There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad 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 bad cycling clothing anymore 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. Being highly protective and breathable at the same time is the key challenge facing fabric engineers.
Remember, cycle clothing is more important than those fancy wheels you have got 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 because not all jackets are created equal. 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.
So there are jackets designed to cater for all eventualities, and broadly they can be 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
Waterproof jackets will keep the rain out but compromise on breathability meaning you can get very hot and sweaty inside. They're 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. Manufacurers 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.
Keeping the wind out: 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 Vs 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 touching your skin.
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
So 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 handful to present the choices currently available.
Sugoi's Firewall 220 Zip water and wind resistant soft shell is a great fitting piece of clothing that works well the in the saddle and is ideal for other sports too.
Lightweight windproof shell
The Polaris Shield windproof jacket has been my trusty companion in the turbulent weather we've been having lately. It's a lot more waterproof than its name suggests, and it packs down nice and small.
Scott's Helium Plus is a very good jacket for the cold weather, offering windproof insulation and water resistance in an athletic cut.
The Madison Stellar II is windproof and waterproof, with fully taped seams.
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.