There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, goes the old saying that always does the rounds at this time of year. After incredible developments in textiles over the past decade, there's no reason to wear the wrong cycling clothing any more and there's a large selection of winter jackets that'll keep you warm, dry and comfortable.
A winter jacket not only has to protect you from the elements, it has to cope with the heat and sweat that you produce when you ride at a decent pace. Producing materials that are highly protective and breathable at the same time is the key challenge facing fabric engineers.
The right clothing is more important than those fancy wheels you have your eyes on, a 20g lighter saddle, or any other bling. If you really want to get out and ride your bike this winter then invest your money in good clothing. It’ll transform your winter cycling.
Jackets for the conditions
First, you need to decide what type of winter jacket you need; there is a jacket designed specifically for every type of weather you might encounter. The most common conditions you’re likely to face in a typical British winter are rain, wind and cold down to freezing point or just below.
Cycling jackets can be broadly distilled into three types: waterproof, windproof, and soft shell. Add in variations on those and cross-over jackets and you’re suddenly looking at a huge choice.
Keeping dry: waterproof jackets
A waterproof jacket will keep the rain out but all but the very best ones (that is, the most expensive) compromise on breathability. It's practically impossible for a waterproof fabric to allow out as much sweat as a hard-working cyclist can produce, so you can get very hot and sweaty if you're going hard. Nevertheless, a good waterproof jacket is crucial for those days when it’s pouring heavily for the entirety of your ride.
It’s easy to make a fabric waterproof, but waterproof and breathable is tricky. You can keep the water out, but you need to allow the moisture that your body generates to escape somewhere, otherwise you’ll end up in a sweaty mess. Manufacturers are able to produce fabrics with pores that are big enough to let the small water molecules in the moist air escape, but small enough to keep water droplets outside.
Fabrics are getting better all the time, and there’s a wide choice.The more expensive the jacket, the more likely it is that a branded fabric like eVent or Gore-Tex will be used. Gore-Tex is one of the most common fabrics you’ll see used on higher end jackets. Gore-Tex is created by laminating a PTFE (polyetrafluoroethylene) membrane, with pores 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, in the fabric. This makes it completely waterproof.
Some manufacturers make full use of the latest fabrics offered by companies like Gore but some go their own way and produce their own fabrics that aim to offer the same technical merits. DWR (durable water repellent) is a finish used in conjunction with waterproof membrane fabrics that encourages water to bead up and roll off, preventing the material from becoming saturated with water.
How the jacket is constructed is important, and for a jacket to be properly waterproof the seams have to be taped to prevent leaks. For the best possible breathability, some vents are a must, and these have to be designed so they let sweat out, but don't let water in. They're usually under the armpits, or conclealed under flaps round the body.
Keeping out the wind: windproof jackets
If you’re not planning to ride in the rain, then a windproof jacket is a good option. Windproof jackets are commonly made from a fabric that's lighter than a waterproof one and much more breathable. They are usually designed only to be a little water resistant making them fine only for a light shower. This makes them a good choice for many conditions, especially if you get to pick when you ride, but not necessarily the best choice if you have to head out come what may, like if you're commuting.
Keeping the cold out: soft shells
And then there's the soft shell, a relatively new style of jacket. Waterproof and windproof jackets are sometimes referred to as hard shells, because they’re designed solely to keep the weather out, not keep you warm. That’s the idea behind a layering approach to clothing, using multiple layers to provide warmth and comfort.
Soft shells turn this idea on its head and essentially combine an outer and mid-layer, providing insulation and keeping the elements out. They’re softer and more flexible than hard shells so are more comfortable, and they're comfortable next to the skin. You can wear one over just a short sleeve base layer and feel fine.
Hard shell v soft shell
In the last few years soft shells have risen in popularity among cyclists. The greatest appeal of a soft shell is that, unlike a hard shell, you can wear it most of the time, even when it's not raining. A soft shell isn’t waterproof, instead it is water resistant and much more breathable so it copes with a far wider range of typical British winter conditions.
A hard shell provides the ultimate protection against prolonged rain but the compromise is that it doesn't provide the best breathability so you can get sweaty inside. A hard shell needs to be worn as part of a layering system and deciding how many layers for any given ride can take some experience and trial and error to get right.
Soft shells, on the other hand, can simply be worn over a base layer of your choice when it’s not too cold. Add a thicker long sleeve mid-layer for really cold days and you begin to see that soft shells are the best solution for cyclists looking for a do-everything winter jacket. Paired with a lightweight, packable waterproof jacket, it’s a good combination.
Generally, the more features a jacket has, the more it costs, but good features can improve the performance considerably.
Well-designed pockets are useful and many winter jackets come with three rear pockets or variations on this theme. For more versatility, chest pockets and side pockets can be useful for things like keys and phones, or keeping your hands warm when you’re not riding. Some people like lots of pockets, some don’t — it's up to you.
A decent full-length front zip is a must, with a good size puller that you can use even with thick winter gloves on. Some zips will have a storm flap behind to stop draughts, and a zip garage (a fold of fabric at the top) will prevent the zip snagging the soft skin of your neck.
Velcro cuffs will keep baggy sleeves in order and drawcords at the waist will help tailor the fit. Hoods are occasional options and can be useful for dual-purpose commuting jackets, but separate headwear is typically a preferred option.
