If you want to carry on cycling through the cold winter months, you're going to have to deal with rain, but the right legwear can help stop your rides turning into soaking-weat miseryfests. Here's a selection of the best gear to keep your legs protected from the wet.
Leg muscles don’t work as well when they’re cold, and there are few ways of making them cold better than running water over them. Tights, trousers and overtrousers that fend off the wet are therefore a winter essential for many riders.
You have three main choices. Performance-orientated riders tend to go for tights, which take the basic idea of cycling shorts — they're close-fitting garments that move with you — and extend it down to your ankles; waterproof overtrousers fend off the rain so you arrive at the office with dry trousers; and cycling trousers look like regular trousers, but are shaped and detailed so they're comfortable for riding.
In this guide we're taking a look at waterproof and highly water-resistant winter legwear suitable for winter riding and training and also for getting to work without getting cold and wet because it's raining.
A note on water-resistance. It's just about impossible for a fabric to be totally water-resistant and remotely pleasant to cycle in, so there's always a degree of compromise here. We've found the garments in this guide fend off water well enough that we'll happily use them in the rain.
If you’re commuting or even touring or mountain biking, then trousers might be a better option than tights. 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: overtrousers that are waterproof and roomy enough to be worn over normal clothing; or tailored cycling trousers that look 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 cycling trousers, 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 sit 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 is the leg length. Cycle clothing is usually made in fairly short production runs by the standards of normal high street fashion or utility wear. That means there is often 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 other 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. Make 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.
Cube's Blackline Rain Pants do an excellent job of keeping your legs dry and the pedals turning relatively unencumbered. They're not quite so hot at keeping you free from chill breezes, though.
On warmer days you could get away with just wearing bib shorts or padded liner shorts underneath the Blackline Pants. However, I think viewing them as overtrousers – a waterproof outer layer – is the most sensible approach, especially if you're going to be wearing them for a fair while. In this case, it's also worth pointing out that breathability is very good – no sweaty legs here.
When the rain starts beating down, they are fantastically effective at keep you dry. I've tested them in everything from light drizzle to heavy downpours, and they haven't failed to work their magic. As I've said, there have been no self-made moisture problems, either, so you're guaranteed to arrive at your destination completely dry (bottom-half, at least).
For cycling short distances and not having to carry a spare change of clothes, the DU/ER Performance Denim Weatherproof Slim Jeans are ideal, being comfortable on and off the bike and keeping you dry and warm in the wind and rain thanks to a waterproof membrane. They also pack some useful reflective details when you roll the cuff up.
The best thing is they look like regular jeans. No more odd looks as you billow into the office/cafe with oversized waterproof overtrousers when you've cycled in the rain. Normal jeans aren't much cop for cycling any sort of distance, but these are stretchy and provide no restriction to pedalling, nor are there any nasty seams in the saddle area to cause discomfort.
The jeans are made from a cotton fabric infused with Lycra, for added stretch, and Coolmax technology, which ramps up the breathability and helps transport sweat away. But the real magic lies in the use of a waterproof membrane.
Ride in the rain and, put simply, the jeans don't get saturated like regular jeans. Arrive at the office and they quickly dry off so you don't need to get changed. I found the waterproofing adequate for most rain I encountered, from drizzle to heavy downpours.
The Madison DTE Waterproof Trousers are made for riding in the most terrible conditions, the sort of weather where one glance out of the window is enough to make you put your slippers back on and reach for the kettle. Don these trousers though and you’ll soon find, actually it’s not that bad to be out splashing down the road, gravel or trails, in fact it’s pretty fun!
Constructed from a 2.5 layer fabric with 3 layers on the rear panel, knees and ankles for more protection, which along with taped seams make the DTE’s fully waterproof. They are pretty breathable too, outings in these have been in both conditions of ‘raining cats and dogs’ and ‘dry skies but swamp like’. For the former the trousers have kept me dry while the rain batters down and for the latter they have defended us from the wet and crud whilst preventing us from overheating, thanks in no small part to the two zippered leg vents. Which do, in case you were wondering have waterproof zips for when they are closed.
You can tweak the popular Endura Hummvee Zip-off Cycling Trousers for a range of types of riding, from commuting to hitting the trails and dirt roads. They're compatible with Endura's Clickfast system so you can add liner shorts for longer rides too.
A DWR coating fends off the wet, and a seamless seat panel keeps you comfy. There are zipped hand pockets, cargo pockets and large rear map pockets, an elasticated waistband with adjustable belt and ankle length zips with Velcro ankle cinches to step them flapping into your chain
We've not reviewed them, but our Liam swears by these overtrousers for wet-weather commuting. As well as being waterproof and breathable, they feature reflective trim and logos for visibility, a cycling-specific cut and ankle zips.
They're also length-adjustable, with poppers at the ankle providing a range of cuff positions so you can get the fit spot on.
Tights are essentially long versions of regular shorts, and are often made from similar Lycra fabrics, though they're usually thicker for warmth. 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.
