By Molly Hurford
True story: When I first started riding bikes seriously, I spent the first two years training in gym shorts (with leggings under them in the winter) or in a bathing suit. I was training for a triathlon, and despite logging 300+ kilometers most weeks, I rode alone, and I had no idea why riding was so darn uncomfortable… or why I always had a wedgie. Finally, years into my cycling career, I joined a team and was given my first team kit. I was utterly baffled by the cycling shorts they gave me, but when I wore them on a ride, it was like my eyes were opened (and my butt was comfortable on the bike for the first time).
Whether you’re a longtime rider or a total newbie when it comes to cycling, you may have questions about what to wear on the bike. Here, we’re answering all the common questions that riders ask. And if you know a new rider in your life, send this article to them! Sometimes, it’s hard to even know what question to ask.
What exactly is a cycling kit?
When people talk about a kit, or cycling kit, they’re usually referring to a jersey and cycling shorts with a chamois. But ‘kit’ can also be used to refer to pretty much any piece of cycling-specific clothing. If your club or team says they’re doing a kit order, that usually means you’re going to have the chance to order at least a jersey and shorts, and often extras like armwarmers or a jacket.
Seriously, what is a chamois?
A chamois—pronounced sham-eee—is the pad that’s found in cycling-specific shorts, though often cyclists will refer to cycling shorts in general as a chamois. (Weird, we know.) This pad that’s found in your shorts is designed to fight friction and provide a bit of padding between you and the hard saddle on your bike, and it makes riding (indoors and outdoors) a heck of a lot more comfortable.
Umm… Do I need to wear underwear with a chamois?
Here’s the deal: No underwear with cycling shorts. This isn’t because of a panty-line issue, though there is that. The real reason is because the chamois is designed to be antimicrobial and sweat-wicking as well as friction-fighting, and adding underwear defeats that purpose entirely. Plus, you’ll likely end up with a wicked wedgie.
How tight should my jersey be?
This is entirely up to you. From an aerodynamic perspective, a tight-fitting jersey is ideal. But if that makes you uncomfortable, it’s fine to have a bit of breathing room. Generally speaking, though, you want to find a jersey that fits snugly enough that there’s no extra fabric billowing around you as you pedal. (And if possible, always opt for a full-zip rather than a half-zip jersey: Half-zips are a huge pain to deal with if you need to stop to pee and are wearing bib shorts, or if you’re holding a lot of gear in your back pockets and need to take off your jersey.)
What do you need to ride in the rain?
A good raincoat is a solid investment for a cyclist. A cycling-specific raincoat will be more tightly fitted so it’s more aerodynamic, and will often have extra zips in the sides so you can “vent” it on warmer days. For your bottom half, unless it’s cold out and you’re planning a seriously long adventure, opt for as little as possible in terms of coverage if you know you’re going to get soaked anyway. Waterproof pants will make you overheat unless the temperature is extremely cold. If it’s a mild drizzle on a chilly day, try leg or knee warmers that you can take off if they’re too soaked. But your best defense is actually a good fender set for your bike, since keeping the spray down will keep your butt relatively dry. (And of course, always have lights on when riding on rainy days!)
Why do people love bib shorts?
A few reasons. Bib shorts—bike shorts that have suspender-like tops to them instead of a normal elastic waistband—are popular with serious riders largely because they’re more comfortable. The less compressive nature and lack of a waistband means that when you’re bent over the bike, you don’t have a tight piece of elastic digging into your gut. And if you’re really new to cycling and have looked at them and felt confused, just FYI, they’re meant to be worn under your jersey, but over any baselayer so that they’re easy to take on and off if needed. And if your next question is, “how do I pee in bib shorts?” I have the answer right here.
Do I need cycling-specific jackets or other gear?
Absolutely not. In fact, for most new cyclists, it’s best to just wear what you already have in stock as you get started, and slowly build your cycling wardrobe as you go along. Other athletically-oriented clothing can be used for cycling, though it may not be quite as aerodynamic as cycling-specific gear. But cross-country ski clothing is great for cold weather riders, and most running tops can be worn as baselayers or jackets. Don’t stress on socks either. Really, as long as you have cycling shorts with a chamois, and you have a top that feels comfortable and has a place to store your essentials, you’re in decent shape!
What do I wear mountain biking?
Some mountain bikers will opt for ‘baggies,’ which are just baggy knee-length shorts, with a chamois underneath them. This is both for style and practicality, since the extra fabric provides a bit more buffer if you crash into a thorn bush. Often, riders will wear a normal jersey for a top layer, though some will opt to wear plain athletic shirts with no pockets, and use a hydration pack to carry all of their essential tools. You can wear regular cycling shorts and a jersey to mountain bike though: Don’t feel like you need a whole new wardrobe to get out on the trails.
What’s the deal with cyclocross racers?
You may have noticed that cyclocross racers tend to race in one-piece outfits that look like onesie pajamas that got shrunk in the wash. These are called skinsuits and essentially combine a jersey and cycling shorts into one piece. This is because cyclocross involves a lot of on-and-off bike movement, and when picking your bike up to run with it over obstacles, you don’t want it to get caught on any pockets or seams. (Also, to be honest, there’s a bit of tradition to it. But feel free to break tradition and just wear your regular jersey and shorts if you prefer that!)
About the writer:
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.