With weather that can go from sunny to snowing, Spring is a tricky time of year to dress for. It requires clothing that is versatile and adaptable to conditions and temperatures that can change rapidly and sometimes suddenly.
Dressing for the winter is easy, it’s just a matter of wearing as much cold-weather clothing as you can fit through the front door in. Spring though requires some key clothing and some experience to know just what is the best approach.
There's no one best solution, everyone has preferences based on riding styles, whether it's racing or commuting, how fast you're riding, and how hot or cold you run as a cyclist. We're all different, but there's some really good technical clothing available that can make cycling in the spring a joy.
If, for example, you’re an early riser you might start your rides when there’s still a chill in the air, and you need to wrap up. If it’s a long ride and you’re going to be out for most of the day, the temperature is going to increase and you can find yourself overheating, so you want versatile clothing that lets you regulate your temperature. This regulation of temperature is key to riding through the spring. With temperatures varying by as much as 10 or more degrees in the space of a day, that can be a challenge.
Layering is often quoted in cycle clothing articles, and nowhere is it more important than in spring (well, okay autumn too). As you build up temperature on a ride, as the air temperature increases, you want to be able to gradually peel away outer layers leaving you at a comfortable temperature. Items like gilets, knee warmers and lightweight jackets are ideal to wear over shorts and jerseys. They can be worn when needed and stuffed in a jersey pocket when not needed.
How much clothing you wear depends on the type of cyclist you are. If you’re a racing cyclist and always ride reasonably hard, you’ll need to wear fewer thinner layers to avoid getting too sweaty. If recreational cycling is your thing and the speeds involved will generally be slower, you’ll want to wear thicker and warmer layers. If you’re a commuting cyclist it can be much colder on the way into work compared to the ride home in the afternoon/evening.
The key thing about spring clothing is to find what works for you. There are quite a few different clothing approaches you can take, and everyone has their favourite. If you've already got a few basics like shorts and a couple of jerseys, adding a gilet and arm warmers might be all you need to get you through spring to summer. Lots of the clothing on this page will actually do you service in the typical British summer.
Arm, leg and knee warmers
These simple Lycra accessories are the cornerstone of a flexible clothing outfit that lets you adapt for any given spring weather. If you’re anticipating it getting quite warm a couple of hours into the ride, arm and knee warmers keep you wrapped up during the chilly first part of the ride. When it does warm up enough to allow removal, they can be easily folded up and stashed into a jersey pocket.
Most are made from a tube of fabric with Lycra and wool being popular materials. Thicker wool warmers are good for chillier days adding a bit more insulation. Manufacturers approach the design of warmers from different angles, they need to have enough stretch and articulation to allow complete freedom of movement. This is especially important at the knees. Some use a simple high stretch fabric while some use a complex multi-panel and pre-articulated design.
You can also get warmers that are water resistant, like Castelli’s Nanoflex and Sportful’s NoRain, which can be very useful if you're expecting, or not, rain during a ride when the weather makes a turn for the worse. The fit is very important so try before you buy. The last thing you want is them slipping down your arms/legs and ending up around your ankles/wrists.
It’s getting warm enough to ditch the thick winter coat and swap it for a lighter weight long sleeve jersey or lightweight jacket. There’s a multitude of designs and array of materials on offer, which means there’s something available for all tastes. The line between lightweight jackets and long sleeve jerseys can get a little blurred at this time of year.
If you’ve been wearing a softshell through the winter, you might find it’s fine too in the spring. You can simply wear it over a lighter grade short sleeve base layer and you might find that the perfect combination. Softshell’s are highly versatile in that respect, and a very good three seasons choice.
The warmer it gets, though, the more suited a lightweight jersey is. A good jersey can be part of a layer system, over a short sleeve base layer and complemented with a gilet or lightweight windbreaker when the weather demands it. It should keep you warm and keep the wind out, but be breathable enough to cope with the more brisk riding you’ll be doing in the spring.
Some jerseys might offer a windproof fabric which will stop cold air from passing through it while still being very breathable, maintaining a comfortable temperature. Fabric’s like Gore’s Windstopper are a good choice. Wool and polyester fabrics are a good option too. A long sleeve jersey will have a full-length zip and you’ll commonly find at least three rear pockets, good for stashing all your food and essential spares. Fit is important
I’ve been wearing long sleeve base layers exclusively through the winter, and now that it’s warmer up, it’s time to consider short sleeve base layers to be paired with jerseys and arm warmers. There’s a choice of very lightweight base layers designed for the hottest days and warmer base layers that are better suited to the spring weather.
The job of a base layer is even more important at this time of year, especially if you’re now riding harder and faster, maybe racing or doing sportives. It will keep you dry and prevent you getting soaked in sweat from your efforts on the hills.
