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The Layering System for Cycling
Protecting yourself from the cold and wet will make the difference between enjoying cycling or turning it into an ordeal. Let's take a look at how to choose cycling clothing for winter riding.
Image: Gore Wear
Why Multiple Layers?
The most important problem we face during outdoor activity is body temperature regulation. Wearing several thin layers, rather than one thick garment is a much more effective way of regulating your body temperature. Firstly, because layers provide better insulation, thanks to the air stored between them. And secondly, and even more importantly, because layers can be added or removed, depending on the temperature and weather conditions. This is called the layering system.
This system has been perfected, thanks to new synthetic fabrics and, above all, modern technical membranes that are insulating and breathable.
These new materials led to the development of the three-layer theory. According to this theory, in order to protect yourself from the cold and damp, which can cause heat loss and hypothermia, you need to wear three layers, each of which has a specific function and which act together. However, the layering system does not always have to be three separate garments.
Let’s first look at each layer separately and then look at examples and solutions applied to cycling
The Three Layers for Cycling
The BASE layer is essential. Its main function is to keep the skin dry, by wicking your sweat away from your skin, quickly. The base layer usually consists of a long or short-sleeve tee that must be in direct contact with the skin, as close-fitting as possible and have the following features:
Very fast-drying, achieved by using hydrophobic fabrics such as polypropylene or coolmax.
Highly comfortable. For this, it needs to have a pleasant touch, give total freedom of movement and avoid chafing, caused by seams or a coarse yarn or fabric.
The MID layer is responsible for storing body heat. It must also be highly breathable, so that it does not accumulate moisture and there are a number of options that we will see later.
The function of the SHELL or OUTER layer is to keep out the wind and rain. These elements can drastically lower the body temperature. And, if this happens, it causes two problems:
The first is that, the body, as self-defence, starts to use energy to generate heat, which reduces the ability to keep up your activity.
Secondly, if you are unable to maintain your body temperature, this can lead to hypothermia, which can be very dangerous and should be avoided, by all means.
How to Choose Cycling Layers
In the case of cycling, choosing the right clothing is even more important, as this aerobic activity alternates between high and low intensity and changing conditions of temperature and humidity. It is essential to avoid both the cold as well as to much heat, which causes excessive sweating and moisture retention that drastically cools as soon as you reduce intensity on a long descent or at a stop.
This is essential in winter, yet it is an all too common mistake to choose a base layer that doesn't meet the right requirements, which ruins the qualities of even the most technical jacket. A cotton T-shirt, for example, absorbs sweat like a sponge, but remains damp and cold, no matter how good the other layers are. The thermal capacity of the base layer depends on the outside temperature and can range from a light technical t-shirt that just wicks away sweat to a thermal t-shirt that has both wicking and thermal properties to keep you warm and dry.
This is usually a long-sleeved jersey or jacket and its level of thermal protection will depend on the type of activity and the cycling conditions. This layer is the most difficult to choose, so we will analyse some different situations:
For routes with no major fluctuations in intensity or for long training sessions, where there are no expectations of low temperatures or heavy rain, you can wear just two layers: a thermal T-shirt and a jacket to keep you warm in all situations. It is essential that the jacket has a quality technical membrane for protection against the wind and high breathability, so that it wicks away sweat and regulates excess heat when you increase the pace or start a climb. This will prevent a build up of moisture that turns you cold. The best performance for this type of garment can be found in the Gore WindStopper membranes and their recent evolution, Gore Tex Infinium, that provides total wind protection and water resistance while maintaining a very high level of breathability.
For demanding routes and training sessions you need a lighter, highly breathable mid layer that can be combined with a shell layer when necessary. In this case, you can choose a long-sleeved jersey or a light jacket for the mid layer.
For short, high intensity races, such as XC or Cyclocross, riders usually choose a technical base layer tee with either a short-sleeved jersey with arm-warmers or a long-sleeved jersey as the mid layer. A shell layer is usually only worn in the extreme cold or rain, and it is almost always in the form of a vest, which is useful for warming up at the start as well as for descents and stops.
The outer layer completes the layering system so that it adapts to the conditions on your ride. It is always advisable to ensure it has a quality membrane, which can be either windproof or waterproof, but always breathable, lightweight and packable. Depending on the activity and temperature, you may prefer a light windproof garment, with or without sleeves, a thermal vest or a waterproof jacket for protection in rain or snow. Gore has developed different types of membranes according to the level of physical activity and for an activity as intense and varied as cycling, we recommend you check out the Gore Tex Shakedry , as it achieves the best combination of waterproofing capacity, breathability and light weight, currently available, and it can be found in our range of Gore Wear jackets.
The legs are the most active element in cycling and, a pair of leg warmers or thermal tights are normally suffice. But for extreme conditions there are also pants made with membranes in strategic body zones.
Although it is not the main subject of this article, we cannot end without stressing the importance of keeping your head and extremities warm, as the heat lost in these areas can make your winter rides extremely miserable.
To keep your hands warm and dry, there is no choice but to wear gloves. And, when it is cold or raining, it is best to use gloves with a waterproof membrane and good breathability to avoid excessive warmth and sweat.
As you can see, there are plenty of options available for coping with the weather and enjoying year-round cycling. You can also find professional advice and the largest selection of the best brands at our Mammoth stores and at mammothbikes.com/en/.