THE BEST ROAD CYCLING CLOTHING
When I first started riding regularly, I began to notice things I never did when I only rode occasionally. Bike fit, wheelset acceleration, shifter smoothness, and my generally poor technique going uphill were just a few things that needed work.
As I rode longer and faster, I also noticed my shorts and jerseys more. I was used to buying $50 shorts and whatever jerseys I liked the look of or came with the fee for the event I was riding. I noticed that sometimes they didn’t fit real well – some of the jerseys were quite floppy or didn’t breathe much and lost their shape after a season or two. The shorts got stretched out quickly or were just plain uncomfortable in certain positions. And the chamois pad varied quite a bit. I really did notice that!
After a while, I found a brand and the size that fit me best and were inexpensive so I just went with it. I had a few favorites and wore them all the time. I showed up in the same small handful of jerseys I wore constantly throughout the season. Yes, my good wife washed them between rides for me but she wondered why I always wanted the same stuff and why I didn’t wear much of the other kit I had accumulated in my drawers over the years.
Then I joined a club and bought the club kit. Really comfortable and supportive bib shorts and a well-fitting jersey. I signed up 6 months in advance for a first-rate (and expensive) distance event that capped the number of riders they would accept. The entry fee included a jersey that fit like skin and seemed to breathe better than my own. I also splurged on a jacket that I’d seen riders raving about on a forum I read that was unbelievably comfortable into the fall and early winter across a wide range of temps and wind conditions.
Wow, these new pieces of kit were the best things I had ever worn. They were cool and breathable when they needed to be and warm and snug when I layered them up. They were so good, so much better than any of my prior favorites that they nearly disappeared from my consciousness when I rode. I focused more on the ride and less on how much of it was left until I could get out of what I was wearing and into a shower, as I had often done before.
I’d reached another stage in my development as a cyclist. I realized that spending a little more on good clothing could bring me a whole lot more enjoyment. Perhaps help improve my riding too.
Since then, I’ve been in search of some of the best road cycling clothing and apparel I could find. At times it felt like I was beginning over again – there are seemingly as many brands of clothing as there are brands of bikes. Some only do the high-end stuff while others have five or six lines from very high performance to very good value. And then there are brands that just provide good value kit but nothing designed to perform at top levels.
Several of the performance brands have pieces of kit, like jackets or bibs, that are really the stars of their line. Others have a design approach or a fashion sense that pervades everything they do and I’d be quite pumped to wear almost anything they make.
As the saying goes, “it’s a jungle out there.” For this review, your fellow road cycling enthusiast has returned from that jungle with a point of view and some recommendations about clothing that can seriously change the way you feel about your riding and the pleasure and performance you get from it.
Let me be straight with you though. This review is about the best clothing you can get, the highest performance or most ‘technical’ kit out there. It’s also some of the most expensive clothing as well. You can get pricey kit that isn’t great but you really can’t get great kit without paying the price.
If you aren’t up for that or don’t want to even consider it, I’ll understand if you want to move on. I wasn’t there until recently. Now I am firmly there and know the benefits of wearing high performance cycling clothing even at a higher price. My sensibilities have changed as has what I’m willing to pay to keep them happy.
If you are feeling that the fit, comfort, durability and performance of your kit doesn’t do it for you out on a long or fast ride and you might consider putting out a bit more of your cycling budget for a few choice pieces of kit, stick around. I’ll introduce you to or remind you of some of the best kit from the best technical clothing makers I have found out there. It will cost you, but it might just bring you to the next level of cycling enjoyment as it has for me.
If you are new to In The Know Cycling, welcome. I started this site for road cycling enthusiasts who want to know – but don’t have the time to do all the research and comparisons to figure out – what gear you should get next and where you should get it. I write for riders like you and me rather than for advertisers or suppliers. I do hours of research, testing and analysis for each review because I want to make an informed decision before I buy something myself. You won’t see any ads on the site. I demo and return or buy all the gear I test. If you get some benefit from what you read, you can support the site by clicking on and buying your cycling gear through the red links to the stores I recommend. I’ve found these provide the best combination of low prices, good selection and high customer satisfaction ratings among over 90 that I track. You can also support the site with a contribution here or by buying anything through these links to Amazon or eBay. There’s more on all of this at the about and support pages. Thank you.
For all In The Know Cycling reviews, I consider four groups of criteria – performance, design, quality and cost. In this review of the best performance or technical cycling clothing, meeting these criteria are the fundamental qualifications to be considered. Certain brands or lines either met them or they didn’t make it into the review.
Safe to say that the performance of the companies in this review are first-rate, their designs stand out for a variety of reasons, their quality is top shelf, and their prices are high.
