What to Wear: Bike Commuting Clothing Essentials

What to wear is a question with many answers when it comes to bike commuting. There are many circumstances to consider, including how long your ride is, what kind of changing and/or shower facilities are available at your destination, and what type of weather you’ll experience on your commute. For some resplendently dressed professionals with a cool and calm commute and no changing facilities, a pair of ankle biters and a helmet will suffice. But, for the rest of us, there are a multitude of options to consider, from gloves to shorts to shoes. Lets start with the basics.


One of the most hotly debated commuting topics of all times: to spandex or not to spandex. For many novice commuters, or non-commuters, the act of pulling on a pair of skin-tight lycra shorts before riding into work sounds like a preposterous idea. For other veteran commuters, their rides are short enough that they can leave the spandex at home until the longer weekend rides. However, for someone who commutes a fair distance or commutes everyday, spandex shorts with a chamois offer protection and support that can make your ride much more comfortable (the chamois is that lovely ergonomic seat insert that makes spending time on the saddle far more enjoyable). The compression qualities of spandex shorts help to support your muscles and increase blood flow while you pedal, and the form-fitting nature of the material leads to less chaffing and irritation while youre on the saddle. The simplest way to go is basic black, although the brands and styles available are countless. For those commuters searching for a more stylish or less revealing look, mountain bike or baggy style shorts, knickers and liner shorts all provide the chamois and cycling-specific cut in a slightly different package.



Cycling jerseys for commuters are also a matter of personal preference, but the benefits of riding in a cycling jersey include safety, comfort and utility. Whether you grab the neon yellow jersey or the black jersey, most quality tops have reflective piping on them, providing extra visibility. A cycling jersey is also cut differently than any other moisture-wicking or athletic shirt. With a longer tail and a shorter front, a cyclist can comfortably reach the handlebars without having an excess of fabric bunched up in his or her midsection while the lower back stays protected from the elements. For chilly rides, long sleeve jerseys also have longer sleeves to accommodate the riders position. Finally, cycling jerseys typically have rear pockets, which allow the cyclist to carry anything from his keys and wallet to flat repair necessities.



Cyclist’s palsy and carpal tunnel syndrome are repetitive stress injuries that can be lessened or avoided by wearing gloves. These injuries are the result of compressed nerves, the ulnar and the median, respectively, and by wearing cycling gloves with proper padding, the stress and vibration of the road is greatly reduced. In his book, Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists, Andy Pruitt Ed.D. recommends wearing gloves even for short rides to run errands. Most manufacturers make several different types of gloves; a quality commuting glove has a decent amount of padding and good ventilation. Gloves should fit snug, without restricting circulation to your fingers (numb or purple fingers are not ideal), so that the padding does not bunch or overlap when you place your hands on the handlebars.

UTgloves copy

Once you’ve figured out your shorts, jersey and glove situation, you’re ready to explore the next steps, such as the wonderful world of clipless pedals and shoes. More to come on the next steps in the future!

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0 thoughts on “What to Wear: Bike Commuting Clothing Essentials”

  1. kdt says:

    Calling these “Essentials” vastly overstates their importance. I mean, wear them if you want, I’m sure they’re great for riding, but why not just wear clothes? Pants, shorts, shirts, socks – we’ve got all we need in our closets right now.

  2. I agree. I bought an expensive, high quality top for summer cycling and found that it’s little better than the ordinary cotton t-shirts I usually wear.

    For my 20 mile round-trip commute, the only things I really need are cycling shoes for my clipless pedals, and gloves. Everything else is helpful, but unnecessary.

  3. Mikael says:

    125 years of bicycle culture and all of a sudden we need “cycling clothes” for urban cyclin? Sounds like profiteering, if you ask me.

  4. MarkA says:

    I agree with kdt on this one; cycling gear is great, if that’s what you’re into, but essential? Pffft… I ride a 10mile round trip to work most days and just do it in my normal clothes (my suit in the winter, jeans and a T in summer) It’s less about buying gear and more about how you set up your bike in the first place. I think riding to work is like catching a bus, I wouldn’t get dressed up for that either. Riding Le Tour is a different matter….

