Winter is coming.
Whether you’re warding off white walkers or fattening your goose (er, not a euphemism), you’ll want a decent winter jacket in order to keep cycling through the colder months.
But winter road cycling jackets can be expensive. And (for a piece of clothing) a bit confusing.
Before you drop your cash, let Sportive Cyclist tell you what’s important and what’s not. What features you need, and what you can do without.
Then you can concentrate on staying warm on the bike and maintaining your fitness and cyclo-enjoyment over the winter months.
What Is A Winter Cycling Jacket (And What Should You Look For)?
Come on now people. We’ve been through this. It’s a jacket. That you wear. When cycling. In winter.
Actually, it’s not that simple (unlike me, who is that simple). A winter jacket can (and should) cover a multitude of
sins weather conditions:
- Cold temperatures
- Rain and general wetness
- Piercing wind (that isn’t generated by you…)
You can buy a cycling jacket that addresses:
- all of these – this will cost you muchos moolah (and the perfect jacket that ‘does it all’ does not exist);
- some of these – probably your best bet; or
- none of these – my upcoming ‘Sportive Cyclist’-branded winter jacket will be made with paper towels and empty promises, sewn together using unicorn saliva.
Essentially, a winter jacket will be some sort of outer garment, primarily aimed at cyclists, that aims to tackle the aforementioned winter weather and has some or all of the following characteristics:
- wind proof
- water resistant
- nourishes the soul
Enough with the bullet points, let’s get bogged down in detail.
Sportive Cyclist Winter Cycling Jacket Recommendations – Winter 2019
If you are in the market (e-market) for a winter jacket (w-jacket), here are my buying recommendations, updated for winter 2019.
Please to enjoy (and stay warm, protected from the wind, wet but comfortable, etc etc… ahem).
Best Winter Cycling Jacket: Castelli Alpha RoS
[Le Mont utters a low guttural noise of desire]
[Le Mont’s wife tells him if he does that again he can get himself a new wife]
Notwithstanding everything I say below about how you can’t have perfect warmth, waterproof(ness?) and breathability in a single jacket, the Castelli Alpha RoS claims to tick all three boxes. And I wouldn’t put it past Castelli to make good on their claims.
The Alpha is constructed such that the outer layer (providing wind and water protection) is separated from the inner insulating layer. This allows for better control over ventilation as well as helping to keep moist air away from your body. In other words, you can unzip the outer to let out the moist air without getting chilly (I’m sure there’s more science-y things going on as well).
And did I mention its ‘so aero’…?
Judging by the reviews on Wiggle (4.8 out of 5; 81 reviews), winter road cyclists consider the Alpha ROS well worth the not-inexpensive price tag.
Regular readers will know that I own a Castelli Perfetto ‘foul weather jersey’ (who knew that was a thing?) that I absolutely love. It didn’t make the list of recommendations in this post because, strictly, it’s a jersey rather than a jacket (although it’s a fine line – pro cyclists wear the Perfetto as a jacket).
If you’re thinking of going down the winter-jersey-rather-than-jacket road, you can read my review of the Castelli Perfetto here.
Oh, Castelli ‘inclement weather gear’, how do I desire thee…
Best Value Weatherproof Jacket: dhb Aeron Rain Defence Polartec Jacket
When riding in wintry conditions, a high performance jacket can make all the difference, turning misery into enjoyment. If it means you keep riding through the darker months, and retain a semblance of fitness for the spring, a jacket is one road cycling garment where it’s worth investing a little more money.
That said, if the Castelli Alpha is out of your price range, there are a number of options in the £100 – £150 price range ($125-200 for US folk).
I’m a big fan of dhb kit, owning bib shorts, a variety of different types of jerseys, socks. It’s come a long way since it was ‘just’ Wiggle’s own brand a decade or so ago. The clothes are well thought out, good quality and (most importantly) look good. They even sponsor a (very successful in the UK) pro team.
My choice for a ‘value’ alternative to the Castelli Alpha RoS is the dhb Aeron Rain Defence Polartec jacket. The name doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It’s made of Polartec fabric. It provides some defence against the rain.
The Polartec material (which they call ‘Power Shield Pro’) is a softshell fabric and therefore breathable. So it’s not fully waterproof (but then neither is the Alpha RoS), but it will keep you somewhat dry and, most importantly, keep your body at a comfortable temperature whilst riding in inclement conditions.
