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How to dress for cycling

Carlton Boyce / 01 March 2019

Carlton's guide to what to wear when cycling without having to look like Bradley Wiggins.

A man goes cycling wearing a cycling helmet

You’ll have seen them, I’m sure; middle-aged men in Lycra, or MAMILs. While I admire their confidence - and even, in some cases, their ability to ward off the advancing years and maintain their sylph-like figures - I’m not a great believer in Lycra for men of a certain age.

So, if you share my reluctance, or are simply looking for an alternative style for when you’re out cycling, here’s my guide to what to wear without having to look like Bradley Wiggins.

On your bottom

Your bottom will take a pounding, so it’s important to get your choice of shorts or trousers right. Traditional Lycra cycling shorts have flat seams to prevent rubbing and a thick, padded chamois leather insert to help protect your bum and groin area. They work really well and if you can carry them off then there’s no need to look anywhere else.

They should be worn without underwear to minimise chaffing, but otherwise the only tip I can give is to use something like this chamois cream from Evans Cycles to lubricate your unmentionables.

But if, like me, you’d rather present a more dignified derriere to the world, then there are plenty of options available to you. The first is simply to wear your traditional cycling shorts underneath a baggier pair of shorts or trousers. This combination works well and means that you don’t need to buy any more cycle-specific clothing apart from the shorts.

Or you could buy a pair of cycling-shorts liners, which are padded and designed to be worn under normal shorts and trousers. However, I’ve never really seen the point; while they do have all the advantages of a normal pair of cycling shorts, this is countered by the very real disadvantage that you can’t wear them by themselves at a pinch.

You can also buy baggy, combat-style cycling shorts with a padded insert. These protect and cushion your bum and perineum while still looking like normal shorts to the casual observer. The same goes for baggy cycling trousers, which are padded and then taper at the ankle to prevent the cuffs getting caught in the chain of your bike.

Price range: you can buy a well-made pair of cycling shorts for around £20, while a pair of well-made cycling trousers will set you back around £50. Halfords has a good selection in its stores, while both it and Evans Cycles has a vast selection online.

What sort of bike should I get?

On your top

Tight-fitting cycling tops might help you shave a few hundredths-of-a-second off your 100-mile time, but they aren’t very flattering if, like me, you’ve developed a bit of a pot belly and a muffin top.

T-shirts and tops designed for mountain biking and overland cycling tend to have a more flattering cut while still retaining all the benefits of a technical material. A technical material, I hear you ask? At its simplest, a technical material will wick moisture away from your skin to the outside of your clothing, where it evaporates away. I was sceptical initially but all my running, cycling, and even walking tops are technical and made of synthetic material now.

Technical clothing really is marvellous at preventing that cold, clammy feeling I used to get when my sweat soaked my top and then just sat there, waiting to chill me to the core when I took a break or the wind picked up.

Another good tip is to remember that if you can’t avoid buying a fitted top, you can always buy one that’s one or two sizes bigger than you normally wear. I found a brilliant Under Amour long-sleeved top that I really liked. My usual size ‘large’ looked dreadful because it was slim-fitting and hugged my stomach too much for my liking. However, the XXL fits me more loosely than the designer intended but looks, to my eyes at least, much better than the ‘proper’ size did.

Price range: cycling tops generally retail at the £40-50 mark. However, places like Sports Direct often have similar items that are heavily discounted, often at just 20% of the usual retail price. Their stuff might not necessarily be labelled as cycling clothing (although they do have a huge cycling section for both men and women), but any technical walking tops will work just as well for cycling as they will for hiking.

The cycling accessories you need

Base layers

If you’re layering in cold weather then merino wool still reigns supreme, despite the recent advances in synthetic and technical clothing technology.

Arc’teryx recently sent me a Cold WX AR base layer t-shirt and a pair of long johns from its LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) range to try out. As you’d expect of professional quality clothing designed to be used by men and women who have no choice but to work in some of the foulest conditions on the planet, I was kept toasty warm despite facing temperatures as low as -30°C in the Yukon region of Canada.

