If you want to carry on cycling through the cold winter months, it pays to get properly wrapped up; keeping your legs insulated is essential if you want to ride in any sort of comfort. Whether you're commuting every day, heading out for a training ride after work, or joining the weekly club run, here's a selection of the best gear to keep your legs protected from the cold, rain and wind.
Cycling can be enjoyable through the winter, but the leg muscles don’t work as well when they’re cold, so it’s a sensible idea to keep them wrapped up. Fortunately there is a wide choice of leg wear available designed to cope with different temperatures ranges, as well as riding style from road training to commuting.
You have three main choices. Performance-orientated riders tend to go for tights, which take the basic idea of cycling shorts — they're close-fitting garments that move with you — and extend it down to your ankles; waterproof overtrousers fend off the rain so you arrive at the office with dry trousers; and cycling trousers look like regular trousers, but are shaped and detailed so they're comfortable for riding.
Tights are essentially long versions of regular shorts, and are often made from similar Lycra fabrics, though they're usually thicker for warmth. You have a choice of bib tights, with straps looping over the shoulders, or bibs with a waist band. Which you wear is down to personal preference, but bib tights are generally considered more comfortable as you don’t have a waist band to dig in, which can be annoying on longer rides.
You can get tights with or without a padded insert that sits against your skin. You wear unpadded tights over your regular shorts, which can be a good option for really cold days, because you get two layers of fabric over the top of the legs and around the lower torso, to provide more warmth. If you’re cycling daily, you can sometimes get a couple of wears out of them before they need a wash. Some riders prefer the simplicity of padded tights, though. With fewer layers there's less to move and rub, too.
There's a vast range of fabrics available. Most tights are made from some sort of stretch fabric, with good old Lycra bringing the stretchiness. That includes thicker, more insulating fabrics, like Roubaix and Super Roubaix and there are fleece-backed fabrics and windproof materials too. Double layer fabric over the knees can help add insulation where it’s needed most. I’ve known people to wear three-quarter bib tights under full-length tights on the very coldest winter days, but that is extreme. Most tights will provide enough warmth for a typical British winter.
Some tights have a water resistant or waterproof fabric, such as Castelli’s Nanoflex. These are good if you’re brave enough to venture out in the rain as they can stop the rain seeping through to your skin which will, given time, sap away at your warmth. Likewise, some manufacturers add windproof panels in key places to keep the wind chill out.
The straps on bib tights can vary a lot, but a wide seamless strap will provide the best comfort, and avoid any irritation across the top of the shoulders. Some bib tights can have a full back panel and come up very high on the chest, which almost acts like another base layer, making such designs good for the coldest days.
The fit of tights is important. Manufacturers generally take two approaches to ensure tights are comfortable around the legs and don’t impede pedalling. They can either go with a multi-panel design, with pre-bent legs, or they can simply use a very stretchy fabric that conforms to the leg through the entire range of pedalling. Either way, you want a good fit that is comfortable with no restriction around the knee. As I always recommend, trying cycle clothing on in a shop, if possible, is a really good idea. Sizing and length of tights can vary hugely from one manufacturer to the next.
At the ankles tights will either have a short zip, to make pulling them on and off easier, or just a high degree of stretch. Some tights will have a stirrup, a band of material that loops under the foot, to not only stop the tights riding up, but also form a very good seal around the ankle.
With their combination of value and performance, the Merlin Sport Bib Tights are likely to be at the top of the drawer for cool-weather riding.
These mid-weight bibs are pretty much ideal for most milder winter days and cool spring or autumn rides; we can even think of a few summer outings where we might have been glad of them.
The fleecy-backed polyamide/elastane tights reach well over the kidneys; above that, it's a mesh backing panel for better ventilation where it's needed.
Although the Hoy Vulpine Roubaix Bib Tights felt a little unforgiving when I first put them on, it soon became clear to our tester that these are the most comfortable bib tights he's had the pleasure of cycling in.
