Need an awesome cycling jacket
October 11, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Help me find a good lightweight cycling jacket for surviving bitter Midwestern winters.

I ride a bicycle to work almost every day, all year long. Typically I wear a heavy termal sweatshirt, which works okay most of the year, but this hasn't been working so well for rainy days – on those days, I've been throwing a rain jacket on top, but my rain jacket recently gave up the ghost so I figure it's a good opportunity to buy a real cycling jacket. I live in Chicago, notorious for unpredictable temp drops. What's a good garment for this purpose?

Here is a list of features my ideal jacket/coat would offer:

- Warm enough for sub-freezing temperatures.
- Waterproof (or damn near close)
- Capable of zipping up to my neck
posted by deathpanels to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Lady style or manly style? Also what is your budget?
posted by elizardbits at 8:37 AM on October 11, 2012

So a real key here is layers. It doesn't even get that cold here but I have 3 layers I use.

First, a base layer. This is often something like a sleeveless t-shirt, but made out of a material more like a windbreaker. Then a cycling jersey - I use regular ones but there are ones intended for colder weather. I use thermal arm warmers and leg warmers. On top of that I use a cycling jacket - mine is sleeveless because it doesn't get that cold here that often. I hardly ever ride if it's below freezing.

There are tons and tons of styles and brands of cycling jackets. Any of the reputable big brands is fine
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:39 AM on October 11, 2012

I live in Vancouver which means rain and wind about 6months a year. I wear this which has a nice collar, venting zippers and fits large enough to wear a variety of thermal layers underneath. MEC is the Canadian REI equivalent; you may find something to your liking here
posted by mce at 8:41 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is lightweight and there is lightweight. If you mean packable lightweight, which should be ok for rides at or above freezing if you've got good base layers, then there are a whole bunch of recommendations here [UK oriented].

The overall winner is a Gore Bike Wear Xenon 2.0 jacket. Gore is a great brand IMHO. But it is $200.

Their budget pick is the Polaris Aqualite Extreme, which is $80.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:42 AM on October 11, 2012

I have this which served me well when commuting, including during some very wet and pretty cold days (only south of England cold, but there was snow!). As others mentioned, the key is layering.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:51 AM on October 11, 2012

You want layers. I ride through Chicago winters and this is what I wear:

Technical base layer (long underwear).
Wool sweater - these can be anything, I buy cheap cashmere or whatever from Marshalls/TJ Maxx/etc. For me, thinner and fitted is best. Wool is key because it's warm and it breathes and it doesn't get stinky if you sweat in it.
Sometimes for the worst cold days, a polarfleece or hoodie.
This waterproof rain jacket that I happened to already own -- though if I had money I would buy something cycling-specific, like this. Just about any cycling clothing company makes a waterproof jacket; it's a matter of your budget and what features you're looking for. I wouldn't worry about warmth - that's what layers are for - just waterproofness and windproofness. And pit zips. Always go for pit zips.

(For legs, it's smartwool tights, long underwear and/or polarfleece pants, and if it's really wet out, rain pants. For feet, wool socks and waterproof boots.)
posted by misskaz at 8:52 AM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Winter cyclist in Ottawa here. I go for the layers too and find that the key to a good cycling jacket for winter is wind-proofness and breathability; and not investing in any sort of "winter" or "warm" jacket at all, but rather adapting a thin waterproof shell by adding layers beneath depending on the temperature outside. This is really key in places where it will be one temperature in the morning and a totally different one in the afternoon. That happens in Ottawa a lot.

The aforementioned armpit zips are totally crucial or you'll make your jacket into a sauna. Waterproofness is good because you get splashed by cars a lot more in the winter and it keeps you from getting wet and cold.

