How To Buy a Cycling Jacket

Ben­e­fit­ting from some of the mate­r­i­al inno­va­tions and fash­ion-for­ward styling of the run and hike cat­e­gories, cycling jack­ets have got­ten lighter and more breath­able, mak­ing them more com­fort­able both on and off the road. Our guide on how to choose the best cycling jack­et will help you find the right style for your needs.

Cut: Also known as fit, ergonom­ic cuts in cycling jack­ets are pret­ty stan­dard, with vary­ing degrees of per­for­mance from race track to bike path. Thank­ful­ly, the days of “shrink it and pink it” are gone as women’s styles are just as preva­lent as men’s. Ergonom­ic, form-fit­ting sleeves, tapered col­lars, and cape backs are all part of spe­cial­ized cuts—the idea being that the jack­et is meant to be worn while you’re bend­ing over on the han­dle­bars. There­fore, form-fit­ting cuts are more preva­lent for road cycling jack­ets, where­as cuts on moun­tain bik­ing jack­ets tend to be a lit­tle loos­er. Even more casu­al in fit—but in many cas­es equal­ly as functional—are crossover jack­ets for bike com­muters and urban riders.

As you begin jack­et shop­ping, con­sid­er just how stream­lined you need to be, whether you need it for your week­end group ride, rac­ing a crit, or cruis­ing to the cof­fee shop.

Pock­ets: Pock­ets on cycling jack­ets are one of the most impor­tant and talked about fea­tures. They range from being open with a lit­tle bit of stretch at the top, to Vel­cro flaps, to a zip­per. Look for pock­ets that suit your needs—a water­proof pock­et for a smart­phone, inte­grat­ed cord man­age­ment for your tunes, a small zip­pered pock­et for a hotel key, or three large back pock­ets for food, lay­ers, and tools. Many jack­ets can be stuffed into their own pock­et and zip up for easy car­ry­ing. In addi­tion to stor­age pock­ets, con­sid­er front hand warmer pock­ets, com­mon­ly found on recre­ation­al-lev­el and moun­tain bik­ing jackets.

Mate­ri­als: This is where jack­et buy­ing becomes a rid­dle wrapped in an enig­ma, like a game of Clue where every­one is try­ing to throw you off course. Why does it have to be so com­pli­cat­ed? The tex­tile world is con­stant­ly evolv­ing and dif­fer­ent brands have their own names for essen­tial­ly the same fab­rics, not to men­tion spe­cial-made mate­ri­als that vary slight­ly only so they can be brand­ed as pro­pri­etary. In the end it’s all great stuff, so don’t let mate­r­i­al jar­gon over­whelm you. Most jack­ets are made from vari­a­tions of poly­ester, Lycra, Nylon and oth­er syn­thet­ics with and with­out treat­ments for wind- and water-proof­ing. The main con­sid­er­a­tion is to find a bal­ance between water­proof and breatha­bil­i­ty, much like the bal­ance between weight and price. You can’t have it both ways, not per­fect­ly at least, so con­sid­er when and where you’ll most often be using your new jack­et. While some jack­ets are most­ly just for wind, oth­ers are strict­ly for rain, with no breatha­bil­i­ty what­so­ev­er. A good all-around foul weath­er cycling jack­et should have a bal­ance of breath­able water­proof­ness; and many will throw a com­plete­ly water­proof “slick­er” in their kit or car as well. Fur­ther­more, a mix of mate­ri­als is becom­ing more and more com­mon in a design con­cept known as body-map­ping. Look for a jack­et with insu­la­tion in the chest, a nice high col­lar with a full zip, breatha­bil­i­ty in the back, and sleeves with high-mobility.

Wind­proof: Many peo­ple pre­fer to ride with a light­weight, pack­able wind jack­et, espe­cial­ly when they are quite sure it isn’t going to rain. Most wind­proof jack­ets pro­vide enough warmth that a lit­tle mois­ture won’t kill you.