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 7Mesh TK1 bib tights are very warm, technically loaded and can carry as much kit as a three-pocket jersey. As always, the pad fit may not be to everyone's liking, but if it does suit you these are excellent winter tights for on- or off-road riding.
Canadian firm 7Mesh's "warmest, most protective thermal legwear" has a pretty good pedigree to draw upon. Earlier this year Pat raved about the warmer-weather Mk3 Bib Shorts, praising their 'unique design' and 'incredible levels of comfort'. A key factor here was the 'hammock' design whereby the chamois can move independently from the outer skin of the shorts. Pat found this prevented the need to do the 'cyclist shuffle', whereby the pad needs rearranging, either on or off the bike, to afford comfort.
I can vouch for the comfort of the design, but it may not be for everyone, all the time. Over a few months' riding I did encounter one occasion where the pad seemed to bunch on one side, leading to a small amount of chafing. As this only happened the once, and otherwise I was a happy chap, I'll put this down to perhaps more need to pay attention to – ahem – strategic alignment at the start of a ride, shall we say.
With the Women's Shadow Tights, Rapha has combined its finest technologies to create "unparalleled" weather defence and performance – and added a price tag to match. Leaving no stone unturned from cosiness to safety, it has created a reliable and stylish pair of bib tights to keep you on the road, even when the mercury plummets.
The Shadow tech was developed for the Spring Classics. From Team Sky to Canyon//SRAM, Rapha's material has been ridden to World Tour level. The Shadow fabric is a blend of nylon and elastane finished with a hydrophobic DWR (durable water repellent) treatment made for staying dry whatever winter throws at you. The technology, Rapha claims, is 'an unbeatable force in weather protection'.
'Unbeatable force' is a strong statement, but hours from home with torrential rain setting in, I agreed. Water collects into satisfying little beads which brush away to reveal barely-wet fabric. Out on chilly, wet training rides I was able to stay dry, with no rain sinking through the fabric.
The latest version of Pearl Izumi's Pursuit Hybrid winter bib tights have had some subtle alterations, and with Mike raving about the previous versions, we were pleasantly surprised to find that, if anything, they've got even better. The added PI Dry technology on the back of the legs prevents you getting soaked from spray, they're super-stretchy and flexible so you can use them on hard training sessions too, and the padding is really comfortable – they're firmly among our very favourite bib tights.
As water-resistant foul-weather bib tights, Santini's Vega 2.0s are right on the money. They're reassuringly water resistant without losing a smooth fit against the skin. They're not quite warm enough for super-cold temperatures, but they're not as expensive as you might expect either.
Santini says that you can use the bib tights in temperatures ranging from 5-18°C. Now, I don't know about you, but 18°C is summer shorts weather for me on a bike, but the breathability in colder weather leads me to think that you could conceivably wear them to something approaching that upper temperature if you really did feel the cold.
The downside is that these aren't really bib tights for deep winter – when you're looking at frosts that hang around all day, for example. They're just not windblocking enough for that (although the fleece lining is very comfortable), and that positions them as tights that you'd be likely to use as your first pair through autumn, and your last pair through spring, with a 'hardier' pair for the really grim, freezing stuff in the middle.
The Pearl Izumi Pro Pursuit Bib Tights represent excellent performance at a very good price (and, as usual, even better online – but make sure you're buying the right ones, they come with or without a pad). If you are after foul-weather, full-length bibs for going fast in, look no further.
The Kalf Club Thermal bib tights are supremely comfortable, nice and warm yet lightweight, and really well constructed. The reflectivity on the calves actually looks good, and the fit was near-perfection for tester Jack Sexty. They've been his go-to bib tights for winter, except for near-zero temperatures for which they're not quite warm enough.
Endura's Pro SL Biblongs are excellent: they're windproof, fit superbly, and the pad comes in three widths, offering a little customisation.
At the core of the longs is the four-way stretch windproof, breathable fabric with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish front and seat panels. This panelling of fabrics gives the longs a very comfortable fit. On the bike, they fitted me perfectly with no bunching of material at the back of the knee.
The windproofing is very effective and kept me nice and toasty down below zero. The density of the fabric is brilliant and results in no cold spots where the material is stretched. With others, my knees can get quite stiff in the cold; no such problems here.
The Castelli Nanoflex Pro Bibtights are a warm (but not windproof) and water resistant choice for the cold weather, offering great breathability and freedom of movement.
You might well have heard of Nanoflex before because Castelli uses it extensively across its range. It's the brand's fleecy, stretchy Thermoflex fabric, a warm polyamide/elastane mix that's given a coating of silicone 'nanofilaments'. This makes water roll off the surface rather than soaking in. It doesn't make the fabric waterproof – heavy rain will get through – but you'll stay dry in drizzle, and road spray won't soak in.
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. There's Gore Windstopper X-Lite Plus fabric on the chest panels, while a lighter weight Thermoflex Core Due fabric is used around the back and for the tights.
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Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.