There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, goes the old saying that always does the rounds at this time of year. After incredible developments in textiles over the past decade, there's no reason to wear the wrong cycling clothing any more and there's a large selection of winter jackets that'll keep you warm, dry and comfortable.
A winter jacket not only has to protect you from the elements, it has to cope with the heat and sweat that you produce when you ride at a decent pace. Producing materials that are highly protective and breathable at the same time is the key challenge facing fabric engineers.
The right clothing is more important than those fancy wheels yo have your eyes on, a 20g lighter saddle, or any other bling. If you really want to get out and ride your bike this winter then invest your money in good clothing. It’ll transform your winter cycling.
Jackets for the conditions
First, you need to decide what type of winter jacket you need; there is a jacket designed specifically for every type of weather you might encounter. The most common conditions you’re likely to face in a typical British winter are rain, wind and cold down to freezing point or just below.
Cycling jackets can be broadly distilled into three types: waterproof, windproof, and soft shell. Add in variations on those and cross-over jackets and you’re suddenly looking at a huge choice.
Keeping dry: waterproof jackets
A waterproof jacket will keep the rain out but all but the very best ones (that is, the most expensive) compromise on breathability. It's practically impossible for a waterproof fabric to allow out as much sweat as a hard-working cyclist can produce, so you can get very hot and sweaty if you're going hard. Nevertheless, a good waterproof jacket is crucial for those days when it’s pouring heavily for the entirety of your ride.
It’s easy to make a fabric waterproof, but waterproof and breathable is tricky. You can keep the water out, but you need to allow the moisture that your body generates to escape somewhere, otherwise you’ll end up in a sweaty mess. Manufacturers are able to produce fabrics with pores that are big enough to let the small water molecules in the moist air escape, but small enough to keep water droplets outside.
Fabrics are getting better all the time, and there’s a wide choice.The more expensive the jacket, the more likely it is that a branded fabric like eVent or Gore-Tex will be used. Gore-Tex is one of the most common fabrics you’ll see used on higher end jackets. Gore-Tex is created by laminating a PTFE (polyetrafluoroethylene) membrane, with pores 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, in the fabric. This makes it completely waterproof.
Some manufacturers make full use of the latest fabrics offered by companies like Gore but some go their own way and produce their own fabrics that aim to offer the same technical merits. DWR (durable water repellent) is a finish used in conjunction with waterproof membrane fabrics that encourages water to bead up and roll off, preventing the material from becoming saturated with water.
How the jacket is constructed is important, and for a jacket to be properly waterproof the seams have to be taped to prevent leaks. For the best possible breathability, some vents are a must, and these have to be designed so they let sweat out, but don't let water in. They're usually under the armpits, or conclealed under flaps round the body.
Keeping out the wind: windproof jackets
If you’re not planning to ride in the rain, then a windproof jacket is a good option. Windproof jackets are commonly made from a fabric that's lighter than a waterproof one and much more breathable. They are usually designed only to be a little water resistant making them fine only for a light shower. This makes them a good choice for many conditions, especially if you get to pick when you ride, but not necessarily the best choice if you have to head out come what may, like if you're commuting.
Keeping the cold out: soft shells
And then there's the soft shell, a relatively new style of jacket. Waterproof and windproof jackets are sometimes referred to as hard shells, because they’re designed solely to keep the weather out, not keep you warm. That’s the idea behind a layering approach to clothing, using multiple layers to provide warmth and comfort.
Soft shells turn this idea on its head and essentially combine an outer and mid-layer, providing insulation and keeping the elements out. They’re softer and more flexible than hard shells so are more comfortable, and they're comfortable next to the skin. You can wear one over just a short sleeve base layer and feel fine.
Hard shell v soft shell
In the last few years soft shells have risen in popularity among cyclists. The greatest appeal of a soft shell is that, unlike a hard shell, you can wear it most of the time, even when it's not raining. A soft shell isn’t waterproof, instead it is water resistant and much more breathable so it copes with a far wider range of typical British winter conditions.
A hard shell provides the ultimate protection against prolonged rain but the compromise is that it doesn't provide the best breathability so you can get sweaty inside. A hard shell needs to be worn as part of a layering system and deciding how many layers for any given ride can take some experience and trial and error to get right.
Soft shells, on the other hand, can simply be worn over a base layer of your choice when it’s not too cold. Add a thicker long sleeve mid-layer for really cold days and you begin to see that soft shells are the best solution for cyclists looking for a do-everything winter jacket. Paired with a lightweight, packable waterproof jacket, it’s a good combination.
Generally, the more features a jacket has, the more it costs, but good features can improve the performance considerably.
Well-designed pockets are useful and many winter jackets come with three rear pockets or variations on this theme. For more versatility, chest pockets and side pockets can be useful for things like keys and phones, or keeping your hands warm when you’re not riding. Some people like lots of pockets, some don’t — it's up to you.
