When it's too cold for shorts but not quite cold enough for tights, 3/4-length tights come into their own. We take a look at some of the best 3/4-length tights you can buy and examine why they're not more popular.
There are many ways to dress for cycling when it's cold, but keeping your knees warm and protected from the elements is a sensible idea as we transition from summer to winter.
You have a few options here, but one that we think deserves more credit is 3/4-length tights aka 3/4-length shorts aka knickers, the last name a reference to the knickerbockers that were worn by cyclists during the early part of the 20th Century, often paired with long socks. Why the decline and what are the pros and cons?
During autumn and spring, it’s often too cold for shorts but too warm for full-length tights. This is where 3/4-length tights come in handy. They cover this transition period well, providing protection for the knees without the weight and restriction of tights. In fact given the nature of the British weather which has a tendency to default to cool and wet whatever the season you can potentially get a lot of wear out of a pair of 3/4s over the course of a year. Whatever the season, if you're riding in cool conditions your knees will thank you.
Only they don’t seem to be as popular as they once were, and it didn't really occur to us until very recently. We had a discussion in the office and it seems opinion is split when it comes to clothing preference. We decided to do a very unscientific Twitter poll and the result is clear: most of you don’t go for 3/4s at this time of year.
Do you wear 3/4 length bib shorts at this time of year?
— road.cc (@roadcc) October 7, 2019
Looking through the road.cc reviews archive, it's clear we simply haven't reviewed many 3/4-length tights in recent years. A look around some popular clothing brand websites also reveals that this type of product isn't all that common. Does all this point to 3/4-length bib tights facing extinction?
For certain weather, 3/4-length tights can provide a good halfway house between shorts and tights. This time of year is often ideal, as we transition from summer to winter.
When it’s cool but not cold enough for tights, and you want to keep the knees covered up whether training, racing or commuting , 3/4-length tights are a useful bit of clothing. They keep your knees wrapped up and protected from the cold, wind and rain, but they provide more freedom of movement than full-length tights.
They are almost ideal for three-season riding when the weather is unpredictable and constantly changing. Their window of use can extend into early and late summer as well, even cooler/wetter summer days can see the 3/4s being ideal. Equally, for mild winter days when tights are overkill, the 3/4s deliver.
They’re often more comfortable than knee warmers, the alternative method for keeping knees wrapped up. The downside to knee warmers is often the introduction of two tight bands of elastic material which, unless the size is spot on, can feel uncomfortable above and below the knees.
Knee warmers can also move about when pedalling, which can be irritating.
Compared to full-length tights, 3/4 tights feel a lot lighter and less restrictive and will keep your knees insulated and protected from the elements. Your shins might be exposed, but that’s just cooling!
Is there ever a good time for 3/4 length tights? That is perhaps the biggest challenge for 3/4s and part of the reason they appear to have fallen out of favour in recent years. The UK weather is so changeable that it can be shorts weather one day, tights weather the next.
So while it could be argued that 3/4s are super-versatile, it could also be argued that they lack lack versatility. You make your choice before the ride and have to stick with it. Although the counter argument to that is how often in the UK does a change in the weather mean it's getting warmer? Hmm…
It has to be said, knee warmers can be added or removed as you need during the ride. They’re small enough to be stashed in a jersey pocket when not needed, ready to be called back into action. When it’s cold, you can even switch to leg warmers for more insulation. However, if at the end of your ride you've frequently still got your knee warmers on then maybe you'd have been better in a pair of 3/4s.
The perception that knee warmers are more versatile than 3/4s is perhaps the biggest reason 3/4s have fallen out of fashion. You can pair knee warmers them with different types of bib shorts, lightweight summer shorts when it’s mild or thermal bibs when it’s colder.
That’s certainly the answer we got when we asked Sportful’s Paul Whitfield.
“Knee warmers and a thermal bib-short (Fiandre No Rain Bib-short) are the more versatile option, whilst providing the same coverage / protection as the 3/4. You can pair the knee warmer with a lighter, summer weight bib-short, wear the thermal bib-short on it’s own etc etc. These two pieces of kit ultimately offer more options, versatility and a value for money solution when selecting your cycling wardrobe,” he explains.
Even so, Sportful do have the 3/4 Neo Bib Knickers in their range and looking at its availability it's a pretty popular option.
Perhaps the biggest case against 3/4s is simply that knee warmers, combined with your favourite bib shorts, is a cheaper option. If you've already got a couple of pairs of bib shorts, you can add knee warmers for very little cost and instantly turn any bib shorts into 3/4-length bib tights.
You can also get a couple of days wear out of knee warmers before they need washing, making them well suited to commuting or everyday cyclists.