Best Waterproof Jacket: Gore Wear C7 Gore-Tex Shakedry Stretch Jacket
Described (by Gore of course) as the ‘ultimate’ jacket for riding in the rain, it seems that the C7 jacket comes closest to achieving the holy (winter jacket) grail of being lightweight, waterproof and breathable (see below for my commentary on why this is so hard).
The Shakedry bit refers to the fact that rainwater beads on the surface of the jacket, such that it can be shaken off (and therefore not soak into the fabric). Many reviews note that you don’t get sweaty whilst wearing it (which points to the breathability claims being accurate) and that it packs down to fit easily into a jersey pocket.
Not a cheap jacket, but judging by the verdict of the purchasing crowd (4.7/5 from 50 Wiggle reviewers), I’d say it’s worth the money. I want one…
Best Budget Waterproof Jacket: dhb Aeron Storm FLT Waterproof Jacket
I should say this upfront: it’s unfair to call this ‘budget’ when it costs around £110 / $140. It’s just that there are other premium and mid-range jackets that cost a lot more. Maybe ‘excellent value’ is more appropriate.
And it isn’t budget in terms of quality. All the other bits of dhb kit I own (including a similar-ish windblocking jersey from a few years ago) have been excellent and done ‘exactly what they said on the tin’.
The jacket has a high waterproof rating, taped seams and dropped tail, so is very much designed for regular riding in grim weather (for which, in the UK, we are extraordinarily blessed).
The jacket is rated 4.6 out of 5 currently, based on 57 reviews on the Wiggle website, so this ‘value’ option appears to live up to its promises. Notwithstanding my comments below about the challenges of making a jacket waterproof and breathable, review comments suggest that it does a good job of balancing the two.
The fit looks good as well. I am sorely tempted to buy one of these myself.
Best Waterproof Jacket For Visibility: dhb Flashlight Force
Now that is a jacket that whispers, nay, screams, “Look At ME!”.
Which is probably a good thing in the murky light conditions that tend to accompany wet wintry weather.
The Flashlight is available in colours other than mental neon (there’s red and blue/black) – the ‘flashlight’ bit refers to the vast amount of silver reflective material on the arms, chest, shoulders and ass.
But in for a penny, in for a pound I say. Neon and be(on) seen.
Unlike many cycling jackets and jerseys (winter or otherwise), the Flashlight has pockets are the front (hand pockets – i.e. normal pockets – and a chest pocket), as well as a big pocket at the back. Which is a good number of pockets, both on the jacket and in this paragraph.
Less ‘race fitty’ than other jackets, it’s one that you can use both for inclement training rides and commuting. So you should get your money’s worth (as well as having no exercise for not getting out on the bike).
Hard Shell Versus Soft Shell
I’m sure the concept of a ‘shell’ is a relatively recent one (though don’t tell the tortoises). The point is that (as we all know) any given sporting outfit should comprise a number of layers (base, mid, outer…). The shell is clearly the one that exists on the outside of such fashion fandango.
If it’s a hard shell, then its a varient on the plasticky, crinkly material that is used to make cagoules (‘windbreaker’ in the US). If its a soft shell then it will be made of, er, softer and slightly thicker material.
Hard shells tend to prioritise being waterproof (or at least highly water resistant) and windproof as key features. Soft shells are more about insulation (keeping you warm) and, er, ‘windproofness’, over absolute ‘waterproofism’.
Hard shells will always been worn as an outer garment (unless you like waterproof underpants). A soft shell can certainly be worn as an ‘outer’, but in some cases as a ‘midder’, depending on the material and prevailing weather conditions.
You Can Have Anything You Want (Just Not EVERYTHING You Want)
The sub-heading of this section is an expression I heard on a personal finance podcast (my other slightly geeky interest). And since we all have confirmation bias, I have accepted it as the most profoundly relevant truth.
Bringing it back to winterwear, whilst we might want a winter cycling jacket to keep us dry and warm, as well as still being fitted, flexible and comfortable, the reality is that such a jacket does not exist. And the ones that get closest to achieving it are expensive.
I’m by no means a fabric technologist, but I can appreciate that it’s pretty easy to make a garment that is waterproof (i.e. a glorified plastic bag) but a lot harder to make a jacket that is both waterproof and breathable.
Sweat The Small Things
The issue is sweat. Whilst we don’t want water from outside the body to ingress, we do want our own moisture to escape the clothing tent (er, yes, tent). Sweat is the enemy of the exerting athlete that wants to feel comfortable (and the exerting athlete that wants to remain not disgusting).
