If you’re a new recruit to cycling, you may wonder why we dress the way we do. Comfort and ease of movement are the big motivators. Think about the sensitivity of the parts of your body that make contact with the bike–your hands, your feet, and your seat.
I’ll save my breath and not talk about the bad ol’ days when cycling clothing for women would fit only if you were built like a bicycle pump–or a man.
Now it’s easy to find clothing sized for our anatomy. But don’t trust all makers who claim to make women-specific clothing. Check the garments themselves instead of just the labels. For instance, anomalies such as overly large armholes on sleeveless jerseys suggest that a manufacturer is merely offering women a downsized version of a men’s cut instead of a gender-specific design.
Otherwise, it’s all out there–fabric prints ranging from feminine to ferocious; a take-your-pick palette of pastels, brights, earth tones, and basic black. Garments cut for on-road, off-road, or casual pedaling. Styles that say cycling, and others that look more like traditional clothing. Here are some guidelines to help you shop.
Shorts, knickers, and tights
Putting thick-seamed shorts or blue jeans between you and the saddle will literally rub you the wrong way. You should wear cycling-specific shorts, tights, or knickers, which are designed to minimize bulk and prevent chafing.
The cling of spandex keeps shorts from riding up and exposing your thighs to chafing against the saddle. If you dislike the glossy racer look, you can find spandex blended with cotton or other materials. These reduce the shine but retain the form fit.
If the tight, second-skin look bothers you, go the camouflage route: made-for-cycling baggy shorts with built-in spandex shorts. These “baggies” have gained popularity for about-town cycling and trail use, although they’re not going to be as comfortable as you’d like for long-distance road riding. And if you stand frequently as you ride, be forewarned that the outer shorts tend to catch on the nose of the saddle.
What’s inside the garment counts, too. There should be a smooth, soft liner in the center that pads and protects you from friction. (This liner is often called a chamois, from the era when it was actually made of leather, but today’s shorts use synthetic materials, which are more supple.)
Check the liner to make sure it doesn’t have a seam running through the center. This can irritate tender tissues. Most women prefer a construction with two curved seams (“baseball stitching”) that keeps the center smooth. Even better is a molded, one-piece liner. Most shorts truly designed for women have one style or the other.
Under-the-liner padding may be fleece, gel, foam, or even liquid. Thicker may not mean better if the material bunches, so don’t go by the amount of padding alone. Many liners have antibacterial treatment, which helps reduce the chance of developing saddle sores. By the way, lined cycling shorts are meant to be worn without underwear and washed after every use.
Don’t ride in unlined garments. If you have multisport tights, wear cycling shorts under them or try a thigh-length padded brief made for the purpose.
Expect to pay from around $25 to $75 for a pair of cycling shorts. The same goes for long-legged cycling tights or knickers, which have legs that extend to just below the knee. The more expensive, the more individual panels (as many as eight) will be used in construction and, thus, the better the fit. Also, the liner and padding will be higher quality. A good pair of shorts, properly cared for, can easily last for
For road and off-road riding, several manufacturers offer gloves cut to fit women’s narrower hands and wrists. Expect to pay $15 to $30. Most are lightly padded for comfort. Gloves protect your hands from all sorts of wear and tear and improve your grip on the handlebar, so think of them as a necessity rather than as an optional accessory.
Jerseys and crop tops
Cycling jerseys in women’s proportions are available in more designs than ever. You can find virtually any cut, size, and neckline. Materials vary, but any good jersey will be made from a synthetic fabric that transports moisture away from your skin. Avoid cotton, which feels cold and clammy when damp.
Breezier crop tops come in short and to-the-waist lengths. The latter still provide air conditioning while reducing the wolf whistles. Some models have mesh panels for ventilation. Some come with built-in bras.
Whatever type of jersey you choose, it should have three rear pockets so you can easily carry snacks and other items. If you ride the road, choose colors that are bright enough to attract the eyes of motorists.
Features to look for include zippered pockets for items that you want to keep handy, a front zipper that’s easy to operate with one hand, comfortable elastic in the cuffs to keep sleeves where you want them, a tail long enough to cover you when you’re bent toward the handlebar, and a color that makes you visible on a gray day.
A shell should be made of breathable material or have vents so you don’t create your own rain shower inside. One that’s made of water-repellent illumiNITE fabric has the added advantage of glowing in a vehicle’s headlights–great insurance if you ever ride after dark.
There may be times when you want to quickly put casual clothing over your cycling duds, like when you mix a ride with other activities and find yourself in a restaurant, store, party, or church, for example. I like to carry a cotton wrap-around skirt or a pair of sweatpants for such occasions. Some clothing companies make cover-ups that coordinate with their jerseys and shorts.
Cycling shoes are necessary for serious riding because their rigid soles stop pedal pressure from hurting your feet. Shoes are designed for road riding or mountain biking, with the latter type offering the advantage of easier walking–the cleats for clipless pedals are recessed into the soles.
Unfortunately, shoe selection is limited in the smallest women’s sizes. You may have to try unisex sizing, which does accommodate many women.
Good fit in a helmet means that it stays securely in place when you’re riding over bumps and, most important, if you crash. To help this happen, many current helmets feature a “locking system” against the rear of the head. This extra strap customizes the fit and keeps the helmet from bouncing or moving too far forward or backward.
With such a system, unisex helmets will probably fit most women. But ponytails can interfere with the locking system in some models, so if you tie back your hair for cycling, check before you buy. A few companies make helmets specifically for women, and ponytail clearance is not a problem with these.