One final reason that 3/4s might not be in fashion at the moment is oddly that they’re not used by the pros. Professional cyclists lean towards knee and leg warmers for racing and occasionally racing. You never seem them wearing 3/4 length tights. With so many cyclists infatuated with the pro look, this is hard to ignore. Maybe it's time to be honest with yourself – you're not a pro, and you're never going to be (probably) so why be a slave to their clothing choices? Give those 3/4s a try your knees will think you in the long run.
Ashmei's Winter Merino 3/4 Bibs are as close to perfect as you'll get for cold-weather riding. A perfect balance of warmth, windproofness, water-shedding and breathability, coming together in a package that will leave your lower body happy for many, many cold, windy, rainy miles.
We've known for many years that Merino wool is pretty much perfect for baselayers, socks, gloves, beanies and jerseys. The thermal regulation and smell-reduction properties of Merino are legend. But Merino is far less commonly seen in bib shorts. A few brands make them, but they aren't common and tend to be only a small percentage of actual wool. Ashmei took three years developing its merino fabrics, and the time was well spent. The end result is akin to witchcraft. Or wizardry, take your pick.
Assos Mille GT Spring/Fall Knickers are a really good example of the genre, with a superb fit, warmth and comfort that makes cycling through inclement weather a breeze. They're based on the bib shorts of the same name, but the fabric extends to below the knee to provide the right protection when it's too warm for tights but too cold for shorts.
Comfort, fit and warmth are all first class. In fact, I found the comfort exceptional. Pulling them on really is a luxurious experience, the soft lining feels lovely next to the skin. The fit is perfect, snug everywhere it needs to be but not taut where it doesn't want to be. It's a slightly compressive fit, but more relaxed than Assos racing attire.
Warmth is ideal for cool Autumn temperatures, though they can deal with sunnier weather too. They're made from two weights of insulated fabrics. RX Heavy does the heavy lifting when it comes to insulation and is used on the front panels, with added water-repellency to protect in showers, while the back is made from RX Light, which helps warm air escape and adds extra stretch for fit and comfort.
The Primal Dawn Men's Bib Knickers are a real masterclass in how to create a simple, quality product at a very good price. Multiple panels for a great fit, high quality fabric and a highly comfortable pad make for a pair of 3/4-length tights that can be worn for hours.
The Dawns use a material called Traverso, a brushed-back fabric that is composed of 90% polyester and 10% spandex. It's warm, very warm... even in 3-4°C early morning temperatures. Primal gives a range of use from -7°C to 24°C which is plausible at the bottom end, though I reckon you'll be pretty uncomfortable with anything above about 17-18°C. That's shorts weather.
Assos has created a superior performing garment with the HK.laalalaiKnickers_s7 Lady; they're perfect for those days when shorts are not enough but full tights are too much.
So often it is just a little bit too cool to be wearing just shorts; I value my knees and don't like them to be exposed to cool air too much. That said, a pair of tights, or even leg warmers, can result in overheating. Assos' HK.laalalai Knickers address this common scenario, eliminating the need to carry knee warmers and then debate whether or not it's warm/cold enough to need them
A long-standing fixture in the clothing range from Wiggle brand dhb, these 3/4s are almost universally loved by their users who says things like "Bought these for autumn riding to save faffing with knee warmers. The fleece lining keeps you warm and the fit is perfect. Amazing quality, you would expect to pay double the price from other brands. Would certainly recommend you give them a try no brainer at this price."
They're made from Roubaix fleece-backed fabric, with a Cytech pad and reflective highlights for riding in dark conditions.
Castelli's NanoFlex fabric is amazing stuff. As well as a DWR coating (Durable Water Repellent) it has water-repelling microfilaments woven into the fabric itself. The combination means water beads off for quite a while, long enough that getting caught in a winter shower isn't an instant trip to Misery City. It's fleecy too, so even when the wet eventually gets through it still helps keep you warm. And unlike fabrics that just rely on their coatings for water-resistance, NanoFlex keeps fending off the wet after multiple trips through the washing machine.
There's a Castelli Kiss Air2 pad to look after your bum and reflective patches on the cuffs where they'll move and hopefully grab drivers' attention.
If you want to roll out wearing the perennially controversial Rapha logo, they've got you covered even for days that are too cold for shorts but not quite cold enough for tights. After all, are you a true Raphalite if you don't have a Rapha garment for every couple of degree temperature increment?
Snarking aside, these do appear to be very good 3/4s, with some dedicated fans on their fourth pair.
What's your clothing preference at this time of year? We'd love to hear your opinions so get sharing in the comments section below.
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David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.