If the sweaty moist air gets stuck in the, er, clothing tent, it will tend to condense (i.e. turn back into water) on the cool inner surface of the jacket, making you (the rider) wet.
It’s also about temperature regulation. Jackets that aren’t breathable tend to retain all of the air around our body, which quickly gets hotter and reaches a high moisture content. Which makes the act of sweating less effective, and you become prone to overheating.
I was a bit harsh on sweat (or perspiration) in the paragraph above – in fact we want it to happen (it helps keep our body temperature at the right level). We just want it to happen and then for the hot moist air to get (the hell) out of there (so we can all get on with our lives).
A breathable jacket needs to be made out of a material that essentially has lickle holes in it. Holes that are small enough to avoid letting water in when it’s in liquid form (rain), but big enough to let water out when its in gas form (farts*).
(*Okay, not farts. Well, not just farts.)
Relax. And Breathe…
I’ve literally just spent the last 30 minutes researching types of breathable waterproof materials and how they’re made (or at least what their marketing bumf claims). I won’t bore-tex you with all that I’ve learnt.
Instead, two ‘facts’:
- The original breathable waterproof material (which you might have heard of) was GORE-TEX, introduced in the late 1970s (as was I);
- It (like all of them) has holes in it that are big enough to let water vapour molecules escape but not so big as to let rain water in.
There, what did I tell you.
Finally, and this is the most relevant point for people that wear waterproof clothing whilst undertaking a fairly vigorous activity, it is really hard (if not impossible) to make a waterproof fabric that is sufficiently breathable to get enough moisture out quickly enough to maintain a comfortable microclimate close to your skin.
That’s why many waterproof have vents (i.e. big holes).
Waterproof Versus Water Resistant (And WTF Is Water Repellancy)
I’d like to think we’re clear on water proof materials.
And it turns out that water resistancy and water repellancy are the same thing (WTF indeed…).
When we (they?) talk about jackets being water resistant, generally this means a jacket that doesn’t contain a waterproof membrane. On its own, the fabric would get wet and allow water through to your skin (or your base layer).
Water resistant jackets are treated with a Durable Water Repellent coating (which for some reason is capitalised). The DWR coating causes rain water to ‘bead up’ when it hits the jacket surface and then run off.
Water resistant jackets are not as effective at keeping water out as water proof jackets. They are less likely to stand up well to extreme weather conditions (Himalayan climbers tend to opt for waterproof…). They also require a certain amount of maintenance, in the form of a re-application of the DWR coating from time to time.
However, water resistant jackets do tend to be more breathable (due to the lack of the waterproof membrane within the fabric). Which, as we’ve discussed, is a major plus for the exerting cyclist.
They also tend to be windproof.
Wait. What? Windproof?
It’s funny. We’re quite a long way into this article, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about waterproofing versus water resistance. But I’d argue that wind protection is about the single most important factor to consider when choosing a winter jacket. Maybe I should have put it first (I did, in my summary list at the top).
Heat is lost from a body (your body, your house) in two ways: by conduction and by convection.
Conduction is where a cold thing touches a warm thing and the cold thing cools down the warm thing. You wear a nice warm jumper (or some sort of cyclo-technical thermal fleecy jersey) in order to protect against heat loss through conduction (heat doesn’t conduct efficiently through the material, so you stay warm).
The wooly (or technico-fleecy) jumper also works by trapping a cushion of warm air close to your body. If this air can easily be blown through the material of your nice warm jumper (by the wind, say) then the warm air close to your body is replaced with cold air, and the temperature of your skin falls. That is heat loss by convection.
This is why your cyclo-technical thermal fleecy jersey might benefit from a windproof jacket on top of it (or maybe there is a cyclo-technical thermal, windproof winter jacket available….?).
(Answer: yes, there are a number of such jackets available.)
Where Does This Leave Us?
I like being dry as much as the next man. In an ideal world I’d be warm and dry all the time. I’m also rarely called upon to put myself in extreme weather conditions. So you can treat the advice that follows with a substantial handful of salt. But…
Being dry is over-rated. When cycling, it is a lot easier to be comfortable and, if required, slightly damp, than staying dry and warm. Providing the insulating effect of your chosen clothing is sufficient, then a bit of moisture shouldn’t be an issue.
Case in point: who wears waterproof tights when cycling in winter? Answer: no one.
