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.
You can buy a lot of softshell tops these days, most of which claim to be weather resistant, and good across a range of temperatures. I'll wager you can't buy many better than this Kalf Club Men's Softshell Jersey, though. It really does do an excellent job and we can highly recommend it.
The eVent membrane within the jersey is charged with stopping the wind, keeping the external moisture (rain and spray) out, and letting the internal moisture (sweat) through. A lot of the time those all seem like mutually exclusive goals, so it's always a wonder to me that membrane fabrics work at all, let alone so well. We've had good experiences of eVent membrane fabrics in the past and this is no exception: the Kalf Club jersey is really impressive in its ability to regulate moisture and temperature.
LAB is the high-performance range from dhb and this new Aeron LAB All Winter Polartec Jacket is designed for you to continue racing and riding hard throughout the winter months. A trio of fabrics keeps the elements at bay really well; it's not the perfect winter softshell, but it's pretty close.
dhb has chosen fabrics from Polartec to deliver the kind of properties needed for exercising hard through the winter weather. The front, shoulders and the outer arms (basically all of the blue bits) are made from NeoShell, which is a waterproof and windproof softshell material. It's placed in the positions on your body that are most likely to take a battering from the rain when you are crouched over in a race position.
It works really well, keeping the coldest of winds from penetrating, and water simply beads off the fabric as you ride. It'll get overwhelmed eventually, but only after hours of riding in the rain. Its performance s genuinely impressive.
The Endura Pro SL II is a warm, very slim-fitting and extremely protective winter jacket that looks built to last - and an absolute godsend on horrible winter days. It features an excellent high collar, intelligent use of panels and a sleek yet stretchy fit that will never slow you down.
Endura recommend this as an outer layer on dry days between -5 and 12C, and a mid-layer beneath a waterproof once it worsens. That seems accurate, though you won't find much room beneath it for baselayers unless you size up. We didn't want to fit more than two (one tee, one long sleeve), and that combo was warm enough down to around zero. Any lower and we'd recommend an outer layer, however.
Pactimo's Vertex WX-D has proved to be a top performer in the cold and wet British weather. It's warm, dry and light while being breathable enough to wear all day in comfort.
It can be hard at this time of year to gauge what to wear – how cold is it, will it rain, blow a gale? The usual response seems to be layers and extra clothing in your pockets, but you end up looking like the Michelin man or without the bits you need. A jacket that claims to cover all aspects is a tantalising prospect, then, but can it deliver? The Vertex W-XD claims warmth down to -17°C, windproofing and waterproofing too, with its three-layer outer fabric providing the weatherproofing with taped seams (reflective on the outside) and waterproofed zips, and brushed fleece grid providing the warmth.
It's reasonably thin and light for a cold weather outer – not quite enough to fold up into a jersey pocket, but you shouldn't need to as breathability is good and it has two small zipped vents for fresh air if needed.
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.
If you don't need protection against the most extreme weather, the Assos Mille GT Winter Jacket is the toned-down and slightly cheaper version at £225.
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 mercury falls.
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.
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 too.
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.
Lightweight windproof shells
The Rapha Women's Lightweight Shadow Jacket gained tester Ashia many a compliment from fellow riders while she was out testing it. It has a simple, classic design and excellent fit and it performs brilliantly... with a price tag to match.
Ashia adds: "I put the jacket on for the first time to model it for the photos you see in this review, and immediately mentioned what a lovely fit it was. There is room for a jersey and light layer or two underneath on colder days, but no unnecessary flapping or extra material hanging around.
"It is surprisingly stretchy for such a water-resistant and windproof layer, which also allows it to fit over well-filled pockets at the start of a long day's riding. In fact, with the right layering underneath, I can see myself wearing this most of the year in the UK."
Made almost entirely from highly effective Reflect360 material, the Proviz Performance jacket is probably the best way to stay visible on your bike without looking like a French economic activist.
Save for areas of black mesh at the top of the back, sides and under the arms – the Proviz Reflect360 jacket is constructed entirely from the Reflect360 wonder material. This looks like fairly demure grey fabric in daylight conditions – old-school lurid high-vis yellow it ain't – but it reflects like a beacon with just a bit of light at night-time.
The great advantage of Reflect360 fabric is that you can wear this jacket during daylight without looking like a high-vis road warrior. That said, with this 'Performance' version you can't hide the fact that you're a cyclist. It's cut perfectly for road riding or fast commuting, with a nice balance of form fitting, stretch and a deep drop tail. The fitted waist is very effective for keeping it in place and it's very comfortable without being too roomy. Essentially, you can wear it when you want to get somewhere fast without feeling like you're making too much of compromise in the safety-to-speed stakes.
The Ultralight Wind Jacket from Van Rysel (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.
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 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.
One of the most immediately interesting things about the Findra Stroma Technical Jacket is that the fabric uses repurposed coffee grounds alongside recycled plastic bottles in its creation. The clever eco-fabric has four-way stretch and a 10,000mm waterproof rating, and the resulting jacket is very light and stretchy. Just bear in mind that it's designed to be an all-round outdoor waterproof rather than cycling-specific, and therefore lacks a few cycling-specific features such as a dropped tail and reflectivity.
Because of the level of stretch, the fit of the jacket is reasonably forgiving – worth bearing in mind when selecting your size. If you're likely to want to wear it with multiple layers underneath then I'd say go for your usual size, but for a sleek fit maybe consider going down a size. (Tass is modelling a 12, her usual size, but reckons a 10 would probably be a better fit.) It's available in sizes 8-16, and in 'Nine Iron' grey as well as this lovely teal.
The Resolute Bay Reflective Cycling Jacket is impressive. It's a high-quality design, offering superb protection against the weather, excellent breathability, and some strong cyclist-specific features, and the fit works really well both on and off the bike.
One thing that tends to plague commuter cycling jackets is that they're either too cycling-specific or not cycling-specific enough. The Reflective Cycling jacket aims to balance the two – and succeeds.
As with all foul weather jackets, waterproofing is one of the most important elements, and the Resolute Bay has stood up to all of the rain that the British spring has thrown at it. I tested it on some torrentially rainy rides and it performed admirably, not letting in a drop. The only slight downside was that when wearing it with the hood down (if you have a helmet on), you can get water caught in the hood.
The Metier Beacon Rain Jacket performs brilliantly in foul conditions and can also pack down small and compactly into a jersey pocket. Its USP, the flashing LEDs, work really well too, although if you're thinking it'd be great for everyday commuting with a backpack, they're not ideally placed. This isn't your typical commuter jacket, though, it's a piece of high-performance kit – with a price tag to match.
The idea of incorporating flashing lights within clothing isn't new, but can be a little garish and needs to be done subtly in order that the wearer doesn't look like a walking traffic light. Metier has managed this well with slim strips of LEDs, one set of white lights on the front of each shoulder, and a set of red lights on the bottom hem at the back of the jacket.
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 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.