Cycle-specific headwear is designed to keep you comfortable in a variety of weather conditions – from thermal caps, balaclavas and neck warmers that will help to keep you training right through the coldest months of winter to light caps that aid with moisture management and protect against harmful UV rays during the summer.
Where cycle-specific headwear differs from other technical athletic apparel is that it is designed to be worn under a helmet, and so must be low-profile and snug to the head. The classic Belgians-style cotton peaked cycle cap is an iconic design, unchanged from the earliest days of the sport, but the latest generation of synthetic ‘skull caps’ and multi-function ‘Buff’-type garments are designed for optimum performance in sub-zero conditions.
Read on to find out more about the different types of cycle caps (and other headgear) that are available, and to help choose the one that’s right for you.
Which cycling cap is right for you?
As above, the vast majority of cycle-specific caps and headgear are designed to be worn under a helmet so will be thin and low-profile (in comparison, for example, to bulkier ski-style beanies or fashion baseball caps) so that they fit snugly on the head. Beyond this however there are still some considerations to take into account when choosing a cycle cap, as some will be designed for optimum winter performance and others for summer or for the transition seasons of spring and autumn. You may well find, in fact, that a selection of headwear appropriate for different seasons and weather conditions will best suit your needs.
• Season: Winter cycle caps will have thermal properties to trap a layer of air next to your skin and help keep you warm, and will often also be wind- and water-repellent. Lightweight summer caps, on the other hand, will often be designed to keep sun and sweat out of your eyes so a bill or peak to offer shade is essential, as is a material with good wicking properties to draw moisture away from the skin. Some summer caps are specifically designed for the folically-challenged among us and to protect the scalp against harmful UV rays which can cause nasty burns, even through the vents of your helmet.
• Materials: As with other cycle and sports clothing, cycle caps can be made from natural materials (Merino wool or cotton) or synthetic fibres (polyester, fleece microfibre or nylon). The former generally provide excellent thermal properties and a natural ability to absorb perspiration and odour (wool especially, cotton not so much) but can be bulky and/or irritating to sensitive skin. Man-made materials can be designed to prioritise moisture management (wicking) and made extremely light and thing while retaining durability.
• Bill: One option when choosing headgear is whether or not to pick a type with a peak or bill (as with the classic Belgian-stycle cycle cap) or without (as with many winter skull caps). A bill can be handy to offer shade in strong sunshine and to prevent sweat from running into your eyes, while riders in the pro peleton have long known that the short, stiff bill on cycle caps offers much better protection in against heavy rain than eyewear alone (in the case of the latter, you can turn the cap around and wear it bill-backwards if you don’t like the look).
• Wicking: The ability to draw moisture away from the skin and to the surface of the fabric where it can evaporate – a process known as wicking – is one reason to consider wearing a light cap in the summer if you don’t want sweat running into your eyes. Using a light skullcap for moisture management can also help to prevent buildup of bacteria and odour in the padding of your helmet, too.
• Thermal properties: For winter training, riding and running you will want a cap that keeps you warm and insulated. Wool or synthetic microfibre caps will do an excellent job of this, and many use materials with additional treatments or membranes that are wind- and water-repellent – an excellent consideration if you have ever felt the icy gusts of a January morning blowing through the vents in your helmet (and the painful headache that often results!).
• Commuter: For riders who intend to use their headwear on the city commute, reflective paneling or piping – or even a high-visibility cap or buff – will help you be seen and stay safe.
Common types of cycling caps
• Classic cycle caps: The classic ‘Belgian style’ cotton cycle cap has been a staple of the keen cyclist’s wardrobe since the golden age of pro racing, and versions of it are proudly worn by today’s pro peleton. Featuring multi-panel construction and an elasticated headband for fit, the classic cycle cap is characterized by its short, stiff bill. Materials technology has seen it eclipsed by more modern synthetic skullcaps for use in the depths of winter, but for the transition seasons of spring and autumn the Belgian cap still has a place in the cyclist’s quiver, as it offers excellent protection against sun and rain, and provides just that little bit of extra warmth that can be the difference between comfort and cold. Plus, nothing says ‘I am a cyclist’ more than that little cap (bar, perhaps, shaving your legs) especially if emblazoned with pro team livery or your club’s logo. This is one item that blends fashion and function, and never goes out of style.
• Skull caps: Also known as helmet caps, these are low-bulk, form-fitting caps that sit tight to the head so they can be worn under the helmet. There are two main types – winter versions with thermal properties and wind/water resistance, and lightweight, synthetic summer versions whose main purpose is moisture management and sun protection (they will keep sweat out of your eyes and your helmet, and protect your scalp from the sun’s rays). With winter skull caps you usually have a choice of materials (Merino wool or man-made fibres) and additional features such as ear flaps (very advisable for cold conditions) and a bill.
• Neck warmers and gaiters: These are tubular fabric garments designed – as the name suggests – to be worn around the neck in the winter months. They are usually fleece-lined with excellent thermal properties, and help to minimize the amount of skin exposed to wind chill.
• Headbands: As with cycle caps, these are designed to be worn under the helmet, and while they protect the forehead and front of the head from wind chill they leave the scalp exposed for ventilation. One option to consider for spring/autumn or changeable conditions where a full-coverage skull cap may be overkill.
• Balaclavas: Cycle balaclavas offer all-in-one coverage for the head, neck and face and are intended for use in the very coldest of sub-zero conditions. The disadvantage to balaclavas however is their lack of versatility – a combination of neck gaiter/skull cap etc will allow the rider to remove garments if conditions warm up.
• Other hats and headwear: There is a whole range of ‘other’ headwear on the market to offer protection against wind and cold, from the specific types already mentioned – winter balaclavas, neck gaiters and headbands – to other designs whose main selling point is their versatility. In the case of the latter, it’s worth mentioning the ‘Buff’ type tubular scarf, a lightweight synthetic garment which can be worn in a huge variety of ways – for example as a neckerchief, headband, wristband, mask, hairband, balaclava, scarf, scrunchie, pirate cap, beanie or bandana. This type of multi-function garment can be an excellent option for changeable conditions or as an accessory to other headwear.