The beauty of mountain biking is that it is great fun all the time, come sun, rain or snow. If you want to go out and spend a few hours on the trails, there is no weather condition that can stop you.
However, to ride in perfect comfort and without suffering from the weather for the whole ride, we need to focus on our choice of clothing. Of course, this must be based not only on the sky we see outside and what is expected in the next few hours, but also on our personal preferences. People tend to know their body well enough to understand whether they suffer more from cold or heat, so this is another important element to consider. In any case, there are some key guidelines to follow, especially when conditions become more extreme – in heavy rain or particularly low temperatures.
The bulk of the decision making relates to the upper body. That’s because the legs generally suffer less from the cold and because the choice essentially quite limited, with only long pants or short pants available. Some people cycle in shorts even in winter and some continue to use long pants in the mid-seasons, but as mentioned here there are only a few options and it is hard to go wrong. The general rule is shorts in three out of four seasons, excluding winter. Few would dream of carrying a spare pair of pants to put on as the weather changes; it is impractical and takes up a lot of space in the backpack or belt bag. So let's focus on clothing to protect the torso and arms.
These are the most difficult conditions in terms of riding technique, but also the toughest conditions on the body. Finding yourself riding a mountain bike in cold and wet weather may not be the best, but if well protected you will (if nothing else) be able to get home having fun and without suffering the cold too much. In this situation, the ideal garment is a protective and insulating shell, which can protect us from the inhospitable environment with a waterproof membrane and an insulating layer to maintain body heat. Especially when you are very tired, you will find it harder to warm up, so special care should be taken here. State-of-the-art materials such as Polartec branded items combine optimal insulation with effective water repellency, so you won't get wet from the damp weather or from sweat. Synthetic linings are also fantastically compact – a thin layer will still be highly insulating – and dry really quickly, which is a very convenient feature if you take a break in a shelter for lunch or a snack.
Other elements to consider are the construction using stretchy material, which gives much greater freedom of movement especially in the shoulder and arm areas, and the fact that the cut is specifically designed for cycling. Bike jackets are usually slightly short in the front and a bit longer in the back, so that they adjust perfectly to the riding position without making annoying folds in the front or leaving the backside exposed. The most practical garments can be folded up on themselves, so they can also be easily contained in a belt bag. Lastly, you can also add protection under the jacket, though these obviously take up space and this should maybe be considered when choosing the perfect size.
Moving down a step on the scale of the most difficult conditions, we come to riding in rainy weather but at milder temperatures, which with the right tires and on the right terrain can be unexpectedly good fun. In this case we don’t have the problem of cold weather, but we still want to stay as dry as possible. Waterproof membranes are simply materials covered in tiny holes that are large enough to expel the warm, moist air created by the body, but small enough not to let in water droplets. With this type of jacket, commonly known as a ‘shell’, it is important to look not only at the quality of the membrane but also the taping of the seams. Often even low-end garments use membranes with decent waterproof properties, but they are undermined by the lack of taping, which then allows water through holes in the seams.
With this type of jacket, which will be used in less severe weather, there should be ample adjustable air vents that can be opened and closed as needed, to adapt to changes in temperature or to cope with different paces when climbing and descending. As above, you need to leave enough space for protective gear. And again, the ability to fold the jacket down small is super practical.
Low temperatures are not, by themselves, a serious obstacle to mountain biking. In fact, some sunny winter days can make for surprisingly pleasant conditions. In situations like this a sleeveless jacket is a good choice, protecting the torso from cold air thanks to a thin layer of strategically placed insulating material, but leaving plenty of freedom of movement for the shoulders and arms, while allowing optimal heat exchange, especially when climbing. As with the other garments, the fit must also take account of chest and back protectors, which are essential in all disciplines from trail to hardcore downhill.
Last but not least are the hands. For many, hands are the first part of the body to suffer in cold temperatures – especially in wet weather. Wet and cold gloves are no recipe for a comfortable ride. And comfortable hands – but really a comfortable body as a whole – is also an important safety issue because cold, stiff hands are less responsive on the handlebars and therefore less ready to react when needed. That’s why it is important to protect them with the right gloves for the conditions. For low temperatures there are specific options made of thin materials that more insulating than the classic summer glove. The fabrics are as always optimized to resist abrasion and ripping, and with a specially designed palm to ensure maximum grip on the bars.
Newer gloves often feature convenient ‘touch-screen fingertips’, which means you don't have to take them off every time you pick up your smartphone.
As someone once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong equipment. And when it comes to mountain biking, it’s truer than ever: The right gear is the key to success of any bike ride. Even so, the right choice of clothing isn’t everything, because protective gear also plays an essential role in modern mountain biking, including the helmet, upper body protectors and knee pads. You’ll only be truly free to express yourself in the saddle when you are sure you have the right level of safety.