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An idiot’s guide to choosing the right base layers

What do you mean, it's not that complicated?

I have a cycling friend who routinely wears one layer too many during the summer months. To cycle from his house to mine takes approximately three minutes, but even this short distance is easily enough time for him to realise that it was a poor decision to have gone for the thick long-sleeved winter jersey on the basis that it was ever-so-slightly nippy when he walked the dogs at 6am.

I do not have this problem. The vast majority of the year, I wear a short-sleeved jersey and bib shorts. I am perfectly comfortable in this attire on cool spring days and once, while scaling an hour-long climb in the south of France when the temperature was in the high 30s, I didn’t even feel moved to fully unzip.

Similarly, should the temperature drop below about five degrees, I have a set outfit to which I turn which has never yet failed me. Thick tights, waterproof socks, a particular long-sleeved jersey and the winter gloves.

In the narrow band between these sartorial standbys lies a world of uncertainty inhabited by an almost infinite number of base layer permutations. I don’t know why not-especially-hot-or-cold should demand such precise fine-tuning of my attire. All I know is that it does.

Clothing technology has advanced apace in recent years and cyclists have never had so many options available to them. For many of us, manmade fibre T-shirts jostle for space with windproof vests and long-sleeved merino wool numbers in a mid-temperature drawer that is garnished with arm warmers, headbands and that pair of socks that’s neither one thing nor the other.

But how do you choose and combine on any given day? Can you look out of the window and know?

I like to think that I've got this down to a fine art.

It starts with the weather

The weather forecast is your friend. There is no saying that what you see out of the window will last and nor can you know how things will feel after a couple of hours in the saddle. You need numbers. Cold, dispassionate numbers.

Ideally you will have at least three weather apps on your phone, ideally seven, and these should of course be checked against a couple of favoured websites which allow you to see much the same information on a slightly larger screen. You will also need at least one coffee while you work your way through these forming your opinions.

First, the temperature; second, the ‘feels like’ temperature; third, the wind (including gusts); and finally, the likelihood of rain. Each of these factors feeds into your base layer decision-making, for every garment has its niche. The last thing you want is to plump for mesh on a merino wool day. Can you imagine?

You also need to think about the type of ride

Is it going to be short and feisty, working up a bit of warmth; or long and steady with your body slowly cooling? Will there be steep, sweat-inducing inclines and will these also bring with them long, chilling descents?

I have an internal database of all my base layers and for every combination of weather and terrain, I know there is a perfect solution; a three-way marriage of wicking, windproofing and water resistance. Triple-W base layer bigamy.

Years of experience have rendered this data analysis second nature to me. With all of the information at my disposal, I can now select a combination of base layers entirely unsuited to my ride pretty much 100 per cent of the time.

Where once I could rely on even-a-broken-clock-tells-the-right-time-twice-a-day methodology by turning to the sole option available to me no matter what the weather, years of investment and the expansion of my wardrobe now permit me to avoid the correct garment or garments every single time.

Even before the overlooked short, steep slope that insists I get out of the saddle and give it my all, I will most likely be producing a torrent of sweat which exceeds my innermost layer’s wicking capabilities. I then get to marvel at just how swiftly moisture cools as my effort wanes.

My experiments with layering have even led me to an extraordinary discovery: it is entirely possible to be both uncomfortably hot and chilled to the bone at the exact same moment.

In conclusion

If in doubt, just ask me what I’m going to be wearing and then wear something different.

Or why not try this rather more useful guide to cycling base layers (+ 10 of the best)?

Alex has written for more cricket publications than the rest of the team combined. Despite the apparent evidence of this picture, he doesn't especially like cake.

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