If you want to carry on cycling through the cold winter months, it pays to get properly wrapped up; keeping your legs insulated is essential if you want to ride in any sort of comfort. Whether you're commuting every day, heading out for a training ride after work, or joining the weekly club run, here's a selection of the best gear to keep your legs protected from the cold.
Cycling can be enjoyable through the winter, but the leg muscles don’t work as well when they’re cold, so it’s a sensible idea to keep them wrapped up. Fortunately there is a wide choice of leg wear available designed to cope with different temperatures ranges, as well as riding style from road training to commuting.
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. Commuting and utility riders in particular favour waterproof overtrousers that fend off the rain so you arrive at work with dry trousers. In between are cycling trousers that look like regular trousers, but are shaped and detailed so they're comfortable for riding.
In this guide we're looking at winter legwear that provides insulation and wind-resistance to keep you warm, which mostly means insulated winter tights. Some of these tights also provide a bit of water-resistance in the form of a Durable Water-Repellent (DWR) coating, but they don't claim to be highly water-resistant and we haven't found them to be so.
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.
You can get tights with or without a padded insert that sits against your skin. You wear unpadded tights over your regular shorts, which can be a good option for really cold days, because you get two layers of fabric over the top of the legs and around the lower torso, to provide more warmth. If you’re cycling daily, you can sometimes get a couple of wears out of them before they need a wash. Some riders prefer the simplicity of padded tights, though. With fewer layers there's less to move and rub, too.
There's a vast range of fabrics available. Most tights are made from some sort of stretch fabric, with good old Elastane/Lycra bringing the stretchiness. That includes thicker, more insulating fabrics, like Roubaix and Super Roubaix and there are fleece-backed fabrics and windproof materials too. Double layer fabric over the knees can help add insulation where it’s needed most. I’ve known people to wear three-quarter bib tights under full-length tights on the very coldest winter days, but that is extreme. Most tights will provide enough warmth for a typical British winter.
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 straps on bib tights can vary a lot, but a wide seamless strap will provide the best comfort, and avoid any irritation across the top of the shoulders. Some bib tights can have a full back panel and come up very high on the chest, which almost acts like another base layer, making such designs good for the coldest days.
The fit of tights is important. Manufacturers generally take two approaches to ensure tights are comfortable around the legs and don’t impede pedalling. They can either go with a multi-panel design, with pre-bent legs, or they can simply use a very stretchy fabric that conforms to the leg through the entire range of pedalling. Either way, you want a good fit that is comfortable with no restriction around the knee. As I always recommend, trying cycle clothing on in a shop, if possible, is a really good idea. Sizing and length of tights can vary hugely from one manufacturer to the next.
At the ankles tights will either have a short zip, to make pulling them on and off easier, or just a high degree of stretch. Some tights will have a stirrup, a band of material that loops under the foot, to not only stop the tights riding up, but also form a very good seal around the ankle.
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.
Santini has come up with the goods with its Giove Bib Tights. They're superbly comfortable for all-day wear with excellent cold weather properties; if you're keen to ride whatever the weather then the price might not seem too eyewatering, though they're certainly not cheap. We also found the pad oddly small, but it didn't affect long-ride comfort.
The Giove tights quickly became a favourite, mainly down to one thing – those windproof panels at the front. The fleece-backed fabric used throughout the rest of the tights is warm but breathable and super-soft, but when the cold wind blows – and we have no shortage of that in the UK – they perform superbly. The windproofing starts from the top of the stomach and runs all the way down the legs to below the knee, just where it's needed. It does a fine job of keeping the chill off your thighs and nether regions, which suffer with normal tights.
The Rapha Pro Team Bib Tights II with Pad take the excellent DNA of the Pro Team II Bib Shorts and add warmth, water resistance and a performance-orientated fit to create an exceptional winter garment, though it comes at some cost.
With Rapha's second generation Pro Team bib shorts, Dave was impressed with the performance and quality, and these full-length versions repeat a winning formula for the performance cyclist, while keeping you comfortable and warm.
The features under the skin are a bit of a repetition: a size-specific Cytech chamois provides all-day comfort in the saddle, while the new seam structure is carried over too. That means if you're used to the feel of any of Rapha's Pro Team II bib garments, then you immediately feel the familiarity.
The Gore C3 Women Thermo Bib Tights+ really do perform well in cold, dry conditions and are exceptionally comfortable. The two-zip system at the rear is also great for speedy, hassle-free pee-stops.
With their double layer protection at the knee, exceptional comfort and brilliant bio-break zip system, the Gore C3 Thermos are an ideal piece of kit for anyone who is committed to getting outdoors throughout the winter and maximise their riding time in dry, cold conditions.
