Women in cycling | 7 MIN READ

Women's gear: What do I REALLY need?

The decision to take on a new sport or hobby can be an expensive one. When compared to others, cycling is a relatively inexpensive pastime, but it still comes with a relatively hefty price tag. When you consider all the gear you see at a bike shop, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars on all of the bells and whistles that you’re convinced you have to have. One can’t help but ask herself, "Do I actually need all this stuff? How do I know what I need and what I can skip? What should I be willing to spend top dollar on and where can I cut corners or opt for generic? Do I need to buy female-specific stuff or is it all the same?"

While all cycling clothes may seem as though they’re created equally, they’re definitely not.

You can certainly buy a lesser quality set of clothes, assuming that for half the cost, it’s worth it. It might be, but you may also find that the cheaper quality gear stretches out more easily, doesn’t have enough grip, or that the stitching and seams start to unravel after only a few rides. Leaders in the bicycle market have also been investing more into learning about women’s cycling needs and have been making significant headway in the bicycle, gear, and apparel department. By opting for highly reputable cycling brands, you are buying riding apparel that was researched and designed to offer optimal comfort, support, and safety, as well as retain form and function so that you don’t have to buy new gear after only two months of wear.

Bicycle and bike gear

The first and most obvious thing you need is a bicycle. Whether or not women need female-specific bikes is really dependent upon each individual woman and her body. No two bodies are alike, so rather than blindly decide what kind of bike you think you need, it’s best to go to a professional bike shop for a proper fitting. During your fitting, various dimensions of your body will be taken, your riding posture and biomechanics will be observed and might require numerous adjustments, including replacing the saddle or the handlebar stem or even shimming of shoes. Based on this information, the bike fitting specialist can help you choose a bike that best suits your body.

Apparel

There are two main reasons that cycling apparel exists: comfort and safety. And when designing for comfort and safety, three factors are considered: how it fits, whether it impedes movement, and whether it is sweat-wicking. The truth is, you can ride a bike with absolutely no special apparel at all. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. While you don’t necessarily need to shell out a bunch of money on the most prestigious brand name of clothing available, the actual quality of the riding gear should generally be of higher quality.

women cyclists

High end bike clothes will provide you with the comfort and support that your body needs, as they are designed to be accommodating to the aggressive riding position of leaning over the handlebars. This means that the backs and sleeves on cycling shirts and jackets will be longer to ensure that your lower back and wrists don’t end up exposed. You will also find that most reputable cycling brands feature bends at the knees and waist so that pedalling is unaffected. In addition to the design of cycling clothes being very specific, the fabric used to make cycling gear is also very specific. Because of its lightweight, moisture wicking qualities, lycra is the go-to material for cycling apparel. Most cycling apparel is made from lycra, which keeps you cool in warmer weather because it’s lightweight and breathable, and warm in cooler weather because it wicks away moisture. Another advantage to wearing lycra is that it is less likely to bunch up or cause chafing.

Much like bicycles, there are certain pieces of apparel and gear that are worth buying female-specific and others where it simply doesn’t matter. The kind of gear you will need will heavily depend on how and when you will be riding your bike. If you plan on going for road rides, you will likely need a lycra riding kit. If your interest is in leisurely riding or commuting, you can wear clothing that’s a bit looser. If mountain biking is your cup of tea, then you’ll probably find yourself in a combination of the two. Weather can also affect gear selections. Regardless of the kind of riding you’re doing, you never want to want riding clothes that are loose or long enough to get caught up in the bike chain.

Bib or shorts: How do I know which one works for me?

If you’re new to cycling, then the decision of whether to go with bib or shorts can be a difficult one. Until recently, bibs weren’t as popular among women cyclists because the design of women’s kits were still based on scaled down measurements of men’s kits, which just wasn’t working for most women. Not only were the dimensions a bit off, but the design of the bib made it difficult for women to use the bathroom, which made shorts the go-to for most female cyclists. Thankfully, the cycling apparel industry took notice and has started making design changes to better suit women’s bodies and needs. Women’s shorts and bibs are now being designed with longer front inseams to accommodate their generally longer waists and come with shorter leg lengths. A variety of bib types are also popping up on the market, each with innovative features that aim to make bib use easier for women. “Dropper bibs” are equipped with a feature (zippers, clips, etc) that allows the user to disconnect the straps so that they can remove their bottoms more easily, making going to the bathroom nearly a breeze. Dropper bibs are still relatively new and come in a variety of styles, including open back and halter.