For my commute (not far, but over a bridge with blustery winds in up to -30°c (-22°F) weather), I just wear a rain shell with no warmth to speak of and then layer-up underneath - breathable thermal base layer, wool sweater if it's cold enough, a hooded running jacket and then my rain shell. It can be little chilly at first, but warms up. I also wear a neckwarmer because it allows me to keep my jacket not zipped all the way up (for more breathability) and yet covers my neck and face if I need it.
posted by urbanlenny at 9:31 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have cycling pants from Ibex that I love that are wool plus spandex that have made me wish that i could live in that fabric mixture 24/7. I've been eyeing their jackets and cycling jerseys for a while now.

I am a fellow Chicago year round cyclist and do two to three layers depending on the temp, with the top being a rain and wind proof windbreaker thing.

Also I use a neck gaiter that I can pull off if I head indoors somewhere to not overheat, without having to shed too many of my other clothes.
posted by readery at 10:19 AM on October 11, 2012

My friend swears by her Arcteryx jacket with warmer layers underneath (cyclist in Montreal). Not cheap, at all, but she wears it all the time (cycling but also walking around) in all seasons.
posted by jeather at 10:29 AM on October 11, 2012

Nthing layers. I have an Endura that I got on clearance from LBS. Fantastic shell for winter, great rain jacket for summer (has pit zips).

I also love Under Armour's bala. I was totally skeptical, but the moisture-wicking is amazing, and it's incredibly warm for being so thin.
posted by supercres at 10:32 AM on October 11, 2012

Layers! You need an outer windproof and at least water resistant layer. I like to stick out like a sore thumb so something in a nice bright fluorescent yellow would be my preference. I use a Pearl Izumi windbreaker which is water resistant but not really rain wear. Next you need a tight fleece jacket, not cotton, not down or other filling. I have a thin form fitting one made for cycling which is good down to about freezing, but below that I just use a thick regular fleece, I think from LL Bean or something. That works down to around zero or so and below that I admit being a bit of a wimp. Fleece breathes, insulates reasonably well and works when wet. It is also lighter than say wool and more comfortable than wool if the temperature rises. Under that you want one or two more layers depending on the temperature - long sleeve thermal undershirt, long or short sleeve performance undershirt, cycling jersey etc. I usually just go with the long sleeve performance undershirt and skip the jersey. Now I am riding for exercise in the cold but you say you are commuting. If you are not really pushing yourself on your commute you will want to dress a bit more warmly than someone out for a workout, say the thermal undershirt, jersey, thick fleece and wind breaker for temps down into the twenties. Below that, ride harder perhaps.
posted by caddis at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2012

I actually disagree a little with caddis in that I find I MUCH prefer wool over fleece. A thin cashmere or merino sweater seems to keep me as warm as my kind-of-bulky and heavier polarfleece, and breathes a lot better. I also sometimes add a puffy down vest on really cold days and it works fine. But he's right about cotton. Cotton sucks, pretty much always. I only wear cotton in spring/fall perfect biking temps when I don't expect to sweat a lot and don't need waterproofness.

But that just goes to show you it's down to personal preference on some level. I seem to be unable to take it easy even on my commute so I always sweat. So for me breathe-ability is key and most days I still show up at work sweaty. (Luckily we have showers and I get ready at work.)

And I realized the cycling jacket I linked to does not have pit zips so it's off my list. Some do chest or arm zips in lieu of pit zips and those are acceptable too.

Agree about a neck warmer or scarf for additional temperature control, and I'd add to it a wool cycling cap! I have this one and it's AMAZING and I love it. The ear flap part is fantastic.

tl;dr: Everyone's right that you don't want warmth in your waterproof outer layer, so get the jacket that you like best and fits your budget, prioritizing waterproofness and breathability. Get your warmth for winter cycling with what you wear under it and other accessories.
posted by misskaz at 10:45 AM on October 11, 2012

Much of this boils down to personal preference to be sure. Wool is a great material. One area I like wool in the winter is in my socks. To keep using the same shoes I would use in the warmer months I wear black wool dress socks with them in the winter. They look funny, but are essentially hidden under the shoes and pants, and in colder weaather shoe covers. Dress socks are thin yet have a dense weave so they really hold in the heat yet still fit within shoes sized for thin socks.
posted by caddis at 1:23 PM on October 11, 2012

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