Most cycling jackets will have a dropped tail, the rear section extending lower than the front. This is so that when you're on the bike the jacket keeps your bum covered and the front doesn't bunch up around your stomach. The more race orientated a jacket, the more extreme this cut will be.
Many jackets will feature some sort of ventilation. Of course, there’s the full-length front zip that is an almost universal feature. Extra zipped ports on the chest and under the arms can help deal with any excess heat when you’re riding. The more breathable a fabric is, the less it’ll need extra vents.
Like any garment, a cycling jacket needs to fit well. One key consideration is the arms. They need to be long enough to cover your wrists when you stretch to the handlebars.
The fit of the jacket can range from loose for casually style jackets, popular with leisure and commuting cyclists, to more snugly fitted jackets with an emphasis on aerodynamics that are suited to more performance-driven cyclists. When trying on a jacket it’s vital you consider how many layers you could be wearing underneath and allow a bit of space for, say, two long sleeve layers.
Some jackets, especially those lightweight shells designed for occasional emergency use, skimp on the features in pursuit of lightness, so don’t expect pockets or other extras from this style of jacket.
Choices, choices, choices
Now you know your waterproof jackets from your windproof shells, let’s take a look at some of the options out there. We’ve picked a few of each type to present the choices currently available.
The Madison Sportive Men's Softshell Jacket offers a good fit, generous warmth for the chilliest winter rides, looks smart and is reasonably priced.
In designing clothing for Flandrian weather, Sportful have created clothing that is perfectly suited to typical UK weather conditions: lots of rain, rapidly changing conditions, fluctuating temperatures during the course of a ride. It's difficult to know what to wear sometimes. This Light WS Jacket makes it all a bit easier, as it copes with all of that weather with ease.
The Ashmei Cycle Softshell Jacket is a very high-quality top that's particularly suited to spring and autumn days, and it comes with a multitude of excellent features. It's an incredibly well designed piece of kit.
Lightweight windproof shells
The Ultralight Wind Jacket from B'Twin (Decathlon's in-house cycling brand) is a low-priced lightweight jacket designed to give you some protection when the weather catches you out. It stuffs into its own tiny pocket, about the size of a fist, and weighs very little, so it's no chore to keep it in your bag or pannier for when it's needed. As you might expect, it's aimed more at the casual cyclist than those wanting highly technical cycling wear, but it does a decent job especially at this price.
RBS stands for Really Bright Stuff, and you're certainly going to get noticed with this on. It's a packable light weight windproof that's just right autumn and milder winter days. Its windproof qualities keep the morning chill at bay. The 100% polyester fabric is thin but is a good barrier against the wind and will stand up to a bit of light drizzle too.
This three season windbreaker looks good while striking the difficult balance of warmth against breathability. It's made of a single layer, coated fabric called Airdry which is intended for mild and windy conditions and which is quite soft; it feels just like a normal jersey against the skin.
There are vents at the rear which helps the warm air escape should your work rate increase, but it's more at home when descending or riding in a group, not necessarily pushing too hard sitting on a wheel.
Sugoi's RS 180 bridges the gap between jersey and jacket. It's as comfortable as a jersey, but has the wind and weather-protection of a jacket thanks to Sugoi's Firewall 180. This is a reasonably lightweight '1.5 layer' fabric whose outer surface is a very fine polyurethane material and the inner is a nice soft polyester fleece.
Primal's HiViz Fusion jacket is for riders who like to start winter rides early — or finish them late. It's really bright. The Fusion is made from a mixture of thermal materials. Primal's more wind resistant Strata material is used on the parts of the body that will be more exposed to wind, such as shoulders and the chest, while the slightly stretchier Traverso is used in other places that are a bit more sheltered.
It's another garment that crosses the poles between jersey and jacket. It'll keep you warm, but if rain's threatening (and in the UK winter when isn't it?) you'll want a packable waterproof in your back pocket, just in case.
Oneten's Alpha is in its element taking on the bad weather. It's water resistant and windproof thanks to a metallic membrane, which may sound a bit space age but it delivers on warmth and breathability.
The front of the Alpha is all about keeping the elements out with a layering system of various materials. Thanks to the polyurethane membrane the jacket has quite a rigid feel to the material so it's not quite as free moving as some and you can feel the extra weight.
The B'Twin 500 High Visibility Waterproof Cycling Jacket provides excellent rain protection with a coated membrane material and taped seams plus plenty of reflective details to help you been seen on the commute to work. There are vents and breathability is very good. We reviewed it at £19.99 and were impressed; for its current £12 it's an amazing bargain.
The Vermarc Extreme SPL Rain Jacket is a very light, very thin jacket that manages to pack in a load of technical features at a reasonable price while fitting into a jersey pocket. And it keeps you dry too.
At 209g for a medium size the SPL seems almost too light. The fact that it can scrunch up and be put into a jersey pocket without much fuss might lead you to think that this is not a serious contender for keeping you dry come a UK winter. You'd be wrong.
POC's Essential Rain Jacket is pretty much the pinnacle of hi-viz cycling kit thanks to its fit and performance but at £250 is it also the most expensive. The POC is a three-layer waterproof. The outer layer of fabric has been treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating to give an added layer of water resistance. Next up is a membrane that keeps water out but has holes small enough to allow sweat out as vapour. Finally you get an internal layer for comfort.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.