Buyer’s guide to tights and trousers for cycling
Time to keep your legs wrapped up from the cold with bib tights or trousers, here's what to look for
If you want to cycle through the cold winter months, it pays to get properly wrapped up, and keeping your legs insulated is essential if you want to ride in any sort of comfort. Whether it’s commuting every day or heading out for a training ride after work, or the weekly club run, it really pays 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.
The main choice is tights, Lycra-based longs that are essentially an extension of cycling shorts, overtrousers that are waterproof and good for commuting and city riding, and cycling trousers that look like regular trousers, but can be cycled in.
Tights are essentially long versions of regular shorts, and can often be made from the same Lycra fabric. 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.
Tights can be bought with a padded insert, which you wear next to the skin, or without and you wear them over a pair of padded shorts. The latter is 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.
There are a vast range of fabrics available. Most are made from Lycra, some use thicker more insulating fabrics, Roubaix and Super Roubaix fabric is popular and can be fleece-lined, to add more warmth for the winter months. 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 impeded the pedalling motion. 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.
Sportful's No-Rain bib tights combine their proprietary fabric with water repellant technology that ensures rain beads off the surface, and strategic panels of waterproof silicone to make these ideal tights for riding in the British winter.
dhb Vaeon Roubaix Bib Tights £49.99
Specifically designed for riding your bike in cold conditions, these bib-tights are made from a relatively thick style of fabric called Roubaix, which means it's smooth on the outside for a neat look, and slightly fleecy on the inside for warmth and comfort.
Mavic Echappee bib tight £159.99
The Echappée sit one rung below their warmest deep winter tights, and that makes them perfect for the typical British winter, where it rarely gets exceptionally cold. These are rated for a temperature range between 0° and 12°C, which just about covers an average winter. They're made from an Warm Tech Ultra material with a windproof Carbon Power fabric on the front leg panels stretching from just below the knees to below the crotch. As well as the wind resistance this fabric provides, it also offers extra insulation with the extra layer it provides, therefore keeping you warmer for longer.
Castelli Sanremo Thermosuit £250.00
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. Gore Windstopper X-Lite Plus fabric is found on the chest panels, while around the back and used for the tights is a lighter weight Thermoflex Core Due fabric.
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 of trouser available; overtrousers that are waterproof and baggy enough to be worn over normal clothing, or tailored cycling trousers that like 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 a cycling trouser, 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 seat 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 on with all cycling trousers whether they are over-trousers or tailored trousers is the leg length. Cycle clothing is usually made on fairly short run, by the standards of normal high street fashion or utility wear and that means that there often is 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 oher 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 - making 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.
dhb Minima Waterproof Trousers £34.19
Wiggle's in-house clothing brand dhb offers this very reasonably priced overtrousers, made from a 2.5 layer polyester Teflon coated fabric. That should ensure good protection in the rain. To reduce the bulk dhb has reduced the number of seams with improved panel design and there are adjustable ankle cuffs. Lots of reflective detailing makes them ideal for commuting.
Rapha City Trousers £150
These are made from a lightweight Schoeller 3xDry cotton with has a good degree of stretch and is breathable. They've been designed for comfort on the bike, tailored for on the bike posture, with a Cordura seat panel to provide decent durability. The right leg can be rolled up revealing a reflective Rapha logo.
Cotton Rain Trousers £140.00
Tapered legs and articulated knees, button adjusters at the ankles and a low waist and made from rain resistant Epic Cottong, these are a stylish choice for daily commuting and life in the office.