Thursday, December 10, 2009

TechTalk: Cycling-Specific Clothing

If you're new to cycling, you may have wondered "What's with all the bike clothing?" Is there a reason for the tight spandex and flashy colors?

The world of clothing for cycling is not just all about fashion and vanity. There are good reasons for why bike clothes look and feel the way they do. Cycling-specific clothing is designed to maximize your comfort and performance while riding. Even if you are not a racer looking for maximum speed, cycling clothing still provides benefits that help you get the most enjoyment from your bicycling experience.

Clothing designed for cycling and other vigorous activities is usually made with a blend of polyester fabrics. These fabric promote a process known as "wicking," which means the transfer of moisture (i.e. sweat) away from your body into the air. Even the most basic and inexpensive cycling clothing made of wicking fibers is better than a typical cotton t-shirt. Cotton tends to absorb and hold moisture, which ends up making you feel hotter in hot weather and colder in cold weather.

More advanced wicking fabrics are designed with different types and shapes of fibers on the inside and outside surfaces. The inside fibers are optimized to attract moisture and pull it away from your skin, and the outside fibers are optimized for helping the moisture evaporate into the air. These principles are applied to the fabrics used in both cycling jerseys and cycling shorts.

As for the colors, you can wear whatever your personal preference dictates. Professional and amateur racers wear jerseys adorned with the logos of their sponsors, to provide the exposure for the sponsors' businesses in exchange for their financial support. Some recreational riders like to wear the same clothing to show their preference for their favorite racer or team (just like football fans wear the jersey of their favorite NFL team). The neon green or other bright-colored jerseys that many riders wear are mainly so that they are more visible to drivers on the roads. However, jerseys are available in more subdued colors for those that do not care to attract as much attention.

Most performance-minded cyclists prefer their jerseys to be as tight as possible. If your jersey flaps in the wind, that will slightly hinder your speed. However, even if you're not concerned about speed, a more important thing to consider is that a loose jersey will have the potential to move around and rub against your skin, causing chafing and discomfort.

The same principle applies to cycling shorts; the tight spandex material allows the shorts to move with you, rather than against you, to avoid chafing. Another problem with jeans and even most non-cycling-specific athletic pants is that the seams are positioned right down the middle of the crotch area. This provides a pressure point between your body and the bike seat, causing chafing and hot spots. Cycling shorts have the seams positioned strategically to the sides to avoid this problem.

Cycling shorts also have a padded lining in the seat area. This pad is sometimes referred to as a "chamois," in reference to the material that some are made out of. Many years ago, some shorts had a chamois made of leather. The padding in most modern cycling shorts is made of a combination of polyester fabric and foam padding.

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the chamois in bike shorts is NOT to providing extra cushioning in your seat. The primary function of the chamois is to reduce friction between your skin and your shorts and bike seat. Most of the discomfort in the seat that most cyclists experience at one time or another is a result of this friction, and not actually a result of your weight pressing down on the seat.You can enhance the friction-reducing ability of the chamois by applying a lotion or cream to it, such as Chamois Butt'r.

What distinguished less expensive cycling shorts from more advanced models? The better models will use more advanced stitching methods in the seams, resulting in a flatter seam on the inside, which is more comfortable against your skin. The chamois on better models will have a more anatomic shape for more comfort, often with different thicknesses of foam in different areas to provide more or less padding to optimize the friction-reducing properties in strategic spots. Some models incorporate anti-microbial fibers, which help to reduce odor and even potentially harmful infections.

If, out of modesty, you don't want to wear the skin-tight cycling shorts in public, there is a "baggy" style of bike shorts available. These have a tight inside liner that is just like the cycling shorts described above, but a regular loose outer layer that looks just like a regular pair of casual shorts, usually including pockets.

The use of wool in cycling jerseys, shorts, and other outdoor clothing was common many years ago, before polyester and other synthetic fabrics were widely available. In recent years, however, wool has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as many outdoor enthusiasts have rediscovered its natural ability to provide warmth even when wet, wick away moisture, and provide comfort in both hot and cold conditions. The use of 100% Merino wool provides smooth comfort without the itchiness of that old wool sweater hanging in the back of your closet.

Cycling jerseys are available in both short- and long-sleeve for riding all types of conditions. Cycling shorts are also made in long versions, or "tights." For those in-between days in the spring and fall, try arm warmers and leg warmers. These are basically just individual sleeves and pant legs that you can pull on before you start your ride on a cool morning. As the day warms up, you can easily slip them off, and they are small enough to be able to roll up and stuff into your jersey pockets or a bag on your bike.

Cycling-specific jackets and pants let you add an extra outer layer to keep the wind's chill off. Cycling-specific jackets are built to meet the needs of riders more so than a regular jacket--the sleeves are longer to keep your wrists covered even while in the riding position, and the tail is built a little longer to keep the draft off of your back. Both jackets and pants may come in "water-resistant" and "waterproof" designs. The water-resistant types will be more "breathable," i.e. let your sweat evaporate more easily, and are adequate in keeping you dry in mild misty conditions. The waterproof types are better at keeping you dry in a steady rain, but at the expense of breathe-ability.

Up on top, you can wear a wicking bandana or skull cap, which provides some insulation from the cold, but is thin enough to fit under your helmet. You can also add a waterproof helmet cover to keep the rain and snow out (and can help even on dry days to keep the wind off of your head to help you stay warm). For REALLY cold days, swap that skull cap for a "balaclava," which covers your whole head, ears, and neck, leaving just a space for your eyes and nose, for maximum protection from the biting cold.

You are probably familiar with the short-fingered gloves worn by many cyclists, but you can also get them in full-fingered styles for somewhat chilly days, and fully insulated for those winter rides. Even in warm weather, gloves serve three purposes: keeping your hands from sweating and getting slippery all over your grips, providing some padding to keep your hands from getting numb, and protection from getting dirt and gravel embedded in your hands in the unfortunate event of an "involuntary dismount."

We haven't forgotten about your feet! Like jerseys and shorts, cycling socks are made of wicking polyester materials to help manage moisture. When the temperature drops, you can switch to wool socks--several companies make cycling-specific wool socks that help to keep your toes warm, but are still thin enough to fit inside your cycling shoes. For really sloppy conditions, slip cycling booties over your shoes--these are made of neoprene or similar materials to keep the rain, snow, and slush off your feet.

To be ready for all conditions, the old maxim of "dress in layers" applies to cycling as well as to all outdoor activities. Start with a wicking base layer (regular bike jersey), add a thicker insulating layer (winter jersey, wool jersey, or polar fleece sweatshirt), then top them off with a wind-breaking cycling jacket. For your bottoms, start with your cycling shorts, then add leg warmers or tights for extra warmth, then add a pair of cycling pants to keep dry. You can easily stop mid-ride to remove or add layers as conditions change.

Century Cycles has clothing and accessories in stock in all of the categories mentioned above. Our expert staff has the experience to advise you on what's best for your riding style and the types of conditions you plan to ride in. All of these make great holiday gift ideas, too!

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