A decent full-length front zip is a must, with a good size puller that you can use even with thick winter gloves on. Some zips will have a storm flap behind to stop draughts, and a zip garage (a fold of fabric at the top) will prevent the zip snagging the soft skin of your neck.
Velcro cuffs will keep baggy sleeves in order and drawcords at the waist will help tailor the fit. Hoods are occasional options and can be useful for dual-purpose commuting jackets, but separate headwear is typically a preferred option.
Most cycling jackets will have a dropped tail, the rear section extending lower than the front. This is so that when you're on the bike the jacket keeps your bum covered and the front doesn't bunch up around your stomach. The more race orientated a jacket, the more extreme this cut will be.
Many jackets will feature some sort of ventilation. Of course, there’s the full-length front zip that is an almost universal feature. Extra zipped ports on the chest and under the arms can help deal with any excess heat when you’re riding. The more breathable a fabric is, the less it’ll need extra vents.
Like any garment, a cycling jacket needs to fit well. One key consideration is the arms. They need to be long enough to cover your wrists when you stretch to the handlebars.
The fit of the jacket can range from loose for casually style jackets, popular with leisure and commuting cyclists, to more snugly fitted jackets with an emphasis on aerodynamics that are suited to more performance-driven cyclists. When trying on a jacket it’s vital you consider how many layers you could be wearing underneath and allow a bit of space for, say, two long sleeve layers.
Some jackets, especially those lightweight shells designed for occasional emergency use, skimp on the features in pursuit of lightness, so don’t expect pockets or other extras from this style of jacket.
Choices, choices, choices
Now you know your waterproof jackets from your windproof shells, let’s take a look at some of the options out there. We’ve picked a few of each type to present the choices currently available.
Galibier's Mistral foul weather jacket will cover off nearly all of your winter rides if you like to work up a sweat. It's windproof, waterproof, breathable, close fitting and exceptional value. Only the pockets let it down.
The Mistral has a three-layer membrane with a waterproof rating of 8,000mm and a breathability rating of 10,000gr/m2/day. That's both more breathable and more waterproof than the previous version, and it's also treated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating to help it shed water. The seams aren't taped, and it's not as waterproof as a full hardshell, but it's plenty waterproof to be a good choice on rides where you know you're going to get wet, especially if it's cold and showery and you don't want to be pulling a rain cape on and off. On a long ride some water will make it inside, normally around the shoulders. But not much.
The Assos Mille GT Ultraz Winter Jacket offers fabulous cold weather
performance, requiring very little to be worn underneath, with the inner
being exceptionally soft. The attached snood is perhaps more hinder than
help, but overall this is an excellent bit of kit.
The Mille GT Ultraz has been designed to let you tackle the worst that winter can throw at you, but at a more affordable price point than Assos' Bonka jacket. When we say affordable, this is still £260 (the Bonka is £370!). If you've not got that kind of cash, there are plenty of great alternatives at a much lower price, but if you can afford the Mille GT Ultraz then it's worth every penny.
As an all-in-one winter jacket, the Castelli Alpha RoS is hard to beat.
The Italian brand really means it when it calls it the 'Rain or Shine'
(RoS – geddit?) jacket, and there's plenty of insulation for when the
After living with the Alpha RoS jacket for the past month or so when temperatures have dropped well into single figures at times, it has shaken up our perception of how we should dress for this coming winter.
The Madison Sportive Men's Softshell Jacket offers a good fit, generous warmth for the chilliest winter rides, looks smart and is reasonably priced.
The Bontrager Velocis S1 Softshell Jacket keeps the cold off your front, lets the heat out at the back and provides an impressive level of winter protection.
Bontrager has chosen to use windproofing only on the chest and side panels. The back, using Cocona's Patented 37.5 technology, is aimed at getting heat and moisture away from the body. Cocona says 'patented active particles permanently embedded at the fiber level capture and release moisture vapor.' The idea is to keep the humidity inside your clothing to around 37.5%, where, it claims, your body is most comfortable.
The perfect top for those days when you don't know if you need a jersey or jacket – the dhb Aeron Hybrid Softshell serves as both. It's windproof, water-resistant, breathable, and well cut, though it's not fully waterproof. It fits and feels like a winter jersey as the fabric is soft and it's not overly heavy. It's the type of top you'd chuck on over whichever baselayer you think would suit the conditions and it'll keep you toasty warm without having to overplan your layering.
This softshell jacket provides very good windproofing in a rather stylish jacket.
When Neil tested it in... well... testing conditions, he said; "I thought this was an excellent garment that made the prospect of venturing out in some premature winter conditions a lot less off-putting. And anything that encourages me to ride more is a good thing."