Just as importantly, merino wool combats the bacteria that make you smell, so you can wear them for days at a time without smelling, which my fellow journalists appreciated just as much as I did…

Price range: I’m happy to buy discounted tops from Sports Direct and even Aldi so I can invest the money I’ve saved in a decent base layer. The cheap stuff is cheap for a reason, and I’d rather not risk inferior underclothing ruining a day out or a week away.

So, while Arc’teryx sent me a top and bottom to try free-of-charge, I’d have paid the £200 they charge for them anyway. I have spent far more than that on individual pieces of clothing from its LEAF range in the past and have found every single one of them is worth the price.

On your head

You’ll be wearing a helmet, of course. The trouble is, that the same slots that allow for ventilation in the hot weather, also allow cold air to rush over your head in the winter. The solution is an Arc’teryx Phase AR beanie. It’s extremely thin, fits under my helmet easily, and is really, really warm.

Price range: The Arc’teryx beanie also works for walking and running, and folds down into such a small package that it now travels everywhere with me, which helps offset its £25 price tag. And yes, I was so impressed when I first tried one on that I bought it with my own hard-earned money.

Cycling in the winter

On your hands

Your hands need protecting from the cold but they also need protecting from the road too, just in case you ever fall off your bike. (And you will, especially if you are trying clip-in pedals for the first time. Just take my word for it and don’t ask me how I know…)

Traditional cycling gloves are fingerless and have padded palms to cut down on the sort of vibration that rises up through the handlebars and can cause tingling fingers after a few hours’ cycling. They work very well, but you might like to consider something that is waterproof and has fingers for use when the mercury drops and the sleet is being flung at you horizontally.

Price range: Sealskinz gloves and socks are as waterproof as their (annoyingly spelt) name suggests and are worth every penny of the £40-odd it’ll cost you to buy a pair of winter gloves. A lighter pair of summer gloves might only cost a tenner from somewhere like Halfords.

Waterproof clothing

You can have waterproof clothing, or you can have breathable clothing, but you can’t have both, no matter what the manufacturers tell you. So, while I’ll happily pay hundreds of pounds on a Gore-Tex jacket and trousers for use when I’m hiking along at a steady pace, experience has shown me that nothing can keep up when I’m running or cycling; without wanting to be crude about it, I simply sweat too much for any breathable material to manage. Even pit zips, the openings under the armpits that can be opened and closed to help vent the area and let the sweat out, aren’t always enough.

This is because breathable membranes have tiny microscopic holes that allow moisture, in the way of water vapour expelled as sweat, to pass through them to the outside atmosphere. These holes, which are less than one millionth of a metre in size, are too small to let the much larger water droplets in when they fall as rain. This means that while the sweat has no problem diffusing out, the rain can’t pass through to the inside to wet your inner clothing and skin.

But a breathable system works best when the outside air is cold and dry, and the inside air is warm and wet. When you’re exercising hard you can easily overwhelm the breathable membrane by the sheer volume of water vapour you are producing, leading to it pooling on the inside of the fabric.

And, even if you aren’t sweating that much, your sweat can still pool on the inside of the fabric if it’s very cold outside simply because the water vapour is no longer warm enough to diffuse out. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the outside air isn’t going to be dry, either.

This means you have a choice between two states. The first is to be wet and warm; while you are sweating hard enough to wet your inner layers, you are still warm because your outer layer is keeping the wind out and all that lovely warm air in.

Or, you can be dry but cold. You aren’t going to be sweating much, if at all, when you are cold, which means you aren’t getting wet from inside. And even if you do sweat, there’s not going to be much of it and so it is going to have an easier time diffusing out through your breathable layer because there’s so little to diffuse.

I generally prefer to be dry and cold, because I can then put on a thin down jacket to get warm when I stop exercising. My brand of choice is OMM, or Original Mountain Marathon; a friend recommended them and I’ve bought no end of its stuff because it is brilliantly designed, super-light, and very versatile.