Instead you accept that your legs are going to get a bit wet. In my experience, whether I’m wearing standard lycra tights for cold weather, or the more thermal Roubaix fabric ones for cold cold weather, I tend to be warm enough. And I don’t really think about whether my legs are wet or not.
You can apply the same logic to the top half of your body. The key is to wear a winter jacket that is water resistant enough, and insulating enough when combined with your base layer(s), such that any moisture that comes in can either:
- be pushed out (dried out) by your body heat; or
- be warmed to skin temperature (i.e. how a wetsuit works).
I would therefore recommend, when looking for a winter cycling jacket, prioritising weather resistance over waterproofing.
Other Winter Jacket Features (Which You May Or May Not Care About)
Highlighting a range of ‘technical’ features on a jacket is a classic way for a clothing manufacturer to justify a high price tag. But some features are important (and not just marketing fluff).
If it was me, after I’ve made the core decision over what type of jacket I want (waterproof versus resistant etc), I’d be looking for the following features:
- rear pockets – you’d rightly expect these on a cycling jersey, but worth noting that some waterproof shells don’t have them (like mine);
- high neck – we’ve talked about the importance of wind resistance (and if I recall, you agreed with everything I said) – a high neck tends to avoid the wind blowing cold air into the top of your jersey when in a riding position;
- long cuffs – similar point. No one (and I mean no one) likes cold wrists. Or wet wrists. You can get cuffs with a hole for your thumb;
- taped seams – more relevant if you’re looking at a waterproof (or highly water resistant jacket) – the taping prevents ingress of water through the gaps between the teeth of the zip;
- vents – again, more a feature of a waterproof jacket. Used when the breathability of the fabric just can’t keep up with the volume of warm moist air that your exertions are giving off (or in lower priced jackets or shells made out of non-breathable material). Vents tend to be in places that are not too exposed to the elements (e.g. under you arms).
My Winter Cycling ‘Set-Up’
I certainly do not hold myself up as a particularly hardy cyclist. I’m very capable of choosing the sofa over a ride outside if the weather is looking inclement.
But when I do screw my courage to the sticking place, this is my winter cycling set up (in case you’re interested…):
- a ‘technical’ base layer – I’ve got a variety of Nike ‘dri-fit’ t-shirts that I picked up doing various Run London’s in my younger days, plus a nice Patagonia one. You won’t go too far wrong with a classic Helly Hansen base layer though.
- windproof or ‘foul weather’ jersey – Wiggle sent me a dhb Windslam jersey to review a few years ago (so treat the next statement with your desired amount of salt). I was really impressed – it is excellent quality for the price (even if you have to pay for it…). I even persuaded my mum to buy one for my brother-in-law (I’m good like that). If the weather is really bad, I’ll wear my Castelli Perfetto (I might have mentioned I’m a fan…).
- gilet – the wife of said brother-in-law (my sister) bought me a very nice Santini gilet a few years ago. It’s not waterproof but is moderately windproof and adds that little bit of extra weather protection for my core.
- waterproof shell in back pocket – in a moment of excitement, I bought a Castelli jacket at the timing chip pick-up/expo just prior to my RideLondon ride in 2013. But before you consider me a flash johnny, this jacket belongs to its cheapest, plastic bag range. Breathable it aint. With pockets it aint (noting my point in the ‘features’ section above). Still, it does the job (the job being mainly to remain rolled up into a small ball and stuffed in the pocket of my aforementioned gilet, ready to be deployed should the sky suddenly start to leak).
So (hopefully) you see, that a winter jacket purchase doesn’t need to be (indeed shouldn’t be) decided in isolation. You’ll want to give some consideration as to how it will fit with clothes you’ve already got, and your layering ‘strategy’.
Everyone needs a layering strategy…
A cycling jacket is a key component of the winter rider’s wardrobe. Dressing appropriately for the weather conditions is critical for maintaining your cycling habit (and your fitness, your enjoyment) over the darker, colder months.
There are lots of outer garment options, many of which are expensive.
It’s worth taking the time really to consider what you want to get from the jacket and, in particular, whether (weather?) staying dry is as crucial (or as possible) as it first might appear.
For me, a jacket that keeps you warm by providing protection from the wind, beats a jacket that claims to keep you dry. Which probably means I would go for the Castelli Alpha (with the dhb Aeron as a more budget-conscious backup).
Your mileage, as always, will vary.
What do you think? Do you have a winter jacket recommendation? What features do you find most important?
Let me know in the comments (also click a link and buy a jacket … thenk yow!)