How to choose your cycling base layer

The secret to successful cycle clothing is layering, and that has to start next to your skin with the right choice of base layer.

While it’s tempting to invest a lot of time and money in a great cycling jersey or jacket - and it’s certainly important to make the correct choices when it comes to those outer layers – there’s actually a much less visible garment that will dictate how much enjoyment you gain from your cycling experiences. That garment is your base layer.

This is effectively a hi-tech vest which has the power to keep you warm when the weather is cold, and also keep you cool and dry when you would otherwise be hot and sweaty.

But how do you go about choosing the right base layer? Here’s what you need to consider.

Year-round performance

With a huge range of base layers available, and all offering slightly different abilities and performance, it’s possible to make your choice of base layer perfect for your own specific needs. We all have different preferences when it comes to ideal warmth but choose correctly and there’s the very real possibility you may able to use the same base layer for the vast majority of your riding year.

For example, if you buy a warmer, more cold weather orientated base layer, you can simply remove layers as temperatures heat up, and wear just it and a windproof outer, or even a base layer alone in high summer. For a lighter, more summery base layer, simply add more layers above it as the temperature drops.

And don’t forget, wearing a base layer alone will work a treat to keep you comfortable on a turbo-trainer.

Length and warmth

There are two obvious initial criteria to consider when buying your base layer: arm length and the kind of fabric used. We’ll deal with fabric in a moment but arm length is an easy place to start.

In cold winter weather, the furthest parts of your limbs, such as your forearms, can suffer as much as any part of your body. So a long-sleeved base layer - such as the Essential Long-Sleeved Base Layer - can offer a helpful extra layer of protection against the chill. A higher neck line can help keep your upper chest warmer, too.

In slightly milder spring or autumn temperatures, you might still be grateful for long sleeves, especially on early morning rides before the sun has broken through. However, you could just as effectively use a short-sleeve base layer and augment it with arm warmers.

Then, when the heat is really ramping up on glorious summer days, a short sleeve or even sleeveless base layer will help wick away perspiration from your torso, keeping you dry and comfortable without being the cause of unwelcome heat retention. Don’t think you can ride base layer-free in summer – you’ll end up sweaty!

One more general point: whatever choice of arm length you go for, make sure there is enough length in the body to offer comfortable coverage. Also factor in the possibility that over time - and incorrect washing - the garment may shrink. There’s nothing more irritating than feeling the hem of your base layer creep up your back come to an end halfway down your forearms. Our selection of Van Rysel and women-specific Triban base layers has been specifically designed for use on the bike, with features such as extended backs for in-saddle comfort.

Fabric and breathability

Broadly speaking, when it comes to the kinds of fabrics used in base layers, there are three popular choices: merino wool, man-made synthetic fibres, and mesh.

Merino wool is a natural wonder and offers excellent performance in terms of heat retention, breathability and – thanks to the natural oils in it – even stops bad odours developing. It’s main selling point, though, is that it is extremely soft. However, Merino kit can be expensive and it isn’t naturally as stretchy and close-fitting as synthetic products.

Man-made synthetic fabrics are a more common entry point into base layers and these, too, often have almost miraculous technical properties. They can be smooth on the outside but fleecy soft on the side in contact with your body, and they help retain warmth in the cold but offer incredibly breathability in the heat. Synthetic base layers are also great value for money and long lasting.

Finally, there are mesh fabrics, which might look like string vests but actually offer excellent sweat-wicking qualities for summer rides. Garments such as the RR900 Short Sleeve Mesh Base Layer are also super light and relatively easy to care for. Some base layers even offer a mixture of thicker synthetic fabrics with mesh sections.

Whichever fabric you choose, make sure you follow manufacturer’s instructions as base layers can shrink - or even stretch – if not cared for correctly.

Fit, design and comfort

We mentioned earlier about body and arm length and making sure you choose a base layer that covers your torso comfortably. However, while length is a fundamental issue, there is the more complicated matter of panel design and seam placement.

As well as using different types of fabric such as mesh in different places to maximise breathability, manufacturers can also use specifically shaped panels to really enhance comfort when in a riding position. Our Van Rysel ‘Aerofit’ base layers are perfect for riders who want ultimate race-ready performance.

Too make sure close-fitting garments offer the best levels of comfort, there are a few things you can do. The first is to look for garments that have flat-locked seams, which reduce the likelihood of chafing. The second is to try on any base layer before you buy to check that no seams have the potential to rub uncomfortably. Test it thoroughly – a long bike ride is not the place for unpleasant surprises!

Finally, every base layer that we stock has a ‘Product benefits’ and ‘Detailed information’ section on its webpage that outlines its particular benefits to make sure you are purchasing exactly the right product.

So base layers aren’t quite as simple as you might first think. In fact, they are some of the most technically advanced cycling garments on the market. But carefully consider your specific requirements and you will end up with a piece of clothing that will truly enhance your ride wardrobe.

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