There's a 'don't try to reinvent the wheel – just make it better' feel about these bib tights. They offer fantastic comfort, colour a change from the usual Henry Ford rules, and lovely detailing.
The RRP might seem high, and yes you can get decent bib tights for half the cost, but you can also pay a lot more. Compare these with other premium products and they're actually quite good value – especially when you consider how well they improve comfort, on and off the bike.
The Bontrager Velocis Stormshell bib tights are a waterproof, highly breathable and stretchy option for keeping you dry and comfortable when riding in wet conditions.
Bontrager describes the Velocis Stormshell bib tights as 'like a waterproof jacket for your legs', and that's exactly the right way to think of them. They're made mostly from the same fabric as the Bontrager Velocis Stormshell Jacket, and they're cut like a normal pair of bib tights. The idea is that you put them on over your existing cycling clothing; there's no seat pad included here.
If you ride a lot these tights will make coping with the British weather a much more pleasant experience so while they are a lot of money their performance justifies the price.
The B'Twin 520 membrane tights are the French brand's top-of-the-range tights and for the money you get a top performer. We've tested the now-unavailable 700 version which perform superbly for the price. We expect these to be as good, as they're very similar but a little simpler.
The howies bib tights are well built, refreshingly simple bib tights that are just perfect for layering to suit the weather conditions. Generously wide straps, a high front and the mostly seamless construction offers superb comfort.
The dhb ASV Roubaix Bib Tight Black Edition might well be the best-value high-performance tights out there. They're pro in all but logo; these are basically the same tights that the Wiggle Honda Pro Team wear, without the logos.
There are four different Roubaix fabrics sewn into a multitude of panels, giving a very snug, athletic fit – dhb says its Professional garments are “designed to be as aerodynamic as possible and as such hug the body very closely to give you the very best performance benefit”. It also suggests you size up from your usual dhb Performance kit if you're of a larger/muscular build.
We've been impressed by all the dhb tights we've tested. If you want something a bit less snug than the ASVs, look at the £80 Aeron Roubaix tights which are also available in a women's version, and if you want something even warmer take a look at the Aeron Deep Winter tights. We reviewed those here. For just £55, the dhb Classic Roubaix Bib Tights are superb value.
The Craft Storm bib long tights are an excellent choice for winter wear to cover your legs when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
Rule no.9 states that riding in foul weather makes you a badass. Pop a pair of these tights on and you no longer need to be super tough to go out riding, as the fabric and thought-out construction really take the worst sting out of inclement conditions.
Exemplary warmth and excellent fit make Sportful's R&D bib tights very effective winter leg warmers and the padded insert is comfortable for the longest rides you have planned.
Sportful make the R&D bib tights using three fabrics. They're mostly ThermoDrytex Double, a three-layer fleece with hollow-core polyester liner, with ThermoDrytex PL+ fabric on the thighs and knees, and ThermoDrytex Plus on the back panels to provide more stretch.
Sounds complex, but the use of the different materials provide maximum insulation and protection from the wind and rain where you need it most.
From mild to downright foul weather the Antiventos are outstanding. Well fitting and with a comfortable pad they are able to stand up to most conditions. The material is fleece lined for a comfortable feeling against the skin, while the fabric features a windproof membrane to help keep the heat in. With rides in these down to as low as -6 °C we've been really impressed with how well they have kept the chill at bay.
British cycle clothing company Rivelo's Winnats bib tights are great quality, stylish, and perform really well in the cold.
Cut in such a way that the form fit is perfect, without any constrictive or uncomfortable compression, the Winnats are made from Thermo Roubaix fabric for warmth and have external panels that are fortified with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating.
This combination works very well to keep you warm in freezing temperatures, and to keep spray at bay. The DWR aspect isn't hugely durable when exposed to a lot of rain, but it's a nice extra that'll deal with puddle spray when needed.
The Castelli Nanoflex Pro Bibtights are a warm (but not windproof) and water resistant choice for the cold weather, offering great breathability and freedom of movement.
