sit bones'. These form the bottom of your pelvis. That’s why small saddles, even ones with big cut outs in the middle, can actually be comfortable, provided they suit your personal anatomy.
On this note, we always recommend a professional bike fitting, especially if going on a long, multi-day bicycle adventure. This will ensure your bike has the correct geometry to suit your body, and that you get the right saddle to suit your personal 'sit bones'. This can be the make or break of a great cycling vacation! We also recommend that you test out everything - bike fit and clothing - well in advance of your intended bike journey.
If you have a limited budget for your cycling clothing, then compromise on a cheaper, dare we say less fashionable cycling jersey and jacket so that you can afford to get good quality items for the critical contact points with your bicycle. Our partners at Wiggle have you sorted for everything you need here.
Let’s start with the cheapest and simplest contact points to look after, gloves to cushion your hands. We know you can ride with bare hands and many people do, but we're great believers in padded cycling gloves. Obviously in winter, with your hands out front in the wind, they get cold. So warm, full fingered gloves will save you a lot of pain, especially on a long wet or windy winter’s ride. Make sure they’re not too thick and bulky and that there’s a more grippy material used for the finger pads, so that you can still easily operate your brakes and gears.
In summer, we still wear gloves on every ride. They’re the open fingered, padded cycling ‘mitts’ variety. There are two main advantages of wearing cycling gloves, even in summer:
Firstly: on a long ride, especially on bumpy roads, gravel or dirt, the vibrations of the handlebars can make your fingers go numb, maybe not in the first hour or two, but on a long ride this can be very unpleasant. You can partially alleviate this by not gripping the bars too tightly and by changing hand positions regularly, but nothing beats a good quality pair of gloves with just the right amount of padding in the palms.
Secondly: cycling gloves are one of the most underrated safety items. If you’re unfortunate enough to take a tumble, your natural instinct is to put out your hand to cushion your fall. Nothing is more painful and awkward than trying to keep riding, or to do a lot of other everyday things for that matter, when you’ve grazed or torn the palms of your hands.
On to your next touch point, feet. Although some bicycle tourists wear regular walking shoes and perhaps use old style toe clips and straps to keep their feet in place, in our opinion, regular soft soled walking shoes just won’t cut it for a long distance bike ride. A key design feature of cycling shoes is that they have a stiff sole that spreads the pressure of your tiny contact point with the pedal out across the full area of your foot; and allow power through both the push and pull motions of your pedal stroke.
The compromise comes when you want shoes that you can also walk in without sounding and looking like a tap dancing penguin; or ruining your cleats. That’s because ‘roadie’ shoes have a super-rigid sole - often carbon fibre reinforced - running all the way from the tip of your toe to the bottom of your heel. Their big, obtrusive cleat means that you also walk with your toes in the air, which adds to the tap dancing penguin vibe.
Fortunately, a couple of decades ago Shimano came up with their now very widely established ‘SPD’ recessed cleat and pedal system. These use a much smaller cleat that is recessed within the shoe sole so that you can walk normally and only make the occasional tapping sound. Touring shoes will be rigid from the ball of your foot back to your heel, but will have some flex in the toe area, allowing you to walk more easily. They’ll also have far more tread on their soles than pure road cycling shoes. All of these compromises mean they’re a little heavier and not quite so efficient at transferring your energy through to the pedals, but they’re still way more comfortable and efficient than regular casual shoes, runners or other non-cycling shoes; and provide a reasonable multi-purpose shoe if you're trying to travel lightly.
Cleats are a safety feature too. Although beginners may feel a little nervous at first having their feet clipped into their pedals (and, yes, it's a right of passage to fall slowly sideways at least once when you forget to clip out in time; you're in good company when this happens!), it prevents your feet from slipping off the pedals at a critical moment, such as riding over a bumpy road or when you get out of your saddle. Both are actions which can cause nasty shin injuries. Ouch!
As to the correct positioning of your cleat, that’s a whole other story beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice to say the core principal is to set the cleat position to what’s comfortable for you. No two people are exactly the same. Whether your natural cycling gait is duck toed, pigeon toed, whatever, don’t worry! Just set your cleats accordingly.
We’ve deliberately left the most contentious item until last. If comfort and efficiency were the sole criteria then we’d humbly suggest that nothing can beat a pair of lycra cycling shorts. But not every cyclist on tour wants to look like a roadie, especially if you’re spending a lot of time off your bike going into shops, cafes or other non-cycling activities.
Why are cycling shorts so comfortable? A critical element is the padded ‘chamois’ sewn into them. We use the word ‘chamois’ in inverted commas because 30 years or more ago, your only option was chamois leather. Fortunately, those days are gone and today the all-important pad is made from various patented super breathable, soft, non-chafing synthetic micro-fibre materials, with each manufacturer swearing that they have the best fabric and design.
In case you haven’t already figured it out, the way you take advantage of this microfibre heaven is by having it next to your skin, ie no underpants.
Back in the 1990s, some mountain bikers decided they preferred baggy shorts. The irony was that they soon started making these with liners inside. Today most mountain bikers wear skintight, padded, artificial chamois equipped liner shorts under their baggy shorts. These liner shorts are pretty much just like roadie’s lycra knicks, except a bit shorter and with no lycra covering the outside of the micro-fibre pad. Once again it’s an underpant free zone!
Which ever way you go, this is one item not to buy on the internet if you can avoid it. You really need to try them on for size (with underpants on this time please…) to ensure a good fit.
Another key question is, ‘waistband or bib?’ The disadvantage of shorts with a waistband is that it can cut into your stomach because your waistline naturally thickens when you’re slightly bent over in cycling positions. That’s why bib knicks, sometimes called bib and brace, where you have two lycra straps that go over your shoulders, are so popular.
The main disadvantage of bib style shorts for bicycle tourists is it’s less convenient when you need to go to the toilet. Top of the range cycling shorts also cost a small fortune, as do top cycling shoes.
Maybe you can get away with cheaper, but when you’re out on the road, a long way from home and your contact points feel like they’ve been battered with a meat tenderiser for the last three hours you would pay anything for a bit more comfort and will be kicking yourself if you didn't!
Thanks to cycle touring expert Noel McFarlane of Vivente Bicycles for his advice for this blog. You can see more of Noel’s advice and amazing cycling adventures here.
To help make it easier for you, we've partnered with the good folk at online retailer, Wiggle. To take advantage of great prices for all your adventure cycling needs, check out their full range here. It's your one-stop-shop for all the gear you could possibly need.