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.