    I also find, strangely enough, I get much more respect from other road users riding my old English through town in my normal clothes than on a faster bike in all the cycling gear.

  5. scarecrow says:

    It’s an American question. The rest rest of the world wears everyday clothes for riding to work. You can too!

  6. Stacey Moses says:

    Perhaps “basics” is a better word than “essentials,” which I use to describe these three categories in the first paragraph. And if you take a look at each description under shorts and jerseys, I acknowledge that many commuters are quite comfortable and happy to wear regular shorts and shirts. My goal was to point out the benefits of using cycling-specific gear. I don’t pull on spandex and a jersey every time that I hop on my bike to go a few miles, but I do personally find cycling shorts to be much more comfortable when I ride longer trips, especially in the 80-90 degree heat that we get here in DC.

    As for the gloves, I’m a believer. Again, I have plenty of friends that don’t use them, and I don’t always wear them on short trips, but they make a world of difference on longer rides, especially since I’ve had both hand and shoulder injuries.

    Thanks for your comments. It’s great to hear different perspectives! Just trying to share some of the benefit for those wondering what this cycling gear is all about.

  7. Marrock says:

    I have my styrofoam hat, that’s all I’m willing to concede to “cycle fashion”.

  8. Bob Baxter says:

    I like Andiamo cycling underwear. They give you padding where you need it and you can wear whatever you want over them.

  9. Gerhard says:

    Check out the London Naked Bike Ride and you realize all you need is flip flops if you have pedals with sharp edges. Not sure what people would say in your office though.

  10. Stacey Moses says:

    I’m thinking a combination of the last two comments sounds good for a day like today when it is 90 and humid- a pair of Andiamos and flip flops and no soaking wet clothing when I arrive at my destination!

  11. Josh says:

    In the general sense, I think it makes sense to talk about shorts and shirts as”essentials”, at least for utility cycling. For recreational cycling, I would agree with Gerhard that shorts and shirts are optional.

  12. Up to about 5 miles or so, I’d be in the “wear anything” camp.

    Beyond that, depending on your bike setup, it makes sense to start thinking about bike specific gear (imo, ymmv &c &c).

    If you’re finding your saddle comfortable, and your everyday gear coping with your exertions, then by all means stick with that. If (as I did) you find that your perspiration feels nasty in cotton, it makes sense to look at “technical” fabrics to move the sweat away from your skin.

    I can only speak for myself, but I found riding a commute in regular shorts & a cotton t was pretty miserable (although I run errands (usually 4-6 mile round trips on the brompton) in “regular” clothes). Just use common sense, and don’t feel that you have to buy in to the extremes of the “proper” cyclist camp, or the “wear a suit/ordinary clothes” camp for the sake of it.

  13. I think John the Monkey has a very good point that the distance of a ride might dictate the type of clothing that one elects to wear. Longer rides certainly call for anti-chafing and sweat-minimize measures, which depending on each individual rider, may or may not include *gasp* spandex!

    I know that there is definitely a strong anti-spandex camp and anti-special-clothing-for-cycling camp, but there is no arguing that there is some utility to these special items.

    However, what one decides to wear all boils down to personal preference and individual comfort. I must admit, that I’d rather ride a 20 mile round trip in spandex than I would in a skirt and high heels, though I’m not opposed to riding shorter distances in such attire. 🙂

  14. Ben says:

    My commute is 11.5 miles each way. I don’t wear bike shorts on my commute, only on 30 mile + recreational rides. The rest of the time I wear normal pants or shorts.

    I wear a $7 “athletic” shirt from Target, often underneath another shirt. I don’t even own a cycling jersey, even for my longest rides. I wear wool arm warmers on chilly days, or even on warmer days to keep the sun off my arms. Aside from wool socks and cycling shoes, and helmet and gloves for safety, that’s all the cycling-specific stuff I wear.

    You really don’t need the full kit or even much in any way of athletic or cycling apparel at all. A change of clothes might be warranted, but you can (and many, many people do) commute in any type of clothing.