You might well have heard of Nanoflex before because Castelli uses it extensively across its range. It's the brand's fleecy, stretchy Thermoflex fabric, a warm polyamide/elastane mix that's given a coating of silicone 'nanofilaments'. This makes water roll off the surface rather than soaking in. It doesn't make the fabric waterproof – heavy rain will get through – but you'll stay dry in drizzle, and road spray won't soak in.
Special mention must go to the Thermosuit from Castelli. The Thermosuit is essentially a pair of tights and a long sleeve jersey stitched together at the waist around the back, with a full-length zip on the front. There's Gore Windstopper X-Lite Plus fabric on the chest panels, while a lighter weight Thermoflex Core Due fabric is used around the back and for the tights.
Trousers and over-trousers
If tights aren’t for you, if you’re commuting or even touring or mountain biking, then trousers might be a better option. Their looser fit makes them useful for commuting and urban cycling, they can be more comfortable and they can be worn over casual clothing.
There are two types: overtrousers that are waterproof and roomy enough to be worn over normal clothing; or tailored cycling trousers that look like regular trousers, but with cycling-specific features like a gusset free crutch and stretchy fabric.
Overtrousers are handy if you want to pull something over your normal clothing for riding to the office. They can be waterproof and windproof so will keep you nice and dry. Velcro or zip adjustments at the waist and ankle will tailor in some of the fabric so they don’t flap about or risk getting caught in the chain. The level of bagginess can vary from brand to brand, so it’s always worth checking before you buy. Look for lots of reflectivity if you’re commuting.
A smarter option — sartorially — is cycling trousers, designed to look like regular trousers and more fitted than overtrousers. These are ideal if you don’t like the idea of skintight Lycra tights or baggy overtrousers, and for shorter commutes or dashing across the city, they’re a stylish choice. And, providing you stay dry, you can wear them all day in the office too.
Some are made from technical fabrics, like a soft shell or Epic Cotton, so they’re not only comfortable and warm, but also weatherproof.
You get normal pockets, an adjustable waist band and some have adjustable ankles that can be rolled up for that fixed chic look. The part of the trouser you sit on will be made from a hard-wearing fabric and the seams will be placed so that they don’t cause any discomfort. They won’t have any padding, but you can supply your own padded shorts if you want some extra comfort or are planning a longer ride. You’ll get a few reflective details on some trousers too, for increased about-town visibility.
One thing to check is the leg length. Cycle clothing is usually made in fairly short production runs by the standards of normal high street fashion or utility wear. That means there is often only one choice of leg length. Not a problem for those of reasonably average height, or leg length, but potentially a problem for anyone at either end of the spectrum.
Those with shorter legs in particular can find that overtrousers bunch at the ankles so that even when cynched in they can bulge out enough to snag in chainrings.
One other thing to bear in mind with any waterproof trousers is that while they may keep your legs dry all that water has to go somewhere and a large proportion of it is going to be heading for your shoes. So if you want to stay dry either combine with waterproof socks or with waterproof overshoes. Make sure that you put the trousers over the top of the over-shoes otherwise the water simply runs in to the tops of your overshoes and from there makes its way in to your shoes.
These are well-considered, comfortable and smart trousers for riding, and not riding. They're made from a stretchy synthetic fabric which is accommodating but still keeps its shape well. The inner surface is a brushed finish so it's comfy next to bare skin, and the outer face is treated with a water-repellant coating that'll shrug off drizzle and showers.
Vulpine's Men's Cotton Rain Trousers are a well made, superbly thought through pair of trousers that will keep you dry on the bike and looking stylish off it.
Gore's Element Urban Windstopper Soft Shell Pants are an interesting and practical set of casual commuting trousers. As windproof and waterproof as you would expect from Gore, with several practical, high-vis elements, they're very good.
As you might suspect from the name, the trousers are designed to be both windproof and waterproof. Given that these are a Gore product, it's not surprising to hear that they excel in these areas. The rain beads against the material and the wind batters it but nothing gets through.
Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over the past 20 years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for seven years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.