I judged performance of cycling clothing by a combination of great fit, superb comfort, and high technical characteristics. Those characteristics depend on the purpose of each piece of clothing but generally include how well a piece of kit moves or stretches with you, how well it insulates, protects you from wind and rain or cools you, and how breathable it is no matter the temperature or weather.
Each type of apparel has specific measures of performance. For example, you measure the performance of bib shorts based on all the above and on how well the chamois cut works for you (all in this category are plenty thick so cut is what separates them), how well the leg bands stretch, how well the compression material supports you throughout, how well the straps fit your body, and how all of these things together keep your shorts and chamois moving with you so as not to ride up or hold you back in some way.
The best designed cycling clothing limit the number of seams and where they are placed relative to the skin or muscles that are at the center of the cycling action. Panel cut, material performance and placement are all central parts of the design. As performance clothing, most of these are cut for cyclists who are generally in good shape – both lean and muscled – and are most comfortable when stretched out over the bars rather than sitting up on the bike or sitting down at a coffee shop. Certain brands are cut principally for lean riders. Other brands have some models for the lucky lean ones and others that suit those with thicker trunks and legs.
Of course, clothing color combinations, styles, performance touches, and logos are all part of the design. On the whole, high performance cycling clothing isn’t fashion clothing – lots of black, white red and some high vis yellow and green mixed in. This isn’t Rapha’s multi-color palette world. That said, these performance cycling brands have enough subtle touches in their design that give them rather distinct personalities.
Quality – Clothing this good is made of the highest quality materials, construction and durability. It’s rare when an item from one of the companies reviewed here isn’t well made and doesn’t last the way it should. All of the kit I’ve highlighted is high quality.
Cost – As I mentioned earlier in this post, kit this good can come with serious sticker shock especially if you started out cycling on a serious budget the way I did. Think $200, £140, €200, AU$250 or more for a good pair of bibs or jacket. That’s at least 2x what I typically paid for my kit when I first stepped up to serious regular riding. However, if you break that down over the number of rides, the number of years and the value of comfort and performance you’ll get out of this kit, the costs don’t seem that high and it may look like you are buying quite smart. But the shock of the initial purchase price may take a while to get used to.
With all of this in mind, here are the best road cycling clothing brands and a few items from each of their lines that I’ve found are among the standouts. I’ve reviewed them in alphabetical order.
Thread for thread, Assos is the top technical clothing brand in the road cycling business. You should be in pretty good form and plan to ride hard if you want to get the most out of their clothing. It also helps if you are willing and able to spend some serious money on Assos’ premium priced lines. They are tops there as well.
If you are in shape both physically and fiscally then Assos is a sort of cycling enthusiast’s heaven for the fit and comfort its clothing provides and for the speed and pleasure that comes with that out on the road.
They don’t have complete lines of bibs, jerseys, jackets, etc. at various price points that change every couple of years like many other kit or gear brands. Rather, Assos adds or replaces individual pieces or groups of kit when they feel they have something new or better to offer. This can make it a bit difficult to understand the names of their clothing products and where they fit in. I’ll try to help with that.
First, they offer three different cuts of jerseys. If you see “.13” in a product name, that means it is the trimmest fit line made with their best material and construction technology. The “.Cento” designation on a piece of kit means it’s intended to fit snugly yet stretchy for hard charging enthusiasts and racers with good flexibility. And the “.Mille” is for athletic yet thicker body types that benefit from a slightly more forgiving fit than the .13 or .Cento.
There are a dizzying range of other designations, slogans and trademarks for things as disparate as material type, sleeve length, cold and/or rainy weather gear, how much insulation an item has and a handful of cycling philosophies and clothing biases. And the 3 jersey fit names I described above aren’t used for the shorts, which have 4 other fit names. Ugh!
Assos does try to help sort some this out in a practical way by organizing their clothing into seasonal groups using temperature ranges. They combine products of different terminology, from socks and gloves through base layers and all the jerseys, bibs and jackets that go on top and with each other into these seasonal groups with curious names of ShaSha (for summer), tiburu (spring/fall), haBu (early winter), and my personal favorite name if not cycling season – bonKa (winter). I can only guess what altered states their marketing geniuses were in when they came up with those.
Push through all this mumbo jumbo and you will realize that you’ve got some outstanding riding awaiting you when you are wearing Assos and you’ll also have something different to talk about with your riding partners once you get the lingo down.
There’s little not to like in the Assos line but here are some of their most notable products suited for fit enthusiast endurance riders and occasional racers:
Bib short are probably the signature piece of kit for any rider and Assos is probably best known for their bib shorts. The T.cento_s7 (best prices at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles) is the “comfort fit” among Assos’ current four bib options for men and are geared to long distance riding.