  15. Leslie says:

    It’s good to have folks pointing out exactly how little you have to change or buy to start commuting via bike, but don’t forget that comfort and convenience are necessary in different ratios for every person. I think the benefit of a site like this is to give a clear idea of just how many options exist to solve small or large issues that stand in the way of someone making the bike their primary vehicle.

    I personally started riding in order to compete in an intramural event at my university. Subsequently, I am pretty habituated to my spandex and find my “gear” to be essential. I also have a ~20 mile round trip commute and can choose pavement, gravel or dirt (or any mix thereof) and find that I like being able to change my sweaty, dusty clothes upon my arrival at work. If I lived in town I would probably choose a different rig and different habits based on my commute. (There are days I would LOVE to roll into work on my sweet little college cruiser wearing my flip flops…but that just doesn’t work from my house…)

    The point is, I think it is great to see just how many ways people make it work. Comfort and convenience are very personal, but are ultimately necessary for a habit like this to to stick.

  16. ciclista55 says:

    My commute is 12 miles round trip, and I wear the clothes I work in–business casual. With my step through frame, that even means dresses on occasion. I do have some “essesntials” for my riding: good raingear, a balled up trash bag that I use to keep everything in my basket dry during an unexpected rainstorm. In the winter, in addition to a good windproof coat and gloves, I add “ear bags” http://ecom1.sno-ski.net/earbags.html
    (the greatest accessory ever for winter cycling). And, when it gets REALLY cold, I wear shop glasses over my regular glasses, which keeps the eyes from watering.

  17. Clunkerider says:

    I have always just dressed for the weather when commuting on my bicycle. The same way I would dress if waiting for the bus. I don’t understand why we need “special” cycling clothing for commuting, although if some people want to spend their money on that, they can go ahead. I am happy riding a single speed cruiser with fenders and a chain guard, and wearing what ever clothing that the weather is calling for. Sun glasses in the sun, a hat in the winter, gloves and a jacket. Shorts and a tee in the summer, sandals or runners, winter boots when it goes below freezing.

  18. Gardengnome says:

    Interesting comments. It seems that some comentors don’t like the idea that designed clothing might be more comfortable.

    My commute is not long, but the weather is often quite hot (ave summer high 95 to 100F). So I wear bike shorts, and a jersey most of the time.

    For errands, I typically wear regular clothes regardless of distance. Part of that is the commute I ride much faster than erranding.

  19. Brian Smith says:

    I’ve always commuted in thrift store clothes. Now with so many people out of work and getting “lean” (can we fall over already) the thrift store prices are getting close to prices at Target and Walmart. I do not believe in shopping at those stores, so as I live in San Diego I’m considering naked commuting.

  20. David Amos says:

    Personally I like chamois liners so I can wear whatever pants I want and a cheap moisture-wicking workout or running shirt from Academy. I switched to these after turning quarter pound cotton t-shirts into 5 pound sweat-drenched stinky monsters on my way to school. I do don the more expensive bike specific jerseys and shorts, but only for my long, recreational rides or fitness rides.

    I have yet to purchase clipless pedals and shoes, but I can imagine this makes a huge difference, even for commutes, although rides less than 10 miles usually don’t bother me at all in sneakers.

  21. Rufus Acosta says:

    I nearly always wear my neon jerseys and bright red spandex shorts and loud colorful helmet. It doesn’t matter if I or anyone else considers them essential, unessential or any point in between. I simply like them for the colors and, especially, for the moisture control they offer on my 30 mile round trip commute – very compfy. I also like knowing that I am easier to see in bright colors, so do the auto drivers – they tell me so. I’ve also sometimes planned poorly and got stuck doing a long commute in my levis and pollo shirt. No big deal whatsoever, I barely noticed, but am simply more comfortable crushing the pedals in spandex.

    I do not care if one wears a tweed suit on their bike. The point is to wear what you like, what you are comfortable in and/or what eases your mind or sense of fashion or safety, or whatever suits your needs. At least a few times a year, I’ve ridden to and from a gig in full tuxedo (bassoon in bike trailor) because the venue happened to be within a few miles of home. Thus, that scenario was the best clothing choice for me. Again, no big deal. Finally, in the 90 degree plus sunshine, I forego the jersey entirely and bare the chest to the wind.
    Yes, do please yourself; I do; but do we have to be so toffee-nosed at other peoples’ choices.

