By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
As I prepared to suit up for the 166-kilometer Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportive on a cold and wet Belgian morning, I remembered British hiking guidebook author Alfred Wainright’s quote: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing.” Thankfully, I had come prepared, but over the course of the 6-hour ride I saw many miserable riders who had not. This coming week I’ll be riding the CTS Amgen Tour of California Race Experience, again with the potential for drastically changing weather conditions. To help you pack for your next cycling adventure, here’s what is in my travel bag, and why.
Disclosure: CTS has an apparel partnership with Giordana, so while I will make recommendations about the types of apparel you should pack, the specific products I wear and will reference here are from Giordana.
It’s no secret that layering is critically important for managing moisture, core temperature, and comfort during cycling in any weather. From inside to out, the layers you wear have one or more of the following functions:
- Wicking: carries moisture away from the skin.
- Insulation: traps body heat
- Barrier: keeps wind and water out
Mistakes Cyclists Make with Clothing
- Wearing layers that are too tight: For insulating layers to work optimally, they need trap heat, and for that they need some space. If your layers are all skin-tight and you’re compressing the insulation layer against the wicking layer and outer protective layer, it won’t do its job as well.
- Overdressing: It’s best to feel a little underdressed when you leave for your ride, even if you’re carrying additional layers in case you need them. Wearing too many layers can lead you to overheat and sweat profusely – inside all those layers. When it’s cold you want to manage moisture so your breathable layers can allow water vapor to escape fast enough to avoid soaking your insulating layer.
- Wearing outer layers that trap moisture: Clear plastic rain jackets were the classic example of this. While they were effective for keeping the rain out, they also trapped all your sweat inside, so you ended up wet and cold anyway. Modern barrier layers have vents or use fabrics that allow water vapor to escape outward through spaces too small for water droplets to enter from the outside.
- Thinking “waterproof” means you won’t get wet: I know, that’s literally what “waterproof” means, but the reality is, if you ride for hours in a steady rain, water is going to get into your shoes despite waterproof booties. It will sneak in through our collar, or up your back, and in into the cuffs of your gloves. You will get wet. Because of this, it’s important to remember that insulating layers are still important even if you have waterproof outer layers.
When I pack for cycling trips I make sure I have clothing that works for heat, cold, wet, and windy conditions. To keep the total number of garments reasonable, I also look for apparel that can do more than one job.
Let’s start from the easiest scenario. When it’s hot out you obviously need the fewest layers. Some athletes like to wear base layers in hot weather and others leave it to their short-sleeve jersey to take care of wicking moisture. Personally, when it’s very warm I prefer just a jersey, especially because modern jerseys are getting better and better at facilitating evaporative cooling.
In truth, most days are variable temperature days. Often you start out in the cool of early morning and finish in the heat of the day, or you start in the warm afternoon and cool off as the sun sinks in the sky. Sometimes the variation is just based on altitude: it’s hot in the valley and on the climbs, but cool at the summit and on descents.
For cool mornings leading to warm afternoons, I wear arm warmers and maybe knee warmers if it’s in the low 50s or colder, or if I think it’s going to take a long time for the temperatures to rise. If it’s going to warm up quickly, I skip the knee warmers
To keep things simple when I travel I look for a light- or medium-weight rain jacket for days when the weather is unpredictable or will go from hot to cold based on elevation or short rain showers. For me, the Monsoon Lyte Rain Jacket is the “one jacket to rule them all”. It’s good to put on for cool descents where you might otherwise use a vest or wind jacket because it breathes well for a rain jacket. And for short rain showers it does a great job of keeping you dry without overheating.
The key on variable temperature days is to proactively manage your layers. Open up or take off outer barrier layers or insulating layers when you’re working hard uphill, or once you get down the mountain into the warmer valley. Similarly, when it gets cold or starts raining, adjust your layers quickly so you retain body heat.
Cold Weather Cycling Gear
Cold weather is the most clothing-intensive scenario for cycling, but the key is to stay warm without wearing an entire closet of clothes. A long-sleeve jersey paired with a base layer is a good combination because you can open up the long sleeve jersey to modulate temperature. I like to pair an FR-C Pro base layer with a Sosta Merino long sleeve jersey.
When it’s even colder, I add an AV Versa Jacket. The important thing to remember is that you want this outer layer to be a bit roomier than your summer jerseys so the merino wool long sleeve can do a better job as an insulator. When you try on winter jackets, you might end up going up a size from what you normally wear.
A cold weather jacket is an investment. They can seem expensive, but remember you’re likely to get several years out of it. Though I love the AV Versa Jacket and the even warmer Sosta Jacket, I’ve only had them for about a year because my previous jackets had lasted through 10 winters.
Cold Weather Accessories
The trouble with getting cold on a ride is that it’s hard to warm up while you’re still riding in the cold weather. For that long and cold day in Belgium, in addition to bib shorts and the aforementioned tops, I wore:
The “Flanders Bag”
People have different names for this, from the banal “rain bag” to the more colorful “’Oh Shit’ Bag”, but it’s the bag of gear you will only need if the conditions turn awful, like a snowstorm during the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience. Because the items in this bag are so rarely used, I prefer to literally keep them in their own small bag and throw it in my luggage whenever I go anywhere. It’s an insurance policy that provides peace of mind. You probably won’t need it, but you’ll be very happy to have it if you do.
The items in my Flanders Bag are really warm and waterproof gloves, thermal shoe covers, an insulating base layer, a warmer skullcap, and my warm winter jacket. My Flanders bag has saved the day during the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportives, the Leadville 100, and the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience.
Clothing choices are highly individual, and different riders may need different gear to feel comfortable and perform well in the exact same conditions. It’s worth taking the time – and investing the money – to find what works for you. When you have gear you trust, your entire outlook on the weather changes. I’m confident I have the gear for just about any conditions I’ll face, so I don’t stress about the weather.