One of the simplest cycling garments, a gilet is also one of the most useful. Also known as a vest or simply as a sleeveless jacket, a gilet protects your torso from the wind chill and sometimes from the rain too.
That may not sound like a big deal, but keeping your torso warm even though your arms are still out in the wind can make a big difference to your comfort. Keeping the chill from evaporating your sweat gives your clothing a chance to move it away from your body, and the windproof shell traps a layer of air against your body so that helps keep you warm too.
Fabric thickness and level of ventilation varies a lot between gilets, so you can choose one that’s best suited to your needs. Some have side vents, others have mesh panels at the back so you’ll be comfortable if you’re riding hard with your front protected from the breeze and heat able to escape at the back.
Gilets intended for all-day riding in winter are made from thicker fabrics such as softshell or heavier breathable waterproof materials. Lighter fabrics are used for gilets that pack down small so you can stuff them in a pocket. They’re ideal for days when you know (or at least hope) that it’ll warm up after a chilly start, or to carry for sudden weather changes.
In the last couple of years clothing makers have introduced gilets that provide extra warmth from the latest ultra-light synthetic insulation. These are useful for extra protection when it’s very cold, or for cool-weather casual cycling; they’re usually styled so they look fairly normal off the bike too.
Gilet manufacturers provide pockets in several different ways. At one end of the complexity scale, some gilets do without, some simply have slots so you can get through to your jersey pockets. Many have the usual two or three rear pockets, sometimes with a small front pocket for your keys.
Other features to look for include material with a bit of stretch in it so it’ll accommodate those post-Christmas extra pounds; a fleece liner at the neck for extra cosiness; a windproof flap behind the zip; and a ‘zip garage’ at the neck to stop the top of the zip digging into the soft skin there.
A decent quality gilet costs from £20 and prices run up to over £150. At the low range you’re getting a simple windproof and (usually) water-resistant shell; at high prices you get for very-high-tech fabrics, clever detailing and — in some cases — extra insulation.
Beware: gilets are addictive. You’ll soon realise you ‘need’ more than one for different conditions. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
As it so often does, French sport megastore chain Decathlon shows that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get decent kit. This gilet is easy to pack, fends off the cold and has a good feature set for its low price.
The front is wind- and water-proof and there's a mesh back for ventilation when you're working hard. Since you're likely to be wearing a gilet at dusk there are also several reflective patches to boost visibility in car headlights
The Lusso Skylon Gilet doesn't make a fuss, it just keeps the wind off your body and helps to maintain core temperature while being small enough to scrunch into a back pocket.
The Skylon is a cut above bargain basement gilets; build quality is considerably higher and a little more thought seems to have gone into the design. For example, there is no loose fabric to snag the zip. The Skylon fabric which gives the gilet its name (and a whiff of 50's nostalgia, go Google it kiddies) has a slightly rubbery feel, a bit like latex workshop gloves. It's not unpleasant, just a little odd.
Lusso claim it's showerproof, but a short ride into a rainy headwind left our tester’s jersey quite damp. It's not a huge problem; after all you wouldn't expect a gilet to offer much by way of foul weather protection, especially one with a full length mesh back. What you want a gilet for is wind proofing and the Skylon scores full marks on that front. The mesh back stops it from turning into a mobile sweat tent and the whole thing folds up into its own back pocket.
The RH+ Acquaria Pocket Vest is so lightweight and packable it's a proper three season item of clothing.
It's made of a single layer coated fabric called Airdry which is intended for mild and windy conditions and is designed to be worn between 14°C and 22°C.
With a mesh back it's highly breathable and wicks sweat away quite impressively for this kind of fabric.
We haven't tested this gilet, but based on the quality and fit of its predecessor, the dhb Aeron Windslam Gilet we're going to stick our necks out and suggest it's worth a look. It has a high collar, close fit and angled slits in the back so you can still reach your jersey pockets.
A long-time favourite, this well-made and perfectly shaped gilet is currently on special. It has a full suite of useful detailing: a bit of stretch in the fabric; pockets big enough to be useful; that handy little key pocket on the front; a comfortably lined neck; and baffle/guard behind the (stylishly offset) zip.
The Lusso Stripes Gilet takes the basic concept of keeping wind at bay and turns it into a technical and performance tour de force, for reasonable money. You'll be doing some pocket-swapping, but what price silence?
Hailing from Manchester, close to the Peak District and not far from the Irish sea, Lusso knows a thing or five about changeable weather. The Stripes gilet picks up that venerable heritage of preparedness, looks outside at scudding clouds over a wavering garden shed barometer and says, 'Let's be having it then'.
At 116g the Stripes gilet isn't the lightest, but then it's packing three full-size back pockets plus a fourth zipped one, a silicone gripper hem, underarm mesh panels, zip garage and a lazer-cut front hem. All that tech adds weight and bulk, so this isn't the scrunch-to-a-squash-ball ultralight you're looking for. What it is, is fit for purpose.
The Chapeau! Echelon Gilet is an innovative, well made and good looking vest that keeps the worst of the weather out. Chapeau! has clearly thought about how to make this as good as possible and done a superb job – though you have to pay accordingly.
A good place to start is with its ability to keep out the wind and rain, which it does really well. The material used – a four-way stretch polyester and polyurethane blend – is thin, which I was initially worried about, given that thin normally means flimsy. I needn't have been: it's hardwearing as well as very protective.
It's expensive, but if you need a gilet that can provide some vital insulation on top of windproof performance, then the Endura Pro SL Primaloft Gilet could be the layer for you.
It all starts with the filling – a Primaloft stuffing that provides vital heat retention. It's thin, so thin in fact that it's still possible to pack the gilet down into a decent-sized pocket. Moreover, it's cut so that there's little fabric wastage anywhere, which helps keep the form small when it's rolled up into a pocket or its own carry pouch.
It's not cheap, but universal rave reviews for this weather-resistant vest mean it surely has to be on your shortlist if you're a year-round rider. The front is made from the same Gore® Windstopper® X-Lite Plus as Castelli's much-loved Gabba rain jersey, while the back is made from fleecy, water repellent Nano Flex Light for breathability.
In short, this is the sleeveless version of the Gabba, and welcome torso protection for crummy Spring and Autumn weather.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.