One of the simplest bike garments, a cycling gilet is also one of the most useful. Also known as a vest or simply as a sleeveless jacket, a gilet protects your torso from the wind chill and sometimes from the rain too.
Your torso is your largest area exposed to the wind; by keeping it warm a cycling gilet helps keep all of your body warmer
By leaving your arms and especially armpits covered just by your jersey, a cycling gilet lets you sweat through those areas
Details & features vary: mesh backs are good for working hard or less-cold weather; some cycling gilets have pockets, some don't
Handy cycling gilet feature that's not mentioned often enough: a breast pocket for your front door key
It may not sound like a big deal, but the way a cycling gilet keeps your torso warm even though your arms are still out in the wind can make a big difference to your comfort. Keeping the chill from evaporating your sweat gives your clothing a chance to move it away from your body, and the windproof shell of a typical cycling gilet traps a layer of air against your body so that helps keep you warm too.
Fabric thickness and level of ventilation varies a lot between gilets, so you can choose one that’s best suited to your needs. Some have side vents, others have mesh panels at the back so you’ll be comfortable if you’re riding hard with your front protected from the breeze and heat able to escape at the back.
Gilets intended for all-day riding in winter are made from thicker fabrics such as softshell or heavier breathable waterproof materials. Lighter fabrics are used for gilets that pack down small so you can stuff them in a pocket. They’re ideal for days when you know (or at least hope) that it’ll warm up after a chilly start, or to carry for sudden weather changes.
In the last couple of years clothing makers have introduced gilets that provide extra warmth from the latest ultra-light synthetic insulation. These are useful for extra protection when it’s very cold, or for cool-weather casual cycling; they’re usually styled so they look fairly normal off the bike too.
Gilet manufacturers provide pockets in several different ways. At one end of the complexity scale, some gilets do without, some simply have slots so you can get through to your jersey pockets. Many have the usual two or three rear pockets, sometimes with a small front pocket for your keys.
Other features to look for include material with a bit of stretch in it so it’ll accommodate those post-Christmas extra pounds; a fleece liner at the neck for extra cosiness; a windproof flap behind the zip; and a ‘zip garage’ at the neck to stop the top of the zip digging into the soft skin there.
A decent quality gilet costs from £20 and prices run up to over £150. At the low range you’re getting a simple windproof and (usually) water-resistant shell; at high prices you get for very-high-tech fabrics, clever detailing and — in some cases — extra insulation.
Beware: gilets are addictive. You’ll soon realise you ‘need’ more than one for different conditions. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Galibier's Izoard gilet is a cheap and effective way of adding a warm layer to your cycling wardrobe, and its neutral styling means you can wear it off the bike too.
This Izoard gilet uses a more traditional hollow fibre insulation in a 40g weight, rather than the Polartec Alpha you'll find in more expensive gilets. It's enough to take the chill off without being especially bulky, and it certainly has a less chilly effect on your bank balance. The insulation is used on the front and back sandwiched between a thin nylon ripstop fabric. Ripstop isn't stretchy so Galibier has included Roubaix Lycra side panels to keep the gilet nice and fitted on the bike.
The ashmei Men's Cycle Gilet is a very lightweight yet high performing piece of clothing. It's at the upper end of the pricing scale, but the fabric is brilliant, along with the cut and fit of the gilet.
For the gilet, ashmei has used a microfibre ultra-stretch fabric that is very thin yet offers great windstopping properties. It's very soft too, which means you don't get that plasticky feel like you do from a lot of lightweight gilets.
ashmei gives it an optimal temperature range of 6°C to 15°C and that is about right.
This insulated cycling gilet from Wiggle's own brand is impressively breathable and absolutely brilliant at keeping you warm.
Tester Stu Kerton is impressed. He says: "the dhb Aeron Alpha gilet really benefits from the inclusion of the Polartec material. The balance of how warm you are without ever feeling clammy keeps you really comfortable on long, hard rides. While it is at the upper price point for a decent gilet, it's a worthwhile investment if you spend a lot of time riding in the cold."
The Van Rysel RC 500 Women's Windproof Cycling Gilet weighs next to nothing, scrunches down to the size of an orange, and does a great job of keeping the chill off your chest – all while looking good and costing next to nothing.
This Van Rysel (Decathlon's new in-house performance brand) is a superb piece of kit, and will stand you in good stead from spring through to autumn – plus its miniscule size and weight mean you can stuff it in a jersey pocket and barely know it's there.