In designing clothing for Flandrian weather, Sportful have created clothing that is perfectly suited to typical UK weather conditions: lots of rain, rapidly changing conditions, fluctuating temperatures during the course of a ride. It's difficult to know what to wear sometimes. This Light WS Jacket makes it all a bit easier, as it copes with all of that weather with ease.
The Lusso Aqua Extreme Repel Jacket V2 is made in the UK, and it's one of
the best waterproof jackets on the market. Made in Manchester, the Lusso
Aqua Extreme Repel Jacket V2 keeps serious rain out without creating that
boil in the bag sensation found with many others on the market. A huge
amount of reflective detailing makes this jacket perfect for night rides
Made from waterproof, windproof yet breathable Windtex Storm Shield fabric, with a 10,000mm hydrostatic head and breathability of 10,000ml of moisture per square metre per day, it's good technically. Not as breathable as some fabrics, but certainly equal to most at the price – you can pay over twice as much for a jacket with similar-spec fabric.
The seams aren't sealed but it doesn't seem to matter. On a ride that involved two and a half hours of heavy rain and temperature a few degrees above freezing it fought off the elements with aplomb. Unlike many materials found on waterproof garments with various coatings, water doesn't bead off the Storm Shield fabric. Instead, it quickly looks sodden and we were waiting for that feeling of the rain starting to seep though but it never came. The membrane clearly does its job very well indeed.
The Ashmei Cycle Softshell Jacket is a very high-quality top that's particularly suited to spring and autumn days, and it comes with a multitude of excellent features. It's an incredibly well designed piece of kit.
Lightweight windproof shells
The Ultralight Wind Jacket from B'Twin (Decathlon's in-house cycling brand) is a low-priced lightweight jacket designed to give you some protection when the weather catches you out. It stuffs into its own tiny pocket, about the size of a fist, and weighs very little, so it's no chore to keep it in your bag or pannier for when it's needed. As you might expect, it's aimed more at the casual cyclist than those wanting highly technical cycling wear, but it does a decent job especially at this price. (It was previously known as the
RBS stands for Really Bright Stuff, and you're certainly going to get noticed with this on. It's a packable light weight windproof that's just right autumn and milder winter days. Its windproof qualities keep the morning chill at bay. The 100% polyester fabric is thin but is a good barrier against the wind and will stand up to a bit of light drizzle too.
The FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape is a great garment from Endura, proving breathable race capes can be relatively affordable. Packable race-light 'shells' are usually either super-expensive yet breathable and comfortable, or cheap and boil-in-the-bag. I'm delighted to report here that the FS260-Pro straddles the two definitions.
It performs very well. Of course, there's a limit to how effective any breathable fabric can be. Even industry standard Gore-Tex meets its match in the right (or wrong) combination of humidity, warmth and exertion. But, if you're riding at a high tempo, the Endura keeps you as dry as I've experienced in a shell such as this. It works best in cooler conditions – and layering up too much negates its effectiveness – but it really is quite impressive.
The Showers Pass Ultralight Wind Jacket ticks every box for staying warm while dodging showers in the shoulder seasons. Light, trim-fitting, tiny when packed and budget-friendly, it's hard to see how it could be improved on.
dhb has created an excellent bad weather top layer with its Aeron Lab
Ultralight waterproof jacket. It keeps the weather at bay better than
most, especially at this price and weight, plus it's packable too. It's
quite an outlay, but it's justified by the very good performance.
The Ultralight is rated to 30,000mm on the waterproofing scale, which means that in laboratory testing the fabric could withstand 30,000mm of water from a one inch diameter sealed tube of water before it soaks through. That's pretty impressive, as most of the jackets we test here are around the 10,000mm mark.
The B'Twin 500 High Visibility Waterproof Cycling Jacket provides excellent rain protection with a coated membrane material and taped seams plus plenty of reflective details to help you been seen on the commute to work. There are vents and breathability is very good.
The Endura FS260-Pro SL Shell is an exceptionally breathable, fully-fledged miserable-weather jacket with a host of features but no excess faff. It's a cracker.
Being based in Scotland, Endura should know a thing or two about keeping dry. That's not stereotyping – it rains a lot up there. And if you like riding a bike, fast, in the rain, below a certain temperature, you want a proper shell.
Modern design, fabrics and fabrication mean that even humble-priced garments can perform exceptionally well, so to stand out the technical features of a garment need to be spot on, and it's here where the FS260-Pro shines.
The Gore C7 Gore-Tex ShakeDry Stretch Jacket provides total rain
protection with incredible breathability. The stretch panels help to give
a perfect fit that lasts through machine washing and tumble drying. This
jacket is packed with tech features. The Gore ShakeDry fabric that made
the last iteration so good is still present, and it works really well in
heavy rain. Put simply, nothing gets through.
Added to this is Gore's new Stretch technology. It was developed with the military for use with body armour and is also windproof and completely waterproof.
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David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. 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.