  22. I have a closet full of jerseys, bib shorts, spandex knickers, under helmet beanies, cycling socks, etc. I have the same for my wife and daughters. When we ride into town, our 15 mile round trip is more comfortable for all of us with this gear. Is it essential? No, but it is more comfortable. SPD pedals are not essential but I can never go back after having used them for over 20 years. A few things that are essential, for me and my girls are quality brain buckets, and full-on proper lighting if there is any chance of being out near dusk or later. Also, when anyone in my krewe gets a new set o’ wheels, no matter what the brand, the price, the look or the paint job, I put SOLAS reflective tape on it. I put it front, back and on both sides. It never runs out of batteries and lasts forever. My B.O.B. Trailer looks like an alien ship when the headlights of a car hit it as it is being pulled by my Trek MTB. For me, not getting hit by a car (3 times already in 30 years) is the most essential thing of all.

  23. Marek says:

    Get some quality Merino Wool t-shirts and forget about cycling jerseys. Wool dries fast, doesn’t stink and you won’t look like a dork when you bike to work or a pub. They’re are expensive but so are the cycling jerseys.

    Ibex is my favorite …. made in the USA for most part.

  24. Gaz says:

    Not to mention safety equipment- which is obvious (?)
    I would start with shoes, unless you cycle a very short distance and at snails pace, some form of cycle specific shoes really help. Then I’d go shorts, not necessarily lycra, but with some padding maybe. (Decent) bad weather gear often gets overlooked too.

  25. Pete Miller says:

    Do the people who claim to wear “normal” clothes on their commute actually ride in them all year round and in all weather? Personally I sweat a lot in the hot weather and would not contemplate wearing the same clothes at work that I commuted in. Same for wet weather.

  26. icecreamguru says:

    Well, isn;t this a website selling or at least prmoting cycling clothing 😉
    Personally I like to wear whatever is comfy, but at my age I also need to look good, and eye-catching clothing design distracts from deficiencies of my physique 🙂 Having said all that my strict rule is to buy everything I can on pre-loved market, you would be amazed what you find. Hepas of “promotional” top gear – like someone donates $100s to a charity ride as a tax deduction, puts their company logo on it, buys the whole rest of the outfit and a month later decides the next networking opporutnity is going to be a golf game… In the end everybody’s happy and that’s important, right ?

  27. […] world of commuting or recreational riding. There is useful information on choosing a bike and the right gear, there is a discussion of rules of the road, and there are interesting pointers on handling your […]

  28. Leo H. says:

    I was able to obtain used cycle gear from a person who yard sales his finds. I have ridden in regular shorts in the summer for mile long jaunts, but any longer than that, I prefer cycle clothing or sport synthetic clothing. I live in a hot climate and I can’t go anywhere without ending up with a two or three mile long steep hill climb. I have no interest in doing that in a suit or in jeans and a t-shirt.

    I also prefer to appear like I’m more than just some ‘schmo’ riding my bike and feel I get more respect by not looking and acting like the folks who tool around on a bike because they’ve lost their driver’s licenses.

  29. Leo H. says:

    Frankly, I find it ironic that someone can say they ‘need’ clipless bike shoes but wouldn’t be caught dead in lycra.
    Especially if you’re not riding certain types of recumbents, clipless shoes are an expensive excess whether you’re in lycra or khakis.

  30. Joseph says:

    I have often debated this very subject for my ride to work. I have co-workers who ride in “regular” clothes who are much better riders than I am. However, I have found that I prefer bike-specific gear for my 32 mile round trip commute. Not to mention, I sweat a lot when I ride. I always change when I arrive, but it’s much nicer to change out of clothing that wicks away the sweat rather than my cotton and denim. Even in the snow, I prefer technical gear.