Construction is very good indeed – the windproof front panels are made of a ripstop-style fabric, while the back panel is very fine mesh with additional perforations for excellent breathability.
The Lusso Essential Thermal Gilet combines stylishly dimpled Windtex panels with a fleecy, four-way-stretch rear to provide excellent core warmth on bitter days. It's breathable, easy to ventilate with the high-necked zip and is windproof. Yes, it's bulky if you try to pack it, but on cold days – early morning commutes perhaps – it performs so well you won't want to.
Gilets are invaluable on cold rides where you're already wearing several layers, and have reached the point where another set of sleeves is going to leave you bulked out and restricted. Most gilets are thin and merely for wind protection, though – there's a lot less choice if you want proper insulation as well.
This Lusso is one of the more affordable insulated options we've tested recently and, while it's still a fair chunk of change at £90 (albeit with 15% off in January), its no-nonsense build will easily earn its keep through multiple winters.
Neon Velo's Lightweight Gilet is a packable windproof layer that is easy to whip on and off. The wind protection from the front makes it perfect for cold descents, while the back is very breathable, so this is one for the spring and summer. It’s available in black as well as this navy.
As it so often does, French sport megastore chain Decathlon shows that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get decent kit. This gilet is easy to pack, fends off the cold and has a good feature set for its low price.
The front is wind- and water-proof and there's a mesh back for ventilation when you're working hard. Since you're likely to be wearing a gilet at dusk there are also several reflective patches to boost visibility in car headlights
The Lusso Skylon Gilet doesn't make a fuss, it just keeps the wind off your body and helps to maintain core temperature while being small enough to scrunch into a back pocket.
The Skylon is a cut above bargain basement gilets; build quality is considerably higher and a little more thought seems to have gone into the design. For example, there is no loose fabric to snag the zip. The Skylon fabric which gives the gilet its name (and a whiff of 50's nostalgia, go Google it kiddies) has a slightly rubbery feel, a bit like latex workshop gloves. It's not unpleasant, just a little odd.
Lusso claim it's showerproof, but a short ride into a rainy headwind left our tester’s jersey quite damp. It's not a huge problem; after all you wouldn't expect a gilet to offer much by way of foul weather protection, especially one with a full length mesh back. What you want a gilet for is wind proofing and the Skylon scores full marks on that front. The mesh back stops it from turning into a mobile sweat tent and the whole thing folds up into its own back pocket.
The RH+ Acquaria Pocket Vest is so lightweight and packable it's a proper three season item of clothing.
It's made of a single layer coated fabric called Airdry which is intended for mild and windy conditions and is designed to be worn between 14°C and 22°C.
With a mesh back it's highly breathable and wicks sweat away quite impressively for this kind of fabric.
A long-time favourite, this well-made and perfectly shaped gilet has a full suite of useful detailing: a bit of stretch in the fabric; pockets big enough to be useful; that handy little key pocket on the front; a comfortably lined neck; and baffle/guard behind the (stylishly offset) zip.
The Chapeau! Echelon Gilet is an innovative, well made and good looking vest that keeps the worst of the weather out. Chapeau! has clearly thought about how to make this as good as possible and done a superb job – though you have to pay accordingly.
A good place to start is with its ability to keep out the wind and rain, which it does really well. The material used – a four-way stretch polyester and polyurethane blend – is thin, which I was initially worried about, given that thin normally means flimsy. I needn't have been: it's hardwearing as well as very protective.
If you need a gilet that can provide some vital insulation on top of windproof performance, then the Endura Pro SL Primaloft Gilet could be the layer for you.
It all starts with the filling – a Primaloft stuffing that provides vital heat retention. It's thin, so thin in fact that it's still possible to pack the gilet down into a decent-sized pocket. Moreover, it's cut so that there's little fabric wastage anywhere, which helps keep the form small when it's rolled up into a pocket or its own carry pouch.
It's not cheap, but universal rave reviews for this weather-resistant vest mean it surely has to be on your shortlist if you're a year-round rider. The front is made from the same Gore® Windstopper® X-Lite Plus as Castelli's much-loved Gabba rain jersey, while the back is made from fleecy, water repellent Nano Flex Light for breathability.
In short, this is the sleeveless version of the Gabba, and welcome torso protection for crummy Spring and Autumn weather.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.