Cycling jackets are designed to help keep you dry and warm on the bike, using modern synthetic fabrics and a cut that reflects the ergonomics of on-bike positioning.
They will also often feature cycle-specific design touches such as a zippable, waterproof pocket for keys and essentials, high collars to prevent wind chill and a long ‘drop tail’ to help protect your back and bum from spray thrown up by the rear wheel.
Other features may include sealed seams, storm flaps (on pockets and zips, to prevent water entering), air vents (to help you cool down), removable sleeves and hoods, handwarmer pockets and more.
The advent of breathable microporous membrane fabrics such as Gore-Tex and eVENT etc. – that stop rainwater from getting in but allow moisture vapour to escape – has led to a new generation of light and versatile outer garments that are a far remove from the stiff and sweaty waterproofs of old.
Jackets can differ in terms of cut – ‘racing’ style jackets will be closer-fitting and more aerodynamic than more casual cuts for commuting or MTB use, but may restrict you in terms of what you can wear under as base layers (and aren’t as versatile off the bike).
Meanwhile if you are going to be wearing the jacket on dawn/dusk training spins or early morning commutes a high-visibility option may be advisable.
Which cycling jacket is right for you?
There are a number of types of jackets, from thin and lightweight rainproof shells to slightly more substantial softshell jackets and fully waterproof jackets packed with weather-defying features.
• Rainproof shells: Are very thin and lightweight jackets with a showerproof fabric. They are intended as an ‘emergency option’ for extra protection in changeable weather, and pack down very small so that they can be rolled up and stowed in a jacket pocket or saddlebag. They don’t offer much in the way of insulation so are strictly for summer use, or for autumn and spring when worn in conjunction with warmer mid- and base layers.
• Softshell jackets: Are windproof and water-resistant with a smooth face fabric and a warm fleece inner. They are warmer than showerproof shells but more breathable than full waterproofs and are an excellent option for changeable spring and autumn weather or to have stowed in your pack at all times. A loose-fitting softshell with enough room for underlayers is an excellent ‘general-purpose’ cycling top that can be used on its own or with base or shell garments to cover a huge range of conditions.
• Waterproof jackets: At the premium end of the market and designed for the toughest of winter conditions are fully waterproof jackets, which are intended to be worn as an outer layer offering substantial protection against the elements and which is unlikely to be taken off during the ride. These feature a fully waterproof external membrane called a Durable Water Repellancy layer (DWR) which will keep out all moisture.
Waterproof jackets are rated both for their ability to repel rain (waterproof rating) as well as their breathability (water vapour transmission rate). Waterproof jackets can be unlined or lined, with a separate mesh layer between you and the exterior membrane which is aimed at helping to prevent moisture buildup. Features like high, fleece-lined collars, properly-fitting cuffs and zips, storm flaps and laser-cut, thermally welded seams are as important in preventing water ingress as the waterproof rating of the fabric. Even the most advanced waterproofs will meanwhile struggle to cope with the amount of heat and moisture generated by a rider putting the hammer down, so look for adjustable venting systems (armpit zips, removable sleeves, yoke vents at the back) that allow cool air to flow in.
NOTE: The DWR can become less effective over time, a process called ‘wetting out’. Treatments are available to restore the DWR (added to the wash cycle) so if you notice your jacket’s performance deteriorating over time it might be ready for a re-treat.
Best Cycling Jackets Buying Guide: in-depth
Some common features and terms to be aware of when looking for a cycle jacket are:
• Breathability: How well a fabric can get rid of perspiration.
• Coolmax: Breathable fibre used in lots of base layers.
• Drop liner: This is a mesh layer that sits loosely inside a waterproof jacket and is normally made of a material with high wicking properties. The ideas is that a separate inner layer helps keep you drier by keeping your skin away from the outer membrane and so reducing the chances of moisture buildup.
• Durable Water Repellency (DWR) layer: Waterproof treatment for the outside of the fabric. Jacket may need retreatment to replace DWR after time.
• Microporous membrane: Waterproof layer with tiny holes (pores) that allow moisture vapour (from sweat) out but prevent bigger drops (rain) from getting in.
• Pit zips: Zips under the armpits that can be opened up for venting.
• Seam sealing: Tapes on the inside of seams to stop water getting through the stitching holes.
• Storm flap: Flap behind or in front of a zip designed to stop rain and wind getting in.
• Waterproof rating: The amount of rain the fabric can handle in 24 hours before it soaks through.
• Water vapour transmission rate: Breathability of the fabric in mm per 24hrs.
• Wicking: The ability of a fabric to transfer sweat away from your under layers or skin to the outside face of the jacket.
• Windstopper: Popular weatherproof fabric with increased breathability/wicking properties.
• Yoke vent: Flap below the shoulders through which air can escape.