If you’re a roadie, or even an aspiring roadie, then it’s recommended that you stick with a bib or fitted cycling shorts, preferably made from lycra. Even though bibs may look silly, the pros that come with wearing bibs certainly outweigh the cons. It’s worth noting that the biggest complaint about wearing lycra shorts is that the elastic waistband can be a bit too snug or cut into the skin, which is one of the most common reasons cyclists make the big switch from shorts to a bib. It might not seem like a big deal, but aside from the general discomfort of having elastic cut into your skin, an overly tight waistband could interfere with your ability to breathe. Getting a looser pair of riding shorts might seem like a logical idea, but then you introduce the hassle of your riding shorts slipping down. As if restricted breathing and slipping shorts weren’t bad enough, but many riders also voice the complaint that the elastic bands soak up sweat, causing chafing and saddle sores. Opting for a bib should eliminate all of the above problems as bibs have no elastic waistband and the shoulder straps help keep the chamois (more on these later) securely in place.

women on bicycles

If you’re planning leisurely rides on your cruiser or commuting on relatively gentle terrain and your rides are going to be relatively short, then looser shorts would be a perfectly fine option. As a casual rider, it’s unlikely that you will find yourself on difficult or dangerous terrain or on rides that exceed a half hour. Unlike road riding, your riding stance will be more relaxed, so your clothing can be a bit more relaxed, too.

If mountain biking is your thing, then you’ll find that any of the above options will work for you; you’ll just need to see what you personally feel most comfortable wearing. Many of cyclists sport looser mountain biking shorts with a chamois underneath and a shirt, but for the reasons discussed above, eventually transition to the lycra kit. You might also find that there are certain trails that you feel more comfortable riding more fitted attire and others where looser fitting clothes is more appropriate.

Jersey or shirt: Which goes with what?

Jerseys and shirts are definitely a must, but unless you have unique body dimensions, a less expensive jersey will do the job. If you’re purchasing online, check product dimensions and take your own measurements, also taking a couple of extra inches on your back into account (remember - the hunched over riding position causes jerseys and shirts to ride up), to ensure your purchase will meet your body’s needs.

In general, if you’re wearing a bib, you’re best off pairing it with a jersey, as bibs and jerseys are designed to be worn together. If you’re more comfortable in shorts, then throw on a cycling shirt made from wicking material.

What is a chamois?

A chamois is the crotch-padded riding shorts that every serious cyclist wears. While wearing a chamois may feel like sitting on a massive sanitary napkin, you’ll find the very characteristic that makes it uncomfortable when you’re not riding is what ends up making your riding comfortable. If you’ve chosen a bib with built in padding, then you don’t need chamois shorts. However, if your shorts of choice are the looser fitting shorts, you absolutely need to invest in a good pair of chamois. The quality of your chamois matters because lesser quality pieces tend to be constructed differently; a common complaint about cheap chamoises is that the placement of the padding and the stitching type tends to create a seam that juts into the rider’s body, causing discomfort. As mentioned earlier, you should try out a pair of women’s chamois, as they are cut differently to accommodate for seated female anatomy pressure points that occur. A well constructed, properly fitting chamois should prevent chafing, saddle sores, or other injuries and related medical issues, which is why having the right pair for you is so important.

When choosing the best chamois for you, make sure you buy one that will meet your body shape and size, that isn’t too tight (which could result in restricted breathing when riding), and that is designed for the kind of riding you plan on doing; the type of riding you do will determine your riding stance. Even though they might not look different, depending on the riding purpose, they will offer a different kind of support and comfort. Whenever possible, read reviews written by experienced cyclists and try the shorts on before purchase.

female cycling chamois

Gloves

You will never regret investing your hard-earned money into a good pair of gloves. Gloves might not seem like much of an essential, but when you take your first spill and put your hands down, those gloves will be the only thing protecting the delicate skin on your palms. Even if you never crash, wearing gloves is essential because they make riding itself safer and more comfortable. Gloves absorb hand sweat, making it easier to maintain a solid grip on your handlebars without sweat-induced slipping and sliding, which could result in a crash. Decent bicycling gloves will have plush palm padding, which also serves a very specific purpose; the padding helps cushion the hands during riding and absorbs much of the vibrations that pass through the bike and into the handlebars.

women cycling gloves

Undergarments

You might have the best bike and gear, but with lousy undergarments, you won’t enjoy your ride as much. If you have an established exercise routine and already know the sports bra and underwear that works for you, then that’s great! However, if this is all new to you and you don’t know where to start, then read on.

