One of the simplest cycling garments, a gilet is also one of the most useful. Also known as a vest or simply as a sleeveless jacket, a gilet protects your torso from the wind chill and sometimes from the rain too.
That may not sound like a big deal, but keeping your torso warm even though your arms are still out in the wind can make a big difference to your comfort. Keeping the chill from evaporating your sweat gives your clothing a chance to move it away from your body, and the windproof shell traps a layer of air against your body so that helps keep you warm too.
Fabric thickness and level of ventilation varies a lot between gilets, so you can choose one that’s best suited to your needs. Some have side vents, others have mesh panels at the back so you’ll be comfortable if you’re riding hard with your front protected from the breeze and heat able to escape at the back.
Gilets intended for all-day riding in winter are made from thicker fabrics such as softshell or heavier breathable waterproof materials. Lighter fabrics are used for gilets that pack down small so you can stuff them in a pocket. They’re ideal for days when you know (or at least hope) that it’ll warm up after a chilly start, or to carry for sudden weather changes.
In the last couple of years clothing makers have introduced gilets that provide extra warmth from the latest ultra-light synthetic insulation. These are useful for extra protection when it’s very cold, or for cool-weather casual cycling; they’re usually styled so they look fairly normal off the bike too.
Gilet manufacturers provide pockets in several different ways. At one end of the complexity scale, some gilets do without, some simply have slots so you can get through to your jersey pockets. Many have the usual two or three rear pockets, sometimes with a small front pocket for your keys.
At the other end of the scale, Giro’s hard-to-find but excellent Primaloft Insulated Vest has a couple of hand-warmer pockets on the front, Giro's Stowback system, a kind of clever poacher's pocket, at the back and further vertical zipped openings on each side that give access to three internal pockets, between the inner and outer layers of the gilet. It’s pocket-tastic.
Other features to look for include material with a bit of stretch in it so it’ll accommodate those post-Christmas extra pounds; a fleece liner at the neck for extra cosiness; a windproof flap behind the zip; and a ‘zip garage’ at the neck to stop the top of the zip digging into the soft skin there.
A decent quality gilet costs from £20 and prices run up to over £150. At the low range you’re getting a simple windproof and (usually) water-resistant shell; at high prices you get for very-high-tech fabrics, clever detailing and — in some cases — extra insulation.
Beware: gilets are addictive. You’ll soon realise you ‘need’ more than one for different conditions. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
As it so often does, French sport megastore chain Decathlon shows that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get decent kit. This gilet is easy to pack,fends off the cold and has a good feature set for its low price.
You can barely feel this gilet when it's in your hands let alone on your back. The 100% polyester fabric is very thin which keeps the weight down to just 60g for the large size. It's fully windproof and does offer a degree of water resistance against drizzle and fog.
You don't get a mesh back to disperse heat like you see on a lot of gilets but there are two armpit vents which do a pretty good job of stopping you getting too clammy.
The Lusso Skylon Gilet doesn't make a fuss, it just keeps the wind off your body and helps to maintain core temperature while being small enough to scrunch into a back pocket.
The Skylon is a cut above bargain basement gilets; build quality is considerably higher and a little more thought seems to have gone into the design. For example, there is no loose fabric to snag the zip. The Skylon fabric which gives the gilet its name (and a whiff of 50's nostalgia, go Google it kiddies) has a slightly rubbery feel, a bit like latex workshop gloves. It's not unpleasant, just a little odd.
Lusso claim it's showerproof, but a short ride into a rainy headwind left our tester’s jersey quite damp. It's not a huge problem; after all you wouldn't expect a gilet to offer much by way of foul weather protection, especially one with a full length mesh back. What you want a gilet for is wind proofing and the Skylon scores full marks on that front. The mesh back stops it from turning into a mobile sweat tent and the whole thing folds up into its own back pocket.
Aerofit is B'Twin's top range of kit, and this gilet therefore has a close-fitting, performance-orientated fit. The quality and finish is pretty exceptional when you consider its £39.99 price tag.
The Aerofit has a windproof membrane on the front to stop the chills and a mesh back panel to let any heat build-up escape, stopping you getting clammy.
Although it's not designed to, that membrane also works pretty well against light rain and drizzle – you can see the water bead off as you're riding. It doesn't take long to be overwhelmed by heavy rain, but considering it's not being marketed as a waterproof, it does a very good job.
The RH+ Acquaria Pocket Vest is so lightweight and packable it's a proper three season item of clothing.
It's made of a single layer coated fabric called Airdry which is intended for mild and windy conditions and is designed to be worn between 14°C and 22°C.
With a mesh back it's highly breathable and wicks sweat away quite impressively for this kind of fabric.
The dhb Aeron Lightweight Windslam Gilet is part of wiggle's Performance range, and thanks to the close fit and materials used, it's a garment you can use to add a layer without extra bulk.
The front panel uses dhb's Windslam fabric, a windstopper material that does exactly what it is designed to do. The Aeron doesn't let any windchill through and it's the perfect layer to add over the top of a long-sleeved jersey. A tall neck and accompanying zip garage help keep the draughts out and also stop any irritation to your throat.
There are a lot of windproof gilets out there. You have to do something special to stand out for the crowd. Ale has achieved this with the excellent Crossover Gilet.
At the size and weight of a burger, this is a gilet you can forget about until you need it. When you do pull it out, the great news is that it doesn't come out looking like an old bin bag. The stretch fabric is remarkably resistant to crumpling so it always looks good when you are wearing it. Another bonus is that it doesn't crackle and flap in the wind.
To keep the weight down, Ale has dispensed with pockets. Instead, it has put in some slits in the back that allow you to access your jersey pockets underneath. These have a baffle over the top to keep the weather out.
A long-time favourite, this well-made and perfectly shaped gilet is currently on special. It has a full suite of useful detailing: a bit of stretch in the fabric; pockets big enough to be useful; that handy little key pocket on the front; a comfortably lined neck; and baffle/guard behind the (stylishly offset) zip.
This Wind Vest is a top quality garment from POC's Fondo range, but it comes at a high price.
The front of the Wind Vest is lined with a windproof fabric that performs very well indeed, blocking out wind almost completely. Thanks to it being so thin, you do lose a bit of body heat in simple heat transfer – but this only serves to help regulate body heat when riding at tempo.
This regulation is assisted by a full mesh back, which only changes into a full cotton-polyester fabric at the tail, to help protect your backside from splashes. The downside to this is it can be susceptible to snagging at coffee stops and the like when you lean back, but if you take care, as you would to avoid catching your bib shorts, then it's fine.
The Chapeau! Blue Echelon Gilet is an innovative, well made and good looking vest that keeps the worst of the weather out. Chapeau! has clearly thought about how to make this as good as possible and done a superb job – though you have to pay accordingly.
A good place to start is with its ability to keep out the wind and rain, which it does really well. The material used – a four-way stretch polyester and polyurethane blend – is thin, which I was initially worried about, given that thin normally means flimsy. I needn't have been: it's hardwearing as well as very protective.
[This article was last updated on August 1, 2017]
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.