One of the design features that makes the T.cento_s7 so comfortable over long rides is a unique memory foam chamois that is cut-out and replaced with a compression reduced, breathable mesh layer of fabric where your private parts rest. If I told you what they call this, you’d say I’m making it up. Well it’s the kuku Penthouse and no, I didn’t make it up.
Crazy names aside, this is a comfortable, well-fitting bib in material and design from the legs to your penthouse and up to the comfort, stretch and spacing of the straps. It feels almost seamless and has a highly elastic yet robust compression feeling in the legs yet is more forgiving around the midsection.
The T.cento_7 waist is also high and the bib is very forgiving for those who have a few extra pounds around the midsection. As with all of the Assos products, it is incredibly durable and should last you for many, many seasons of long rides.
Tour Magazine, perhaps the most disciplined and thorough scientific cycling testing publication out there rated these the top bib shorts in their issue 6/2015 for quality, comfort, pad and features in a test of 10 expensive and 10 more affordable shorts from the leading brands. They also commented that “compared to expensive shorts, affordable shorts don’t have much of a chance,” grading none of them even as “very good.”
If you are very fit (i.e. don’t need the higher, more forgiving waistline), check out the less expensive, race cut oriented T.equipe_s7 bib shorts for men (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles, Ribble) and the H.laalalaiShorts_s7 shorts for women (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles). In both of these, Assos has a unique chamois section (and no penthouse) that attaches to the shorts only at the ends and is free to move with you in the middle. This reduces chaffing. One of my riding buddies spent a good number of days in these shorts during his 100 mile/day cross-country trip this past summer and women I’ve heard from love the feel and freedom of this chamois design.
The SS.cento_s7 (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles) is a short-sleeved late spring and summer men’s jersey made of very breathable, smooth fabric that also wicks your sweat extremely well. It’s a very comfortable jersey that is great on long rides. The solid colored front panel fabric (in black, white, turquoise or red) with white stripes, accents and the Assos logo on the sleeves and across the back and is very smart yet understated looking.
The SS.Lady Jersey (Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles, Slane) is the top of the line a women’s jersey also intended for spring/summer, long ride performance with color options similar to the .cento above. It’s cut to fit a serious women rider – both form-fitting and designed for maximum, nonrestrictive comfort when your body is reaching for the bars.
When I first got into cycling, my mentor Stew told me that a vest or gillet would be the most important piece of clothing I ever bought. In my experience it’s second to my shorts, but a close second indeed. Assos’ unisex iG.falkenZahn vest (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles) is another stand-out in their line. The fabrics they use and the way they put them together makes for a form-fitting, insulating feel across the front, good venting under the arms and out-the-back that all add up to a great wicking, no flapping extra layer that’s ideal on spring, fall and cool summer days from about 40F/4C to 65F/18C.
Those that have also tested the iG.falkenZahn against vests from other leading technical clothing makers say it’s the best or among the best out there. Put it on over a form-fitting jersey but don’t plan to take it off during the ride; it folds up too large to comfortably pack in a back pocket and at what you paid for it, enjoy its breathable warmth and comfort without it interfering with your body position.
So there’s a sampler of some of the best kit from arguably the best technical clothing maker in the road cycling game. Their prices are high but there’s often a sale on them at some of the larger online stores and for the years their kit will last you, you’ll get a heck of a lot of good riding out of them. If you want to look at other kit in their line beyond those highlighted above, you can find a good selection at Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles.
As I’ve written before (here), a form-fitting kit that doesn’t have gaps that catch the wind can cut 10-20 watts and minutes off of a long ride. That’s similar to the gains you get going to aero wheels or an aero helmet. Tests done by Tour (issue 8/2015) showed Castelli’s recently updated Free Aero Race Bib Short (best prices at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Tweeks Cycles) and Aero Race jersey (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Westbrook Cycles) that come in men’s and women’s models outperform the most aero shorts/jersey combinations from the likes of Santini and Sportful by a 3.3 and 15.5 watts respectively and have even less aero drag than Santini and Rapha’s one piece racing suits by several watts. That quantitatively shows what a performance difference a good kit can make and clearly puts Castelli at the top of the aero kit ratings.
The Castelli brand has long been a very popular one among enthusiasts and racers for its form-fitting, high-performing, superb-quality cycling clothing. Castelli is also Italian in heritage, style and sizing. While, like most brands, they have lots of black, red and white in their lines, they also use colors and combinations that add some flair, especially in their women’s kit. Italian sizing means what they make comes out on the smaller side of things so it’s important to check their sizing charts before buying.