When it comes to what kind of underwear to wear under your chamois, the answer most avid [female] cyclists give is “none.” Any decent chamois will be made from a sweat-wicking material which can and should be worn sans underoos. Wearing underwear poses more health risks than going without because underwear can trap more sweat and bacteria, making you more prone to chafing and infections.

Footwear

The footwear you need will also depend very much on the kind of riding you do. The careful thought and design that has gone into bicycling shoes can be mind-blowing, particularly when you realize that every shoe feature has a specific purpose. They are equipped with stiff, rigid soles that promote balance and control, regulate the rider’s power more efficiently, and reduce muscle fatigue, all of which can prevent injury from overstressing. Riding shoes can be clipped in or clipless.

Roadie cycling shoes are very different in form and function from mountain biking shoes. Additionally, you can either ride clipped in (the soles of your bike shoes will actually physically attach to the pedals) or clipless. Riding clipped in takes some practice and experience, but once you learn how to disconnect from the pedals, you’ll discover that you’re riding more smoothly and efficiently. If clipped in, then you’ll find that your leg muscles are also working in better symmetry and balance because your legs have to work harder to engage in two movements; the quads push the pedal down and the hamstrings pull the pedal up.

It might be hard to believe, but having cycling specific socks is almost as important as having the right shoes! One of the most important features to look for in cycling socks is that they are made of a thin, breathable material. You’ll rarely find them to be padded, as excess padding could cause pressure points inside the shoes, leading to discomfort or pain, blisters, and other related ailments.

women cycling shoes

If you’ll be doing short rides on gentle terrain, such as paved or gravel roads, your current sneakers and socks will probably do the job. Just keep in mind that bike shoes also exist for a reason; if you find that your relaxing sneaker bike rides are no longer satisfying and you want to bump your riding up to the next level, buy proper bike shoes. Your feet, and ride, will thank you.

Safety gear

Bicycle riding is a relatively safe sport, but it certainly comes with its dangers. There are lots of ways to protect yourself from serious cycling injury, should you find yourself in an accident. Helmets and gloves are the two most obvious pieces of safety gear, but eyewear and reflective accessories can prove to be just as lifesaving.

Helmet

A helmet is always worth spending top dollar on. Aside from the fact that it protects one of the most important parts of your body, an ill fitting helmet can make for a miserable ride, which is why you should make an effort to pick a helmet that will meet your needs. Much like all the other bike gear in this blog, helmets vary from one cycling practice to the next, so pay attention to the kind of helmets you’re looking at. For instance, triathlon helmets are created to be more aerodynamic than mountain biking helmets. You should try on multiple helmets (and don’t forget to wear those sunglasses during your fitting!) before settling on one so that you know how various fits and styles compare.

The question of cost is a big one when it comes to helmets, but the differences between helmets on opposite ends of the spectrum is quite noticeable! One of the most noticeable differences, which also happens to contribute to overall helmet weight, is that of ventilation: the expensive ones offer lots of it, allowing for heat to escape from your head and for cooler air to flow through, and the cheaper ones don’t. Newbie riders don’t often think about features like ventilation, but you won’t regret springing for the better ventilated helmet in scorching summer heat!

Eyewear

A commonly overlooked health and safety accessory is a decent pair of sunglasses. First and foremost, make sure your glasses protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. If you plan on doing any kind of aggressive riding or riding in limited visibility environments, then polarized prescription (if applicable) sports sunglasses would be a better option. Polarized sunglasses offer additional clarity and visibility in weather conditions that would otherwise be difficult to visually navigate through because they filter light in a special way that enhances depth perception. Sports sunglasses are usually made from especially resilient materials and are contoured in a way to better hug your face, reducing the likelihood of them falling off. Regardless of the glasses you decide to go with, always made sure you wear your glasses under your helmet, not on top; the sides of your helmet should sit comfortably on top of the arms of your sunglasses.