  31. Lori says:

    Most places I’ve lived (west coast, NY city, Guatemala), people wear regular clothes to cycle. Regular clothes meaning relatively inexpensive clothes you can work or go for a walk in. Obviously when it’s raining a shell is necessary over those regular clothes, and layers are important for temperature comfort. When it’s cold, a face mask (balaclava) and more insulating layers are necessary – the sweater and long underwear keep you warm at work, too.The only people I know who still wear lycra to bicycle are gay men and people in the midwest. (I’m currently living in Wisconsin, and *everyone* here is suprisingly into the old lycra fad.)

  32. Stacey Moses says:

    Hmm… I’ve lived on the east coast for many years and have seen more than a few people wearing technical gear, which includes spandex, on their commutes. I’m not saying that it is a necessity if you have figured out a way to arrive comfortably and appropriately at work in non-technical gear (which I also see plenty of), but I think that it is dangerous and inaccurate to attempt to categorize the type of people that wear a certain style of riding gear by their orientation or demographics.

    Sure, certain areas adopt certain general trends. You’ll certainly find less spandex in Amsterdam than you will in parts of the US. But, I think that it is these kinds of general statements that drive people away from activities altogether, which doesn’t benefit anyone.

  33. Jim says:

    Wear anything or nothing. Just ride. It feels good.

  34. Chrehn says:

    Even in a Naked Ride I wear my gloves and helmet. My gloves protect the palms of my hands if I am unlucky enough to fly off my bike and slide down the road on my hands and knees, it can make for a really bad day. I wear my helmet to hopefully prevent someone from having to spoon feed me for the rest of my life, in case I have a really bad bounce.

  35. I cycle in regular exercise clothes. Because:
    1. I sweat awfully
    2. I need to wear good clothes for my job, so sweat stains, water marks or bad smells are an awful idea.
    3. I can’t justify cycling clothes on my salary.
    4. Aside from work clothes and gym clothes, most of my wardrobe is skinny jeans. Please don’t try cycling in those.

  36. Mary says:

    Frankly, I’m surprized people think wearing work clothes on their commute is “frugal.” I have no interest in destroying my good work clothing by wearing it on my 18 mile round trip commute. Sweat, wet weather, and general wear and tear would make that into the MOST expensive choice of apparel ever. Also, I like a padded butt. I wear basic black padded spandex cycling shorts (from years of spin classes), a sports bra and a regular t-shirt. wool arm warmers or a long-sleeve wool shirt are added when it’s colder. When those spin shorts wear out, I might get some “mountain bike” style shorts to make errands on my way home a little more fashionable, but I figure for now when I’m carrying my helmet, all sweaty and spandexy, people get it.

  37. […] also need to be sure that you are wearing the right type of clothing for your outdoor adventure. You do not want anything that is going to restrict your body, and you […]

  38. plh says:

    14.5 miles round trip. It really depends on weather and how much you, as an individual, sweat. I wear what I am going to work in (business casual) except for a t shirt to change out of. Wet Ones – Big Ones take care of me. Only on the warmest mornings do I wear a bike kit & change out completely. When it rains the rain gear protects my clothes adequately. If I get a really warm rainy morning I pack everything – carefully – and let the bike kit – and boat sandals (there are suitable ones) get wet. Oh yes: have a COMPLETE change out stashed at work!

  39. Lloyd Thomas says:

    ‘Options’ is better than ‘Essentials’ or ‘Basics.’ I’m a fan of Just Ride by Grant Petersen. I do most of my shopping at a ‘big & tall’ store. I support all who ride, whether by choice or necessity, whether in work clothes or suits, Lycra or cotton, etc. Too many seem to think there is only one right way to dress, one style of bike, etc. I’m glad these options in the article are available for those who want and can afford them. I just think they’re ‘options.’

  40. Eliot says:

    In my view, the only “essentials” are a bike and a helmet. I don’t consider a helmet simple personal choice, because if you end up seriously injured, it’s not just you that pays. But, other than that, I say do what you like. Clipless shoes and bike clothing involve two different things. Bike clothing is mainly about comfort. Clipless shoes, on the other hand, help you put more power into the pedaling. I personally find biking clothes uncomfortable and, other than chamois, generally wear other sports oriented clothing. I don’t use biking-dedicated shoes, but I recognize they provide different benefits than the clothing.

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