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The key to feeling good on your bike
The right choice of clothing will allow you to ride in comfort, in all weather conditions anytime of the year. However, you can wear almost anything on a bike, and many keen everyday cyclists make no concessions, riding in their normal day to day attire. Others prefer specially designed cycling garments. It's a personal choice, influenced by function and fashion.
Here are some basics to be aware of.
• The key to maintaining a comfortable body temperature is the principle of layering clothing. If the weather gets colder or wetter, one does not choose a thicker material but adds more layers. This makes it easier to adjust to changing temperatures without having to carry a complete set for every temperature range, and it is faster to adjust by opening or taking off just one layer. Too warm is just as bad as too cold.
• Wicking is the way in which a fabric layer touching your skin removes moisture away from your body. A cotton tee shirt absorbs sweat so can leave you with an unpleasant cold damp layer against the skin. Specialist synthetic fabrics transmit moisture away from the skin, leaving it dry by transporting sweat to the outside, where it can evaporate without cooling the body too much and without soaking the clothing. Trade names vary between manufacturers, but the principal remains the same.
• Fit is an important consideration. A baggy jacket not only acts like a braking parachute but also lets cold air get closer to the skin, which makes the wind feel much colder because sweat evaporates directly on the skin.
For local trips to work, school, or shops having to get changed into and out of special clothing can defeat the convenience and speed for which the bike reigns supreme. For such journeys it's fine just to walk out the door, jump on the bike and go. There is a considerable range of smart, breathable cycling clothing in soft tones and stylish cuts, for general social wear. But why try to disguise the fact that you're a cyclist? Cycle clothing is fashionable anyway! If you're going to do a lot of leisure cycling, it's worth spending good money on the right gear, though not necessarily going as far as the Lycra look. Lycra is great for serious cyclists, with its skin-tight fit and multi-stretch properties. It's light, functional, and prevents chafing, but has minimal insulation qualities, and is suited only to warmer days.
One of the most useful cycling garments is a lightweight windproof top. You'd be wise to carry it with you at all times, summer or winter. Made from Pertex, Goretex or similar material, it will fold down in to a small space. It's essential that the fabric is a ‘breathable' type of which there are many on the market. Avoid budget, PVC-coated, tops which will make you clammy and sweaty.
The single most effective way to regulate body heat is through your head. In the winter an insulated hat will help retain the 40% of body heat that can be lost through the head. In the summer a thin peaked cap can protect against sunstroke. These days helmets are well ventilated for summer use, and you can wear a headband beneath your helmet in cold weather.
All lenses protect your eyes from grit and insects. Many dedicated cycling eye-glasses come with two or more interchangeable lenses; clear lenses for night riding, yellowish tints improve low light vision. Dark glasses filter harmful rays.
Cycling tops are usually longer at the back and at the wrist to keep those areas protected in the cycling position. Jackets can be 100% waterproof and breathable, with taped seams preventing any water from entering your clothing system, or windproof, which will provide some shower proofing and give excellent breathability.
If you're new to cycling you can keep costs down by buying only one jacket. A fairly lightweight waterproof would be ideal as it can be packed into a bag or its own rear pocket in warmer conditions, ready should the weather deteriorates suddenly. This will keep the water out and allow perspiration to escape, keeping you warm and dry in all conditions.
On the coldest of days you'll be regarded with great pity by those cocooned in warm cars and centrally heated homes and offices. But, they've got it wrong. The active cyclist produces so much heat that overdressing, rather than overheating for the conditions, is just as common an occurrence.
Remember the principles of wicking and layering. In colder conditions think in terms of three layers: an inner, middle and outer. With the inner you're dry from sweat. The middle has insulation properties. The outer protects you from the elements of rain and wind, and acts as a block to keep the mid layer dry and warm. Because cyclists perspire the outer must be a breathable type. A good quality medium-weight jersey can be worn on its own in warmer weather, or with a jacket in colder conditions. Unlike cotton T-shirts man-made fibre jerseys will wick, or draw moisture away from your body and evaporate it rapidly keeping a dry layer next to the skin. Warm air will also be trapped in the yarn, increasing insulation.
Short and long sleeved jerseys often have a handy rear pocket: perfect for stashing food, a hanky or wallet.
Fingerless mitts are another cyclist's trademark. Ideal in the summer they insulate against road shock and vibration, and protect against cuts in case of a fall. Some mitts have gel padding in the palms for extra protection from numbness.
Full-finger gloves are available in a huge variety of styles and insulation levels, from summer thin to heavily insulated to protect against winter wind chill. All gloves will provide grip and abrasion resistance whilst remaining supple.
For shorts it's Lycra for the sporty cyclist or baggy for casual use (especially if you want to look ‘normal' off the bike). Whichever you use, ensure that the insert has enough padding. Shorts come in male and female versions, which are cut differently, and have different padding.
Tight fitting cycling longs offer you the non-bunching, constriction free, skin-tight fit that's associated with the Lycra cycling shorts that are generally worn underneath them. Looser-fit leggings will again better suit casual off-bike situations. Look for a cut especially for cycling, with a high back, shaped knee and tapered lower leg.
All cycling shoes have stiff soles to transfer more of your effort to the pedals. They are often very well ventilated to keep your feet cool. Racing shoes can be difficult to walk in so if your kind of cycling involves time off the bike (sight-seeing etc) then you would probably be better off with a recreational, touring style or even a performance mountain-bike shoe. More serious cyclists often use 'clip-in' pedal systems to fasten their soles to the pedals. This eliminates slippage in wet weather and makes pedalling more efficient, since you save the energy you would usually expend keeping your feet on the pedals. You twist your foot sideways a little to release. You can still buy old-fashioned toe-clips to do much the same job if you prefer. Waterproof socks or overshoes are essential for wet and cold conditions.
Ensure that you follow the manufacturer's advice with regard to care and cleaning. Waterproof breathable fabrics must be carefully washed to maintain peak performance. Pure soap, often found in flakes form, and warm water is best.
Clothing to avoid
• Denim is a no-no for comfort: the bulky and hard seams press in all the wrong places. If they get wet it feels awful.
• Do not wear normal underwear with bike shorts, the seams can cause sores to develop.
• Wool and cotton are fine so long as there is no chance of rain. If they get wet they take forever to dry.
• Don't overheat. A good rule-of-thumb is that if you're a little cold before you start, you'll be just right when you ride. Likewise, if you are comfortably warm before the ride, you'll cook yourself in all those clothes.
• Remember that the body generates ten times more heat cycling than when at rest.
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Truly, the bicycle is the most influential piece of product design ever
Hugh Pearman, 2008