Bib shorts and jersey. Those were, historically, the items I first thought of as I went to my dresser to pull out the outfit I’d wear on my ride. And, yes, bib shorts; I haven’t worn bib-less cycling shorts since the Clinton administration. I’ll admit that my thinking didn’t often extend beyond which team togs I would wear. The current one? Last year’s? An older one because I haven’t done laundry?
Let me be blunt: Every time I did that, I got it wrong. I should have been thinking of my base layer first. In my defense, I don’t know many guys who think about which underwear they plan to put on; I’m thinking about which shirt and pants, not boxers or briefs, but that’s just me.
Another admission: I didn’t start thinking base layer first until I’d amassed a veritable arsenal of them. Long sleeve, short sleeve, sleeveless. Bantam weight, lightweight, midweight and thermal. Polyester, sport wool, 100 percent Merino. How many base layers does a rider need? I’d say at least five if you live in a place with more than two seasons. I’m looking at you Redondo Beach. Five base layers, if strategically purchased, can cover a rider from 100 degrees down to freezing, one for about every 15 degrees. How many of each you need is a separate issue depending on how often you’re willing to do laundry. If you’re lazy like me and only do it weekly, well I admit that can get expensive.
These days, I look at the current temperature and the forecast for the next two to five hours and then grab the appropriate base layer.
There’s one variety of base layer I’m going to warn you off, though. Before I do that, I’m going to say that the bike industry in 2020 is not the bike industry of 1988. I don’t see bad products that you need to be warned about. However.
Wind-proof base layers are a non-solution, like the seats behind the stage at a concert, they are at the wrong end of everything the ticket promised. The problem isn’t that wind-proof base layers don’t stop the wind; they do. The issue is that if nothing stops the wind until my base layer, guess what? I’m still going to be cold. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious: Because the wind has shot through all the insulation, there’s nothing to keep me warm. The second is that because those base layers do stop the wind, they don’t breathe worth a damn. As a result, I end up clammy because my sweat stays put against my skin. Sure, some manufacturers will include a thin layer of polyester to draw the moisture off my body, but sandwiched as it is between my sweaty skin and the weather barrier, once the fabric becomes damp, it stays damp.
So save yourself some money and don’t invest in them. Allow me to be your bad example.
As with anything else in cycling, you can go budget, or you can go top-shelf. On the budget score, I can advocate signing up for Voler’s email list. They run a sale of some sort every month and at least once a year they put their base layers on sale. I have one that is 10 years old. I believe I paid $20 for it, thanks to the aforementioned sale. Even so, some of the base layers on their web site start at just $29. And then there’s Assos, the only company to ever offer seven different base layers, all weight-graded. But what do you expect from an apparel company based in Switzerland. These days they offer just four base layers, but they are among the best of the best.
Don’t be afraid to look around at other options, though. I’ve found some excellent base layers in surprising places. My absolute favorite for days from the mid-50s to high-60s is a sport wool, short-sleeve, crew-neck style made by Mission Workshop. I selected this as a Paceline Pick back in 2019, but it looks every bit as new today as it did then. It goes for $95, which I respect is a real investment, but I will dare to claim that it is the single most versatile base layer in my collection. It’s also good looking enough that I could walk into a deli wearing it after a ride and not draw stares.
For all the effort many of us put into making sure our bike fit is dialed and investing in shorts that don’t mangle the undercarriage, we owe it to ourselves to pay some attention (and a few of our dollars) to that layer next to our skin.