In addition to the aero bibs and jersey mentioned above, I and many others are fans of their jerseys and jackets. Here’s two that are favorites:
The Gabba 2 (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Westbrook Cycles) is becoming one of those names everyone knows in cycling. But unlike most of the best known names, Gabba is a piece of kit rather than a famous racer, spring classic, or mountain climb. With Europe being the center of the cycling world and with the variety of weather you can ride into there, a Gabba seems to do just about whatever you need in changing conditions to get you out and keep you going on your ride as planned.
Sure, there are the stories about how many of the pros, even those who had other clothing sponsors, were wearing Gabbas during a particularly rainy Milan-San Remo a few years. But Gabba is also that versatile outer layer – worn either as a jersey or over one – that you see out on the road where enthusiasts ride and the one that comes up more often than not when riders go asking for advice.
The Gabba is not a rain jacket or even a jacket per se though many people think that’s where it shines. For me, it’s more of a jersey that I’ll pull out when the weather is a bit uncertain to know I’ll be comfortable no matter what develops.
More generally, Gabba is a fabric and feeling that Castelli has molded into a range of garments depending on which you buy and how you choose to wear them. The fabric is both breathable and water-repellent. The feeling is a kind of thin, second-skin closeness that moves with you when you are out over your bars hammering it.
You’ll notice the design quality too. It has a wind flap over the front zipper and a wider one you can pull down to protect your rear when the roads get wet. There are also side zips on some of the Gabbas that provide additional venting. Rear pockets with mesh to drain moisture. You’ll especially notice these things and the fit, wicking and warmth despite the temps if you put on a more basic kit in your collection and ask, why doesn’t this one do what my Gabba does?
Castelli now makes the Gabba 2 for men and Gabba W for women in short or long sleeve versions and a model for men that allows you to zip off the sleeves and stow them in you back pocket. I find the Gabba works best in the spring and fall on those cool 40F/5C to 60F/15C mornings or on any day where the sun’s not sure what it’s going do and I’m on the fence about what to put on. With the Gabba, I don’t need to worry about wearing or carrying an extra layer and being too cool or overheating and yet still have a form-fitting outer layer that keeps me aero. You get all this in one jersey. Quite a thing.
The Alpha (Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) is clearly a Castelli jacket made to be worn over a jersey or thermal underlayer. It’s best suited for 32F/0C to 50F/10 though I’ve ridden it comfortably when the temperature started in that range and warmed up above it. It has a more robust windbreaking, nearly waterproof outer layer than the Gabba, something I’ve found quite nice when you are riding in crosswinds or into 10-15mph headwinds created either by Mother Nature or your own foolishness going downhill in near freezing conditions. And when I get caught out in a cold rain or even a snow squall in the late fall or early winter, it was sure nice to have an outer layer that resists the precip as well as my ski parka but that still rides with the fit of a jersey.
Let’s just say I’m a pretty fearless male once I put the Alpha on. Maybe that’s where the jacket’s name came from.
Interestingly, the Alpha is the lightest of all Castelli’s jackets for this temperature range yet it offers the most insulation and breathability in their line and is the only one with their top windproof fabric. I’m not quite sure how they accomplish all of that but it sure works for me. It’s got mesh and a covered vent across your upper back to let the heat out that direction and a separate zippered insulating inner layer that allows you to open the front of your wind-protecting outer layer without exposing the elements to your base layer.
This venting system keeps you from overheating and sweating if you are doing a hard turn or cranking it out going uphill. They even thought to offset the zippers so there’s no interference between them. It’s really quite ingenious.
As with the Gabba and despite the Alpha’s colder weather rating, it’s still form-fittingly snug in both the men’s and women’s models so you are best riding it with your elbows and back bent. I find the Alpha so comfortable that I use it instead of a fleece under my ski coat and the cut reminds me to keep a similar body position when I’m working with junior racers. Castelli also uses stretchy material around the wrists and waist to keep the warm air in and tight to your gloves and bibs.
Castelli has one of the broader technical or high performance clothing lines in the industry. As you might expect from Italian designers, their color palette is also quite fresh if you are looking to break away from road cycling’s standard black, red and white peloton of colors or get some high viz yellows and greens to be seen better on the road. There always seem to be a Castelli sale going on so you might say their MSRP/RRP bark is often worse than the actual market price bite. Competitive Cycling, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit (use code ITK10 for 10% off) and Chain Reaction Cycles are stores I recommend based on their prices, selection and customer satisfaction that carry much of the Castelli line
Craft is really an outdoor exercise clothing company first and foremost with a common focus on moving air and moisture away from your body through multiple layers. Their clothing is designed for cyclists, runners, and nordic skiers but they are probably at their best when it comes to fall and winter kit.