Castelli's Sorpasso 2 Men's bib tights are said to be the Italian brand's best-sellers, and after my time with them it's not hard to see why. Aside from the price tag and one nuance in the fit, they're almost the perfect cold weather winter bib tights.
Castelli's Sorpasso 2 bib tights are outstanding performers, and worthy of place in any keen winter cyclist's wardrobe.
It starts with a performance-orientated cut that's been engineered to support your muscles, and the distinctive 'under-the-hood' red fabric that reveals itself through the black nylon outer at stretch points. If you didn't know, that quite-common sight at the local cycling club meet point is as a result of the red thermal layer (or, Thermoflex, if you ask Castelli) which provides insulation against cold winter air while allowing excess moisture to escape thanks to its hollow fibre construction.
Warm and comfortable tights are a winter essential and these Rapha Explore Cargo Winter Tights are great in both areas. They also include four pockets and boost night-time visibility, but you pay handsomely for them.
Many laughed when Rapha launched the Cargo Bib Shorts, but mountain bikers have been wearing similar shorts (hidden under baggy shorts) for years, and the cargo pockets proved invaluable for longer rides and riding over rough terrain when jersey/jacket pockets can easily eject their contents.
With pockets loaded, there's no discomfort or annoyance when pedalling. Their size, particularly the leg-mounted ones, limits the bulk and weight of items you can store anyway. The pockets can be used in addition to regular jersey and jacket pockets, or as an alternative – useful if you're wearing a backpack, say, commuting or bikepacking.
The tights are made from a fleece-backed fabric that feels luxuriously soft against the skin, and insulates well against very cold temperatures, coping with the recent cold snap down to a degree or two above zero. A water-repellent treatment keeps out rain for longer than regular tights and copes fine with short showers, but like most DWR treated garments, a sustained downpour will breach their limits.
The Attacus Thermal Bib Tights are a very warm and practical set of bib tights that perform well in the coldest conditions. Their price puts them up against some established high-quality competition, but they hold their own – although it would be good to have stronger stitching on the reflective strips on the leg.
They were tested in the beast of the east parts 1 and 2, so warmth was always going to be a key factor and we were not disappointed with how they performed. Attacus has used a windproof, showerproof thermal stretch fabric which managed to keep the elements at bay even when we were riding around on frozen roads. We may not have been able to feel our feet, but our legs were well insulated.
UK brand Shutt VR has delivered a very well designed and thought pair of bib tights with this Team model. Everything from the fabric selection, panel positioning and the custom designed chamois pad is spot on and they are a joy to wear, whether out for a quick blast or one of those off-season base mile epics.
The Rapha Women's Core Winter Tights are excellent for cold days on the bike. Designed simply to 'keep you warm while you train or commute on cold winter roads', they don't do anything especially fancy, but they do their job extremely well. The men's ones are very good too.
If you want a pair of tights that'll protect you from pretty much everything the winter can throw at you, then the Lusso Termico Repel Bibtights are a very good option. Thermal, water repellent, with a comfortable pad and blocks of subtle reflectives, they're ideal for dark, dank rides throughout the off season, and you can take 15% off that price in January with code JAN15 at the checkout.
Winter cycling is made much easier with high-quality clothing that provides excellent insulation and comfort, and the LL.habuTights_s7 from Swiss masters of cycle clothing Assos are a case in point. With a thermal fabric and double layer over the knees they'll keep your legs toasty warm meaning you're fresh out of excuses to cancel a ride because it's too cold.
The Lusso Full Monty Warm Up Tights are a great investment if you're competing in the winter. The thermal stretchy fabric does an excellent job of keeping the legs warm before the start. They're also easy to whip off in seconds and put on again after the racing is done, and you can take 15% off that price in January with code JAN15 at the checkout.
Wiggle's house brand, dhb offers these top-of-the line winter tights in brushed Roubaix fabric with reflective patches for night-time visibility. There are ankle zips to make it easier to get in and out of them, and a Cytech Elastic Interface seat pad.
We've been impressed by all the dhb tights we've tested. If you want something a bit less snug than the ASVs, look at the £80 Aeron Roubaix tights which are also available in a women's version, and if you want something even warmer take a look at the Aeron Deep Winter tights. We reviewed those here. For just £55, the dhb Classic Roubaix Bib Tights are superb value.
From mild to downright foul weather the Antiventos are outstanding. Well fitting and with a comfortable pad they are able to stand up to most conditions. The material is fleece lined for a comfortable feeling against the skin, while the fabric features a windproof membrane to help keep the heat in. With rides in these down to as low as -6 °C we've been really impressed with how well they have kept the chill at bay.
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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.