Updated July 2019
While there’s a lot of truth to the old maxim ‘There’s never the wrong weather, only the wrong kit’, it offers scant consolation when you find yourself a mile or two into a cold and soggy commute using very definitely ‘the wrong kit’. However, with a bit of forethought and preparation, you can become a master of the elements and cycle comfortably, whatever the weather.
Cycling in the Sun
Let’s start with some blue-sky thinking because not all cycle commutes have to be grey and dank affairs, and even riding in bright sunlight requires some preparation.
The secret to any effective cycling wardrobe is layering, and we can begin this process in warm weather. Five garments should constitute year-round cycling essentials:
Padded cycling shorts
A good quality baselayer
A T-shirt or cycling jersey
A breathable but waterproof, highly visible and reflective jacket
The shorts are purely for physical comfort in the saddle and can be worn underneath other bottoms depending on conditions (although getting a bit of early-morning breeze to your shins is a nice wake-up call).
That said, a good quality baselayer is particularly important in warmer weather because it will help wick perspiration away from the skin, meaning you won’t arrive at work drenched in sweat.
A T-shirt or jersey is a basic layer, which you can wear as your outer if the weather is particularly good. However, although a waterproof cycling jacket might seem like it would hinder the evaporation of moisture in warm weather, if you invest in a high-quality product, you should find it still keeps you feeling comfortable.
Don’t forget that British weather is highly unpredictable and pleasant mornings can easily turn into miserable evenings. Also, you might find yourself working late, so a bright, reflective, cycling-specific outer layer is a must.
Then to those cycling glasses. Even in the morning, UV rays can affect your eyes and contribute to the development of cataracts and macular degeneration. More pragmatically in the short term, tinted lenses will help you see more clearly when the sun is low in the early morning or evening, and they’ll keep flies and midges out of your eyes.
Cycling in Wind and Rain
It can seem to cyclists that it rains more often than not. Last year in the UK it rained, on average, for 168 days. But hidden within this average is the fact that many rainy days have as little as 1mm of rainfall and that it only has to rain in one part of the country to affect the overall statistic. The reality is that, despite what the figures tell us, it doesn’t rain here half of the year!
What is of concern when you’re out on your bike is not only when it’s going to rain and how heavy the downpours are, but how prolonged they will be. The Met Office has a useful visual tool on their website, also found on their app, which tracks showery conditions. Use this to check ahead of your journey and see if rain is expected.
Met Office weather warnings are issued for heavy rain and are given a colour depending on a combination of both the likelihood of the event happening and the impact the conditions may have. For the cycling commuter, apart from the anticipated road spray, generally the wetter it gets the more obstacles it creates.
Most roads have a camber to them that helps surface water drain off and into the gutter, rather than pooling in the centre of the road. Unfortunately cycle paths are usually situated to incorporate the gutter and some car drivers expect cyclists to keep to the left of the road, even in wet weather.
While we’re still thinking about eyewear, the reason why we refer to them as cycling glasses rather than ‘sunglasses’ is because in wet weather they help protect your eyes from road spray and little pieces of foreign matter – such as silt and grit – that are thrown up. So fit a clear rather than tinted lens, and wear them in lowlight conditions, too.
If you’ve purchased wisely, your breathable high-vis jacket will offer effective protection against the rain and wind. If you wish to add waterproof cycling trousers or even water-resistant cycling tights, there are suitable garments available. However, the levels of discomfort caused by water on your legs is largely governed by ambient temperature – if it’s not chilly, just towel them down at the end of your commute.
But escaping gutter spray isn’t as easy as just moving towards the centre of the lane. Puddles, wherever they are on the road, can be hard to read and may have a pothole lurking beneath.
Don’t forget to hang all your wet clothing to dry when you reach work, or ideally have a spare set of shorts, baselayer and jersey stashed away in a desk or locker for the return commute. Then put the really wet stuff in a plastic bag to take home inside your rucksack or pannier.
There are other things you can do to stop the worst of the weather from even reaching your body.
The first is to fit mudguards to your bike. Front mudguards will stop road water from spraying up onto your legs, torso and even face, while rear mudguards will stop water and mud spraying up your back (which is both uncomfortable and dirties your clothes).
To find out if your bike will accept mudguards, look to see if there are mounting brackets on your frame and fork by the wheel dropouts. Even if your bike doesn’t have these, as long as there is enough clearance between your tyres and fork or frame, you could fit clip-on mudguards that still offer a decent amount of protection.
Other accessories that you’ll probably already have fitted but it’s worth using in wet weather are your bike lights. Poor weather tends to bring about poor visibility, so switch on your lights even if it’s officially daylight hours.
Cycling in Cold Weather
When the temperature drops, it’s time to start ramping up those layering options. For your torso, you’ve already got a baselayer, a T-shirt or jersey, and a waterproof cycling jacket, but you can augment these with long-sleeve jerseys, softshells or gilets.
Buy cycling-specific garments like these are designed to provide the best fit when you’re in a typical riding position.
Actually, in cold weather, your torso is probably the easiest thing to keep warm – your limbs and extremities are the areas of most concern. For arms, you could wear stretchy arm warmers underneath any long-sleeve tops. Leg warmers are handy, too, although in very cold conditions you’d be better served by wearing thermal cycling tights, or even thermal tights under waterproof cycling trousers.
To keep the chill from your neck and chest, use a snood, Buff or multi-purpose scarf. On your head, wear a thermal hat or skullcap underneath your helmet.
Hands are particularly vulnerable in cold weather so waterproof, thermal full-finger gloves are a must. And don’t forget about your feet: waterproof, thermal cycling overshoes might seem a bit extreme but if you’ve ever suffered foot freeze on a bike, you’ll understand.
It might seem like quite a shopping list but you don’t have to buy it all at once. If you put your commuting wardrobe together sensibly, it’ll help you keep riding all year round. Cycling waterproofs and rain gear are two of the smartest investments cyclists can make.
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