female cycling eyewear

Reflective gear and lights

While reflective gear and lights are essential if you ride during hours with limited light and visibility, you don’t have to go out and spend top dollar on these. Cycling apparel is often designed with reflective strips and other accents. Most bikes are also equipped with various safety reflector features, including reflectors on stock pedals and bike wheel spokes, but don’t assume that they’re enough. You can never be too careful when it comes to your safety, so adding additional reflectors to your bike, clothes, and helmet is a good idea. There are also thousands of battery operated and rechargeable lights on the market, some of which have a variety of blinking and brightness settings. Try to keep an emergency light on you, just in case you unexpectedly find yourself riding after the sun has set or other limited visibility conditions.

Extreme weather conditions

It goes without saying that you’ll likely have to change your riding clothes to match whatever weather you’re going to be riding in. Just make sure that you have enough experience under your belt before biting off more than you can chew. What might be an exceptionally difficult ride for you on a good day might send you to the hospital on a hot summer day. The only way you’ll know your limits and how to read your body is by getting some miles in and learning how your body responds in various situations.

In the event that you’ll be battling the summer heat and humidity, you’ll want to ensure that every article of clothing on you is moisture wicking and lightweight. Consider the fact that dark colors will absorb heat, so lighter colors in sunnier conditions will likely be more comfortable. Cooling accessories, such as arm coolers, can also provide relief in higher temperatures. If you’re tough enough to venture out on your bike during winter conditions, removable layers are recommended. You might find that as you continue to ride and your body warms up, you have to remove a layer or two of clothing. There are plenty of warming accessories on the cycling market, such as arm, leg, and toe warmers, winterized riding gloves, and insulated caps, that can be worn to retain heat in cold riding temperatures.

Some helpful tips

  • Want to make your riding clothes last longer? Charlie’s Soap is a great choice for laundry detergent. Skip on the fabric softener and opt for line drying instead of using the dryer.
  • Buying your riding apparel online? Most products available for purchase have a little blurb with item specifics and dimensions. Prior to purchasing, make sure you take whatever body measurements necessary to determine your body’s needs. If you’re measuring for a shirt or jersey, also consider the fact that the hunched over riding position will likely cause the back of your shirt or jersey to ride up, exposing your lower back; you might want to add on a couple extra inches to your back measurement so that you don’t find yourself with strip of sunburnt lower back skin.
  • Reviews, reviews, reviews! Prior to purchasing a bike, cycling apparel, or cycling gear, do a little homework so you know what you’re looking at. The product description will likely be a stellar review of the item’s most positive attribute, but don’t expect for any brand to be honest enough to list all of the ways their product falls short. Product reviews provided by authentic, unsponsored cyclists is your best bet if you want an honest breakdown of the pros and cons of the product.

Ultimately, you should only spend as much as you’re comfortable spending. If your budget allows you to spend thousands of dollars on a bike, bike gear, and apparel, then go for it! But certainly don’t feel pressured by the advertising that surrounds the women’s cycling market. There are certainly key pieces that are worth going high end on, such as chamoises, gloves, and helmets, but there are other items where you can certainly opt for the less expensive option. You might also find that the more time you spend on your bike, the more you fall in love with riding it, and the more willing you are to spend top dollar. If this becomes your reality, don’t hesitate to head out to the bike shop to treat yourself with a new, plushier pair of chamois!

a couple cycling together

It’s about YOU.

Remember: everyone is different; what works for one person may not work for another. While there are common differences between the male and female body, some women may find that a lycra bib and jersey is the ideal combination for a comfortable ride, while others may find any cycling apparel made from lycra is simply too restrictive. The same can even be said when choosing a bike; some women may find that simply switching out the saddle on a men’s bike is all that is needed to make riding comfortable. Others may discover that switching out a combination of parts to female-specific will suffice, while others realize that they need an actual female-specific bike. There’s no right or wrong decision, as long as the decision you make is the best decision for you and your riding experiences.

Velosurance realizes that everyone is different, too. Velosurance was created by cyclists for cyclists to address the lack of equal bicycle insurance protection. Because everyone is different, Velosurance offers a highly customizable policy to provide coverage for nearly any risk associated with cycling. From gap medical to liability, vehicle contact protection to even roadside assistance! Whatever your needs, chances are, there’s a policy for you.

Related posts