Autumn is a great time of year for cycling. Yes, the temperatures are dropping and more rain and wind is forecast, but with the right clothing, you can ensure you're cosy and protected from the elements. This is our essential clothing guide to keep you cycling through the autumn with a smile on your face.
Autumn places extra demand on your clothing. Being prepared is the key, as is being adaptable to changing conditions. You could start a ride in the rain and 9 degrees, and finish in the sun with the temperature twice that. It’s not quite cold enough for full winter jackets and tights yet, so you can get away with continuing to wear your summer outfit, but with a few choice accessories to provide extra warmth and protection from the wind or rain.
Here are some clothing tips to help you through the season.
Accessorise to beat the autumn chill
Add a pair of knee warmers and arm warmers to a short sleeve jersey and bib shorts combo, throw in a gilet and you have a good outfit for tackling the autumn weather. The gilet will provide a windproof layer for your torso, stopping your temperature dropping too much, while the warmers will keep the chill off your hardworking knees and not-so-hardworking elbows.
Typically made from Lycra, though merino versions are available too, arm and knee warmers are light and stretchy and can easily be removed if it does get warm enough. Realistically, arm warmers are something you can use around the calendar and for that reason, every cyclist should have a pair. The best have an anatomic cut that reflects the shape of your arm and the fact that it articulates at the elbow.
Like the best arm warmers which are cut to mimic the shape of your arms, the best knee warmers are shaped to your leg - so instead of being straight tubes they have a bend at the knee, this greatly increases comfort and makes for a much better fit. Oh, and it's always worth looking out for ones with some reflective detailing at the back - a reflective patch going up and down should grab a driver's attention - that's also why pedal reflectors are so effective.
Another option preferred by some people are three-quarter shorts, sometimes called bib knickers. Essentially they are bib shorts and knee warmers rolled into one. They're fine when you know there is little chance of needing to remove knee warmers during a ride and can be more comfortable than separates. Which you choose is down to personal preference, and how much versatility you desire in your outfit.
Sometimes called a sleeveless vest, a gilet is a very versatile top that can be worn first thing in the morning for the commute or on longer rides until it warms sufficiently to remove it. When not being worn, they can pack down very small and take up little space in a jersey pocket. Most are windproof so will keep the wind chill at bay too. Paired with arm warmers, they give you even more upper body protection from the cold. It's the sort of garment you could call on year-round, ideal for riding in the mountains where the weather can change dramatically over the course of a day.
Some days will call for more than a gilet though, so it's good to have a lightweight jacket. We’re fortunate these days that there is a huge choice of designs and fabrics so there’s something for all conditions and rider types. Generally, a lightweight windproof, easily packable in a jersey pocket should it not be required, is ideal for this time of year. The fabric should be breathable so you don’t instantly overheat the minute you pull it on. You can get lightweight waterproof jackets for heavier or prolonged rain.
You need to pick a top hat suits your particular demands: are you a daily commuter, fast training or slower touring cyclist? The fit, features and fabric are tailored to the demands of different cyclists, so choose wisely. Racing capes are fitted and don’t have pockets, but can be packed down small, while commuter jackets feature lots of hi-vis, dropped tails and vents. Decide first what you need from a jacket, and the choice will narrow down to those that are designed for your type of cycling.
Soggy feet are bad news. Most cycling shoes aren’t designed to keep the rain out, especially those with lots of air vent mesh panels: great in the summer, not so good in the autumn. Oversocks and overshoes are designed to be pulled over the top of the shoes and keep the weather out. Oversocks are lightweight and provide only minimal protection from the cold and rain, but are good at keeping mud and dirt off your shoes and provide a little insulation. Overshoes come in various forms, from neoprene types designed to be waterproof to lighter weight windproof designs.
As important as keeping your feet warm and dry, is keeping your hands protected from the cold and rain. We bet you’re going to notice the dip in temperature in your fingers, so it’s time to pull out the long finger gloves (though we know people who do ride in mitts right through to winter).
Gloves are available in a huge variety, with varying levels of insulation and weather protection. Some are made from windproof materials and there are good waterproof gloves if you intend to ride in the rain. The downside of waterproof gloves is that they generally lack breathability, so unless you plan to spend many hours in the rain, a lighter windproof glove might be a better compromise.
It’s also time to think about trading in the summer socks for warmer winter socks. You don’t have enough space between your feet and shoes to go too bulky; reducing circulation in your feet is a bad idea, so merino wool socks are a particular fave. Thin yet with the insulating properties of the wool, they will provide a little more insulation for your toes.
Whether or not you prefer to wear a helmet in the summer, it's the time of year to consider donning a cycling cap to keep the chill at bay. A traditional cotton cycling cap easily slipped under a helmet or worn on its own, will provide a surprising level of insulation on nippy days. The peak is also useful for keeping the low sun out of your eyes. If you don't like that style of hat (are you mad) then there are other options. Lightweight peak-less caps, ear warmer bands and Buff-style headwear can all be utilised.
Putting it all together…
Those are the key items of clothing that should get you through the autumn happily. Clothing is a very personal thing. Some people feel the cold more than others so will need to choose more heavily insulated clothing, and others just don’t seem to feel the cold at all and can make do with very thin layers. The type of riding you do will dictate the specific clothing you invest in and where you're based will have an impact on how soon you need to reach for warmer cycle clothing. The terrain will also have an influence too: live somewhere hilly and you'll probably want more breathable clothing and easily removable layers than someone cycling in a predominantly flat area.
The clothing that works for you will generally come down to experience, so you may get caught out in the wrong clothing from time to time - don't worry, it happens to us all. You'll soon get a good idea of what works for you, and learn from such experiences. Remember, not everyone is the same, what works for a friend might not necessarily work for you. We're all different. So learn from your experiences and try to tailor your clothing as you progress through the autumn.
A big challenge is how much the weather can change from one day to the next. That's perhaps the trickiest aspect of cycling in the autumn, and can be frustrating when you get caught out. That's why it is worth having clothing that lets you quickly adapt, such as lightweight gilets and jackets that can be removed or added as required.
The amount you spend cycling every week, the level of activity and the time of day you cycle, will all dictate the clothing you need. If you’re commuting you’ll be riding at the coldest periods of the day, so this will influence the clothing you need compared to say someone who only cycles at lunchtime. If you’re a racing cyclist and do all your riding at a high tempo, you’ll want highly breathable and fitted clothing. For commuting and city clothing, you might need more insulation and better weather protection so you don't arrive at the office soaked through, and with more ventilation options to avoid excessive sweating.
As autumn progresses, it’s obviously going to get colder and wetter. The tricky decision is deciding how long you can get away with stretching the summer outfit with the accessories mentioned above. There will come a time when you’ll want to switch to long-sleeve base layers and proper jackets, three-quarter bibs or full-length tights, thicker gloves and warm headwear. That said, if you live in one of the milder parts of the country and you 'run hot' you could get through most of the winter and the following spring in your autumn kit. It's horses for courses - on the road.cc team Mat feels the cold and starts wrapping up in early September whereas Tony went through most of the last winter and the cold spring in a jersey and bib shorts with arm and leg warmers, a change of gloves and a thicker base layer… he does have a bit of extra natural insulation though.
Finally, but rather importantly It's also worth pointing out that any investments you make in clothing for the autumn, can also be used again in the spring: much of the clothing here is the same clothing you want early in the year and this being Britain for chunks of our standard issue summers too, for the same versatility reasons. So really any investment in cycling kit now will come into its own again long after the winter.
For now, enjoy the autumn and make the most of the decent weather while you still can.
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.