Waterproof/Breathable: A num­ber of des­ig­na­tions as to the water­proof­ness ver­sus breatha­bil­i­ty of jack­ets exist. Brand­ed fab­ric coat­ings such as Gore Tex, eVent, and Polartec NeoShell per­me­ate the mar­ket along with many pro­pri­etary water­proof-breath­able inno­va­tions. Just remem­ber, the more breath­able, the less water­proof, and vice ver­sa. Any­thing short of a non-breath­able, plas­tic slick­er will even­tu­al­ly become per­me­at­ed in rain or snow and lose its warmth and breatha­bil­i­ty, so plan accord­ing­ly. Anoth­er com­mon sense rule is that the more high-tech, breath­able, stretch water­proof fab­rics cost more, while low­er-per­form­ing, entry lev­el mate­ri­als are less expen­sive. Taped or weld­ed seams also add to the over­all water­proof­ness of a jacket.

Weight: As with every­thing in cycling, weight con­sid­er­a­tions are key. Top-of-the-line race jack­ets are made of high-tech fab­rics that are as light as they can make them. Anoth­er way to look at weight is in com­press-abil­i­ty. If you can scrunch the jack­et down to at least pock­et-sized, then you should be able to car­ry it with­out wor­ry­ing about weight. Thin­ner jack­ets may weigh less and offer good wind pro­tec­tion, but lack in water­proof-ness, so choose the jack­et that match­es your rid­ing style. When weight is of lit­tle con­cern, as in a com­muter jack­et, you’ll find warmer, longer and more water­proof offerings.

Ven­ti­la­tion: Being able to vent your jack­et is impor­tant when deal­ing with less-breath­able (read, less expen­sive) mate­ri­als. Back vents cov­ered by a flap are com­mon. Full front zips allow for uncom­pli­cat­ed ven­ti­la­tion. And mesh pock­ets can also serve as vents. Some jack­ets do come full fea­tured with under-arm zip­pered vents.

Vis­i­bil­i­ty: You have to be seen when rid­ing on the road. Reflec­tive style hits on pock­ets and pip­ing on seams are almost omnipresent in road, recre­ation­al, and com­muter cycling jack­ets these days. There are even mate­ri­als now with reflec­tive thread sewn in, and high­ly reflec­tive col­ors are back in style.

Waist­band: Cycling jack­ets will always use some com­bi­na­tion of elas­tic and cords to secure the waist­band. Some jack­ets fea­ture an extreme ergonom­ic cut that doesn’t require any­thing else mechan­i­cal to hold it to the body, but even the most stream­lined jack­ets fea­ture some elas­tic in the waist. Oth­er loos­er fit­ting jack­ets will be endowed with a draw cord or an elas­tic draw­cord, prefer­ably with cord locks and one-hand operation.

Sleeves: Con­vert­ible jack­ets seem to get more com­mon and bet­ter designed every sea­son. Many times you just need to keep your core warm so a jack­et with zip-off sleeves makes great sense. Sleeve cuffs are almost exclu­sive­ly elas­ti­cized to go on quick­ly over gloves and pre­vent wind from blow­ing up the sleeve.

Hood: A hood can come in handy on epic all-day moun­tain bike rides across high moun­tain pass­es and long stretch­es of dou­ble track. They zip away nice­ly into the col­lar of your jack­et or snap off and don’t add much weight. They will become a kite, how­ev­er, on a down­hill or even a flat stretch, and can be loud and blow wind down your back. For these rea­sons hoods are usu­al­ly only found on moun­tain bike jack­ets and com­muter jack­ets and are often stow­able. It’s nice when they have a one-hand pull draw­cord for when the wind and rain real­ly pick up while riding.

Zip­pers: The nicer and more water­proof the zip­per, the more expen­sive the jack­et. When pur­chas­ing an entry-lev­el jack­et, be aware that the zip­per qual­i­ty is one place where the man­u­fac­tur­er can real­ize cost sav­ings. High­er-end jack­ets will have nice, light­weight zip­pers that are either water­proof or will fea­ture an inter­nal (or exter­nal) draft flap. Look for a jack­et with a snag-resis­tant draft flap to keep out wind and rain.

Remem­ber: Man­u­fac­tur­ers of cycling jack­ets are pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with keep­ing you dry and pro­tect­ed from wind, which can whip away your body heat too quick­ly and cause a chill on the chest and core. Warmth typ­i­cal­ly comes from your base­lay­ers, jer­seys and arm warmers.