Craft’s Hybrid Weather Gloves (best prices at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Amazon) are inexpensive yet so versatile in design and performance that they can keep you warm without sweating or letting the wind in from cool fall temps down to freezing winter ones (low 30s to mid 50s F or 0 to 12C). They fit well, have a breathable, soft lining and feature a shell that you can pull out to turn them into a rain and wind resistant glove on colder stretches. I’m showing you them in high-vis yellow below but they also come in red, neon green and black if you prefer.
Craft’s experience and design approach generally rates well if you are looking to fill out your cool weather accessories with their top of the line Shield arm and leg warmers or booties and caps (Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks).
If you are looking for a pair of full on bib tights to cover you, Craft’s Storm Bib Tights (Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks Cycles) are a good choice. They are both wind resistant and water-repellent with a comfortable pad for long rides. The well placed panels and ankle zippers make these tights relatively easy to put on and take off. These are fleece lined and breathable, and perhaps best of all for those who need it, they have more room than many of the brands designed with a racy Italian tight fit.
Craft’s Active Extreme (Competitive Cyclist, Amazon, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles, Tweeks Cycles) base layer in either men’s or woman’s cut is a superb long sleeve top for cycling or any exercise outing into late fall or winter. It’s thin and stretchy with seams running flat along your shoulders and arms. Craft’s unique talents in wicking sweat away from your body really shows up in this shirt so you feel dry no matter how much effort you are putting out.
Giordana has a dozen lines of cycling clothing ranging from their top performance FormaRed-Carbon kit and including the SilverLine aimed at more value-conscious buyers. The FormaRed-Carbon or FR-C line gives you a somewhat unique combination – Italian design with non-Italian sizing. So while it’s form-fitting when you are stretched out on the bike just like technical kit from the other brands, you won’t have to get out a tape measure and study the sizing charts to make sure to get the right fit.
Giordana’s FR-C kit is probably at its best when you are looking for light clothing on hot summer days. By using carbon fibers in the right places, the FR-C bibshorts (best prices at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist-Men’s, Competitive Cyclist-Women’s) and FR-C short sleeve jersey (Competitive Cyclist, Amazon) are able to give you a good balance between compression, stretch and breathability, something that Lycra alone can’t always accomplish. The feeling is smooth, tight and light that’s right for a summer ride.
GORE BIKE WEAR
W.L Gore is a $3 billion private company that develops fibers, fabrics and other engineered products used in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications. Perhaps best known for its Gore-Tex and Windstopper brand waterproof and windproof yet highly breathable materials used in garments sewn together by others, they also have large Gore Bike Wear and Gore Running Wear businesses.
So what do you get in Gore Bike Wear kit that you don’t get with Gore fabrics designed into kit made by Castelli (e.g. Gabba, Alpha) or one of the other top performing brands?
After considering this question, I come up with two reasons: 1) they know which garments will take best advantage of their technology as well or better than most, and 2) they are pretty good garment designers themselves, thank you.
It’s hard to deny the watertight comfort of wearing a Gore shell-like the Oxygen 2.0 (best prices at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles) which is impeccably cut from neck to tail.
Gore has also introduced a major update to its top-of-the-line Gore-Tex Active fabric called Gore One. I’ll save you the technical details (and hype) behind the new fabric but it has the same waterproof, windproof and breathable properties yet be lighter and pack into a smaller space. They can only make this fabric in black. I can’t recommend you buy a jacket, no matter how well performing, that is not going to be highly visible in the rain.
A Few Final Thoughts
There are other brands one could argue have or should be in this super group of the best road cycling performance or technical clothing. Hincapie and Pactimo, for example, make great kit too but they are generally made-to-order for clubs and events rather than sold through retail distribution. Others like Santini, Sportful and Rapha are niche or regionally focused – well-known for certain types of cycling kit or in certain regional areas but not at the level of the best brands I’ve reviewed above. Some like Mesh7 are making promising performance kit yet are relatively new and will need some more time to establish themselves if they are to make it with the best. There are also those including Pearl Izumi, dhb, Funkier, Capo, Endura, Sugoi, Altura and many more which make good, less technical, looser fitting, lower priced kit but not at the standout performance level of Assos, Castelli, Craft, Giordana’s FR-C or Gore Bike Wear.
In the future, I look forward to reviewing and comparing categories of clothing – bib shorts, spring and fall jackets, rain wear for example – and perhaps the best value brands. Let me know what brands, lines or categories or clothing you’d like to see reviewed and I’ll put that in the queue.
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Enjoy your ride!