I’ve got a pair of its Kamleika trousers and a matching jacket, which I don when it’s going to be wet. Both are stretchy enough to be comfortable whether I’m running or cycling, but both waterproof and breathable enough to keep me warm-ish and dry-ish.

If I’m going to be out for less than an hour, I’ll generally accept that I’m going to get wet and not wear any waterproof clothing at all. This only works if you know you can get dry and warm afterwards though. If you can’t be sure of being able to shelter and change then you risk hypothermia in anything other than warm weather.

The trick in either case is to start out slightly cold, and then let your exercising warm you up; if you’re warm when you start cycling then you’re going to be too hot when you get going and you’re going to sweat profusely. This isn’t too much of a problem when you’re moving - although the wind-chill factor hurts even more when you’re wet - but it can (literally) be a killer when you stop.

So, my advice is to ride a bit cold and then don something warm when you stop. Or, better still, take your break in a café that has a real fire and a selection of home-made cakes. That way you can fuel the inner and outer athlete at the same time…

Price range: you can buy a cheap waterproof jacket from somewhere like Sports Direct for about £20. They frequently have brands like Muddy Fox on offer, reduced from a (largely notional, I imagine) £100 down to £20. It’s a decent brand and I wore that kind of thing for years before I decided to invest the £250 it cost me to buy a matching OMM Kamleika jacket and trousers.

As ever, the sweet spot is probably somewhere in between; £100 would get you a decent two-piece outfit, especially if you keep an eye on the sales.

On your feet

While trainers will get you going, a pair of proper stiff-soled, clip-in cycling shoes will help you generate more power with less effort as you won’t be wasting energy with flexing soles.

You can choose from summer or winter styles, and road-going or mountain biking variants, and everything in between. I wouldn’t worry too much initially, largely because you’ll need matching clip-in pedals like the SPD range from Shimano, and so the whole exercise starts to get a bit expensive. However, you’ll get there eventually, which is why I’ve included them in this list.

You won’t go wrong with brands like Shimano, but if you just want to keep your feet dry then SealSkinz do overshoes which fit over your normal footwear and they work very well at keeping your feet toasty and dry.

Price range: Sealskniz overshoes start at around £20, while Shimano shoes start at about £50. The special, clip-in pedals you’ll need range from £40 upwards, but it’s worth keeping an eye on secondhand items from eBay; they’ll look cruddy and rusty quickly enough anyway, and I picked up a set of XT pedals for £15, which is about a tenth of what they’d cost new.


 I also carry an OMM Sonic jacket whenever I’m out running or cycling, just in case I need to put on something that is windproof and waterproof and don’t have the full Monty with me. The Sonic jacket folds up very small (about the size of a baby’s fist) and almost nothing.

I also carry a pair of thin, cheap gloves because it can get very cold very quickly when you’re up in the mountains, plus my Arc’teryx beanie and a couple of energy gels in a bumbag. The latter can give an instant energy boost when your spirits and body are flagging, and the former has kept my head warm even in sub-zero snow storms.

Price range: a thick, foldaway windproof jacket will cost you anything between £20 and £70, depending on how seriously you take your sport or hobby. The gloves cost me less than a tenner, which is fine because I hardly ever wear them. The energy gels cost about a pound each, but Aldi sometimes does multi-packs (including water bottles!) at a heavily discounted price, which can save you a fortune if you stock up when you see them.

Saga readers say...

'I happen to live in the country in an area which is very popular for both cyclists and horse riders. Whilst some cyclists have flashing front and rear lights which draw attention to their presence, the vast majority do not and their favourite colour seems to be black. On country roads, cyclists dressed in black are hard to see in poor light or in the shade of high hedges on a bright sunny day. I believe that cyclists should be encouraged to use flashing lights and or wear high-vis clothing.
'The same applies to horse riders, who often ride a dark-coloured horse and wear dark country clothing which acts as camouflage against trees and hedges or in dappled shade. My car has automatic running lights, so they can see me from a distance, but it is irritating to be abused for not slowing down by someone who has not taken to trouble to make themselves readily visible from a distance.' David, via email

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.