Base layers come in a variety of materials. They largely fall into two camps; man-made or natural materials. Merino wool is the most common natural fabric base layer, but bamboo is being used by a few manufacturers. Merino is great because it copes with a wide range of temperatures and doesn't pong when you get sweaty. It comes in different weights to suit different temperatures.
Man-made synthetic base layers like polypropylene are generally better at wicking sweat and are usually much lighter and a preferable choice when it's really warm, and many people prefer how it feels next to the skin. It can get smelly when you sweat, though, you certainly can't wear it on subsequent days like you can with Merino.
A gilet is essentially a lightweight shell jacket with the arms removed. The idea is to provide an extra layer of defence on your torso, blocking the wind, and ensuring your arms don’t overheat. When they’re not needed they curl up into a tiny package that will take up only a little room in a jersey pocket.
It could be worn over a long sleeve jersey to add protection from the wind on the early morning commute or for the first hour of a training ride. They’re usually made from the lightweight mould with a thin, breathable and wind resistance fabric. Some might come with pockets but most don’t, as it’s ideally something you only wear for short periods.
There are examples of heavier weight gilets such as Rapha’s Softshell gilet which are designed less for emergency use and intended to be worn for the duration of the ride. They won’t fold up small so you need to factor it in from the start to the finish. Such examples come with pockets, though, increasing their usefulness.
There are increasingly products that blur the lines between gilet, jersey and jacket. A good example is the Castelli Gabba, a jersey that has been seen a lot in the professional peloton this season. It’s a lightweight race-fit jersey, with short sleeve arms down to the elbows, with a windproof and water-resistant fabric that seems to be a good top layer over a jersey, base layer and arm warmers. It’s got three rear pockets so can be worn for the entirety of the ride, and has a dropped tail to keep your bum protected against road spray and muck.
Essentially a long sleeve gilet, these can be very handy for the less joyous spring days.
They’re very good when it’s really windy or there is a risk of rain, and will provide enough protection to allow you to get riding, or make a dash for home or the nearest cafe. There are some very good lightweight jackets that when not being worn will almost completely vanish in a jersey pocket. Such a jacket can save you from getting caught short.
Are you ready to pack your winter tights away? We certainly are. The bib short options for the spring are varied, though. The first option is bib shorts, and pair with knee or leg warmers as dictated by the weather.
The second choice is bib knickers, or three-quarter shorts, that extend to below the knee. Whatever your choice, it’s very important to keep the knees warm in the cold weather, and there’s still a nip in the air. The knee goes through thousands or revolutions on any given cycle ride and the muscles don’t like operating in the cold. So keep them wrapped up.
Another option that has become popular in recent years is the thermal bib shorts, and a handful of manufacturers offer them. They’re the same cut as regular bib shorts but are constructed from a warmer fabric. For this early spring weather, they can be a blessing and provide a lot of extra insulation against the cold air.
Oversocks and socks
Yay, it’s time to ditch the thick overshoes that have done sterling service through the winter and switch to lighter overshoes and oversocks. With less concern for keeping your feet insulated, you can opt for lighter overshoes made from a thinner fabric. You still want to keep the wind out of those pesky vents on your shoes, so look for a windproof version.
As it’s warmer you don’t need to worry about getting cold feet as much, and oversocks are a very good choice. Yes, they’re essentially socks stretched over the shoes with a hole for the cleat, but they serve a good role at this time of year. They provide just enough protection and warmth from the elements, and when the roads can be very dirty they keep all the dirt and crud of your shoes.
Another option is toe warmers. Essentially overshoes with most of the shoe removed except the bit over toes.
While oversocks go over your shoes, socks for your feet are also worth investing in. Proper cycling socks offer a better fit than regular socks, and are usually made from a fabric that keeps your feet dry and a comfortable temperature, and many have added support in key places.
Light gloves or mitts
Something strange has happened on my last few rides. I’ve finished with no gloves. That’s because I’ve started with winter gloves and found them just too warm part way into the ride. Too chilly without them, but nothing a dose of MTFU doesn’t cure.
It’s time for a lighter pair of gloves, and there’s plenty of choices. It’s probably still a touch too cold for mitts, but as the weeks pass and the temperature increases, you can certainly begin to consider mitts, or fingerless gloves, for the majority of your riding. Until then, I reckon a lightweight pair of comfortable long finger gloves is the way forward.
The other option at this time of year is to slap a load of embrocation over your legs. Popular in the past with racing cyclists, the smell of embro filling the changing rooms is becoming a thing of the past as technical clothing has improved so much that slathering a thick layer of heat generating gunk over your skin is less favourable.
Some still swear by it, and there’s a big market for it, mostly generated by the interests of US cyclists keen to romanticise anything they can about European cycling culture.
Those are our suggestions. Do you have any favourite cycle clothing for the spring?
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.